Saving yourself from product management hell

Saving yourself from product management hell

I gave a talk for Product Anonymous in Melbourne, Australia. Well, kind of, as I was still sat in my office while doing so. It was all about saving yourself from product management hell. You’ll recognise the symptoms such as not being allowed to talk to customers, and my personal favourite, “screw research, let’s build!”

In my talk I guide you through the causes of these painful symptoms and, more usefully, show you how to get yourself out of product management hell. (Hint: it’s all about having a good product strategy.)

And you get a “get out of hell free” card at the end. Video, slides and transcript after the break.

Video #

Slides #

Transcript #

Introduction #

[JOCK] Right, so here we are! We are going to be talking about saving yourself from product management hell and as promised… there we go. Right! So we have some get out of jail free cards. Here’s the usual about me slide.

[LAUGHTER IN THE BACKGROUND]

I’m a freelance head of product. I work for my company, Product People Limited as a product management coach, trainer, hands-on product manager. I’m also the author of a book called The Practitioner’s Guide to Product Management, which is available from all good bookstores and probably quite a few bad ones as well now. I think the goal here is to look in the bargain bin – you’ll probably find it there. And yeah, I thought you’d appreciate the variation from the usual CV slide.

[LIZ] It’s a good book, Jock! It’s a good book!

[JOCK GIGGLES]

[JEN] We just got an endorsement from Melissa earlier during this chat who has quoted bits of it this morning.

[JOCK] Excellent!

[JEN] More book sales!

[LIZ] More book sales!

[JOCK] More book sales! And of course, plenty more writing on my blog as well, imanageproducts.com. So there’s lots more stuff going on and probably a few more talks coming down the line if you’re interested in coming along to those.

So we’re here to talk about how to save yourself from product management hell. And what do we mean by that? So I’m sure we’ve all been in the situation similar to what I was. So before I set up Product People, I was working at Experian. And the main reason why I left Experian to do my own thing was because of a 2-year death march project called Project Radar.

Project Radar death march #

And this was one of those projects which was completely doomed from the outset. It was the wrong reasons for for doing it from the beginning, they were trying to make the products reflect organisational changes and mergers of departments and so on. So as a result they’re trying to merge together a whole bunch of different products onto a single platform with the idea being that they could reduce development time and costs, do more regular upgrades, and charge customers for the upgrades more often. So there’s no consideration of what users actually needed from the product.

And the products they were trying to merge together were cash cows, they’re built on, like, 10-year-old technology so, you know, they were looking pretty dated. They had the helpful features of buttons that completely corrupted the database and the developers’ response to the outstanding bug reports of this was, “Well, just don’t press that button, then!”

They completely ignored the existence of the internet so these things, instead of getting data updates over the air, we literally had to post out CDs every month to everyone. And this is in 2010. This is not like in 1987 – this is, like, 2010, right? And then they were trying to merge its regional variations of the products – the French version with the Australian version with the South American version, and they weren’t even taking any account of the specifics that made the product successful in those countries. Anyway so this was like a 2-year exercise in futility and compromise.

They did absolutely no user research whatsoever. I think they got a token designer in about half-way through the process, who just did a few wireframes and left again. It was horrific. So we ended up with a reskinned version of the old products that did less and were incompatible with the old products. Funnily enough none of our customers wanted to upgrade so none of the revenue appeared that they were expecting. And we now had a massive platform to maintain as well as all the original products that were trying to get rid of. And all the developers had been diverted to the new platform to basically un-f**k it, which wasn’t working very well, and so there was nobody left to maintain the products the customers were actually using.

So that was my product management hell.

[LIZ] Or one of them.

[JOCK] Just one of them. That was a big one. That was enough to spur me to go and basically do it by myself! [LAUGHS] So in that respect I’m grateful to this project for giving me the motivation. But it wasn’t fun at the time – it really wasn’t fun at the time.

[LIZ] Yeah, yeah. I remember some of those bits.

Are you in product management hell? #

[JOCK] I was going to say, are you in hell? When I was talking through the pitch for this with Liz and Jen, immediately they were going, “Oh yeah! There was that time when I did this and did that.” So, I think we all have those situations where we’re either brought in to something, or we join something that exhibits the symptoms of complete corporate dysfunction. And we have to remember that because we can try and things around, and we do our utmost to make it a success. But fundamentally it’s really difficult to succeed with something that’s completely flawed from the outset. And, no user research, no consideration of what the product needs to be to solve the user needs or solve user problems: that’s a recipe for disaster. And just marching on for two years in a direction – it’s just not really going to end up well.

So are you in a similar situation in your jobs and can we recognise the symptoms? Let’s have a quick look at a few.

I’m not allowed to talk to customers #

My favourite one: “I’m not allowed to talk to customers”. And that’s either at all or without a sales person present. So yep, that’s probably a frequent one I think.

“I’m too busy dealing with emergencies to plan ahead.” So if you’re constantly reacting, you’ve got no time to plan and this is absolutely exhausting.

Screw research, let’s build #

Another good one: “Screw research! Let’s build!”

[LIZ LAUGHS]

[JOCK] Yeah, I really like this! So your development team is really, really excited to get going and also your Board – the board of directors or the management team – is really really averse to having developers sitting around seemingly “doing nothing” (in inverted commas).

[LIZ] Oh my god – this is my favourite one! “But they can’t sit idle, that’s a very expensive resource.” It’s not like a good idea to spend their time on s**t.

[JOCK] It’s like fingernails dragging down a blackboard, [GIGGLES] it’s what it feels like to the senior management team!

And another one I’ve seen is where – and this happens quite often – the head of engineering is actually justifiably worried that his team will be shrunk if they don’t look like they’re doing stuff all the time. They’ll say, “Well if you’ve got half your team sitting around doing nothing all the time, then you don’t need as many people.” So the board will tell him to get rid of half his team when he knows that, later down the pipeline, he’s going to need that many people and more. So he has to play the game a bit to make sure his team always looks busy to make sure his team doesn’t get shrunk all the time. So that’s a fun one.

What else have we got?

Hundreds of OKRs #

“Oh we‘re doing OKRs.”
“I don’t see what the problem is.”
“The problem is we’ve got hundreds of them.”

And this is like when I guess when organisations don’t really understand the point of OKRs. And I’m not going to necessarily go into the depth of detail, but put it this way, if you’ve got more than three or four a quarter, you’re probably doing it wrong. And I think the common ways that people get this wrong is they jam all their business-as-usual tasks into it.

Another one, which is quite an interesting one, is when for some reason your organisation missed the whole memo about transparency of OKRs and just won’t let people further down the organisation see the higher up OKRs, which is basically defeating the entire object. Because the idea is you align yourselves with the top-level OKRs, not just the level above you. So it’s a weird when they do that.

And of course my favourite one is when people start setting objectives for output, so stuff or amounts of things they’ve built, rather than necessarily the human outcomes they’re meant to be doing. So yes, OKRs – sorry – objectives and key results, for people who don’t know the acronym yet.

[JEN] That reminds me of one that we didn’t talk about, talking about the symptoms, that when you have 100 or more metrics that you’re trying to track and they’re all your goals.

