Product Transparency, and some tips to help increase it

A little while ago I ran a retrospective with a product team where we focussed specifically on the product process. We invited a cross-section of the company: engineering, design, marketing, operations and the founders. Everyone present in the retrospective had the opportunity to give feedback on what was working and what wasn’t with regards to the way product management and product development overall was running in the company.

Sifting through the feedback, there was a common theme that encompassed nearly all feedback received: it all came down to transparency.

Everybody wanted more visibility into:

  • What the product team is doing
  • What they are not doing
  • Why they are/are not doing thing X
  • How the decision on what to do gets made and who is involved

Nearly all the different feedback points came back to one of these things.

It’s all about product transparency.

A more transparent product organisation leads to more trust and better-informed product decisions. It’s hard to imagine having too much product transparency. Some companies even publish their roadmaps publicly online for all to see.

Product prioritisation and planning should be an open book. There cannot be secrets in the product team. Any good product manager should feel comfortable articulating their rationale for any product decision whenever necessary. This is not about justifying themselves or proving anything – it’s about explaining the rationale so that everyone can understand why we do what we do. Often if the PM is uncomfortable explaining the rationale, it’s because there isn’t one – so the way to fix this problem is to ensure that product managers have a structured, goal-based and data-driven approach to product decision making.

People also want to feel like they are involved in the process. In my experience, people are happy to allow someone else to make a decision as long as they feel like they have been consulted and their opinion has been heard. Generally, people hate making decisions. It’s easier to find reasons not to decide at all – and if people aren’t involved in the decision process, that’s often exactly what they’ll do. But if they feel like they’ve been listened to, people are generally more than happy to let someone else take the responsibility for making the actual call.

Here are some tips for Product Managers who want to help make their product process more transparent:

  • Share the quarterly product goals/KPIs/OKRs regularly. Everybody should be able to easily quote what the product team is focussing on at any given point of time.
  • The Product Roadmap should be a public document that’s available for everyone to see. Keep it up-to-date and make it available on the intranet or somewhere that everybody has easy access to. Each item on the roadmap should clearly map back to one of the product goals (see point above).
  • For new features, run workshops to collect feedback and ideas from different people across the company.
  • Create an “idea box” that anyone in the company can use to submit product ideas/suggestions. Screen these suggestions often and interact with the contributors, so they know that someone is reading their suggestions. It should be understood by the team however that not every product suggestion will align with the product goals, so not every suggestion will be turned into a product feature.
  • Identify the stakeholders in the company for any key decision, and always try to collect direct feedback from them before making a decision. Even when – or especially when – your decision does not align with the stakeholders’ preferred outcome, the fact that you’ve consulted them beforehand will greatly reduce the likelihood that they will try to sandbag your progress after you make your decision.
  • Open your sprint/development planning meetings for anyone who is interested in attending. You should explain to any visitors that in order to keep the meeting efficient, they should avoid interrupting or asking questions – but the process of planning should be open and transparent for everybody.
  • Document the results of planning or design meetings, including the rationale for any decisions made, and post it somewhere shared such as the company wiki.
  • Share your learnings from all product workstreams as early, as often and as widely as you can. Whether it’s the results of an A/B test, findings from a customer survey or discoveries from customer interviews – document everything you learn and share it with the company. This helps bridge organisational boundaries and helps everyone align around a shared understanding of the customer. Plus the act of documenting and sharing information helps you as a PM understand and internalise the learnings as well – so it’s a double-benefit!

If you have some other ideas on how to increase transparency, I’d love to hear them! Either leave a comment below or send me a mail.

How to prioritise your time and stay sane as a Product Manager

I recently finished training a new Product Manager and on-boarding him onto a project. After his first week alone on the job full-time, he came to me on a Friday afternoon with a frazzled look on his face and asked me: “How do you cope with the continual and immense demands for my time as a PM – and then on top of that still find time to think about strategy, talking to customers, and evangelisation?”

This is the science, and art, of prioritisation.

