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.