Great PMs don’t work alone

Sometimes there’s a perception of Product Managers that the best ones are product geniuses who always and immediately have the right answers for every product problem: PMs whose product instincts are so sharp they can arrive at the best solution at a moment’s glance; who can look within themselves and find the solution deep down there and pull it out onto a wireframe through a simple act of will.

I suppose there are a few crazy geniuses out there. And I’m certainly not doubting the power and value of instinct built up over years of product experience.

But the whole truth is that being a great Product Manager is less about moments of divine inspiration, and more about work and grind: questioning, discussing and iterating. Hypothesising, experimenting, failing and repeating. Doing the work.

The whole truth is that great PMs don’t work alone. They’re not mad geniuses who are supposed to always have all the answers.

Great PMs are masters of The Process: the process of gathering input and inspiration from myriad places, and synthesising that into a solution. PMs talk to the customers, to the sales team, the finance team, the engineers: they talk to everybody. They know that ideas and inspiration can come from anywhere, and they actively seek out ideas and input from across the business.

But be careful. This is not the same as “gathering requirements” or “translating business objectives into development objectives” (two definitions that often come up in the context of Product Management that I really hate).

This is not about making sure everybody’s input and ideas are squeezed in to the product. It’s about a process of gathering ideas and inspiration from as far and wide as possible (the divergent thinking phase), then boiling that all down into the solution that best solves the problem for the customer (the convergent thinking phase).

Product instinct is less about always knowing what the solution is. It’s much more about knowing which solution, from a list of possible ones, is most likely to work, and which should be tested. It’s about quickly assessing and prioritising a variety of options and making the right call.

So don’t think you always need to have all the answers. Use your team and your network to build your list of options, pick the best one, or combination of best ones, and go.

How great Product Managers look forward

There is a lot of day-to-day grind as a PM. Tickets to write, bugs to triage, meetings to facilitate. Maybe the QA team needs help. Maybe the marketing manager is sick and you need to help run an acquisition campaign. There is always something urgent that needs your attention, your time and your focus.

Indeed, good PMs do whatever needs to be done to get the product shipped.

Great PMs, however, never live exclusively in the day-to-day. Great PMs are always looking forward; always asking: “What’s next?”

Great PMs can simultaneously live in the present (this week/next week), the mid-term future (next month) and the long-term future (next quarter/next year). Great PMs can move gracefully through the temporal roadmap multiple times per week.

We live in the present, but we can only intelligently choose what to focus on today by thinking about it in terms of the future: where are we going, what are we trying to achieve, what’s coming next.

Great product teams don’t get stuck iterating the current product forever: the future always comes quicker than we think.

So how do you know if you’re not spending enough time thinking about the future? How much is too much?

When thinking about this for Product, I like to think of the Three Horizon Model.

Three Horizons Model

I first came across this model in the Pragmatic Marketing course. The model was originally designed as a sort of counterpart to the BCG Matrix Model to describe how businesses should invest in product lines over time – making sure to avoid future disruption by investing in future businesses. But I find the model works well at lower abstraction levels, as an abstract way to think about how to invest product time across the three time horizons.

Here’s how it works: For given product, you’ll probably spend around 25% maintaining your current product version. This is Horizon One. This is the product you have in the market right now. This 25% of time might be spent on maintaining your production services, implementing bug fixes, reducing your technical debt or on customer support.

Horizon Two is about the next big thing. A good team should be spending around 65% of their time working on the second horizon: the next product. This could be the next major feature, the next market segment or problem that you’re going to solve. This is your investment in the immediate future: what’s coming next.

Finally at least 10% of your time you should be thinking about the longer-term future: Horizon Three. What is the next market segment you plan to enter? What new technology might change the way you do business or build your product? What environmental changes do you need to prepare for?

The great thing about this model is that you can apply it to any role within a team and it makes sense: for PMs, for QA, for engineers. You an also apply it to any level of the business: at the relatively low level of the product backlog, or to the product strategy, or to the business itself.

