Equifax has embarked on a remarkable journey of transformation in recent years, one that’s touched every aspect of the business alongside an impactful process of cultural change that focuses on channeling innovation and customer-centricity to make Equifax a truly product-led organization.
My name's Jayadeep Nair, and in this article, I'll talk about Equifax's journey to being a product-led organization. I’ll share five key lessons I’ve learned along the journey that you can take away and hopefully apply to your own journeys towards product-led.
Equifax: Who are we?
As many of you may know, Equifax is a global data analytics and technology company. Our purpose is to help people live their financial best. As a credit reference agency, we are able and we enable consumers and businesses to access credit. Our data and analytics help businesses make the right decisions for their customers.
Equifax: Leading analytics, data, and technology company
We also happen to be the oldest credit reference agency in the world, originally established well over 100 years ago in the 1890s. In the UK, we've been operating since 1990.
In 2019, Equifax declared $3.53 billion in global revenues, and in the third quarter of 2020, we declared over a billion dollars in revenue, 22% higher than a similar period the year before.
In a difficult year, that says something about Equifax's journey.
A new Equifax built on brand new foundations
Over the last two to three years, Equifax has embarked on a remarkable journey of transformation, investing $1.5 billion in a cloud-native data and technology transformation program.
As a transformation exercise, it is a major change program that touches every part of the enterprise, from technology to security to products to data and analytics, and virtually every other part of the business.
Alongside, however, is an impactful process of cultural change that focuses on channeling innovation, and customer-centricity to make Equifax a truly product-led organization, and staying true to our purpose of helping people live their financial best.
That's a little bit of context on Equifax, the journey we are going and what we are trying to accomplish. On to the lessons I've learned.
Five lessons learned
I have no expectation that my lessons learned will resonate with everyone reading. But if you're keen to know what innovation and culture change to a product-led organization looks like at an established heritage business like Equifax, then I hope this article gives you some perspective on that.
Lesson One - whose problem is it anyway?
Now as product management professionals, we intuitively start with the customer. We identify customer problems and frame that problem by applying, for example, a jobs to be done framework.
To do so we look at the market, to work out the size of the price, and a product-market fit. We work in an agile development approach to build and ship products to the customers. And we track and develop closely the customer and operational metrics and OKRs that define success.
That's the happy path. In a mature organization, on a transformation journey to product-led, it is natural to expect that much of the core product development and management frameworks either don't exist or are not followed in a disciplined manner.
That is, after all, part of the change to be product-led.
Inconsistent definition of the customer
What can however be more insidious, and consequently much more detrimental is an inconsistent definition of the customer. In a B2B world, customer-facing roles consider different groups to be their customers. For example:
- Sales consider their client to be the customer.
- Operations teams consider their operational counterparts to be the customer.
- Product and marketing teams sometimes consider clients or sales counterparts as the customer.
- Technology teams may look for product owners as their customers.
So who is the customer anyway? Whose problem is it?
While all the scenarios I just shared with you are right, that is a customer is ultimately in the eyes of the beholder, to be truly product-led is to design products and processes with the end-user in mind which is most often the individual consumer.
Not designing with the end-user in mind
Not doing so leads very often to the door of misaligned resource allocations or prioritization. For example, not prioritizing user experience or design thinking, because of current limitations on resources or capabilities, or investing in solutions based only on available capabilities, not products based on customer needs.
Or it leads to extremely near-term focus and commercial outcomes driven by churning what is available, not what is sustainable.
What I've learned is these aren't necessarily wrong behaviors. However, propagating these often limits long-term growth. Why? Because they are all based ultimately on a suboptimal understanding of the customer and their needs.
How are we looking to address this?
So far I can report there are no silver bullets, what I'm starting to work for us is to aim for the underlying behaviors and drive a new orientation.
Right to left thinking
One example of this approach is that our product teams are now starting to deeply embed the idea of right to left thinking, working backward from the customer.
Deep diving to articulate clearly the customer outcomes, the insights that make these outcomes relevant, and the commercial and development rationale to then build these products.
Keen amongst you will know many organizations successfully use the principles and practices of working backward to stay focused on the customer. I evangelize the promise of this approach and my success will be to build co evangelists, both within and outside the company who do the same.
Lesson Two - avoid the GPS effect
You're stuck in traffic, your GPS shows swathes of red around you. Then it guides you to an alternative route that appears passable. An all too real scenario, what do you do?
I know what I will do. Most times, I will simply go with my GPS guidance and take the alternative route. Why? Because it avoids congestion and keeps me moving, which is key, especially when I'm not familiar with the territory.
Now I don't know about you but there are numerous times when, after what seems like fast-moving twists and turns, the GPS eventually brings me back out to within a short distance of where it started to avoid the traffic.
In other words, it kept me moving, and the feeling of forward motion, of progress, overcame all the downsides, the constant zigs and zags, driving through residential backstreets all to ultimately not make any material progress.
Why is any of this relevant? Well, that is my second lesson. Avoid the GPS effect.
Forward motion can cover up suboptimal decisions and poor trade-offs
In building a customer-driven product-led organization, I come across the GPS effect, where taking an action seemingly represents forward motion or progress, but that can often cover up suboptimal decisions and poor trade-offs.
For example, should we use a limited development budget to continually groom product backlogs sustainably, or should we prioritize an existing customer migration? These are tough trade-offs.
In other words, swathes of red on the GPS analogy. Trying to find an easy side route, which avoids this trade-off will at best be a short-lived victory, and at worst damage sustainable growth opportunities.
Two-way door decision making
This is an important lesson and one I learn nearly every day. We are working to more efficiently deal with these trade-offs by driving acceptance of the two-way door decision-making. Decisions you can reverse very easily if you don't like what you get.
