Category Archives: feature prioritization

Rasmus Skjoldan @ ‘The Three Questions for Product Manager’

Rasmus_webRasmus Skjoldan is the lead product manager of Magnolia, the CMS behind sites for the likes of Virgin America, Airbus, Al Arabiya and Atlassian. Before joining Magnolia, he was
the user experience lead of the open source content application framework,
Neos—a challenge that originated from his many years in the TYPO3 community. Besides his CMS work, he co-founded Cope, the first purely content strategy focused consultancy in Denmark. Continue reading

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Steven Haines @ ‘The Three Questions for Product Manager’

Steven HainesSteven Haines has a passion for great products! This passion is evident in the three books he’s written. His energy serves as a catalyst for senior leaders so that they can adopt needed changes that improve organizational effectiveness and ultimately, contribute to the creation of the best products that deliver extraordinary value to customers, and undisputed competitive advantage.

We thank Steven for taking out time and be part of ‘Three Questions’ series for product managers.

Product Mantra: How important is it for a product manager to have experience of project management?

Steven Haines: I have a good-news, bad-news response. The good news is that there’s recognition of a difference between the two. I can’t say how many times people confuse the two practices. The bad news is that, yes, product managers must know how to manage projects and the three main pillars: people, budgets, and schedules! To be precise, all business people should know how work gets done, by whom, and when. They must know who provides work product to others and who receives work product. Also, they must know how those hand-off’s impact the overall schedule of deliverables in order to produce a planned outcome. One of the most important projects that product managers are likely to find themselves in the heart of is a product launch. It’s an incredibly important process; it involves many people, and must result in an on-time launch. If people don’t do what’s required in the launch project plan, then the product will not achieve its objectives for sales, market share, or a positive customer experience.

Product Mantra: How often should a product manager conduct competitive analysis, what’s the frequency and any methods that you can share with us?

Steven Haines: Competitive profiling is a vital practice that should be carried out on an ongoing basis – not as a periodic exercise. For example, I get “alerts” every day on various companies to find out what they’re up to and I store them in my mind, or share information with my team members. I also motivate my cross-functional team members to be alert to goings-on in the market. If a sales person visits a customer and learns about a competitor proposal, that sales person should provide input to the product manager. Another method is for the development or engineering team to be able to reverse engineer competitor products if at all possible. This can provide valuable information on costs, composition, and the user experience. In many firms, a market intelligence department carries out research that can reveal useful insights. All these inputs should be stored on a shared repository so that, across the organization, people can be alerted to any competitive activities. These can be channeled into the strategic planning process, or in other dimensions of the product’s business.

Product Mantra: Tell us more about the philosophy of product manager as business manager?

Steven Haines: It’s not so much a philosophy, but the standard. A product is a business inside a business and a business must be managed. Every business starts with a vision, goals, and a strategy. That strategy is based on various inputs: market insights, business, and financial information. Strategic goals set the stage for what’s to be done – to create a new product, update an existing product, or even expand to another market. Once everyone in the organization is aligned, the product manager, like any good CEO or general manager ensures that everyone does their part to build, test, validate, and launch the product. Finally, performance metrics are monitored to steer the product’s business, keep things running, and to re-strategize as needed.

Thanks Steven.

Steven Haines on web:

  1. Steven Haines blog: http://sequentlearning.com/experts/author/sjhaines
  2. Twitter: @Steven_Haines
  3. Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/stevenjhaines

@mathurabhay

Three questions for product manager Roger Cauvin

Roger

Product Mantra: What prioritisation technique(s) would you use at a startup where product users are both internal and external?
Roger Cauvin: Product managers should build consensus with every member of the product team (including internal users) for a focused value proposition that keeps internal users and stakeholders aligned with the needs of the target market and with the product’s positioning. This sort of product strategy consensus enables all team members to execute cooperatively and to set aside personal preferences in deference to delivering the promised value. I recommend composing a competitive mindshare map to position (determine the unique value proposition of) the product.