The future always comes around quicker than you think, and you don’t want to be caught unprepared. Get done what needs to get done, but don’t get stuck in the present. Remember to invest in the future.

The Complete Product Manager

Being a great Product Manager in tech is more than shuffling roadmaps and writing user stories.

Great PMs are first and foremost masters of their market: the segments, the customers, and their needs, and they spend a great deal of time talking to customers themselves and conducting field research.

Great PMs are the walking embodiment of their product and their vision. Great PMs want to build great things, and naturally inspire people to join them.

Great PMs understand how their product idea will become a product business, and they understand what needs to get done to get there.

Great PMs know and respect their competition, but they are not intimidated and focus on solving users’ problems better rather than comparing feature lists.

Great PMs are masters of their domain of business and are thought leaders of their industry.

Great PMs are driven by intuition, but formulate hypotheses and test them using rigorous analytical methodology.

Great PMs understand how technology can help solve customer problems in new and delightful ways.

Great PMs have a natural sense for design and focus relentlessly on the end-to-end User Experience.

Great PMs have a growth mindset, and build a platform for systematic growth for their products from day one.

Great PMs are natural born leaders. They inspire and motivate, rather than dictate.

Great PMs are passionate, resourceful and curious. Great PMs are relentless in the pursuit of a better product.

 

 
The Complete Product Owner

 

 

Amazon Kindle and the Perfect Product Vision

In the recent fantastic piece on The Verge covering interviews with the top brass behind the Amazon Kindle, the ultimate product vision behind the Kindle series of eReaders is articulated beautifully. From the article:

For Amazon, paper is more than a material for making prototypes. It’s the inspiration for the Kindle of the future: a weightless object that lasts more or less forever and is readable in any light. “Paper is the gold standard,” Green says. “We’re striving to hit that. And we’re taking legitimate steps year over year to get there.”

The beauty of this is its simplicity. Amazon are striving to create electronic paper. “Paper is the gold standard. We’re striving to hit that.”

There is nothing here about the joy of reading, or empowering people through instant delivery of information, or making money. The beauty of this is that all of those things flow naturally from the core premise: to make better, electronic paper.

This is what the Kindle team says about itself. It’s clear, it’s inspiring – and it’s impossible to misunderstand.

Compare that with this:

“Reach the largest daily audience in the world by connecting everyone to their world via our information sharing and distribution platform products and be one of the top revenue generating Internet companies in the world.”

That mouthful appeared on a slide at Twitter’s first analyst day. Inspiring? Do you even understand what the hell its trying to say? It could mean anything and everything – and that’s the problem.

Imagine your first day on the job at Amazon in the Kindle division. You ask, “So what is our mission? What are we trying to do?” In answer, someone might hand you a piece of paper, and tell you: “We want to make that.”

A good product vision is inspiring and motivating; an irresistible imagined future that pulls you towards it like gravity. But a good vision is also impossible to misunderstand. Everybody should share the same view, and be pulled in the same direction.

Product Manager in the middle

The Product Manager isn’t just a middle-man.

If you’re a PM, and your answer to every question is: “I don’t know, I need to go and ask ___”, then I’m afraid you’re doing something wrong.

You might not be able to give engineering estimates, but you should know your team and your technology well enough to give an educated guess; even if you have to follow up by saying “I’ll double-check that with engineering and get back to you.”

You might not have a slide prepared on every possible strategy question, but you should be able to form an opinion immediately if somebody throws you a strategy curve-ball.

You might not have the answer – but you should at least have an opinion.

Good Product Managers don’t wait to be told what to do by stakeholders. They anticipate stakeholder needs and suggest new ideas.

Good Product Managers don’t push decision-making up to senior management. They take responsibility, and if anything push decision-making down. Either way, they stand accountable for the decision and own up to it.

Good Product Managers never say “I don’t agree with this decision, but…”. Even if they think it.