[JOCK] Exactly, exactly. Yeah you’ve got to focus on something.

[LIZ] I was just going to say, folk, if you’ve got anything you want to share there, I know it says Q&A, but feel free to drop in some symptoms you’ve experienced. This won’t be a comprehensive list, so we’d love to hear ones that you’ve had. And if you don’t recognise some here, current pain you’re in right now, drop them in on the Slido.

[JOCK] Absolutely, absolutely. So yes, this is an example of falling into that fallacy of following a process will ensure success, and I think if you don’t know how or why a process is meant to work, it’s not likely it’s going to work particularly well for you. See also: all of agile [GIGGLES].

Repeating cycle of fashionable goals #

So here’s another one. So when I was working Experian, essentially if you waited long enough, very very important goals that we must absolutely achieve would fall in and out of fashion on a reasonably frequent cycle. So you spend 2 or 3 months building up research and a business case and whatever was needed for this particular very important goal that suddenly was dropped on us by management. And then I’d noticed that when this things fell out of favour again, I’d just keep all my research to one side because in about 18 months it would probably pop up again. And so I’d just blow the dust off my research and hand it over to them again and say, well we’re literally just going round in a circle so here’s the same stuff again, nothing’s changed.

Flip-flopping management team #

So there’s that symptom of the senior management team always being fickle or having competing ideas for strategies, and so this is manifesting itself in terms of flip-flopping between “we must do this absolutely important thing”. And suddenly next month it’s, “Alright, we must do that different important thing,” and it flip-flops like that for a while.

The Cassandra Complex #

Another one, which is also known as the Cassandra Complex. So Cassandra was a prophet in ancient Greek myths that was never listened to by anyone despite being cursed to always speak the truth. And I think pretty much every product manager has a Cassandra complex [GIGGLES]. So if you’re not being listened to by the board yet when you offer your product strategy suddenly everyone’s got an opinion on how they would do it better. And it’s like okaaayyyy, maybe the person who’s actually done the research should maybe suggest what the product strategy should be, or maybe we’ll just do this by opinions and throw darts at a dart board instead [GIGGLES].

So this is another kind of symptom, possibly of dysfunction in the organisation, possibly an opportunity to improve your persuasiveness, but we’ll talk about that a little bit more in a minute.

Every Board member has their own spin #

And then the last one, which is kind of almost in-fighting in the board, in the senior management team, where essentially there is a stated set of goals and strategy, but every board member from each department is putting their own spin on it usually to minimise the amount of effort they need to put into it to achieve that goal, or to maximise how much their team will benefit from it. And I’ve seen this before as well. It’s a lot more obvious than I think the board would seem to realise is happened at the time, that this in-fighting is going on. But again, if you’ve got this lack of alignment at the board level, you’re never going to get any alignment down the rest of the organisation because it all becomes very partisan and quite difficult. So this isn’t a fun place to be either.

[LIZ] And replace the word ‘board’ with your exec.

[JOCK] Yeah, exec team, senior management team.

[LIZ] Your departments or whichever level or layer you’re dealing with that inconsistency.

Why are you in hell? #

[JOCK] Exactly. Exactly that. So why are you in hell? What we’ve been looking at are symptoms not actually causes of this stuff, okay? And so it’s very important that we actually look at the underlying causes because those are the things we have to fix.

No clear corporate goals or strategy #

One of the main reasons, and this is probably obvious, is that despite what’s being said, there isn’t actually any clear corporate strategy or goals. And this happens probably more often than we realise because it’s not that there is no stated document or there’s some big hand-wavy type statements on a wall somewhere in your office, it’s probably because it’s not specific enough or the objectives for the organisation are not well defined. So in other words they’re like how we want to be the market leader in something generic, which is unrealistic if nothing else, but probably more just too generic to actually do anything about.

[LIZ] It’s also that those are actually goals, targets, which are not strategy.

[JOCK] Exactly. So if the goals are like the target and a strategy is how you get the target, if the goals themselves are kind of fairly wishy-washy and indistinct, it’s very difficult to figure out how on earth you’re going to get there. There’s going to be no strategy. It’s like the best one is we’re going to increase market share by 50%. And our strategy for doing that is were going to increase market share by 50% – somehow. It’s kind of tricky to actually do that in any specific way because we’re just not being specific enough on what were trying to achieve. And we’ll look at an example later on of what a clear corporate strategy and set of goals can actually look like.

A lack of alignment #

So the obvious one again, a lack of alignment. If we’re seeing loads of people pulling in different directions or pushing their own view of what is the most important thing the company should doing now, there’s a lack of alignment. And it’s not to say that these different views about what is important and what the direction should be are incorrect, but you can’t do them all simultaneously, yeah? So the point here is that someone, somewhere in the organisation has to take a decision, saying we are going to do these things; we are not going to do these things right now, because the most important thing for us as organisation is to do this one or two things. And that’s why our strategy is to do these things now.

So this is, like, super-important and without that it’s impossible to align the senior management team, the board, the exec team, the departments down to the individual product teams, down to the individual delivery teams. You need this alignment be to actually be able to do anything with any degree of success.

[LIZ] You’ve got to say no to some stuff.

Bait-and-switch corporate strategy #

[JOCK] Absolutely! You need this filter. One that’s just straight-out dysfunctional is when you’ve got this bait-and-switch scenario going on where the actual corporate strategy is different from what they’re actually doing. So in other words, I did some work for a company that shall remain nameless, where their stated strategy was, or their goal was to encourage people to adopt healthier lifestyles. What was actually happening in terms of their business strategy was to risk-profile them to large health insurers for the health insurers to make or save money, whether or not they covered the people. So it was a slightly different set of objectives and a slightly different set of actions compared to what they were actually stating they were doing. So when you’ve got that situation, again you’re not going to get alignment, but also it’s just a little bit disingenuous I think to have that kind of discrepancy between what you’re saying you’re going to do and what you’re actually doing.

[JEN] You needed to attend our ethics session that we did a few months ago.

Right strategy, wrong timing #

[JOCK] Absolutely. So now we’re getting in to slightly more subtle ones. Possibly a good strategy, but the wrong one for now. And the reasons why that might come about are, well, one is looking with rose-tinted specs at something that worked really well for you in the past. And particularly, I guess, companies that had a successful product originally, and then are trying to do follow-up products to that, will look back and say, well, it worked for us then with that product, and then just replicate what they did without really thinking about the fact that the situation is different, what worked then doesn’t necessarily apply to what they doing now, because it’s a different problem, maybe different market. Then another one. which is a slightly different variation, which is where your boss has managed to get on a flight somewhere, and they’ve been reading the aeroplane magazine and they’ve been reading an editorial about a particular competito,r or a particular role model company that they’re really keen on. And the boss is thinking to himself, we should be doing that because then I’d be able to get an interview in an in-flight magazine as well. [GIGGLES]

So yeah. You’ve got to realise where this is coming from. And the other thing is, pretty fundamentally, if your strategy is to do stuff that won’t actually ever lead to the desired result then clearly it’s not going to the right strategy to do. So that’s one. And related to that is wrong measure of success.

