Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Join Me for ProductCamp Austin 13

UPDATE: The presentation won "Best Session" at ProductCamp Austin 13. Check out the slides here.

Join me Saturday, August 2nd, 2014 for ProductCamp Austin 13.

I think I missed only one ProductCamp Austin "unconference" since helping to organize the first event. At ProductCamp, product management and marketing professionals teach, learn, and network.

For the upcoming event, I've proposed a session called "Google or search.com? Why We Suck at Naming Products and Companies".

What the heck is a hopdoddy?









Did you know that scientists have studied what makes a great brand name? The findings may surprise you. Our intuitions about brand names are the opposite of what the science tells us.

In the session, we’ll answer:

  • What goals should you strive to achieve when choosing a name for your product or company?
  • What does the science say about what types of names best accomplish these goals?
  • How should you choose a name?

Prepare to challenge your intuitions.

As I write this blog entry, registration for ProductCamp Austin 13 is open.  If you'd like to present or lead a conversation at the event, propose a session. UPDATE: Check out this list of proposed sessions.

Hope to see you at ProductCamp Austin 13!

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Stop Validating and Start Falsifying

The product management and startup worlds are buzzing about the importance of "validation". In this entry, I'll explain how this idea originated and why it's leading organizations astray.

Why Validate?

In lean startup circles, you constantly hear about "validated learning" and "validating" product ideas:


The assumption is that you have a great product idea and seek validation from customers before expending vast resources to build and bring it to market.

Indeed, it makes sense to transcend conventional approaches to making product decisions. Intuition, sales anecdotes, feature requests from customers, backward industry thinking, and spreadsheets don't form the basis for sound product decisions. Incorporating lean startup concepts, and a more scientific approach to learning markets, is undoubtedly a sounder approach.

Moreover, in larger organizations, sometimes further in the product life-cycle, everyone seems to have an opinion about such aspects of the business model as:
  1. The most pervasive and urgent market problems the product should solve.
  2. Whether the solution truly addresses the market problems.
  3. What price customers would be willing to pay.
  4. What tactics will most effectively drive prospects to buy.
Presumably, the "validated learning" approach of lean startup enables the organization to identify which opinions are factual and not mere speculation.

Validation in Practice

But let's consider what our naive lean startup practitioner (we'll call her "Cameron") does in practice.



Present the idea






Cameron puts together a slide deck, minimum viable product (MVP), or demo, presents her idea to one or more prospects, and eagerly awaits feedback. The prospects say, "I like it!" or "I would buy it!" Cameron feels warm inside, as the prospects have "validated" her and her idea.



Ask about the "pain point"






Since solving an urgent and pervasive problem or "pain point" is usually a prerequisite for product success, Cameron visits with prospects and asks them if they experience one of the problems she envisions her product would solve. "Yes," reply the prospects. Feeling "validated", Cameron does an internal high-five with herself.




Name a price






Cameron asks prospects what they would pay for a solution with the features she envisions for her product. Prospects "name their price". Or, in equally naive fashion, Cameron herself names a price and asks, "Would you pay X for the product?" Prospects reply affirmatively. Cameron can hardly contain her giddyness as her pricing assumptions are "validated".

Cameron feels extra special for having "gotten out of the building" to visit customers.

What's Naive about Cameron's Approach?

The results of all of Cameron's efforts are practically worthless, aside from the emotional affirmation she may feel. When you visit prospects, you don't get reliable information by posing hypothetical questions. When you seek validation from someone, you will tend to get it. Cameron unwittingly designed her interactions with prospects in a manner likely to confirm her preconceived ideas, and her interpretations of the results were naive. Let's call it "validation bias", an insidious psychological disorder that has infected the lean startup community.

Note: had Cameron conducted a survey, though seductive because it would have yielded quantitative data, the results would still have been suspect to the extent the questions were hypothetical and failed to confront prospects with real choices and commitments.

What's the Alternative?

If you want to be scientific in your approach to product decisions, you craft experiments and make falsifiable predictions, with the intention of testing, not "validating", the hypotheses and underlying assumptions.

Philosopher Karl Popper is famous for having championed falsificationism, a set of principles that shifted the emphasis from verifying scientific beliefs to ensuring they are possible to falsify via experiments:

According to Wikipedia:
"A statement is called falsifiable if it is possible to conceive an observation or an argument which proves the statement in question to be false."
In fact, Popper argued that a statement isn't scientifically factual at all if it isn't falsifiable.

What Cameron Could Do Differently

Instead of asking hypothetical questions, Cameron could ask the prospects what they actually do (and have done) instead of what they would do. She could probe into their current and past experiences and note whether the supposed problems manifested themselves in those experiences. She could sit with prospects in their native environments and observe (ethnography), first hand, their situations and challenges. Cameron could test her value proposition and pricing hypotheses by quantifying the costs that problems and their workarounds impose on prospects. She could ask for an actual commitment to pay for the product once it's released.

Cameron could also work with her team to craft "digital" experiments and predict how those experiments will turn out. For example, her team could author "how-to" guides, downloadable on landing pages, that help prospects solve the problems she assumes they face. The team could predict how many people will visit those landing pages and how many people will proceed to download the guides. (To make prospects aware of the how-to guides, the team could run Facebook ads or Google AdWords to drive people to those landing pages and see if the predicted number of page visits and downloads materializes.)