I could point him to a ton of resources about how to approach product backlog prioritisation, such as the ICE method. But what he really needed to hear is not how to prioritise a backlog (although this is also important). He wanted to know how to prioritise his time.

I came up with these principles:

  1. Ruthless prioritisation of everything. You have to sort the world into “things that are important and urgent right now” and “things that are not”. And then to make this work, you have to ignore the things in the “not important” column! This is where many people get tripped up: they prioritise well enough but then end up working on stuff from the ‘not important’ area because an executive wants it, or because an important customer is asking for it…
  2. But in order to prioritise, you need to have clear product goals. This sounds like “duh” but you’d be surprised how many product teams I’ve seen who have no idea what the goal for the quarter is. They have a roadmap, sure… but what is the measure of the success of that roadmap? What ONE result/metric are you trying to move in this period (month/quarter/year)? A test of a good goal is that a) everybody can remember it immediately, and b) you can use it to make individual prioritisation decisions at any level (feature level, roadmap level, strategy level, etc). If for any item on your backlog/roadmap, you can clearly say that it either contributes directly to that goal, or it does not: then it’s a good goal. If you cannot, it means that goal – or at least, that articulation of it – is not useful for prioritising your strategy, which means it’s not useful as a goal.
  3. Related: Stack rank everything. For any two items, you must always be able to say which is more important than the other. Try the experiment: pick any two items from your roadmap, backlog, or wherever. Then ask yourself: if you could only have one of these things, which would it be? Do you have an answer? Good! If you don’t, then you need to get better at stack ranking.
  4. And finally: get used to disappointing people. It’s natural for Product Managers to measure their success against how happy they make their customers – both internal customers (colleagues, executives, engineers, designers, etc) and actual customers. But you’ll never be able to please everybody. We all agreed years ago that “design by committee” is a bad idea: try to build something for everyone, and you’ll end up building something for no-one. And yet, how many low-value items have you ever snuck into the roadmap because Sarah really wants it for her campaign, and she asked so nicely… Resist that urge. Learn to say (politely) no to requests, ideas and requirements that don’t align with what you’re trying to achieve right now. By all means, collect ideas often and from as many sources as you can: this can be a great source of inspiration and creativity for you. But don’t create expectations that every idea is created equal (because they aren’t).

This is how to stay productive – and stay sane – as a Product Manager.

Good luck!

Three Core Characteristics of Great Product Teams

There are many characteristics of great product teams. But when I think about what the very best teams have in common, there are a few common core elements that I think tend to lead naturally to many other great attributes. Characteristics like high levels of trust and motivation, proactive attitude, open communication and knowledge sharing – these all spring from having solved three core team competencies.

great-product-teams

Read on to see the details of each criteria and rate your team on a scale of 0-5 for each. How great is your product team?

 

Shared understanding of the customer

Great product teams understand that great products come from a deep understanding of the customer: their needs, their problems, their desires. All other things being equal, the company that understands the customer best will win the market.

It’s crucial that the customer is at the core of every decision, and that everybody has the same shared view of who the customer is, and how you deliver value to them.

Level What you should expect at this level
0 Who is our customer again?
1
  • Your Product Manager receives product ‘requirements’ from the founders/business/marketing/sales team, and consolidates these inputs directly into a backlog.
  • The priority or target users for these features are not discussed among the team.
2
  • Your Product Manager uses the customer segments provided by the marketing team to build the product strategy.
  • the PM makes priority and strategy decisions alone, or with the founders/business team directly.
  • the engineering and design team execute work from the backlog.
3
  • Your Product Manager spent some time at the start of the project out of the building talking to some customers to validate the segments provided by marketing, but hasn’t really spoken to many (or any) customers since.
  • Your design team perform usability tests from time to time, but the results are not widely shared outside of the design team.
  • the Product Manager has some rough personas, but these are not documented. The design team also has some personas they use, but these are different from those used by the PM. Engineering don’t have any personas at all.
  • Customer research results and analysis is rarely shared between groups.
4
  • Your Product Manager and designers can succinctly answer the question “Who is your customer?”
  • Your Product Manager is in regular contact with existing users as well as non-users from your target market.
  • Your Product Manager and Designers regularly use aligned customer personas when making product decisions.
  • Your designers perform regular usability tests.
  • Results and analysis of user research is presented to the team at regular intervals in knowledge-sharing presentations.
5
  • Your team shares a complete understanding of the customer. Any member of the team – from PM, to QA, to engineering – can succinctly answer the question “Who is your customer?”
  • Your Product Manager is in regular contact with existing users as well as non-users from your target market.
  • Usability testing is a regular and recurring part of your product development lifecycle.
  • All members of your team regularly take part in usability studies.
  • Results and analysis of user research are distributed and discussed widely in the team.
  • You have clear customer personas for your target segments and they are used by all members of the team when making all product decisions. All members of your team regularly say things like “What would [our key persona] Alex do in this situation?”