Chasing vanity metrics such as NPS #

Your corporate strategy or your corporate goal should not be to increase your NPS. I’ll just put that out there. If you’re entire reason for being is the increase of your NPS, I would put you that you are probably not focusing on the right things. [GIGGLES] And whilst again I don’t want to go into a massive rant about NPS [net promoter score], NPS is an overly reductive metric. It’s reducing the complexity of reasons why people would or would not refer your product to other people into a single metric and it’s become basically a meaningless vanity metric. It doesn’t actually mean anything any more. Oh, our NPS score is plus nyuuh, it’s like, that’s nice, what does what does actually mean in practice? Does your product make my problem go away or not? I don’t really know.

[LIZ] Hold up a second, Jock! DK will chip in here with a whole rant. An excellent set of presentations on exactly that topic.

Setting the wrong incentives #

[JOCK] Absolutely. There are better measures of success. And tied to that is using the wrong incentives. If you’re asking people to aim for the wrong things and incentivising them to do the wrong things, don’t be surprised if you get the wrong result. So again, because Experian was just such a joyful experience for me, we had a business – our business unit in the Experian group had the lowest NPS score ever. It was ridiculous. We were getting verbatims back from the NPS survey, which was something like customers were saying, Sales are holding a gun to our heads to make us upgrade, which I thought was actually possibly true, I mean like literally – we had that kind of sales team. So there have been some slightly misguided sales incentives to improve the NPS scores. And so what Sales basically did was they bribed customers with discounts in return for better NPS scores in the survey. So nothing actually improved. The numbers went up and down but nothing actually changed. So just be a little bit careful about what you incentivise people to do and what you’re actually trying to achieve. We weren’t really supposed to be trying to improve NPS scores, we were supposed to be trying to improve customer satisfaction with us. And those two things are different. So that was the issue.

Set measures of success that are in your control #

But also, particularly at the moment, think about reevaluating what the measures of success are at the moment. Things like revenue and market share, they’re not really focused on human outcomes and they’re not really strictly speaking in your direct control. A strong new entrant in the market, or a competitor could cause both your revenue and market share to decline rapidly. Just look at Zoom, Tesla and Amazon at the moment, they’ve absolutely been boosted by the COVID-19 stuff. And you wouldn’t necessarily have been able to anticipate that particular effect. Whilst similarly other people have been really hammered, so the hospitality and leisure industry, entertainment industries, anything that involved people getting together in person has been hammered, so in those situations you’ve got to think what are the right things to be measuring? And revenue and market share probably again aren’t the right ones to be measuring because they’ll go up and down independently to an extent of what you’re actually doing.

[LIZ] I think it’s some of that part around, what’s the shiny, short-term metric? Versus what’s long-term, outcome driven, changes behaviour and actually shifts you into the space you want to be in. And the danger of some of those metrics as well, those measures, is that you make short-term trade-offs that aren’t sustainable. Rather than looking ahead, which is where we obviously – like, it juggles what we want to be playing for those longer-term outcomes and behaviour change.

Actionable metrics #

[JOCK] Absolutely. It’s an old-ish book now, but Alistair Croll’s Lean Analytics book is a really good one because, apart from giving good examples of the difference between – he talks about actionable metrics – in other words, what what would you actually do differently if this number goes up or down. If you can’t answer that question, then what’s the point in measuring it?

[LIZ] Why look at it?

[JOCK] Exactly, so that can be a good way of filtering. But also, again, we were talking a bit about it earlier about not having hundreds of different metrics to measure, and trying to keep track of 100 different things at once. What are the one or two or maybe three North Star metrics that you absolutely need to focus on right now for this quarter. And next quarter, focus on some different ones. I’m not saying for a moment that the operational stuff, like uptime or conversion rates and stuff, aren’t things you can be measuring in the background, but you don’t need to be focusing all your attention on all of them at the same time. If your main goal in this quarter is to make sure that more people are converting to paid-for accounts then that’s the one you focus on and you focus your attention and experimentation on moving that metric. What you don’t worry about is all the other 15 things that you could be measuring or focusing on and maybe leave those for a different situation.

[LIZ] They’re just distracting when you want to get high. [GIGGLES]

[JEN] I just remembered I did some consulting a few years ago and they showed me the spreadsheet of what they were tracking and it was seriously like probably over 100 metrics. And I was like, first of all, how long does it actually take you to pull that together every month. And secondly, what are you doing with any of it?

[JOCK] Why have you not made all of these metrics better every month! [GIGGLES]

[JEN] Exactly.

[JOCK] So a bit of focus that’s tied to your strategy. if you know what it is you’re trying to achieve this quarter, you know what the main metrics are that will check whether you’ve done it or not. So you focus on them and don’t worry about the rest. And then you’re reevaluating we you’re looking at next quarter.

Afraid to talk to users and customers #

So next one. So this is the last major cause. And it’s really is the root of things I think for me, which is if there is a fear in the organisation of speaking to users and customers in a way that doesn’t result in more revenue or that potentially jeopardises sales, then you’re going to have a problem figuring out what are the underlying problems you trying to solve for your users, where are the opportunities you can move into with new market moves, all that kind of stuff.

Why is the dog so grumpy? #

And in some organisations if they’re coming from a particularly bad place, this is understandable. If every time you pet a dog it bites you, you don’t want to pet the dog any more. But you should probably be asking why is the dog so grumpy? And I think, in the same way, if your customers are continually telling you they think you’re awful but they’re still your customers then they probably have a reason to stick around. So you should probably do a bit more to get through the grumpiness and actually understand why they’re annoyed with you, what’s the underlying reason for their annoyance and do something about it, because they’re still willing enough to give you feedback even if it’s not necessarily what you want to hear.

[LIZ] This fascinates me as well that there’s that moment too, where you share that bad feedback and someone’s like, this isn’t a customer we want. The people who like what we do just aren’t saying anything. But there’s lots and lots of excuses as well around even if you can get to that user feedback and you can see what that is. It comes across on many avenues, not just if you’re seeking it out. But that willingness to be like, these were not the ones we want to focus on and ignore it and not think it’s fixable, it’s just – it’s a fascinating systemic space to be in and I look forward to your suggestions of how to get around it when people really, really struggle to take it on. The lack of optimism about fixing it is challenging.

[JOCK] The short answer is that you can be a filter, you – your user researchers if you have any – can act as a filter for this and take the emotion out of it a little bit, and read between the lines and see what the underlying trends are.

I mean, personally I found conversations with slightly annoyed customers more valuable than conversations with customers who liked our stuff, simply because once you’d got over the point saying, look I appreciate you’re annoyed. I can’t fix it literally on this call, but the reason I’m talking to you is because I want to understand where it’s coming from and how we can better do something about it. And just being honest and saying, look I can’t promise we can fix it, but I’ll certainly listen and I’ll try to figure out what the best way getting around this is. And frankly at that point you say to them, if it’s not working for you then there are other products. It’s not the most political thing in the world to say, but if you’re genuinely trying to solve your user problems and their problem is better solved with someone else’s product, I would tell them to use it. Because I’d rather have them solving their problem than being annoyed with something our product doesn’t do yet.

[LIZ] Agree to part ways healthily, rather than when they’ve totally table-flipped and they’re telling the whole world.

