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.

Product Managers – Learn from Elon Musk: write down your product strategy in prose

desk and writing implements

Last week, Elon Musk posted his second ‘Master Plan’ for Tesla. In it, he lays out the strategy for Tesla for the next decade or so, in a clear, concise and highly readable way. He doesn’t use slides. He doesn’t use visuals or charts or graphs. Just words.

As a Product Manager, when was the last time you put your product vision and strategy into words? Into just words?

I’ve seen lots of product visions presented with powerpoint slides. Decks containing reams of slides with graphs and charts and bullet points. I’ve seen prototypes and visual concepts of futuristic products. But rarely do I see a product vision boiled down into its basic elements and presented in the form of written prose.

Don’t get me wrong: powerpoint and visual concepts are fantastic tools for communicating certain types of things. But the written word, in particular well-written prose, has an efficiency, elegance and clarity that you can’t replace with 80 slides.

If you don’t already, get into the habit of capturing your overall product vision and strategy in prose. Why? Because the ability to write it down in a clear and concise way is the ultimate test of the clarity of your vision.

It doesn’t have to be complicated. Let’s take a look at Elon’s post, and what we can learn from it:

  • The post is highly readable: it doesn’t use technical language, buzz words or jargon and it adopts a very informal style. A strategy brief doesn’t have to be complicated or written like an academic paper, nor does it have to be filled with management buzz words.
  • It is very clear and concise: you know exactly where he’s going and why.
  • The vision is sufficiently high-level: you can see the long-term end goal he’s going after (the vision), and the big building blocks he will assemble, in what order, to get there (the strategy).
  • It’s relatively short: about 1500 words. A strategy brief doesn’t have to be a novel! In fact, the shorter, the better.
  • He breaks down extremely broad and complex macro-economic and environmental topics (global warming, sustainable energy production, etc) into very simple terms.
  • At the end there’s a 4 bullet-point summary containing just 47 words that sums up the entire thing. A decade-long plan summed up in under 50 words. This is the ultimate test of your vision and strategy: can you describe it clearly in under 50 words?

At Amazon, Jeff Bezos famously introduced a rule forcing his executives to present product and strategy proposals in written prose, in what he called narratives.

A quote from the book The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon:

“PowerPoint is a very imprecise communication mechanism. It is fantastically easy to hide between bullet points. You are never forced to express your thoughts completely.”

Give it a try: take 30 minutes and put your product strategy onto paper. If you like I’ll even read it for you and provide feedback! Send me an email or find me on Twitter.

Microsoft: Services Everywhere (not Windows Everywhere)

I came across two interesting pieces of Microsoft news today.

Firstly, Microsoft have bought the company behind a Visual Studio plugin called UnityVS which enables developers using the cross platform game engine, Unity, to write and debug their Unity programs directly within Visual Studio. Unity has support for all the major mobile operating systems, and then some – and Microsoft is slashing the existing $99 price tag and giving it away to developers for free. (Link)

In other words, Microsoft are investing in, and giving away for free, tools to make it easier to port games to a variety of platforms. Instead of reinforcing the old paradigm of “Windows everywhere”, they are literally helping to strengthen competitor platforms like iOS and Android.

The second piece of news was a rumour concerning a possible upcoming wearable device. (Link) Other than the first gasp-moment that it might not have a screen at all, the real news here was the rumour that the device might be compatible with Android and iOS mobile devices. This, compared with the wearable strategies of Android, iOS and Tizen (Samsung) devices, is a revolution. All the competitors mentioned here enforce a strict our-platform-only policy when it comes to their wearable offerings: the Tizen-powered Gear devices only pair with Samsung Galaxy devices, Android Wear only works with recent Android and the rumoured iWatch will of course only work with iOS devices. And here’s Microsoft with a device that could work with anything.

What does it mean? Perhaps it is a recognition of the inevitability of an Android/Apple-dominated smartphone market for the foreseeable future. Maybe it’s a strategy to increase sales: after all, Visual Studio still costs, and it also needs Windows to run; and the sales forecasts of any wearable device that only works with Windows Phone devices could not have been good (a tiny fraction of a tiny fraction). Either way, it’s a far-cry from the Microsoft of the 90’s and 2000’s and “Windows everywhere”, and it’s certainly some more clear signs of the company’s increasing play to become services-first.

Mobile strategy in a rapidly evolving industry

Benedict Evans, the well-known mobile industry analyst, has posited that we actually have no idea what it will mean in five years to “install an app on my smartphone”.

The market and the technology that powers it is changing and evolving so fast that there is no way to know how the industry will look in five years time. Will a smartphone still be a rectangular device with a screen that you carry in your pocket? Will it have already been absorbed into an invisible network of embedded, connected, wearable devices? What will be the form factors that define ‘mobile’ in five year’s time? How would you develop experiences for them?

For everyone in the business of creating and distributing mobile experiences, the dependency you have to the mobile ecosystems is the single largest pertinent factor in your strategic profile. How does not having a clear view not the future impact your strategic planning? What will your business model be in five years? What will your business be at all in five years?

It is an interesting lesson in strategy definition to be able to separate the WHAT from the HOW.

The HOW is a constant evolution of the environment you’re operating in. The WHAT is much more constant, and can absorb even large changes in the environment.

The WHY… it could last perhaps forever.