It's like code you can deploy but roll back if it doesn't perform as you thought it would, without any major downsides. One-way door decisions, on the other hand, are often difficult, if not impossible to reverse.
For example, signing a commercial contract with a defined value exchange. Being able to differentiate between these and speeding up two-way door decisions while deliberating intentionally on one-way doors is a critical skill for product teams, and for successful product-led organizations.
Lesson three - lessons from an occasional house cleaner
My next lesson is interesting. I call it the lessons from my occasional housecleaner.
One of the chores I do each week is to clean our bathrooms. It's a very mundane yet humbling task, and I have no doubt many of you reading will find yourselves in the same position.
Each weekend on the assigned day, I arm myself with a series of sprays and binbags and brushes and set about the task with vigor, with Capital FM radio station usually providing the background score.
Each time I finish my job, while I look back at my work with some pride, I'm also really conscious I haven't been able to remove those water stains well, or I think the bathtub cleaning was just passable in spite of the energy and products that I used.
Occasionally, my wife and I welcome a cleaner into our house and I notice each time she comes and cleans, there is not a single water stain left behind, not a single surface that isn't glowing, not a corner left behind by accident.
The thing is, she uses exactly the same sprays and brushes that I use, not one more, not one less. She takes, give or take, the same amount of time that I take to clean. But her output, her product is superior to me in every way possible.
The trick lies in the skill of the user
Swallowing my pride and looking at the outcomes objectively I concluded that if all the core inputs are the same, but the outputs are vastly different, the trick must lie in the skill of the user. I can have the best cleaning products, the best intention, and desire but I can never match that output to the occasional cleaning output that I produce.
That there is a key lesson for setting up a product-led organization.
We're faced every day with organizational choices where skills and roles don't necessarily match. Sometimes this is due to commercial or budget constraints. Other times due to not knowing what good looks like in a role.
There are times when we can train or retrain talent within the organization. Then there are times when we simply need to upskill the organization with the right quality of talent.
In my journey in an established organization, I face situations where talent choices can get caught up in organizational constraints. In nearly all cases, these constraints are not artificial, they are quite real.
Avoid prioritizing an artificial indicator of progress
But the framework of decision-making can end up prioritizing an artificial indicator of progress, such as a flat headcount in a year over a real metric of progress, such as building a sustainable talent pool.
This is a constant challenge in an established business and one leaders have to deal with every day.
See, I'm a firm believer in Steve Jobs's famous quote, "A player's hire A players, but B players hire C players, and C players hire D players. It doesn't take long to get to Z players, the trickle-down effect causes bozo explosions in companies".
Avoid the bozo effect
So my learning is the bozo effect can be very real and part of the challenge of getting to a product-led organization is to avoid falling into that trap. By occasional cleaner teaches me that.
Lesson four - an ocean ahead, but an ocean behind
This is the lesson I learned talking to a number of my colleagues today. Equifax's journey of transformation over the past two to three years has been pretty significant, as I mentioned at the beginning.
One of the defining features of the transformation, specifically, a technology transformation journey is the prioritization of transforming the tech stack. In our case, making it cloud-native and migrating and often rebuilding the legacy deck in the cloud.
This is heavy lift work and at Equifax, we have a truly incredible team of technologists and data scientists that are driving this journey. Now large-scale transformation programs are complex and for business teams who are midway through the journey, there are times when it can feel the complexity and timescales are never-ending.
They can question whether they will ever see the end of the exercise when transformation outcomes make the technology stack much more nimble, flexible and are able to get products faster into markets and to customers. In times like these, it may feel like there is an ocean ahead yet to cross.
My colleague astutely observes that one must look behind as well to realize there is an ocean we have already crossed.
Having a north star is critical for any product-led business and where it involves significant transformation it is important to internalize that the outcomes of transformation will drive tremendous value in the years to come.
Enabling product-led organizations to capitalize by rapid build, test, and deploy cycles. The ocean behind is often far more vast than the ocean ahead.
Lesson five - an open mind
Some of you may have read the riveting book, The Big Short, or watched the movie. It tells the story of folks who saw through the collateralized debt obligations of CEOs that underpinned the US housing market, set in the late 2000s, and that ultimately led to the housing collapse and the ensuing global financial meltdown.
At the start of the book, the author, Michael Lewis, put a quote attributed to Leo Tolstoy that you can see.
“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.”
A long quote, but it encapsulates perfectly the last lesson I want to share with you. That is, keep an open mind.
The most important skill of all
I expected that building a product-led organization in an established enterprise will require loads of patients and loads of resilience. But what I've learned is keeping an open mind is probably the most important skill of all.
As a product professional, of course, I'd like to apply all of the learnings I've articulated about right to left thinking, making more one-way door decisions, building skillsets and nurturing talent, and being patient. I would like to adopt in an instant all the practices that define a successful product-led framework.
The reality, however, of working in a large established business with a successful track record of serving customers, and with an ambitious growth agenda, while simultaneously driving a transformation program feels akin to building a new airplane while flying.
Tailor frameworks - don’t be a purist
In this environment, it is important to temper and tailor product frameworks to suit the business rather than being purist about driving these frameworks.
In part, this is because judging the pace of change is pretty critical to success and in part because being pragmatic is a necessary precondition to building the right alliances and positive stakeholder engagement within the organization to support the transformation to a product-led organization.
Those are my five lessons. This journey of change is currently underway. I could not tell you how this episode ends, or how a new one begins but I do hope one day soon, I can be back and let you know how it all panned out.
I hope you found some nuggets of information here you can relate to and that resonate with you.