[JOCK] Exactly! But the feedback I get from grumpy customers was 10 times more useful for pointing out we need to be doing and what we should be doing better than any number of conversations with happy customers. “It’s great – we love you!” Thanks! We take your love, thank you.

[LIZ] So how do we solve these things?

How do we get out of product management hell? #

[JOCK] Yeah, so how do we get out of hell? So, doing something about it. [GIGGLES] Let’s take an example. We said we were going to have a look at what a clear corporate strategy actually looks like. And I appreciate he’s a divisive character but your man Elon Musk does have some clarity of vision sometimes.

A clear corporate strategy from Tesla #

So back in 2006, on his blog, on the Tesla blog back when he introduced himself as the CEO SpaceX that happened to build cars on the side, his strategy, his super-secret master plan, which he published on his blog was:

  1. Build a sports car
  2. Use that money to build an affordable car
  3. Use that money to build an even more affordable car

And then while doing all those things, provide zero-emission electric power generation options, okay? And that was the strategy. And you could see how that’s spinning out a few different product strategies, and you can see that it’s clearly straightforward but not easy to achieve. But it’s pretty easy to understand, which is kind of what we’re going for.

Now this is interesting because actually 10 years later, pretty much exactly, he came back with another post because basically they’d done that strategy and now they needed a new one. So 10 years on, he said this is what we’re doing next. And yeah, it’s a bit less punchy than the first plan and again you can see how different product strategies are going to cascade down and align with the overall corporate strategy to flesh out the details. So you probably have one team on the solar roofs, you’d have one team on each of the different electric vehicles and then presumably you’d have the AI teamwork and self-driving capability and so on and so forth. And then there’s the whole other one, which is enable your car to make money for you when you’re not using it. I mean, talk about an open brief. But at least you know whether you’ve been successful. These are simple to understand. Pretty vague, quite difficult to achieve but it’s going to keep them busy probably for the next 10 years. So we can check back in 2026 and see whether they’ve done these things.

But that’s what your corporate goals and corporate strategy should look like. So what can you actually do? So bearing in mind we are not running these organisations. We’re not the the top-level decision makers in an organisation. We can’t just magically wave our wand and fix all this stuff. What are the practical things we can actually do about this when corporate strategy’s basically done a runner.

Calling out lack of alignment #

I would like to remind everyone about my Golden Rule which is try not to actually follow any of my advice – it’s usually terrible. So with that in mind…

[LIZ] Do not try this at home! [LAUGHS]

[JOCK] You could call it out and it really depends on your status in an organisation, your relationship with the senior management team, the exec, the board, whoever, the MD, the owner, the founders. It really depends. If you’ve got the kind of relationship where basically the founder is somebody you went to school with or something like that and he brought you in or she brought you in as the head of product, then you should probably be able to go up to them and say, look – what on earth is going on. Can we sort this out somehow? If you’ve just joined an organisation, you’re two weeks in, this is probably not the time to go knocking on the on the door of the MD. But fundamentally if you have that relationship and if you have the situation where you could get away with saying this, maybe diplomatically highlight the fact that there are differences, but also maybe suggest some ways in which things could be aligned better.

And it’s not impossible, and I am coaching a guy who’s essentially been doing this and making some decent headway and all I’m saying is, don’t discount it as a possibility, snark aside. You’d be surprised what an honest conversation can get you, but use your awareness and your understanding of the relationships and the kind of characters that you’ve got in your senior team to decide whether or not this is a politically sensible thing to do. So I’ll leave that one with you.

[LIZ] Sorry, we’re just laughing at the chat, Jock, because there’s a little bit of the “Mmmm-hmmm – maybe not me!”

[JOCK] Maybe not. As I said, maybe not for everyone, not for everyone. So what can we do then? So okay, we’re product managers, we’re all about influence rather than authority, so let’s try and influence upwards with our own product strategy. So the kind of things were going to try and do is, make it easy for them to adopt your strategy and apply it more broadly to the organisation. So let me give you an example.

How to influence corporate strategy with product strategy #

A friend of mine, who was also at Experian managed to build a cloud platform from scratch, okay? And he started off in the beginning. He was fighting to convince the powers that be that there was value in working in the cloud. And this was back in 2006, so whilst not necessarily right at the cutting edge of when cloud products started to become available, certainly was it was relatively forward-looking. And bearing in mind this company still acted like the internet didn’t exist in 2010, so you can understand why he was having a bit of an uphill battle. But now, and again I guess this is probably not going to be everyone’s ideal cup of tea, but after 9 years – because he has the patience of a saint – his cloud platform had made them over 100 million dollars in revenue, and bearing in mind he literally started from zero. And suddenly all of the corporate strategy was about the cloud. And you can see how this realisation came about: “Huh! Maybe maybe there’s something in this internet.” It gradually dawned on the on the senior exec team.

So it is possible to influence through good execution of your own product strategy, but obviously – bearing in mind that this guy was going against the grain and was having to forge his own path – so I don’t necessarily say it’s any easier to take this route, but it’s at least it’s more in your control. At least it’s more all about your ability to define a product strategy for your products and to execute that strategy really well. And fundamentally if you know that’s basically very well aligned with what we’re supposed to be doing as product managers anyway, so this seems to be the most sensible way of doing it.

Create your product strategy before someone else does it for you #

And related to that is making sure that we’re the ones creating our own product strategy before someone does it for you. If we’re not clear and definitive about what we’re trying to do with our products and why, ideally with evidence and data to back up our views, then we suddenly start to fall prey to tinkering by people who maybe have a superficial understanding of your product, your market, your customers and just saying, ”Oh – why don’t we do that?” Because J. Random Competitor happens to be doing that, but they’re in a completely different scenario with different market forces, and so on and so forth. So in other words, make sure you’re the one crafting your product strategy because you don’t want to be falling victim to having other people doing it for you.

[LIZ] Yeah, totally. And I think to your point around the way of sequences is I think if you do want to have some credibility for talking to issues in the corporate strategy or the lack of clarity at that level, it helps to show what you produce and talk from that knowledge bases about expertise about the customer and anyway, I won’t jump ahead, Jock.

Knowledge is power is user research #

[JOCK] Absolutely, because – to what Liz is saying – knowledge is power. And so we need to make sure that we have all the information we need to-hand, to be able to get across our points as well as we can. So fundamental, fundamental, fundamental to all of this is essentially user research, right? We need to understand the evidence, the data, the quotes, the video interviews, all of these things that we’re going to need to convince even the most stubborn of board members,or senior managers, or whoever it might that’s giving the yes or no to our strategy.

And user research is one of those things where it can almost be a bit intimidating if you’re either doing it completely by yourself, or you’re in an environment where it’s just not been done very much. So you’ve got to bite the bullet and dive in. But actually every single time people do it, they suddenly realise, oh this isn’t so bad after all. This is super interesting and, even after just a few conversations with people, they’re suddenly learning things and gaining insights that they’d never have guessed in a million years if they hadn’t actually had this conversation. So I can’t stress enough how valuable and important this is.