The possibilities are endless, but they require a mindset that emphasizes falsifying product ideas and business model hypotheses, not "validating" them.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Join Me at ProductCamp Austin 12

Join me Saturday, February 15th, 2014 for ProductCamp Austin 12.

By now, if you're a product management, marketing, or technology professional, you've probably heard of ProductCamp. ProductCamp is an "unconference" where product management and marketing professionals teach, learn, and network.

ProductCamp depends on volunteers to organize it, propose and lead sessions, provide lively conversation and debate, set up and tear down the day of the event, and recruit sponsors to keep it free. Participants can propose sessions prior to the event, and participants vote the morning of the event to determine which sessions they will have the opportunity to attend throughout the day.

As I write this blog entry, registration for ProductCamp Austin 12 is open. If you're ready to commit to participating in the product management and marketing conversation, I suggest you register now. The slots usually fill up quickly. If you'd like to present or lead a conversation at the event, propose a session.

I've proposed a session called "5 Ways Companies Make Product Decisions".

Is your company making ad hoc or informed, deliberate product decisions?

In the session, we'll look at five ways companies make strategic and ongoing tactical decisions about how they develop, market, and sell products and solutions. How do they decide what features to include in their products, what messages they will use to articulate the value of their products, what marketing tactics they will use, what prospective customers they will target, and other day-to-day choices?

We'll discuss the pros and cons of each method and explore other methods that may be more likely to result in product success.

I'd love to hear your perspective and see you at ProductCamp Austin 12.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Competitive Mindshare Maps

Why You Need a Competitive Mindshare Map

The core of your product strategy lies in your product's positioning and unique value proposition (UVP). It should drive nearly all product decisions, including the roadmap, feature prioritization, marketing messages, and sales approaches.




A sound unique value proposition depends on:
  1. Value. It should convey the value of your product. Value is rooted in the problems your product solves.
  2. Competitive landscape. It should differentiate your product from available alternatives.
  3. Perception. It should acknowledge perceived weaknesses of the product and perceived strengths of competing products.
Surprisingly, most companies take the value of their products for granted and don't bother to explicitly formulate a unique value proposition. For others, determining a unique value proposition is haphazard, with little or no process guiding the decision. At best, they focus on the value and pay insufficient attention to perceptions and the competitive landscape.

Enter the competitive mindshare map. A competitive mindshare map helps you determine a unique value proposition for your product and ensures it properly accounts for the competitive landscape and market perceptions.

What is a Competitive Mindshare Map?

A competitive mindshare map is a visualization of how products are positioned in the competitive landscape. The competitive landscape, however, is not a set of line items or numbers in a spreadsheet or chart. The competitive landscape is the mind of the prospect.

The fourth law among Ries and Trout's 22 immutable laws of marketing is the Law of Perception.  It states:
"Marketing is not a battle of products, it's a battle of perceptions."
A competitive mindshare map divides the mind of the prospect into territories and places each offering into the territory it occupies. Just as a country, no matter how great its military might, can't occupy an entire continent, your product can't occupy every territory in the prospect's mind. You must acknowledge the perceived strengths of competing products and the perceived weaknesses of your product. You must cede the territory your product can't realistically occupy.

Positioning your product is a matter of fortifying and defending the territory it already occupies, invading weakly-defended territory, or capturing uncontested territory your product can hold.



Composing a Competitive Mindshare Map

To compose a competitive mindshare map, you start with an image of a head and a brain (you can get a template below). I suggest using Google Drawings, but you can use any drawing tool, even a white board and markers if you like. For your product and each competing product, you then:
  1. Place a logo in a distinct region of the brain. You carve up the brain into any size, shape, and number of regions. Typically, you can extract logos from competitor web pages.
  2. Provide a short (no more than three major words) category name or theme that conveys the perceived strength the product "owns" in the minds of prospects.
  3. Provide a terse explanation of the product's perceived strength.
Depending on the tool you're using to compose the map, you can make the logos hyperlink to web pages with more information (such as actual product pages or more detailed competitive intelligence documentation).

After your first draft, take a step back and ask yourself:
  1. Does the map include the major competitors, including in-house solutions that customers might build themselves?
  2. Does your category name or theme convey a promise that your product actually delivers (or will deliver in the future)?
  3. Do the category names (or themes) and descriptions of competitors accurately represent their perceived strengths?
Positioning Guidelines

Positioning your product doesn't have to be "black magic". A number of concrete factors should guide the positioning of your product and the selection of a unique value proposition. This article will help you take a methodical approach to positioning as you compose your competitive mindshare maps.

Above all, keep in mind that the more focused the category, the more powerful and easier it is to defend. Indeed, the Law of Focus states:
"No matter how complicated the product, no matter how complicated the needs of the market, it's always better to focus on one word or benefit than two or three or four."
Your brand gains power from sacrifice.  As Al Ries and Laura Ries state in the Law of Expansion (from The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding):
"The power of a brand is inversely proportional to its scope."
and in the Law of Contraction:
"A brand becomes stronger when you narrow the focus."
You'll face strong pressure to extend and expand the territory your product occupies. As a general rule, it's best to resist it. Ironically, the power gained by narrowing the brand's focus has a halo effect that increases - not decreases - its reach into the minds of prospects.