No company needs more middle-men.

Companies need passion, vision and conviction. Grit.

Are you in love with making software, or making products?

Software is a solution to a problem. Or rather, it is a part of a solution to a problem.

A product is more than just the software, and it’s more than the solution. A complete product encompasses an entire product business: a consumer value proposition, a profit model, resources, processes and tools. Marketing and channels. Suppliers and customers.

If a tree falls in the forest and no-one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

If a product is designed, built and released, but no-body can find it and no-body uses it, does it exist at all?

Building products is a responsibility. Not just to create a great experience (great software, great hardware, great whatever), but to get that experience to your customers. Maybe also to their customers.

And most of all, to generate value for your business.

If you put on the hat of Product Manager, you’d better be ready to think bigger than just your software, because a product is much, much more.

So what are you in love with?

(If you’re not in love with either, then a career in software product management is maybe not for you.) 

The answer is not inside the building

Too many of us spend far too much time in the building.

We sit at our computers and read blogs and write emails; we discuss in conference rooms and over coffee, sometimes even at the cafe down the street. But how much time do we actually spend outside the building?

Your customers are not in the building. You won’t find them lurking by the water cooler and you probably won’t see them at Starbucks.

I don’t know exactly how much of their time a product manager should spend outside the building – but my gut tells me it’s something like 20 or 30%. How else can you get close to the needs and wants of your customers, first-hand and in-the-flesh?

If you’re looking for insights into your market, you’re really not likely to find them by reading blogs or watching Twitter. Sure, some gems come along over the social channels, but the real insights are waiting for you out there – with people.

Do yourself (and your product) a favour and get out of the building this week. Go and talk to a customer or meet an industry partner. Run a panel, inviting some of your most vocal advocates (or detractors!). Attend a think tank or a networking event relevant to your industry.

Because the answer to your problem is probably not inside the building.

The Complete Product Owner

The Complete Product Owner - photo of many post-it notes with product owner themes

The product owner is possibly the most misunderstood, or at least the the least understood, role in agile software projects. Just about everyone you talk to, whether a current practitioner of the role or just someone who works in agile projects, will give you a slightly (or greatly) different description of the role, its scope and its value.

A colleague recently asked me to write down for him a brief description of everything I thought a Product Owner should be, in terms of role and responsibility as well as personality and competencies. As I started considering what this would be, a few things occurred to me:

  • The list of responsibilities is very broad. The better product owners understand all aspects of a product from the value proposition and business model to design to development.
  • The predominant literature on agile product management focusses heavily on the agile process and toolkit: working with scrum or other agile methodologies, continuous delivery, refinement of user stories, etc.
  • The traditional (non-agile) literature on product management as a profession is plentiful, but fails to address how the broad scope of product management skills and competencies relate to an agile environment.

I’ve now set out to produce a series of posts which will form my personal description of “the complete product owner”. I’ve chosen the word “owner” intentionally to relate specifically to the field of agile product management (as opposed to, let’s say, “traditional, waterfall” methodologies. More on product owners vs managers soon.) The word “complete” refers to the intention to provide a complete, end-to-end view of the scope and responsibilities of this role.

It is also important to mention at this point that what follows will be most relevant to the traditional home of agile methodologies: in software development. It is interesting to observe how agile techniques are being adopted by industries as diverse as medical research or construction, however the experiences, analogies and resources in this series will be exclusively focussed towards software product management.

What’s in a name? Product Owner versus Product Manager

The traditional industry title for those in the business of managing the product development life-cycle is the “Product Manager”. Agile methodologies, specifically Scrum, introduced the term “Product Owner” to refer to the member of the scrum team (ie, the product team) who is predominantly responsible for the product itself (predominantly, as in agile teams we strive to embed a feeling of product responsibility in everyone, throughout all levels of the product organisation).