And it’s not something you just do as a one-off, this is something you’re going to be doing on an iterative basis basically to answer whatever questions you have as you go along this process of either taking existing product to the next level, or starting a new product entirely, or moving into new markets, or whatever it might be. You’re always going to have questions, you’re always going to need to keep answering them. So user research is something that’s bubbling along in the background all the time.

All the user research techniques #

Now Nielsen Norman Group, you’re probably – you might have heard of Jakob Nielsen did a lot of stuff about how you only need to test with 5 people in usability testing, and things like that. They do a lot of interesting stuff. Now this slightly intimidating graph of all the possible techniques you can use in user research isn’t meant to scare you off. I want to draw out a couple of things from it. So first of all, top to bottom, techniques that tends to focus more on what people do as opposed to things towards the bottom which focus on what people say.

What people do versus what people say they do #

And so it’s interesting to bear in mind or it is very useful to bear in mind that different techniques will tend to be biased towards uncovering what people do, as opposed to what people say they do, which can be different. And if you want a good example of that, they did a survey – and this is like even more horrendous given the situation we’re currently in – but there’s a situation where there is a survey about whether people wash their hands after going to the loo in motorway services in the UK. And 80% of people are saying yeah, yeah of course I washed my hands, kind of thing, course I did. But in practice because they actually had cameras checking, there was like 20% were actually washing their hands, which is horrific. So what people say and do have a massive – can have a massive difference. Because what people say they do is all about, am I fitting in with the herd, am I fitting in with what is the social norm for this particular thing. So there’s an element of trying to balance that with what we’re doing.

So for example, we can’t ask people what they want a product to do because they’re not entirely going to be the best people to answer that question. They don’t know. Whereas if we can see what they’re doing and where they’re struggling then we can read between the lines from that and we can determine what are the main problems we’re supposed to be solving. So that’s the first big difference, top-down – top to bottom axis is ‘what people do’ techniques versus ‘finding out what people say’ techniques.

Direct versus indirect user research techniques #

Then the other one is left to right so you’ve got more qualitative techniques on the left versus more quantitative techniques on the right. So qualitative – and the reason why I want to bring this up because this was a really interesting nugget of insight that I hadn’t really ever noticed before, which was – qualitative techniques, so things like conversations, ethnographic field studies, doing usability testing in person, these are ways of gathering feedback from users in person. You’re actually sitting in the room with them or maybe remotely on the end of a video call, but you’re face to face with people. You’re actually gathering the information directly from them.

Whereas when you look at quantitative stuff, there’s probably, like, an analytics tool or a survey in between you and the end-users, the people your surveying. So you can describe qualitative techniques as been direct to the person and quantitative ones as usually being indirect, because you’re measuring stuff that they’re doing, as opposed to observing what they’re actually doing. And that’s kind of an important distinction, because when you’re deciding which are the right techniques to be using at different times you need to think about the kind of feedback you need to get.

The right user research technique to use #

So for example, if you’re in discovery, so researching a concept for a new product, you need to figure out what the problems are, for which people, whether they matter are not. Using a survey at that point is the wrong technique because it’s indirect. It’s too quantitative and your questions have too broad. So you need to be focusing on more qualitative techniques, like in-person conversations, interview,s that kind of thing. Whereas later on, when you’ve actually got some validation, some experiments you want to run, maybe some alternative designs you want to test, then absolutely you can start using more quantitative techniques to really run the numbers and figure out which of these options is better. But you can’t dive into those too early if your questions are too broad.

Doing an A/B test when you’re trying to figure out whether to do one product for dog walkers versus another product for ice cream makers [GIGGLES] is a little bit too broad and I don’t think you’ll necessarily get a good result from that. So it’s all about picking the right techniques for the right situation. But also really understanding what kinds of information you can get back from these techniques. And so I wanted to make sure, to point you in the direction of this chart just so you could look at the range of stuff and really start to pick and choose what makes more sense to you in your particular situation.

[LIZ] And I think in terms of strategy, and I think maybe you might mention this, but it’s also this deep insight into the customer just shifts the conversation when you’ve got quotes and verbatims, and you can talk to those direct experiences. And then…

[JOCK] Absolutely!

Qualitative research feeds into quantitative, and so on #

[LIZ] … there’s definitely some choices around – now I’ve got to get my quals and my quants around the right way – but your quantitative data starts to back that up at size. And that’s where you’ve got to find that balance for strategic conversations, and talking to certain levels of the organisation. Where they need to – their flaw is that they’re probably biased towards that, but that’s where you’ve got to play that game in presenting that.

[JOCK] Absolutely. And the thing is as well, we’re not just going to be using one set of techniques over another. We’re not going just to be doing either qualitative or quantitative. You need to have a combination of the two. Because your qual stuff is going to be asking, why and what do we need to do to fix it. Your quantitative stuff is going to be asking how many and how much. What will happen is that one will feed into the other. So one will prompt questions that need to be answered by the other type of questions. So you see some weird stuff happening in your analytics platform. You see conversion rates dropping off a cliff. Why is that happening? Well, you’re not going to get the why question from quant, you need to go back to your qual research and have a chat with people to figure out why is the conversion rate dropping off. And then you might say, oh well now I’ve got some ideas about how I can fix that, so I’ll try some new experiments and maybe we can A/B test them, and guess what, we’re back into quantitative testing again.

So we’re feeding qual into quant into qual into quant, and it’s just kind of a repeating cycle of what’s happening, why is it happening, what’s happening, why is it happening, okay?

[LIZ] Yup, yup. Beautiful. Just to check in, Jock. We’re at 7:30 so 15 minutes, maybe? So we can have time for questions.

[JOCK] Absolutely. I think we’re well on track, don’t worry.

[LIZ] Awesome!

Timescales for product strategy #

[JOCK] Good! So thinking about, then, timescales for our product strategy and so on. So if we think back to the Tesla Motors example, their product vision was probably about 10 years to execute. And as a vague rule of thumb that’s probably about right. We want something that’s sufficiently hard to achieve that we can’t do it next year, but we don’t want something that is so difficult to achieve that we’ll never get there. So we’re kind of looking about sort of 10 years from now, where do you want to be with our products in about 10 years’ time.

The strategy is essentially going to be looking at the the first chunk of that, the first few years of that. Because trying to plan too far ahead, well, things may have changed. We don’t want to necessarily be investing too much effort in the exact plan we’re going to try and have in 9 years’ time because, well, who knows? But for a product strategy there’s probably a series of things we need to do that will take a little while to get there, so we need to have at least a high-level plan for what we’re going to be doing for the next few years. So again looking back at the Tesla example: build a sports car. Well, to be honest from inception through to delivery and maybe reasonable sales of that thing, yeah, probably about 3 years to get to that point. Similarly with your own product, if you look at most startups it takes them 3 years before they have any kind of tangible user base anyway. So having that kind of timescale for your product strategy is about right. And of course you can have several product strategies potentially on the go if you have multiple products in your portfolio.

Annual plan #

So then you’ve got your annual plan, which as the name suggests is what you’re going to do this year, and your product roadmap should be probably covering the more detailed steps to get you to the objectives for the year, so again about 6-12 months. And again all of these things, the details going to change, and as you get down to the finer detailed things, the shorter timescale aspects of this, then those are probably going to change more frequently.