Get the Template

The easiest way to start is to get the template. Click one of the options below. Simply create a copy of the template in Google Drawings or download the template in PNG image format.


Next Steps

To the extent you didn't collaborate with others to compose the competitive mindshare map, schedule sessions to review it with the executive team, marcom, sales people, and customers.

If you're torn between two value propositions, you can devise experiments (such as A/B tests with landing pages) to test how they resonate with prospects.

Incorporate the unique value proposition into the business model canvas for your product. (Go here for an overview and downloadable model of these and other lean startup concepts.)

Monday, October 07, 2013

Lean Startup Concepts

Now that you've had a largely buzzword-free introduction to lean startup methods, you may be interested in a bit deeper understanding of the concepts and terminology.  Lean startup methods incorporate scientific methods and principles of agile development to help practitioners learn markets quickly and reliably and deliver successful products.  But lean startup enthusiasts and practitioners throw around a lot of terminology and concepts that may seem alien or not particularly meaningful to you.

Let's examine and demystify the basic lean startup terminology with a rich and concise conceptual model. To view the model of lean startup concepts, click the image below:


Lean startup concepts fall within four different clusters: hypotheses, learning, market, and product.




Hypotheses

Forming hypotheses is a component of lean startup methods. The business model represents the strategy driving more tactical product decisions, and it consists of a set of hypotheses. These hypotheses are rooted in the market problems the product is intended to solve. The product serves as a set of solutions to these problems.

Prospects and customers typically have existing alternatives to at least partially address or work around the same problems. The unique value proposition conveys an overarching theme of addressing the problems, and it leverages the unfair advantage the company possesses relative to any competition. A high-level concept summarizes the unique value proposition using a metaphor likely to be familiar to members of the targeted customer segments.

Metrics measure the key activities from which the company and customers derive value, such as adoption, usage, and purchases. Customer segments represent the target market for the product, and sales and marketing channels reach these customer segments. Revenue streams come from such sources as product purchases and advertising, and they offset the cost structure for the product.




Learning

Lean startup methods are first, and foremost, about efficient learning. We conduct interviews of subjects, which include prospects and existing customers, to uncover initial insightsHypotheses rest on assumptions. These assumptions entail predictions that we can test with purposeful experiments. The results of these experiments yield further insights that we use to adjust our assumptions and hypotheses.




Market

We sell products to prospects who face problems, and those prospects become customers. Early adopters are initial customers that can be key partners in helping lean startup practitioners form, test, and refine hypotheses.





Product

The business model outlines the strategy for a successful product. Developing a minimum viable product (MVP) enables us to minimize the amount of time needed to deliver value to customers, to determine whether prospects will pay to solve their problems, to determine whether the product satisfactorily addresses those problems, and to determine whether the product is usable.


Parting Thoughts

Most lean startup concepts aren't new. Taken as a whole, however, they incorporate and enhance the common ways that companies make product decisions in a manner that can accelerate, and improve the reliability of, learning and implementation. The scientific and agile approach fosters a greater likelihood of product success.

Is your company incorporating all or most of these concepts in the ways it makes product decisions? If so, what sorts of successes and challenges have you had? If not, why not?

Monday, September 23, 2013

What Is Lean Startup? Here's What You Need to Know

You've probably heard a lot of buzz about "lean startups".  You may wonder if it's mere hype, applies just to tiny bootstrap ventures, or if adopting some lean startup methods might actually benefit your company.


One of the top problems companies face as they make product decisions
is that the process of learning the market, and learning what makes the product successful, is slow and unreliable. Sometimes they suffer analysis paralysis, swerve from one big deal to the next, allow conventional industry wisdom to stifle innovation, or squabble over uninformed personal opinions. In other cases, they make decisions quickly but fail to learn from their inevitable mistakes until after they've invested exorbitant amounts of time and money.

If you find that your organization is facing this problem, it's worthwhile to consider lean startup methods.


Just as scientists use the scientific method to learn how the universe works, your product team can apply lean startup methods to learn what business model for your product will work in the market. Lean startup practitioners:
  1. Collect data. Practitioners observe and interview prospects to gain qualitative insights into their situations, challenges, and the ways they operate. They also examine quantitative data for further insights.
  2. Form hypotheses. Based on their observations and insights, practitioners form and capture hypotheses about the business model for their products. These hypotheses include the problems to solve, the key elements of the solution, the unique value proposition, the buyer and user personas, key metrics or user activities, costs, and revenue streams. Hypotheses may also include measurable predictions of the impact of various marketing or sales tactics.
  3. Conduct experiments. Recognizing that at least some of their initial business model hypotheses are likely to be wrong, practitioners design and run experiments to test the hypotheses. Often these experiments confront prospects with real-world choices (such as functional product) and measure how prospects behave when confronted with these choices.
  4. Learn and adjust. Having conducted experiments to test hypotheses, practitioners analyze the results and adjust their hypotheses.
These activities often occur in parallel and not necessarily in this sequence. For example, entrepreneurs commonly think of product ideas prior to formally collecting market data.

Applying these methods in an iterative or continuous fashion enables product teams to confront product strategy risks and quickly and reliably learn markets with more targeted - and ultimately, less wasteful - business investments.