Some people misinterpret the difference as a reflection of the scope of the role, assuming that the “Product Management” discipline is broader or more “senior” than an owner. I take a very different view, and argue that there is no difference. It could be perhaps said that within the Product Management discipline, a Product Owner is one who practices within an agile context; however there is certainly not, in my view, an assumption that the scope and responsibilities of a Product Owner are necessarily any different to that of a Product Manager.

In my writings I use the two terms interchangeably; however it is useful to remember that in certain circles the title “Product Manager” is often understood differently from an “Owner”. Specifically in non-software product industries (fast-moving consumer goods, among others) the term “owner” is less relevant.

What is a Product Manager/Owner?

In his famous 1955 work “Designing for People”, Henry Dreyfuss, considered my many as the father of modern industrial design, said the following about the role of the industrial designer:

“The successful performer in this new field is a man of many hats. He does more than merely design things. He is a businessman as well as a person who makes drawings and models. He is a keen observer of public taste and he has painstakingly cultivated his own taste. He has an understanding of merchandising, how things are made, packed, distributed, and displayed. He accepts the responsibility of his position as liaison linking management, engineering, and the consumer and co-operates with all three.”

Although he was talking specifically about the industrial design discipline, I think he has equally perfectly described the role of the modern product manager. (You’ll forgive his gender bias, but it was the 50’s after all). The complete product manager is a jack of all trades. It’s someone who can keep the big picture in mind while obsessing over the smallest details. It’s someone who can, on the same day, discuss or consider engineering process, marketing strategy or interface design – all in terms of how it relates to the core consumer value proposition.

A complete product owner:

  • is a technologist,
  • is a marketer,
  • is a strategist,
  • is an entrepreneur,
  • is a risk-taker,
  • is a visionary,
  • is a leader,
  • is passionate,
  • is a networker,
  • is a communicator,
  • is a presenter and speaker,
  • is a thought-leader,
  • is a product expert,
  • is a salesperson,
  • is fluent in software experience, language and technology,
  • understands user experience/user interaction paradigms, and
  • understands software development methodology and software development tools and processes.

Where do product owners come from?

The next time you meet a product manager, as an experiment, as them how they became a product manager. If you are a product manager, think about how you became one. If they attended university, ask them what they studied. The answers may surprise you.

Nobody will tell you that they studied “Product Management” at university. Some will have studied Computer Science, others design, still others psychology, business or even philosophy. Nearly nobody will tell you that they “always wanted to be a product manager”. Many of the product owners that I know say they kind of “fell into” the role. I sort of did, too.

Steven Haines calls it the “accidental profession”. The interesting mix of backgrounds and motivations does result in a healthy range of experience and perspectives in the product management world, but it has, I think, the side-effect of producing a problematic diversity in product management approaches and levels of training.

What’s next?

The Complete Product Owner series is broken into four acts. Each act is centered around a main theme: The Product, the Business, the Team, and you.

Some topics don’t fit neatly into a single act. In fact, most don’t. You can’t discuss product strategy without discussing design; you can’t think about market segmentation without thinking about the competitive landscape; and so on.

Within this series, I won’t be able to teach you everything you need to know. I can’t teach you how to do brand marketing or search engine optimisation, for example. The purpose of this series is to discuss the scope of areas, skills and knowledge a Product Owner should understand, what they are and why they’re important; and then potentially provide some links to resources for those who want to know more.

The Complete Product Owner series overview: Act I: The Product; Act II: The Business; Act III: The Team; Act IV: You.

Act I: The Product

Much of the books or literature on product management tends to start with the process and definitions, and leave the actual product to the end, almost as an afterthought. To me, everything starts and ends with the product itself – so we start with the product here. We’ll look at defining what the product is, what it does and who it’s for.

Act II: The Business

The next aspect is the one that I see most often neglected by new and experienced product managers alike. The business is, if not the core element of a product team, the surrounding ecosystem that enables and supports the product development. Smaller teams and startups are intimately familiar with the importance of such business tasks as raising capital funding or developing a competitive business model, but these can go unseen or be neglected in larger teams.