Objectives and key results (OKRs) #

So if we look at, then, our OKRs or our objectives and key results, we probably do these on a quarterly basis, so these are the things you want to achieve at the end of 3 months. And again they’re going to be a bit more specific, they’re going to be smaller in scope – we’re trying to move the needle on whatever the metrics that matter most to us this quarter are going to be.

Roadmap versus release plan #

And then, just for context, because often there’s a conversation about what’s a roadmap versus what’s a release plan: your release plan is very short in timescale. So whereas your roadmap is: we think at the moment these are the steps we need to take with our products, but they may change; the release plan is essentially the thing that your sales teams, your marketing teams, your senior management teams probably want to see because it’s the most tangible, confirmed set of things that your product’s actually going to release in a relatively short timescale. So you can’t have that going necessarily too far into the future, because again you don’t necessarily know things may change, but you do want to be able to give people a heads-up so that they can plan their marketing, and they can plan their sales approaches, and so on and so forth. Or indeed your customers can plan ahead if they need to prepare for upgrades or release windows and that kind of thing. Okay?

But again don’t take these timescales as absolutes. They’re absolutely variable.

[LIZ] Nice one. Do not use this at home. [LAUGHS]

The product vision #

[JOCK] So the next thing, when thinking about our product strategy, is we need to have a vision. We need to know what that 10-year goal, that really hard-to-achieve goal is, because this is fundamental. Without a decent product vision that people are going to care about, it’s gonna be very difficult to align people. And remember, one of the fundamental problems that we’re trying to solve is a lack of alignment, so we need to start by making sure that, at the very least, our own product team, our own delivery team is aligned to a vision for the product that they care about. This is going to be the thing that’s going to motivate them to get out of bed and do that work when maybe they can’t be bothered, or to maybe spend a little bit extra time in the evening to get something done if there’s a big release coming up, or whatever else. But we need something that they’re going to care about, so it’s going to be a human outcome. It’s got to be something that’s – the people aren’t going to get out of bed for “we want to be number one toilet roll maker in the world”, yeah? They’re going to be motivated by “we’re going to try and make people’s lives just that little bit better” even if our product is something like – I don’t know what – expense management or it’s an HR system or a procurement system. If you can make Bob or Jenny or whoever’s life just that little bit less painful by making your system easier for them to achieve their particular goals with, then you can take that with you and a feel little bit of a sense of warmth and pride in what you’ve achieved with your product. So we really need something that people are going to care about.

“So what?” #

And it’s deliberately out of reach, it’s deliberately far off, because if it’s not far enough away, we’ll just fly past it and suddenly we’ll be directionless again. So we need to have something reasonably far off in the distance that we can align to. And the way to get that product vision can be difficult. So my view is to keep saying “so what, so what” and just be absolutely cynical about it. So if you say we want to do this for this reason, well so what? Who cares? Why is anyone going to be bothered about this? And if you keep asking this question over and over until it basically becomes unnecessary to ask it any further. So for example if you’re Volvo cars their product vision is: no one should be seriously injured or killed in a new Volvo car. You’re kind of thinking, well yeah, that’s kind of a good vision. I can’t really see any reason why we’d want to say so what to that anymore because it’s kind of self-evident why this is a good thing. So if you can get to something similar for your product vision, it may not necessarily be as dramatic, but you do need to get to the point where it’s self-evident that it’s a good idea to be doing this.

So that’s our product vision. Then our product strategy is going to be the really big steps – remember, we’re talking like a 3-year timescale – the product strategy is going to be the really big steps that we need to do to get to that particular vision, to get to that particular goal. So if you remember the Tesla cars, it was: build a sports car; build an affordable car with the money from the sports car; then build an even more affordable car from that; and do solar power generation options. So those are big, big steps that each and of themselves will probably get you towards the vision for the product. And that basically is the starting point for your product strategy.

Align product strategy with corporate strategy #

Of course we then need to adjust it because we do need to make sure that we ourselves are aligning with the corporate strategy, if there is one, or even if it’s something generic like “increase revenue”, “expand into new markets”, “increase market share”, whatever, the point being is we still should be able to relate back to that and say how is our product strategy going to get us closer to what the organisation is trying to achieve in broader terms.

[LIZ] And I think figuring out a way to draw the string to that is part of that responsibility and I don’t think it’s as terrible – I think there’s moments where it might feel disingenuous. So if it feels like that, I think that’s a tricky balance, but I think it’s always – I don’t know, I’m an optimist – there is always a way when you’ve got this kind of thing solidly there, it will meet – it will help us with those. It’s just that they’re lagging indicators most of the time so just being aware of that is I think a helpful way. We can do this. They are connected. Then you have all the detail you were talking about that will help remember in the day-to-day how to have meaning and purpose.

[JOCK] Exactly. And ultimately you’re going to be pitching this product strategy to other people and if you can’t necessarily show that it is aligned, and going to be helping with the corporate strategy, it’s been very difficult to get the okay for that you can’t just forge an entirely different direction by yourself. So it is important to start off aligned and then again maybe do little incremental nudges to take us in a slightly different direction once you’ve demonstrated a bit of success perhaps. But to start with, make sure you can make the case to say this is how we can help the company achieve it’s goals by achieving these things with our products.

Which product strategy to use? #

The choice of product strategy. We said that one of the causes of our problems of being in hell was that we’re not using the right strategy for what we’re trying to achieve right now. And this was something that’s just I loved. There’s a great article on the Reforge blog. If you search for the title of the blog entry, which is: “Product work beyond product-market fit”, the article should come up. It’s absolutely fantastic. And so they provide – that article provided the stuff you do after you’ve achieved product-market fit, and so what I’ve added is what you do before you achieve product-market fit.

So if you start off in the big yellow question box. Essentially, have you achieved product-market fit with your product. And you’d be surprised how often the answer is no, even if your product has been around for a while, so often the exercise is – your strategy is: find product-market fit. And so what you going to be doing is to do product discovery to figure out what the product needs to be and for which people. And then figuring out with your business model is going to be that’s going to work and actually make you money. So you’re going to be doing product discovery and customer discovery, and that means you’re going to be primarily doing feature experiments and design work and prototyping, or you’re going to be doing business model experiments to figure out what people are actually going to pay for what they value.

Beyond product-market fit #

Now if you have achieved product-market fit, fantastic! Then you’ve probably got one of these four different strategies to work with. You can be thinking about increasing value with your existing product. So in other words, solving more problems, which then might result in adding more features, but not necessarily. You can think about growing your user base. So in other words, how do you bring – attract more people to you in the first place. This could be a marketing type of focus. It could be a conversion-type focus. Those are things you can do, again with your existing product.

You can be thinking internally. You can think about how can we accelerate and scale our organisation. So particularly if you’ve been running for a while, there will be operational bottlenecks and that means you can look at the pipeline of you taking your product from development to release, you can look at the pipelines of how your customers find you and interact with you, and how you win them as customers. You can look at the post-sale pipeline. What do customers – how do customers interact with you, what are the typical steps they have to go through. And you can almost do like a customer journey mapping exercise. You can look at the pain points, you can look at the bottlenecks, you can look at the the aspects of the process that are a bit more stressy.