Lean startup practitioners essentially apply agile methods to the entire business for a product. Most software companies have adopted at least some agile development practices. But unlike companies that iterate merely on the development of the product, lean startups iterate on the requirements, the positioning, the target markets and personas, and sales and marketing tactics.  They monitor and optimize the sales and usage funnels. They emphasize the delivery of working product and prospect-touching experiments over exhaustive planning and documentation devoid of external feedback.

Summary

Learning markets reliably and expeditiously, and learning what will make products successful, is one of the primary challenges many companies face, whether those companies are startups or large, established corporations. By applying scientific practices and agile principles across the entire business for a product, lean startup is designed to address this challenge.

How does your company currently make product decisions?  How would you know it's time to add new approaches or practices to the mix? The next blog entry will explain how you can begin to put some lean startup methods into practice right away, once your team is ready for some change.

Thanks to Koen Bosma, Ash Maurya, and Emiliano Villareal for providing helpful feedback on this blog entry, and for their thought leadership on the topic of lean startup methods.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

5 Ways Companies Make Product Decisions

In the last blog entry, we reviewed the four problems that companies face, or are trying to overcome, as they make product decisions.  Now we'll look at the ways that most companies make their product decisions.

Companies that develop, market, and sell products and solutions make strategic and ongoing tactical decisions.  They decide what features to include in their products, what messages they will use to communicate the value of their products, what marketing tactics they will use, what prospective customers they will target, and many day-to-day choices. Whether or not these decisions are deliberate or ad hoc, most companies use some combination of the following ways of making product decisions.

(A downloadable "map" that summarizes the product decision landscape is included at the end of this article.)

Customer Wants
Product decisions based on feature requests, focus groups, and what prospects and customers say they want.


Companies are selling products to make money by creating happy customers.  With the “customer wants” model of making product decisions, you reach out to prospective and existing customers, since they’re the ones who will ultimately be buying your product.  If you are able to deliver what prospects want, they are much more likely to buy your product.

To gain insight into what they want, companies listen to what prospects say during sales and customer support calls, tally up feature requests, monitor support and discussion forums, and conduct focus groups and surveys.  A conversation with a customer might include explicitly asking her what she thinks of a particular feature idea, or she might offer her own feature ideas.

Pros:
  1. Incorporates direct feedback from prospects and customers rather than speculation from inside the company about what they may want.
  2. Can lead to prospects becoming customers once you’ve implemented the requested features.
Cons:
  1. Customers are experts on their own situations and challenges but don't know what they want, so you end up implementing features that don't provide value.
  2. Research shows that customers' hypothetical predictions about what they would buy are not reliable.

Deal Driven
Product decisions driven by the next big deal in the sales pipeline.


The ultimate measure of a successful product is how much money it makes. At any particular time, sales may be working on a deal that could bring in a large amount of revenue for the company.  The prospect in such a deal often has particular needs that the product could address with some additional development.  In the deal-driven approach to product decisions, the needs of prospects in these major deals drive the product decisions and priorities.




Pros:
  1. Increases the likelihood that revenue-producing deals will convert.
  2. Ties product decisions and priorities to revenue potential.
Cons:
  1. Leads to scattered, incoherent value propositions for the product.
  2. Causes abrupt swings in product direction, eroding the morale of the product team.

Intuition
Product decisions based on common sense and what's cool.



Disruptive and innovative products often come from visionaries who incorporate cool technologies and have an intuitive sense for what consumers want.  Executives and members of the product team are themselves consumers and thus have their own personal opinions about the most effective ways to market and sell a product. Developers on top of the newest technologies see how they can apply the technologies to implement innovative product features.  Since everyone in the company is a potential user of the product, they all chime in on what the best design and user interface is.  In many organizations, these sorts of intuitions drive product decisions.

Pros:
  1. Anticipates needs that prospects don't yet realize they have.
  2. Leverages internal knowledge and avoids expensive market research.
Cons:
  1. Effective marketing often defies common sense. Despite the fact that we're all consumers, most members of the product team probably haven't studied marketing principles.
  2. Personal preferences and intuition often don't reflect those of the target market.

Industry Experience
Product decisions based on prior industry experience and accumulated wisdom.



Some companies rely on employees with prior experience in a domain or industry to guide product decisions.  Experience provides wisdom about a market and what works and doesn't work in an industry.  Based on industry background, such as knowledge of the competitive landscape, customer needs, and existing technologies and practices, members of the product team make judgments about what features to include in the product and how to market and sell it.



Pros:
  1. Reduces or eliminates the learning curve for understanding the customers, technology, competition, and needs in an industry.
  2. Brings industry connections and relationships that sales and development can leverage.
Cons:
  1. May inhibit innovation and outside-the-box thinking. Most companies emphasizing industry experience in their hiring practices do not, as a general rule, innovate well.
  2. Provides no guidance for tackling risks and unknowns outside the prior industry experience.

Left Brain
Product decisions based on analyses such as Kano and A/B testing and documented as detailed product specifications.



To take the intuition and guesswork out of making product decisions, team members with a left-brained bent employ a variety of rigorous approaches and analytical tools to determine and document product priorities and marketing tactics.

For example, a member of the team may maintain a spreadsheet with candidate market problems to solve, or with all the proposed enhancements to the product, and rate them on various criteria.  They base product decisions on the items with the highest ratings.  Some more sophisticated product managers analyze customer preferences using Kano analysis, rating features in terms of the extent to which they evoke surprise and delight, satisfaction, dissatisfaction, indifference, or an erosion of overall perceived value.