 

Focus

Great product teams understand that great products come from a deep understanding of the customer: their needs, their problems, their desires. All other things being equal, the company that understands the customer best will win the market.
It’s crucial that the customer is at the core of every decision, and that everybody has the same shared view of who the customer is, and how you deliver value to them.

 

Level What you should expect at this level
0 No product focus: it’s Product Anarchy.
1
  • There is no clear product roadmap or backlog. Tasks are thrown to the team ad-hoc.
  • Prioritisation is random, and is generally based on the HiPPO’s feature requests or who is screaming louder.
  • There is no clear KPI defined for any tasks.
  • Your team spends a lot of time doing low effort/low impact work.
  • Stopping work on something the team has started but not finished is extremely frequent. You have a massive pile of started-but-not-finished work.
  • The majority of the design work from the design team is never implemented into the product by the engineering team. You have a massive backlog of old designs that were never implemented.
  • The engineering team frequently starts work on things that haven’t been fully specified or designed yet because they are suddenly ‘urgent’.
  • The team appears to be constantly putting out fires.
2
  • There is a product backlog, but it changes every week. There is no roadmap beyond the next 1-2 months.
  • Prioritisation appears random, and is generally based on the HiPPO’s feature requests or who is screaming louder.
  • There is no clear KPI defined for any tasks.
  • Your team spends a lot of time doing low effort/low impact work.
  • Stopping work on something the team has started but not finished is frequent.
  • A lot of the design work from the design team is never implemented into the product by the engineering team.
  • The engineering team occasionally starts work on things that haven’t been fully specified or designed yet because they are ‘urgent’.
3
  • There is a clear, prioritised product backlog. There is a clear product roadmap for the next 12 months. The roadmap goes through major change about once every 2-3 months.
  • Prioritisation is based on business needs, but HiPPO feature requests or emergencies frequently get thrown in on top.
  • Major product epics/tasks have clear KPIs so you know exactly when you’ve achieved the stated goal.
  • The team only occasionally stops work on something they have started but not finished.
  • Small amounts of design work from the design team is never implemented into the product by the engineering team.
  • The engineering team rarely starts work on things that haven’t been fully specified or designed yet because they are ‘urgent’.
4
  • There is a clear, prioritised product backlog. There is a clear product roadmap for the next 12-24 months. The roadmap rarely goes through major change.
  • Prioritisation is based on business needs and product objectives/goals.
  • Most product epics/tasks have clear KPIs so you know exactly when you’ve achieved the stated goal.
  • The team rarely stops work on something they have started but not finished.
  • Generally all of the design and specification work from the Product and Design teams is implemented into the product by the engineering team.
5
  • The roadmap and product backlog are clearly prioritised against business and product objectives/goals.
  • Changes to the backlog or roadmap are accompanied by a clear rationale that is linked to external forces or changing business needs.
  • Prioritisation is based on leverage to impact the stated goal, versus effort.
  • All product epics/tasks have clear KPIs so you know exactly when you’ve achieved the stated goal. You probably use OKRs or similar for articulating product objectives.
  • The bulk of your work is in the high effort/high impact area (generating core business value).
  • Your team avoids low effort/low impact work.
  • Stopping work on something the team has started but not finished is extremely rare, and only happens in conjunction with major external forces.
  • A great sense of urgency in the team is based on a shared desire to deliver value to the customer as quickly as possible. “Firefighting” emergencies are rare.