The team should agree to consider every product decision in terms of the extent to which it supports the unique value proposition.

Some practical ways I’ve used to build this product strategy consensus include:

* Walk the team through the competitive landscape and positioning represented in the competitive mindshare map.
* Interview prospects and share and review the interview notes with the team.
* Compose a slide deck of buyer and user personas and review them with the team.
* Compose a lean canvas and review, in particular, the “problem” and “unique value proposition” sections.
* Take every opportunity to relate product decisions, requirements, and design back to the unique value proposition.

Product Mantra: What advice do you have for a product manager in a startup who is expected to do more than just product management?
Roger Cauvin: Depending on the situation, responsibilities outside the strict product management role may represent a personal growth opportunity.

For example, I ran product at a startup that lacked the resources to hire a user experience designer. Consequently, it became my responsibility to design the user experience for an overhauled version of the product. I embraced this responsibility as an opportunity to learn user experience (UX) patterns and practice mocking up user interfaces.

Simultaneously, however, I educated the rest of the executive team on how user experience is not part of the product management skill set, and how a dedicated user experience designer would likely produce a higher quality design in a more timely fashion. They agreed and were prepared to hire a user experience designer once the budget allowed for it. (Unfortunately, our funding ran out, so we were never able to budget for it.)

Another avenue worth pursuing is to identify colleagues interested in carrying out the responsibilities and empowering them to do so. In startups, we all have to be prepared to be fluid in the roles we play to work as a team to deliver the best business outcomes. That burden shouldn’t lie exclusively on product management. At any particular time, for any particular job to be done, the team has to identify the people best suited to take on the responsibilities.

Product Mantra: How would you go about introducing lean startup techniques at a startup?
Roger Cauvin: First, compose a lean canvas for your product(s). No excuses. Just do it. It’s a quick way of being explicit about your product strategy so you can begin testing the hypotheses and iterating on them. I suggest composing it in Google Slides so that it’s accessible from all devices and simultaneously viewable and editable in real-time by all team members.

Second, make sure you are interviewing and observing prospective buyers and users on a fairly regular basis. If you can’t tap into the sales pipeline to identify prospects, think creatively about your own network of friends and professionals who could connect you to prospects that may not be on your company’s radar screen yet.

Third, identify the metrics that matter and start tracking them. You may need to work with marketing and/or sales ops to gain access to the tools you need, such as Google Analytics or Salesforce.

Fourth, instrument the product(s) to track usage. Tools such as MixPanel enable you to track not only events and page views, but also “funnels”, which are sequences of events that comprise a use case. I recommend documenting the key events to track in Google Sheets. For web-based applications, developers can implement events by inserting simple snippets of Javascript.

Finally, you can build consensus for lean startup approaches by educating the team about them and their benefits. Start with an introduction to lean startup and follow up by posting and walking through a model of lean startup concepts.

Questions to Answer before you take on a Problem

Problems are solved to make something easier for the user and financially beneficial to the organization. While it is challenging to quantify and thus measure user benefits (easy to communicate with friends), financial benefits are relatively easily measured in terms of impact on top and/or bottom line.

But before we talk of measuring output let us exclusively talk about the problem. Before you decide to put in efforts and money in solving a problem, let us be sure that the problem has undergone set of quality analysis and is proven worth addressing beyond any doubts.

Am I the right person to solve the problem? (Introspection)

So you have a problem in hand or you are given a problem to solve. The first parameter in the quality analysis metrics of a problem is that “am I the guy who solves this problem?” let us put down an example here.

The technology head who designed an in-flight entertainment system was called to solve a problem of many passengers not viewing the movies while flying. More and more passengers are shutting down the movie in less than 20 minutes. A primary survey results show that flyers did not enjoy the movie.

Airline is worried that these passengers may jump on to competition for simple reason that they do not like our entertainment system and get bored in our flight. So this problem must be addressed before it starts impacting business in serious manner.