In some cases, business analysts, product managers, or product owners will then compose detailed product specifications.  Often, the individuals with analytical instincts will go far beyond writing epics and the basic user stories, and will delve into interaction design.

For determining the most effective marketing tactics, the team may use A/B tests and other data, seeing which ones work best in practice.

Pros:
  1. Brings transparency and rigor into the process of making product decisions.
  2. Distills disparate data into actionable information. 
Cons:
  1. Can lead to products with incoherent and scattered value propositions.
  2. Ignores timeless marketing principles.
  3. Biased to product decisions with available data and to tactical alternatives that are easiest to measure.


Monday, August 26, 2013

4 Problems Companies Face in Making Product Decisions

Introduction

Why is product management important?

Whether or not they employ product managers, companies make daily decisions about how to develop, market, and sell their products. As they make these decisions, companies typically face - or are trying to overcome - four general problems.

The Problems



 

Products don't provide value to prospective buyers and users.




Products that don't deliver value generally don't succeed in the marketplace. Value comes from solving problems that prospective customers face. "Cool" technologies and feature-laden products, if they don't help customers solve or avoid compelling problems, don't provide value that lead to usage or sales.

Effective product management identifies a set of prospect problems that drive an overarching value proposition, and it empowers the entire product team to deliver and communicate that value.




 
Developers don't know what to build, and why.





Developing a great product requires a shared understanding, not only of what the product should do, but why it should do it.  In some cases, developers field varying - even conflicting - feature requests from sales and other colleagues and aren't equipped to prioritize them in a sound manner. Moreover, when developers don't know the motivating reasons for implementing product features, they are unable to fill the "gaps" and make the best judgment calls when questions about appropriate product behavior arise. Some developers aren't as motivated to work on products or features unless they recognize the value to buyers and users.

Great product management works with designers and developers to create a shared understanding of the product requirements, which are the least stringent conditions that must hold to solve or avoid the problems.





Sales and marcom can't consistently
articulate the value of products.


When sales and marcom don't have a thorough understanding of buyers and users and the problems they face, it makes it difficult for them to generate and convert leads. In such an environment, sales and marketing messages lack the clarity and consistency needed to foster brand awareness and perception of value.

The best product management develops crisp value propositions, consistent with timeless marketing principles, that sales and marcom can use in messaging prospects.




 
The process of learning the market is slow and unreliable.




The initial business model for a product is a set of hypotheses. For any particular product, some of these hypotheses almost invariably turn out to be wrong. Guesses about what will appeal to the market may reflect our peculiar personal preferences and not rest on a solid foundation. In other cases, prospects themselves lead us astray, requesting features they'll never use.  The marketing tactics or sales channels we thought would be the most effective don't meet our expectations. 

Companies learn these lessons over time, but often in a painful and expensive manner.  Great product management immerses itself in markets and employs iterative feedback loops to test and modify business model hypotheses, thereby producing more educated hypotheses and quickly discovering mistakes.



Final Thoughts
  
These problems have many manifestations.  Moreover, as with all problems, we can ask "Why?" and determine problems further up the problem chain.  These four problems ultimately lead to less revenue, wasted time and money, and frustration.

In the next entry, we'll explore the ways that companies make product decisions as they experience, or attempt to address, these problems.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Talents of Great Product Managers

The Responsibilities

Product managers lead the process of making strategic decisions about what should go in a product and how to market and sell it. Ideally, they base these decisions on in-depth knowledge of the market - prospective buyers and users, the problems they face, and the competition - and apply sound marketing principles to make the decisions. They build a shared understanding of the market, the business model, and the strategy among members of the team.

Talent, not Industry Experience

But how can a hiring manager identify a product manager that will excel at performing these duties?  As Buckingham and Coffman advise, the most successful managers select candidates based on talent, and not so much for experience.  Thus the typical product manager job posting that lists experience in the industry as a prerequisite is misguided.  Read more on the topic of industry experience and product management.

What Is Talent?

According to Buckingham and Coffman, a talent is “a recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied”.  Unlike a skill, a talent spans every aspect of a person's life and doesn't manifest itself merely in a particular field or professional environment.

The Talents

Acquisitive and emergent learner.  The primary talent of a great product manager is that she pro-actively acquires knowledge, learns without direction, and constructs new knowledge from the patterns she observes.  Researcher Martin Rayala distinguishes among four types of learning: transmission, acquisition, accretion, and emergence.  The most talented product managers don't rely on learning through instruction (transmission) or on learning through experience (accretion).


Principled.  Great product managers align activities and details with larger goals and principles.  Acquiring market knowledge is necessary but not sufficient for making sound product decisions.  A great product manager is relentless in applying timeless marketing principles (which are often counter-intuitive) and in asking how activities and decisions help the company and the customer.


Disciplined.  Great product managers impose structure on work and life.  They aren't satisfied with "unconnected dots" and, in their professional lives, are constantly striving to make sense of market data and synthesize it into a coherent overarching model and strategy.  This characteristic is closely tied to emergent learning.



Adaptable.  Great product managers adjust beliefs and actions in response to new information.  While relentless in adhering to principles, they know market realities determine product success, and they recognize that up-front hypotheses about the market require validation through build-measure-learn feedback loops.