But even just things like your continuous release pipeline. Your development team could say, well, this step isn’t automated yet, but it really should be. We haven’t got unit tests for everything, or we haven’t got automated regression testing. These are all bottlenecks that you could be looking to identify and do something about it. Because ultimately that will reduce the time, effort, cost of business-as-usual stuff, which means you can be more efficient, which means you’ve got more time to move more quickly. And actually having that as a stated strategy, even for a short-ish period of time, can be super-valuable, because it basically means you’re saying, “we’re going to prioritise this type of work,” rather than always be 100-percent relentlessly focused on generating revenue, yeah? So this is a really important one to remember.

And then the fourth one, the expand and diversify is essentially starting the process again in a new market. So actually what we really want to do is go and restart and find product-market fit in this new market, or with this new product. So you go back to the product-market fit, find product-market fit, and then you work on different strategies as you need to for there.

But I think as a way of just crystallising what are the different product strategies I can have for my product, this pretty much sums up all you need to know. Yes, there are going to be combinations or hybrids, but broadly speaking you’re going to be in one of these modes at any given time, and you should be constructing your short-ish term product strategy around one or more of these particular approaches.

[LIZ] Very nice. Alright – time. [LAUGHS]

Keep what works, discard what doesn’t #

[JOCK] So let’s just go through very, very quickly then. So experiments – going to be doing a lot of those. Keep the ideas that look like they work, and discard the ones that don’t. Essentially we’re picking the winners so we can drive efficiency.

Pre-brief Board members #

And then last of all we want to be convincing the board. So one thing that’s really, really important is to understand the key concerns and motivations of each board member. We need to understand what’s making them tick, what they’re worried about, whether they talk about it or not, what’s essentially going to make them look good, what’s going to make their lives easier, and use that as a way to prove what’s important to them. Now one way to get around this is possibly to pre-brief them in person, if you can. So in other words, before you go and present your product strategy, try and have an informal chat over a coffee with the individual members of the board, so that you can get across the things that matter most to them and kind of tweak the story for each of them individually. So that when you then do stand up in front of the whole team, each will remember what you said before and remember that you’re trying to satisfy their need, it’s in their interests and so hopefully they’ll come to consensus, okay?

So hopefully if you get the board to agree your product strategy this may in turn influence their corporate strategy.

[LIZ] And I think, just before you sum it all up, Jock, just on that one. It’s okay if you can’t get to meet with each of those individuals. I think sometimes it’s useful to use a stereotype or a generalisation. So I think if my exec is the CFO and a CTO and your CEO, they’re certainly in a domain with some generalise approaches they’re going to worry about. Numbers, they’re going to worry about knowing your schedule. If you can’t get to the individual conversations to confirm that, you could start with some gentle assumptions and then try and play some check-ins when you’re actually presenting it, or you’re sending it through.

Convince different people in different ways #

[JOCK] Absolutely. And I think there’s there’s a whole thing about understanding what type of person you’re trying to convince and influence. And some people need the detail so again to be a little bit kind of generalist – to general slightly – if you’re trying to get across a particular course of action to a development team, they’ll probably want to understand the details, they’ll want to understand the edge cases, they’ll want to get into the nuts and bolts of it. Whereas somebody, say, like your MD might be more of a big picture kind of person and so they won’t necessarily want the details, they’ll want the headlines, they’ll want to know the bits they’re going to remember, as it were. So almost tailoring how you pitch your product strategy to how you know the individuals will be, is again a way to increase the chances of success of actually influencing them.

[LIZ] Nice. Alright. Summary and then questions.

Recap #

[JOCK] Okay! So when we have a lack of direction, no alignment and absent corporate strategy, these are the indications that we are in product management hell. To get ourselves out of product management hell, first fundamentally we need to research our users’ needs. We need to keep doing that throughout the entire process and answer the questions that come up as we go along. We need to craft a compelling product vision, so that people care about getting there, and the strategy that will get us to that point. We need to make sure that our own team is is aligned, and that we execute the strategy as best as we can. And hopefully once we’ve got some success and our belts, we will be able to use that to influence the corporate strategy – if we’re lucky.

So there’s your “get of hell free” card. Thank you very much! And, questions.

Questions #

[LIZ] Yeah, I’ve got some questions. So, actually this is a good one that’s come up to the top. How do we make sure we aren’t accidentally passing the hell on to everyone downstream of us?

[JOCK] So what do you mean by that?

[LIZ] They’re anonymous, but let’s just say, how do I keep a smile on my face when it’s driving me insane that no one listens to me and I’m having a Cassandra moment? I’m just interpreting from Mr … Mrs … uh, anonymous.

How do we avoid being the cause of the hell? #

[STEVE] It was actually Mr Anonymous. So often, these corporate strategy people at the top, they don’t know that they’re causing a problem. They think everything is fine! And so how do we know we’re not in that same rut of believing that we’ve got all our strategy under control? How do we make sure we’re not creating chaos down the line?

[JOCK] Haha! Well, I think the short answer is [by] using measures of success, evidence, actual research to prove to ourselves whether or not we’re on track. So yeah, actually our brains are wired up to fool us, okay? So we’ve got the fast system, if you’ve read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, we’ve got the fast system that likes jumping to conclusions from very little data. And that’s great if you trying to avoid the tiger hiding in the grass, less good if you’re trying to form product strategy. You’ve also got then a slow, analytical system that actually assesses the evidence and the data, and forms a sensible decision on that.

So we’ve got to use evidence, we got use experiments, we’ve got to assume that everything we think is a guess until proven otherwise. And so that’s why we use experimentation and validation to keep ourselves honest, and to make sure they were not just doing, creating hand-wavy crazy stuff, and basically making it people’s problem further down the line. So if you can prove to yourself through evidence that: a) this is a good idea, and b) that you’re having some success in making that good idea, then you can be reasonably safe that it’s a sensible thing to do. If you’re not doing any research, you’re not doing any validation, if you’re not doing any experimentation, then yeah, you’re part of the problem. [LAUGHS]

[STEVE] Yeah, I like to think I actually if people downstream are having a problem, they should actually be raising it like in the same way that we should be raising it, and trying to wrangle that. But yeah, I’m just …

[JOCK] Well go and have chats – if you can help the people who are having a problem regardless of where they are in the organisation, then that’s absolutely something you can say, well maybe if we do this then that will hopefully solve both my problem and yours. Then great! You’ve got some more supporters so you know, have a think. But yeah it may be that you can’t solve everyone’s problems for them, you can’t fix the highly dysfunctional organisation single-handedly. But where it makes sense and it’s appropriate for you to help, or what you’ll be doing anyway will be of assistance to them, absolutely reach out and help. But yeah, just be conscious of: are you neutral, or are you contributing to the problem, or are you helping to solve the problem, and at the very least you need to be neutral!

How do you know if you’ve achieved product-market fit? #

[LIZ] Definitely a challenge to prove to other people they’re stuck in their modes. So then, the next question what do you look for to determine if product-market fits has been achieved? Is a common reason for a miss here that you’re reading the signals incorrectly?