The problem here could be related to poor collection of movies, streaming challenges, user interface of entertainment system, sound clarity, related to display quality of the screen or may be something else. Here it is important to appreciate the business challenge but at the same time if you are not the right guy you better make a case and pass it on. For example, what if the poor collection is the cause of this problem? Or even for that matter display screen which might have to be sourced from a vendor. Those being the case, get the screens replaced with better quality screens. Now if there are issues related to poor audio experience, user experience or streaming than the head of technology has a job in hand.

A passionate problem solver often gets carried away in such situations, consequences of which will cause further damage to the business. Here it is important to be wise than good. Identify the root cause, let the problem go to the right person (this is not passing on the buck). You may also end up finding more than one root cause on why passengers do not like the in-flight entertainment system. In such scenarios you may have a part of problem to solve and part may fall elsewhere.

 Do we have the right set of skills? If not can we acquire them? (Feasibility)

If there is a problem that it must be solved. And we you are the one who is expected to do so than it is important that you assess the feasibility aspect as well. In above case of in-flight entertainment system, suppose the root cause identified is “poor collection of movies” and you as a product manager is expected to solve the issue. It is important to understand that the solution here is non-technical (better collection of movies). Answer simple set of questions,

  1. What is preferred set of movies?
  2. Who are my typical customers (professionals, family on vacation, religious people etc)
  3. What will motivate my customers to watch a movie to its full length?
  4. Do I need to have more language options?

And many more such questions need to be answered. Typically a Behavioral science professional may be a better person to solve this puzzle (of collection of movies). So you as a product manager may end up hiring an expert of behavioral science or outsource this puzzle to agency. This is your contribution in solving this problem. Remember every issue is not a technical issue but most issues will have a solution related to human aspect. It is recommended not to stretch your-self to unknown territories but get someone who is familiar with such situations.

 Potential of the problem (scalability and profitability)

So how about measuring the impact of not solving or impact if the problem gets solved? So what if I get some games instead sourcing movies, may be getting games might be easier and cost effective alternate? And even if I source good movies considering the variety in taste is this a viable solution to implement in all the routers. Also, if it is movies the solution may say that we need to regularly update our collection. Can we think of alternates? Will my flyer pay for premium entertainment services like in-flight internet? What entertainment services are offered by my competitors?

The scalability and profitability aspect of a problem will talk about;

  1. Competing and complimentary services
  2. Market size and target market sizing
  3. Pocket size of buyer and their ability and willingness to make payments that suits your pricing
  4. Economics, solving this problem will help me enhance my top-line and / or my bottom line

To judge quality of problem it is important to assess all the four aspects (mentioned in bullet points above) of problem potential. Assess scalability and profitability critically. Challenge every aspect of possible solution, identify impact on top-line and bottom-line and never ever ignore assessing alternate approaches.

 Life cycle, available window of ROI

Well all sounds good, we a have problem for which we have right skill set, is definitely scalable and profitable, but this not where it ends. How about life of the problem? To make healthy returns out of your investment it becomes important that the problem stays for a longer duration and your investment in solution fetches you returns for a longer duration.

In our case study of in-flight entertainment system, what if root cause is seasonal turbulence which might ease out in next 15 days or so. Passengers may not be enjoying movie when the flight experiences turbulence. Or it may be a season where most of the passengers are business travelers who may not want to watch a movie but instead focus on intellectual reading or discussions, could it be season where foreign tourist occupies most seats that are not so keen to watch a movie.

So the point is, if the life of a problem is short it may not be a good idea (on most occasions) to invest (time and money) on such problems. Instead figure out problems that here to stay for long and you have market for longer duration.

To add, here is one more example, a software company was struggling to upgrade their software in a particular geography due to poor connectivity in that region. Company invested heavily on engineering and research activity to solve the problem and figure out light weight upgrades that would work even in low bandwidth conditions. Company took its time solve this puzzle, however in a very short time telecom companies upgraded their infrastructure in the region and bandwidth was at par with other regions in the geography. Now here, if the software company had done some research or if they had got in touch with service providers in the region they would have learned that this problem of low bandwidth is short lived and it is not wise to put our engineering resources in solving a puzzle that would eventually be solved by someone else.