Facilitative.  Great product managers recognize, cultivate, and activate talents and opportunities.  They exhibit leadership by identifying and activating the talents in team members.  They uncover challenges that prospects face, recognize opportunities, and facilitate the people and processes to nurture and pursue them.



How to Identify Talent

Resumes are a poor way of identifying and evaluating talent.  Instead, conduct brief interviews of product management candidates, probing into their passions and approaches to life, work, and solving problems.  As a general rule, you'll gain the most reliable and important insights into candidates' talents from what they say about everyday life situations, not how they describe their work-specific skills.  Using these methods and identifying these talents, a hiring manager can find a promising product manager candidate who hasn't even previously played the role.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Join Me at ProductCamp Austin 11

Join me Saturday, July 20th, 2013 for ProductCamp Austin 11.  ProductCamp is an "unconference" where product management and marketing professionals teach, learn, and network.

Two years ago, John Milburn, Scott Sehlhorst, Paul Young, and I led a session on "The Future of Product Management". We noted that the "lean startup" movement was on the rise and would soon become a focus of product management discussion and debate. Sure enough, "lean startup" is all the rage these days, or at least talking about it is.

Yet to the extent product managers have embraced lean startup concepts, most of them have barely put them into practice.  They've done little more than compose a business model canvas or used the "minimum viable product (MVP)" buzzword a few times.  How can product managers move beyond these basics, put lean startup methods into practice, and derive real value from them?

I've proposed a session called "Let's Get Nekkid: Applying Lean Startup Methods":
You've heard about lean startup, and you may have even gone through the exercise of composing a business model canvas. Let's move beyond the theory and hype and examine the practical tips, tools, and guidelines you can use to apply lean startup methods to your company's product management and marketing efforts.

We'll briefly cover business model canvases, but we'll also look at the real-world application of customer development interviews, minimum viable product (MVP), funnel metrics, experiments to test and revise assumptions, instrumenting products to gain insight into what users are actually doing, and the pitfalls of applying lean startup methods.
The full list of proposed sessions is here.

WHAT: ProductCamp Austin 11
WHEN: July 20, 2013 from 8:30 AM to 4:30PM
WHERE: AT&T Conference Center @ 1900 University Ave., Austin, TX 78705
COST: Network, volunteer, pitch a session idea, or just make new folks feel welcome.

You must register (free) to attend.

You can get transit directions to the event by visiting the Capital Metro trip planner and filling in your starting location. If you choose to drive, parking is available for a fee in the AT&T Center underground parking lot.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Join Me at ProductCamp Austin 10

Join me Saturday, February 16th, 2013 for ProductCamp Austin 10.  ProductCamp is an "unconference" where product management and marketing professionals teach, learn, and network.

I've attended almost every ProductCamp Austin event since I and others helped founder Paul Young organize the first one, which took place June 14, 2008. I'm looking forward to seeing some fresh faces such as Hilary Corna, Jessica Tunon, Chris Hample, as well as catching up with old friends like Colleen Heubaum, John Milburn, Prabhakar Gopalan, Scott Sehlhorst, Joshua Duncan, Elizabeth Quintanilla, Devin Ellis, Mike Boudreaux, and Amanda McGuckin Hager.

This time, I hope to lead a session called "Trouble with Tribbles: The Dos and Don'ts of Prospect Interviews":
Prospect interviews are a critical part of product management and lean startup methods. But most people take the wrong approach, leading to unreliable or misleading market learnings. In this session, we'll examine the top five mistakes product managers and entrepreneurs make when conducting prospect interviews. There will be a brief presentation followed by an open discussion about best practices for prospect interviews and how they can inform the business model for your products.
The full list of proposed sessions is here.

WHAT: ProductCamp Austin 10
WHEN: February 16, 2013 from 8:30 AM to 4:30PM
WHERE: AT&T Conference Center @ 1900 University Ave., Austin, TX 78705
COST: Network, volunteer, pitch a session idea, or just make new folks feel welcome.

You must register (free) to attend.

You can get transit directions to the event by visiting the Capital Metro trip planner and filling in your starting location. If you choose to drive, parking is available for a fee in the AT&T Center underground parking lot.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Product Management Bookshelf

Great product management requires a combination of learning, leadership, facilitation, and strategy skills.  To gain and maintain proficiency, new and experienced product managers alike can benefit from reading books on these topics.  My product management bookshelf includes a number of texts that never cease to benefit me.  I find myself referring back to the books to refresh my skills, rekindle my product management passions, and cite interesting passages to friends and colleagues.

Here are some of the top books I recommend product managers read.  The books I'm listing aren't books on product management per se, but they cover skills essential for effective product management.  If you're an executive overseeing a product management or product team, consider buying these books for the team's product management bookshelf.

22 Immutable Laws of Marketing: Violate Them at Your Own Risk
Al Ries and Jack Trout


This classic book enumerates and explains the principles that an organization should apply when making strategic marketing decisions.

A product manager leads the process of making such product decisions as which market problems to solve, the unique value proposition the product should embody, and which buyers and users to target.  Market knowledge is necessary to make informed decisions but is not sufficient.  Timeless principles of marketing are also essential for synthesizing this knowledge and applying it to actual strategic decisions about the product.