Act III: The Team

This is where most product owners, particularly those new to the profession, spend a disproportionate part their time. The team is where things get done, or “where the rubber hits the road”. Having a functional, efficient and self-organising team is a critical focus for teams. For Product Owners, it’s critical to understand how the team supports you and how you support the team to ensure the greatest success.

Act IV: You – the Product Owner

Once you know what you need to do: the tasks, the responsibilities, the focus areas; how you actually do it is up to you. We’ll look at a number of key skills and competencies that you should focus on developing to be a complete product owner.

Here we go…

So let’s get started. In the first post in the series, we’ll look at defining the product: what it is, who it’s for, and why the heck you’re building it anyway.

I would love for this to be as interactive as possible. If you have questions or comments; if you agree or disagree with what we discuss here, please let me know in the comments.

Resources


We’re not a factory

Old factory workers

Factories must be awfully dull places. Factory workers working on a production line follow a strict process. Work is divided out into narrow and highly controlled portions. The guy working at machine #1 is an expert at machine #1, but not at machine #2 or #3. But that’s ok; if he stays focussed on his machine, the production line moves on and many widgets will roll off the end.

Factory workers take a given process or specification and assemble it. That the solution is provided is a given. There’s no room for initiative or individual innovation on the factory floor. If one machine doesn’t produce output of exactly the right type at exactly the right time, the system breaks down. Process improvement and innovation is for senior managers; observing the factory floor below from an air-conditioned room behind a wall
of glass.

In the early 1800s the factory revolutionised the production of goods and heralded the onset of the industrial era. It raised millions of people from poverty and created countless jobs (and millionaires). It brought about a new kind of competition: one fought along the bottom line. The problem with the factory is that the race to the bottom is over: we hit it long ago. When every factory can produce widgets as cheaply as you can (or cheaper), your ability to differentiate lies elsewhere – it’s not enough just to be able to sell widgets cheaper than anyone else.

Luckily in the software product business we’re not factory workers. We encourage individual initative. We challenge our teams to help us improve our processes. We believe that innovation can (and should) come from anywhere.

Right?

If that’s true, why do we keep treating our teams like factories, and our people like factory workers? Why do companies push solutions to teams and expect them to be just assembled, (where possible by yesterday), without asking too many questions or making a fuss? Why do organisations rebuff any innovation or ideas that don’t come from their own team? Why do we incentivise teams and individuals on the quantity of output, and not the quality or impact?

It’s not enough to talk about supporting innovation and encouraging initiative… our daily working process has to support it too; otherwise, we’re just another factory.

It’s ok to be second

Facebook was not the first social network. As early as the first dot com boom in the late 1990s companies like sixdegrees.com had launched with services similar in theme and purpose to what Facebook became. When Facebook launched in 2004 from a dorm room at Harvard there were already a number of competing products: Friendster and Orkut were already successful online social networks, and mySpace already had millions of users. In fact, MySpace continued to be the largest social network in the world until 2008 when Facebook finally overtook it.

The iPad was not the first tablet, nor was the iPod the first portable MP3 music player. Google wasn’t even the first web search engine.

What Facebook, the iPad and countless other products like them did was take something that had been done before, and did it better.

Facebook took the concept of online social networking, and added real meaning: your real identity, your real-life friends, and a completely new (and naturally addictive) way to share your life with your network. (It also managed to solve the hardware scaling problems that had hamstrung competition like Friendster).

The iPad took the long sought-after but elusive tablet computer and built a beautiful, functional and elegant device that refused to compromise. A device that rejected the assumption that a tablet was a normal PC with a touch-screen, and had the courage to create a whole new form factor.

The point is: it’s okay to be second. Or even third. New product opportunities often lie in re-thinking existing concepts or products: it’s about seeing what can be done better, and having the courage to take the next steps the others won’t.

Steve Jobs one famously quoted Picasso when he said: “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”