So ensure to have answer to following question

  1. Do I have enough time to recover my investment and make profit? Problem should not get outdated or obsolete in short time.

 Conclusion 

A good problem is the problems that will help my business fetch more money by keeping my customers happy. A happy customer is one who believes (is convinced) that he/ she is getting what is they are paying for or are getting more than what they are paying for. A happy business owner is one who believes (is convinced) that he is selling his product or services at a better profit margins than competitors. And a good problem solver is one who makes both (customer and business owner) convince that they have a reason to be happy.

Hence it is of paramount importance for a problem solver to put the problem through a comprehensive quality analysis before jumping onto solving the problem. So when it comes to solving a problem, this is probably the only way to make both business owner and customer happy.

@mathurabhay

Banish long Sprint Planning meetings

In the Agile world, a Sprint Planning meeting would typically have the Business / Product Owner listing and explaining each story to be delivered and the team goes about doing their best to understand each story based on questions and discussions. The team then estimate the effort needed for each story and commit to whatever they think is feasible within the Sprint duration. For a 2 week Sprint, this typically takes around 3-4 hours.

In many cases, discussions on stories unearth scenarios that need further Analysis by the Product Owner before they can be ready for development. These stories cannot be picked up for development even if they are of highest priority since there are some unknowns about them. This means that the Sprint backlog could consist of stories that are not of highest priority. Also, this results in a long Planning meeting due to more discussions and more stories to discuss.

Is there a way to change this and ensure that the Sprint backlog is filled with stories of highest priority and value? Also, is it possible to have a shorter planning meeting?

Fortunately, the answer is Yes…

The key is to remove the discussions and visit all possible scenarios up front.

The answer is to have an Elaboration session for the next Sprint in the middle of the current Sprint. The Scrum Master gets the team and the Product Owner together for the Elaboration session. Here, the Product Owner presents the stories for development in the next Sprint and solicits questions and feedback. The team and Product owner discuss all possible scenarios and get a complete understanding. There is a huge possibility that some stories might not be ready for development. The Product Owner then has the time to action these before the actual Sprint planning meeting a week later.

This way, the team is fully aware of the stories coming up in the next Planning meeting, the Product owner has time to fine tune his high priority stories and many stories can be committed to and taken up for development without much discussion at the planning meeting. All this leads to a short planning meeting and a less stressed out team. The additional meeting that is added would provide value by unearthing issues up front thus providing enough time for resolution.

I strongly encourage management and teams to try this option out. Do let us know how this worked for you.

Solving the puzzle – “water proof umbrella”

In my previous post, “Case Study: The Waterproof Umbrella” I wrote about “Out of Context engineers”. Engineers who are working on product or on feature but are not sure about its usage or need. While the earlier post was focused more on challenges, this time it is more about what a product manager should do to help engineers gain contextual knowledge.

There are ways by which you as a product owner can make the out-of-context engineers have a better understanding about product.

Detail requirements along with context : Charity begins at home, so why not start with little extra effort to help engineers understand something more about the product needs. When you write requirement definition or user stories, do ensure to include sections like “feature purpose”, “problem definition”,  “Expectation (from feature on implementation)”. A typical ‘User Story’ with ‘uses cases’ is not good enough for many engineers to understand the context or need, it rather just focuses on solution space and has bare minimal focus on problem definition or customer voice. Including suggested section along with accurate data helps engineers to connect problem definition with use cases and in-turn helps in designing an effective and elegant solution.