Your product manager has identified unsolved problems in the marketplace and how the market perceives competitors.  But how should the product team decide which of the unsolved problems to take on and what brand promise(s) the product should make that will resonate in the market?  Ries and Trout tell us that the Law of Focus, the Law of the Opposite, the Law of Sacrifice, the Law of the Mind, the Law of Candor, and other "immutable laws" should determine these types of decisions.


Running Lean: Iterate from Plan A to a Plan That Works
Ash Maurya


This new book is by a thought leader in the lean startup community who has refined and synthesized the best ideas of Eric Ries, Brant Cooper, Alex Osterwalder, and Steve Blank, and has melded them with a thorough understanding of both marketing and development.

You've heard about agile development. Is it really just for development, or does it encompass product strategy, marketing, and sales? Lean startup clearly encompasses all of them. In particular, you won't optimally define all aspects of your product strategy up front. Your product strategy is a set of hypotheses that you can methodically validate or invalidate using qualitative and quantitative measurements over time, enabling you to iterate and "pivot" as needed to optimize them.

The book tells us what goes into the business model for a product, describes each of its components in detail, how to make explicit the testable assumptions that underlie the hypotheses, and how to go about testing them quickly in your prospect interviews and by developing and releasing a minimum viable product (MVP).

At first glance, you might think this book is about entrepreneurship and product development.  It is, but it also squarely addresses questions central to product management at any organization.

Marketing Warfare
Al Ries and Jack Trout


My friend Prabakhar Gopalan makes a great case that strategy is not war, but this book nonetheless applies the warfare principles of Sun Tzu to marketing.  In particular, when your product team is making fundamental decisions about the unique value proposition and positioning of the product, it's essential for the team to understand these principles.

Ries and Trout describe how, depending on the competitive landscape, you should adopt an offensive, flanking, or guerrilla strategy. When conceiving and adjusting your unique value proposition, your product manager needs to identify the biggest competitor, understand its biggest strength in the market, identify the weakness within that strength, and turn the biggest weakness of your own product into a strength.

Not a lot of product managers are familiar with these concepts; your product managers can differentiate themselves and give you a business advantage if they understand and apply them.


Dirty Little Secrets: Why buyers can't buy and sellers can't sell and what you can do about it
Sharon Drew Morgen


If your product manager buys into the conventional wisdom, she understands that prospect problems lie at the root of many of the strategic decisions required for product success. This wisdom, in my opinion, is absolutely valid. However, it doesn't address an entirely separate set of factors that determine product success.

Before any buyer or user will adopt your solution, she must navigate all of the behind-the-scenes issues, emotions, and personalities that in many cases have nothing to do with the problem. The book teaches product managers this lesson and also to appreciate that they will never know - and don't need to know - what all these issues are. Product managers will learn from the book, however, some important skills they can apply to assembling the right people for prospect interviews and to facilitating those interviews.

In addition, a key challenge product managers face is getting buy-in for product decisions and driving the organizational change needed to execute on those decisions. To address this challenge, a product manager benefits greatly from understanding systems thinking, decision facilitation, and change management. The book explains how a "seller" (for our purposes, the product manager convincing the organization to adopt a new product strategy) applies this other set of skills that precede but enable the "sale".
 

Becoming a Technical Leader: An Organic Problem-Solving Approach
Gerald M. Weinberg


Especially when it comes to technology products, a product manager is a technical leader. He can't just inform the process of making product decisions; he also needs to unlock the synergistic talents of the entire product team to make and execute on the decisions. If the product manager has a technical background, it can be helpful, but it doesn't qualify him to be a technical leader.

This book teaches the soft skills and self-awareness necessary to transform a domain or technical expert into a problem-solving leader who brings out the best in others. "MOI" stands for:
  • Motivation. Provide the motivation for individuals and teams to work together towards common goals.
  • Organization. Create and integrate with processes that enable teams to work effectively.
  • Ideas. Manage the flow of ideas to foster innovation and problem-solving.
Got other product management books you'd recommend?  Add them to the comments, or tweet them with the #prodmgmtbookshelf hashtag.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Top 5 Prospect Interview Mistakes

One invaluable tool that product managers use to understand markets is the prospect interview.  We identify prospective buyers and users who may share a common set of problems, and we conduct one-on-one interviews with them to probe their situations and dig deep into the challenges they face.  The situations and challenges inform our product strategy and decisions.
If you're a company executive, you may be reluctant to empower your product managers to conduct interviews with prospects, as what happens during these interviews could potentially jeopardize a future sale.  Even if you have confidence in your product managers not to jeopardize a sale, you may view prospect interviews as a dubious way of gaining market understanding.

Rest assured that prospect interviews will tend to foster trust and enhance future sales possibilities while providing a richer understanding of the market.  But only if product managers conduct them properly and avoid certain pitfalls.

The top five mistakes product managers make when conducting prospect interviews are:

1.  Pitch the product.

The biggest no-no when conducting a prospect interview is to attempt to sell the product or pitch its benefits.  It immediately puts the prospect on the defensive and undermines the purpose of the interview, which is to understand the prospect.  It communicates to the prospect that you think you already understand her needs, without even having probed into her unique circumstances.  You're effectively telling her what she needs instead of determining what she needs.