[JOCK] So the best way of describing what product-market fit looks like is: does anyone remember what it was like when the first iPhone came out? And compared to like mobile phones at the time, which all had 1500 buttons, which were so small you needed a pinhead to push them, and they had little tiny screens that maybe if you were lucky could play snake in colour. And then suddenly the iPhone came out, which had like a huge touchscreen, big friendly icons, and basically which allowed you to surf the internet in a reasonably efficient way on your smartphone. The difference in use case, or the difference in experience was massive and dramatic, and most importantly you knew that the Apple iPhone had achieved product-market fit because when everyone looked at the iPhone and then looked back at their own phone, they just went, “I can’t I can’t live my life using this phone anymore! I need to get an iPhone. I can’t live my life knowing that there is this product out there that solves my problem far better, and not use it.”

So in the same way with your own products, if you can put in front of someone and it solves the problems they have in their particular niche better than anything they’ve seen before, they’ll be pulling it out your hands. You’ll know you’ve reached at that point. And getting to product-market fit is difficult, because you’ve got to invest a lot of time and effort researching and prototyping and validating your prototypes, and trying different things and keeping the things that work and discarding the things that don’t. But you’ll know you’ve got there when your customers are in the usability test saying, “When can I have this? Can I have this now? If I give you money, will you give me a copy now, because this is a million times better than anything I’ve got right now.” That’s what product-market fit looks like.

How often should your product strategy change? #

[LIZ] It’s so much fun! But it’s really tough, guys, there’s millions and millions of products out there and it’s a struggle, so [inaudible] trust you’ll get that message back from your customers. In that sense, Jock, strategies that change every year. I think I can guess what your thoughts are about this question.

[JOCK] Umm. It kind of depends, right? Which I know is the generic product manager get-out answer for everything. If you’re in a really, really, really, really fast-paced, fast-changing market you probably do want to change your strategy more frequently. If however you’re in something that is more slow-moving, more traditional then you can afford to have a strategy that looks out a bit further. There’s nothing stopping you from changing your strategy. In fact, if something unexpected comes along like, for example the whole world goes into lockdown, then yeah funnily enough, you probably need to change the approach you’re taking and maybe try not to keep pushing the face-to-face conferences and maybe go for virtual conferences instead, you know. But that’s not changing your vision, that’s not changing the far-off North Star that you’re trying to align to, you’re just changing the route you’re going to take to get there.

And so yeah, you can alter your strategy if all the evidence, all the information is telling you that you’re basically missing a trick and you should be doing something slightly different. But that’s not to say you’re just arbitrarily chopping and changing just because you felt like it that afternoon. It’s more about spending long enough on something to make a decent go of it, but being receptive enough to the circumstances in the market changes to be able to alter it if you need to. Basically the longer a time horizon you have, the less it changes. That’s why you can change a roadmap with relative frequency, that’s why you can change what’s in the next sprint really easily, but it’s also the reason why you shouldn’t be changing your product strategy or your product vision that often.

[LIZ] And I think the other one that I try and recommend to people too is around whatever you use to draw your insights from, to format strategy and inform where you’re at, is making sure that information is being – and I’m going to follow into a question with you on this one – is where you’re checking in on that, because if new data or new input is telling you that’s no longer the right conclusion or right direction to draw from that information, it’s time to refresh, review,update the strategy. So you just need to be clear on what those assumptions are, all those deductions that you’re basing on those as well, I think. I think we should get back cos we’re just gonna plan. If it’s a plan without purpose then you going to get that weird disconnect.

[JOCK] And also, if you’re trying to do something and you’re just not getting the success, you’re getting nowhere near your success measures, you have to ask the question: is it because I’m looking, we’re chasing after the wrong thing, you know? Finding product-market fit is a great example of that. It’s not – if people just lukewarm to your idea, it’s probably not that big a problem or it’s probably not that good a solution. It’s one of those two things. So being open to changing your approach, particularly early on, until you find something actually does matter, that’s important, that people value is super-important and then what small changes in approach later on as well.

Is a quarter long enough to change strategy? #

[LIZ] So in that sense, one of the questions that came up earlier when you were talking about OKRs and quarterly timing, but I think it links in just nicely to that point for the moment, is that. Then again you talked about roadmaps can change a bit more frequently, that the release plan needs to be more certain for various reasons. OKRs and changing measures quarterly, how do you decide to it’s time to change the measure. And is a quarter actually enough to make that call?

[JOCK] It depends again on what you’re trying to achieve. If you’re trying to spend, like, a dedicated amount of time really fixing conversion, for example, conversion rates, then you might want to have maybe two consecutive sets of OKRs focused on conversion. Because your first 3-month set might get you to a certain point, and you say that’s great, we made some good progress. What we really want to try and do is move that from 50 to 80% conversion so can we spend another 3 months with this as our main focus, and see if we get there. Because the whole point of the objectives and key results is not just whether or not you hit the target or not, but if not why not and what can you learn to do something with something from that next time. But essentially your OKRs are providing you with that slightly – that focus on what is the most important thing we need to be focusing on right now. And whether it’s acquisition of new users, or whether it’s conversion of those existing users into paying ones, or whether it’s reducing your bug counts, or whether it’s increasing customer satisfaction, or whether it’s making your products ship more quickly. 3 months gives you a reasonable chunk of time to actually make some headway in making that change, and that’s why I think why the 3-month period is quite a nice one for actually the smaller experiments that you can spend a few different sprints on maybe to actually get something to happen.

How do you say “so what?” to your CEO? #

[LIZ] And if your key results are clear, I think that will also inform whether you should stick to it, change. If you’ve hit the target right out of the park, maybe it’s time to adjust. So one last question! Exactly – one last question then we’ll wrap. There are a couple of questions left but I think we can ask them in the chat or directly for those. So just to have people feel like they can politely leave as it’s time to wrap. But I did like, “Is the ‘so what’ question – is that the new ‘why’?” How do you tell a CEO appropriately “so what”?

[JOCK] No! It’s not necessarily something you say directly to their faces! In the same way as you’ve got the seven whys – if you have small children, you’ll know it’s super, super annoying to get to the underlying truth of something. So the seven whys is one approach for getting to the underlying reason why you’re doing something, but the “so what” thing is basically asking the question, “why does this matter”, which is a slightly different one. And more to the point, does anyone care about this. So “so what” is about getting to the human value the human – “why should we care about this”, “why should I work a couple of extra hours on a Friday night get this stuff done for you” kind of question.

[LIZ] Yeah, I like the way you’ve said that. That’s nice, Jock. Alright everyone! That’s it, that’s a wrap on the topics. You can stick around and ask live questions. I left a couple just because I think there are other ways to follow it up, we might have chatted about it. If we can give Jock a really awesome round of applause!

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The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management book cover

The Practitioner’s Guide to Product Management
by Jock Busuttil

“This is a great book for Product Managers or those considering a career in Product Management.”

— Lyndsay Denton

Jock is a freelance head of product, author and conference speaker. He has spent nearly two decades working with technology companies to improve their product management practices, from startups to multinationals. His clients include the BBC, University of Cambridge, and the UK's Ministry of Justice and Government Digital Service (GDS). In 2012 Jock founded Product People Limited, a product management consultancy and training company. He is also the author of the popular book The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management and the blog I Manage Products.

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