If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you’ve probably noticed that accepting uncertainty is a a recurring theme when it comes to Agile and agility. While it’s never stated outright as a “value” in either the Agile Manifesto or the Twelve Principles of Agile, the concept itself underlies many of the points made in those documents. In my opinion, it’s the primary cultural distinction between organizations that still cling to the old, outdated “waterfall” approaches. Waterfall creates a false sense of security by defining everything possible up-front. Agile accepts that we don’t always know everything, and that new information will not only be discovered, but might alter the path. Here are a few specific reasons why accepting uncertainty is essential for teams to be successful.
One of the primary things that Product Managers are constantly working on is change — changing the way people view our customers, changing the way our customers view our product, changing the culture of our company to be more agile, changing peoples’ minds about what’s important and what’s not…the list goes on and on. And, not surprisingly, nearly every Product Manager eventually comes to the realization that change is hard. I mean really, really hard. And sometimes it seems like even the smallest changes are the hardest to get people to commit to and deliver on a regular basis. So why is change so hard? Here are a few of the common reasons…
One of the most fundamental requirements to be a great Product Manager is getting outside the four walls of your office and engaging with your market, your prospects, and your customers directly. Unfortunately, in all too many companies, this is more difficult than it should be, if not utterly impossible. This is usually blamed on too many in-person meetings, too little budget, or just all-around too little time to step outside and engage directly with the people using your product. But it’s a simple fact that the only way that you’re going to uncover the best ideas, the hidden problems that will separate you from your competition, and establish the rapport that you need to validate the solutions that your teams come up with as quickly and cheaply as possible. Here are some ideas for you to consider when you’re trying to figure out how to get outside and engage with your market!
Asking for Forgiveness is Better than Permission
Remember, it’s your job to keep your finger on the pulse of your market. It’s your job to dig deep and uncover unspoken needs that you can use as fuel for innovation. It’s your job to seek out people who can give you valuable feedback, who can tell you all of their problems and issues, and who will honestly review and validate your proposed solutions.
Do you apologize for doing your job? I hope not!
So you shouldn’t apologize for figuring out when and where to insert yourself into the work that other teams are doing. Or for poking around to figure out when, where, and how those teams engage with the market and your customers. The key is to figure out what it is that you offer the other teams — what value you add to their conversations. Maybe your sales team needs someone more technical on-hand to answer specific questions or to run demos for their prospects? Maybe your marketing team needs an extra eye on the copy that’s about to go out. Maybe your support or services teams need some hands-on assistance with customer issues or integration/launch work.
All of these are things to keep an eye on, and doors that you can use to open your engagement with the market…
Once you’ve figured out how other teams engage with your customers, it’s up to you to create the opportunities and take advantage of them. If you’re trying to work with your sales team, find out when their account reviews happen, and make sure that they know you’re interested in attending — offer to be a silent attendee, maybe even the scribe for the meeting, taking notes. After you’ve got a couple of those reviews down, speak up and ask clarifying questions — but make sure that whatever you say is in support of your team and your product. Nothing will kill your attendance at sales-related meetings faster than sinking a deal or souring a renewal.
As for Marketing, the surest way to get your pass to attend industry events is to offer to help out with the transportation, setup, and/or teardown. All of these things are time-consuming and exhausting, and Marketing teams rarely have enough resources to ensure that it all gets taken care of on their own. If you can attach yourself to these efforts, you’ll wind up seeing marketing fight for the budget to send you and for the time away from the office — not a bad place to be at all!
And keep in mind that you don’t have to rely on other teams and other people to create these opportunities — you can usually find at least one event that happens locally that you can attend to establish some relationships with those in the market. While these may not be quite as fancy as some of the bigger events, they provide a low-key, off-hours chance to meet and engage with your market, your customers, and your prospects.
Build Your Own Relationships
So…you’ve figure out how others engage with the market, created some opportunities, and capitalized on them to establish some relationships — now what?
It’s not enough to just know people, nor is it enough to just meet people. Rather, you have to cultivate these relationships so that they’re actually useful to you. Knowing someone and being able to call them and get feedback on your proposed solutions, mockups, wireframes, or even just ideas…are entirely different things. Treat these relationships like a sales team would treat their leads — cultivate them and make sure that you’re maintaining a regular schedule of contact with them. Ensure that you’re bringing value to those contacts as well as extracting value from them — you can’t just call them every month and ask for their input; you’ve got to show a little bit in order to get them to tell. Figure out what interests them most, and what you can share, and manage their expectations as well as those of the other teams that you’re working with. It’s your job to remain in contact with your market and your customers, but you have to do so in a way that doesn’t foul a pending sales deal, that doesn’t contradict the marketing message that’s out there, and that doesn’t endanger your own job by sharing confidential information with the wrong people.