 

Product, Design and Engineering Teams are 
tightly integrated

Great products are a perfect synergy of an urgent and pervasive market problem, and a solution based on a delightful user experience, enabled by technology.

Product, design and technology.

So it should come as no surprise that the teams who deliver the best products integrate product, design and technology closely.

Level What you should expect at this level
0 PM Dictatorship: subversion will be punished!
1
  • The Product Manager works alone with the founders/business teams. Priorities and instructions are given as ‘marching orders’ to design and engineering teams.
  • The Product Manager presents complete specifications, including wireframes and UX specifications, to design. Design’s job is to ‘make them look good’.
  • Engineering receives finished designs, and told to ‘implement this’. Engineering teams implement blindly and do not question, even when the design is contradictory or doesn’t make sense. (“It’s not my fault – I followed the spec!”)
  • Design and Engineering teams feel little or no ownership of the product.
2
  • The Product Manager works predominantly alone with the founders/business teams on the product strategy and roadmap.
  • Design feel some ownership of the product, but their view of the product strategy and agenda is created separately from Product or Engineering.
  • Engineering are working on a technical framework roadmap, but doing so separately from Product or Design.
  • The Product Manager involves Design in the solution definition for most product initiatives/tasks.
  • Engineering are handed final specs for execution.
  • There is little knowledge sharing between disciplines.
3
  • Product Strategy, Design Strategy and Engineering Strategy continue to exist as separate entities, but they are discussed collectively and an effort is made to link them to one set of business objectives. Ownership of each strategy remains fully within the respective domain.
  • Design is involved in the problem definition phase for most product initiatives/tasks.
  • Engineering is involved to provide feedback on feasibility, but is not encouraged to comment on the problem definition or solution beyond effort and feasibility.
  • Information is starting to flow between disciplines, but the flow is controlled by the respective discipline leads.
4
  • Product Strategy, Design Strategy and Engineering Strategy are combined into one overarching Product Strategy. Ownership of the strategy is shared collectively among the Product Manager, Lead Designer and Lead Engineer.
  • Product, Design and Engineering are involved in the problem definition phase for most product initiatives/tasks.
  • Prioritisation and solutions are frequently discussed between the three domain leads. The PM occasionally pulls rank to veto a decision she/he doesn’t agree with.
  • Everybody in the team is encouraged to give feedback on the product, specifications and designs.
5
  • The Product, Design and Engineering teams work inseparably from each other.
  • The Product Manager, Lead Designer and Lead Engineer work closely together daily. They constantly share knowledge, learning and advice among each other.
  • All three disciplines are involved from the start of any project or product initiative. Product strategy, roadmap and prioritisation are performed collectively.
  • The Product Manager, Lead Designer and Lead Engineer each have deep understanding of their areas of competence, but are comfortable discussing and challenging other areas.
  • The Product Manager, Lead Designer and Lead Engineer work together for all major decisions, but also trust each other sufficiently that decisions can happen if someone isn’t available for a discussion. Nobody is a bottleneck.
  • Everybody in the team is encouraged to give feedback on the product, specifications and designs. Nothing is taboo.
  • Disagreements and debates are based on an objective discussion of user value and the personas.
  • The PM never pulls rank to veto a decision she doesn’t agree with.
  • Product, Design and Engineering teams feel shared and complete ownership of the product.

 

Summary

The characteristics of good teams mostly comes down to team culture: and culture is the product of the norms and ways of working that are established in the team.

You – Product Manager, Lead Designer, founder – have more influence over this than you probably think.

Think about how you can up-level your team in each of these three categories. If you get to a 5 for all three of these areas, I guarantee you’ll have a fantastic, high-performing team and a great product.

If you have any feedback on the model, I’d love to hear from you!

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.