Product Managers have two broad things to work on: The Needle Movers and the Needle Maintainers.
Needle maintainers are those which are necessary to keep the machinery well oiled to run at its full steam; essentially activities which makes sure that there is nothing adverse affecting the product, there is no bad debt (technical or otherwise), the key metrics are not showing anything that is unusually alarming. Essentially ensuring that the product does what it promised to the customers and the cross-functional stake holders such as sales and engineering are enthused about it as well.
Needle movers are those activities which result in creating long-term compelling competitive advantage for the product or creating differentiators that gives the product immense position of strength in the market or targeting a new market segment. Not always (rather rarely) does the activities under this section result in creating something that is of strategic importance to the product; but it is essential to always work towards the needle movers lest the product stagnates.
It is easy for Product Manager to get into the nitty-gritty of things and get sucked into “needle maintainers” and ignore to work on “needle movers” as sometimes it is so difficult to see small success in the activities under “needle movers”. At the same time, it is also possible for a Product Manager to totally concentrate on getting the needle move, but in reality killing the goose that (already) lays golden egg, by not concentrating on aspects that require the product to be well oiled to serve the customers at the best levels possible.
This is not just another case of time-management, but something a lot more than that. It is necessary for one to be a great Product Manager to balance the needle movers and needle maintainers. No suggestions here; it is left to the style of working of each Product Manager.
Shukla Bai, a sexagenarian based out of Bangalore used to baby-sit her grand daughter so that her daughter could go to work. With her grandchild now going to school she had some free time and thought of making some sweets and savories at home and sell them to friends and acquaintances. Shukla being a well known cook among her friends and acquaintances, it was not difficult for her to start selling purely by word-of-mouth. After a few months, she feels that this sort of home-made quality food product would be needed by even those who she does not know or does not reach her through word-of-mouth. Almost all her sales so far was through pre-ordering – it was kind of baked-to-order. But to increase her sales she had to identify the right mix of place, price and promotion where interested buyers would simply buy seeing the product and not pre-order for something which they have not seen. How did Shukla, not a management graduate, not a graduate, just a simple literate increase her sales? She did a customer-segment pivot.
Shukla would usually buy vegetables at a store near by and the cash counter had the desk usually free. She suggested to the shop keeper to try selling her eatables by just placing the transparently packaged eatables near the cash counter; customers who were to check-out after buying vegetables would see this home-made eatable and buy. The shopkeeper did not mind as his investment was zero and if it sells he would make some profit. Shukla was best at making pooran poli, a traditional sweet very famous in Karnataka and Maharashtra states of India. The sweet being a bit tough to make, many would like to buy if they see one with the right quality. She made packs of 5 pooran polis with a selling price of fifty rupees. She had hit the PLACE aspect for the product precisely on the target; there was good traction as far as enquiring about the product was concerned. However the sales really was not as much as she expected. The shop-keeper told her that most people asked for the price but did not buy. Shukla studied the people who frequented the store. Most of them were young couples or nuclear families with 3 or less members. Further, her competitors sold at eight rupees per piece whereas she was selling at ten rupees – because she did not compromise on quality. However how would a customer know without trying that her product is worth the extra two rupees? Why should a customer buy an unknown product? What did Shukla do? Customer need pivot!
Shukla – firm that she will not compromise on quality, reduced the size of each piece, made packets of three pieces instead of five, priced it at twenty five rupees per packet. The sales saw a dramatic increase – as the new price point was a lot cheaper – and the risk factor to try a new product was low as after all you have just three pieces, also perfect for a nuclear family. She got the PRICE aspect perfectly right.
Shukla does not even know about Eric Ries’ Lean Startup principles to say that she did a customer-segment and customer-need pivot. There is no need for her to theorize her actions. She did what every product manager must do – know thy customer. I as a product manager have lessons to learn from this sixty-year-old lady about passion for understanding the “need” in the market, addressing them and iterating according to signals from the market.
Last heard: Shukla Bai expanded her sales to ready-to-order meals in addition to the existing sweets and savories she started selling. Also, customers now started buying the 5 piece packets at higher price having ascertained the quality.