Customer experience : It is highly recommended that engineers who mostly have cubicle working habits should be taken out to meet customers, partners and field staff. When you go out to meet customers for a presentation or for a follow-up meeting, take one of these champs along with you. Let them have customer exposure, understand the expectation from horse’s mouth and feel the context. What is being suggested here is not something new but is definitely something which is not practiced so popularly; successful product companies like Intuit does practice this which is termed as “Follow Me Home”. You will also find a reference of this in “Lean Start-up” by Eric Ries. What this does is that it brings in a lot of contextual information to engineers, helps them understand that the customer focus is more on solving a problem and not necessary developing a feature as mostly perceived by engineers.

On many occasions, there are business or legal constraints due to which it is not possible to take an engineer along with you. For such scenarios, ensure that you share experience from customer meeting with the team and help team come to same level of understanding as you are.

Market updates : Send out updates in form of write-ups, ppts or even as a small talk once in a while to engineering team on what’s happening in market place, what is competition doing, newer announcements by government or by compliance agencies which could probably impact a feature or aspect of your product design. You chose the frequency, but ensure do not over-do or be so rare that engineers lose interest in such updates. This is an attempt to keep engineers connected with market place and also help them understand the business aspects of the product. They will sooner or later appreciate such information and also its implication on feature design or product road-map.

It is always advisable to have someone in the team who can challenge your understanding, only to help develop a better product and a better professional out of you. I take this as part of product manager’s responsibility to keep his team connected with the market and in turn with customer. Spend some extra time to detail out things that you might not have been doing, spend some time educating your team to ramp-up their understanding about business and problem you are trying to solve.

@mathurabhay

Product Manager as Sales enabler

One of the many key roles of a Product Manager is that of a ‘Sales enabler’. This means, helping sales to improvise on conversion ratio, conversion of a prospect to a paying customer. While there is nothing much that a product manager can teach sales about sales, however they can play a crucial role in influencing customer and by helping them in build trust and confidence in product sold to them.

Think of a product manager as a walking & talking “Sales-Solution-Guide”, may be something like a breathing wikipedia of the product. Sales should be able to take them to all potential large customers or even to an existing key customer.  Here product managers takes on greater responsibility of market success and such a shift typically happens largely in introduction and growth phase of the product wherein quick conversion is imperative to the success of the organization.

Here are few value adds that a product owner should focus on while working with sales or running a product demo with customer; remember it is product managers responsibility to be valued and not to be seen as liability:

  1. Know your product, functions and technicalities. Have a very good command of your product features and intricacies of user experience. It would not leave a good impression on customer if you repeat this too often ‘I shall get back to you on this’.
  2. Highlight customer benefits against each feature demonstrated, ensure you speak more of customer interest, few examples: how a particular feature impacts staff productivity or data security. May be even on reliability of data.
  3. Aspects that can be translated to monetary benefit like increase in top line or bottom line should be explained thoroughly. Question audience if they have any doubts over monitory benefits of the product. Typical example: lower cost of ownership for customer (in terms of hardware requirements and maintenance).
  4. Study competition well, as much as you can. Be prepared (or be honest) to answer questions on competition strengths and values that you are still trying to match.
  5. Customers often ask for more, more than what is offered or even required. Know well what level of customization is doable and in what time duration. It gives immense pleasure to customer when they convince a vendor for customization so please do not rob them off this pleasure, be prepared for taking some extra work for engineering.
  6. One of the most common question that I have faced is “how frequently do you upgrade your product and at what cost would we get it”. While on most occasions you will be able to pass on the question related to cost but ‘frequency of software upgrade’ is domain of product manager. You are expected to answer this but be sure that you neither exaggerate nor should you play too safe by being conservative.
  7. Towards the end, buy some time from customer to present technology road-map. Show customer the benefits of going with you, show them what they will miss if they go for alternate product or solution. This matters a lot to the customer and they expect you to present this to them.

I have always enjoyed the responsibility of ‘sales enabler’. I see this as an opportunity to meet and talk to customers whom I represent day-in and day-out in my organization. Perhaps I must say that, it is these opportunities that keeps me up-to-date with customer priorities and market demand, in-turn makes me more effective in my role as a product manager.

@mathurabhay

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