2. Ask the prospect what she wants.

If, during our conversations with them, we focus on what prospects want, we distract them from what we really need to understand.  We need to guide the conversation to the situation and challenges they face, not to what prospects think they want.  Once we understand what problems they face, and choose which ones to solve with our product, our team of design and implementation experts can come up with the innovative solutions to those problems.

3.  Ask the prospect to design the product.

As a general rule, prospects are not experts in designing solutions to the problems we may choose to solve for them.  If they were, they probably wouldn't need us or the products we develop.  With a product manager's skilled facilitation, however, we can work with prospects to uncover their problems.  In some cases, it may be beneficial to "co-create" the product with prospects or customers, but a prior investigation and mutual understanding of what problems to solve is a prerequisite.

4.  Ask hypothetical questions.

"How much would a product that does X, Y, and Z be worth to you?"  "How many times per day would you use feature X of our product?"  These types of questions are hypothetical and generally yield little useful information.  Prospects don't know what they would do.  They know what they actually (currently) do.  Conclusions extrapolated from what prospects actually do are often more reliable than direct answers to hypothetical questions.

Some hypothetical questions are necessary and useful.  In general, however, try to rephrase hypothetical questions as factual questions that give you insights into the patterns likely to guide prospects' future behavior.  For example, instead of asking how much they'd pay for a product, determine how much it costs them not to use your product.

On a related note, be careful with direct questions.  A direct question isn't open ended; it makes assumptions that may not be valid and ignores other possibilities that might be important.  Start with open-ended questions to allow for answers you can't anticipate and delve into more direct questions only after you've given the prospect an opportunity to introduce unanticipated topics and concepts.

5.  Ignore change management issues.

No matter what problems a prospect faces, and how much it costs his organization, the problems are usually nestled comfortably within a system that's resistant to change.  Explore these change management issues with the prospect.  Determine the people and processes tied to the problems the prospect and the organization are facing.  Use Buying Facilitation® to determine change management issues that would precede any purchase or attempt to adopt a new solution.  Standing outside the prospect's system, you will never be able to understand all of these issues, but you'll get a more complete picture of the prospect's situation and challenges if you stimulate her to consider the system in which they occur.


In many organizations, it can be an uphill battle for product managers to talk to prospects outside of a sales call or presentation.  Consequently, product managers who do manage to interview prospects feel a sense of accomplishment and confidence in their market understanding and product decisions.  However, this confidence can be misplaced if the product manager has made these common mistakes when conducting prospect interviews.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Who "Owns" the Product?

Recently, I've noticed a number of product managers on social channels claim that product managers "own" the products they manage.  On the surface, this claim seems rather innocuous and uncontroversial.  But the claim bothers me, for several reasons.

Let's examine why anyone would make such a claim.  I can think of a few reasons.  (I'll get to the notion of "product owner" in agile development later.)

First, a single point of accountability simplifies how we conceptualize the product management role.  It's understandable that product managers are tempted to find a simple definition of product management.  The responsibilities of the role vary greatly across different companies, and few people can articulate concisely what a product manager is or does.  So it's nice to boil it down to ownership of the product.  But what does it really mean to own the product?

Second, many folks in the product management community are familiar with the debate about product management "authority".  Product managers typically lack formal authority but assume much of the responsibility for the output of the product team and for the ultimate success of the product.  Perhaps some product managers believe that, if we convince executives and team members that we "own" the products we manage, they will grant us the authority to make product decisions that stick.

For example, if the product manager disagrees with a user experience (UX) designer on the team about a design decision, the product manager can "overrule" the UX designer's recommended approach, since somehow the product manager's ownership of the product trumps the UX designer's design expertise.  I don't subscribe to this authority-based model, and I doubt product "ownership" does much to support it in practice.

Third, the other side of the product management "authority" debate believes in the romantic notion of leadership as unilateral self-empowerment with little or no enablement from others.  Under this view, product "ownership" implies that the product manager steps up to take full responsibility and accountability for the success of the product despite the lack of formal authority.  It's a statement of confidence and sometimes derision towards those who complain about the lack of formal authority.  Yet this view rests on a naive and overly simplistic view of leadership, as I have argued before.

But the practical reason you should reject the notion of product management "owning" the product is that it undermines one of the key determinants of product success.  The most successful product teams possess a culture in which the team owns the product.  Each member of the team - whether a developer, sales person, marketer, support specialist, or tester - has strengths and plays roles that contribute to the team effort, and ultimately to market acceptance and product profits.  They all feel accountable for the success of the product and the team, and there is no need for a "single throat to choke".  This form of accountability is a highly effective motivator and yields impressive productivity and outcomes.

A product manager's unique role on a team is informing the strategy that drives all the team's product decisions.  She does so by leading the process of eliciting and sharing market knowledge and applying marketing principles to form the basis for sound product decisions.

Finally, no discussion of "product ownership" would be complete without a note about the use of the term "product owner" in agile development.  The original use of the term referred to a person on the team who could serve as a proxy to the customer or market.  It wasn't someone who was solely responsible or accountable for the success of the product or project.  Originally, it wasn't even someone who necessarily had tactical "backlog management" responsibilities.  No, it was mostly a role that helped inform the team's requirements decisions from a customer and user perspective.

A product manager's role is a bit broader than agile's original notion of product owner, in that a product manager's insights and perspectives drive not just requirements, but positioning and messaging as well.