Communicate often, communicate with value, and build a strong relationship built on mutual value, mutual trust, and mutual respect.
As Product Managers, we’re often right on the front lines when things start to go sideways — when the demo fails in the middle of a big customer presentation, when the Ops team can’t deploy the “fully-tested” and “ready for production” release, or when your customer acquisition and retention numbers start to dip. But rarely do we really talk about or adequately prepare ourselves for how to properly deal with these kinds of situations — the best Product Managers I’ve known have been optimistic and pragmatic, but when emotions are hot and fires are burning, how can we effectively jump in with productive direction and effective problem-solving skills? Here are some ideas…
Of all of the teams that Product Managers must deal with on a regular basis, I really can’t think of any that have a worse reputation amongst our kin than Sales teams. Common tropes that I hear when talking about Sales teams with other Product Managers include things like “they don’t understand the product” or “they make commitments we can’t follow up on” or even “they just lie to make their commission.” And while each of these statements has a kernel of truth buried inside it, much of the responsibility for these failures on the part of the Sales team can be traced back or shared by the Product team itself. I personally believe that it’s absolutely essential for a successful Product Manager to have a strong and productive working relationship with their Sales team, and without that it’s nearly impossible to provide the kind of holistic guidance that separates a “good” Product Manager from a “great” one.
Last year, around this same time, I created a very popular post on the 5 things that Product Managers should be thankful for: Customers, Sales, Developers, the Cloud, and Our Peers. As we’re running up against another Thanksgiving here in the US, it’s time to revisit that post and provide a few new things that Product Managers should be thankful for this year!
1. The Product
I really can’t believe that I overlooked the most important thing that we work on every single day, but somehow I did last year!! So, the number one slot goes to the product itself, whatever it may be and whatever shape it may take for you. Without the product, we’d have nothing but ideas and a vision – it’s the execution that matters, after all. Managing a product that elegantly solves customer problems in a way that doesn’t get in the way of their goals but guides them gently from beginning to end is an amazing experience, and being the captain of that ship is a reward in and of itself.
2. Big Data
As our ability to collect massive amounts of data on our customers, our market, and our product increases, the technology to mine that data for pearls of wisdom and “Aha!” moments grows as well. Big data technologies allow us to not only store data, which we’ve been able to do in some form for decades, but also to analyze, pivot, and dig deeply into that data in ways that might have been improbable or impossible in previous storage and database technologies. While we still have to be certain that we’re measuring what matters, and that what matters is being measured – “Big Data” provides us with greater confidence in our insights and assurance that our inferences from the data are backed by a larger sample set.
3. User Experience and Design Teams
Inevitably, any list that’s self-limited to only five items has to leave someone (or something) out, and last year’s list left out many groups that contribute to the overall success of the product. One of these was the UX and Design teams that we all work with, and who provide the insight, instincts, and reasoned efforts to push us toward considering the user in everything that we do. Working with a great UX team is a thing of beauty – their influence is felt from the beginning of the project all the way through to the final polish and positioning of the solution. They remind us that we’re never building something for ourselves, but for others who have different problems, motivations, and experience – and that we should always design for the novice, but enable the expert. They keep our eye on the customer, when it can easily drift over to the technology, and for that we owe them all our thanks.
4. Service, Operations, and Support Teams
Another group that was left out last year are the front-line folks who interface and interact directly with both the customer and the technology that we create on a day-to-day basis. Having strong service teams who assist the customer in implementation, integration, or even in their daily use of technology solutions provides any Product Manager with a massive amount of in-house experience in the daily struggles that customers have. Engaging with the Operations team on a regular basis forces us to realize that our work doesn’t stop when the solution is built, but continues when it goes into production and that we must keep our eye on the ball when there are technical complications that cause both our internal and external customers pain – while these people keep the lights on. And working with an engaged, supported, and empowered team of customer service professionals provides us with daily direct feedback on the pains that our customers are experiencing, as well as the creative solutions that our support teams provide them. Ignore these teams at your peril, my fellow Product Managers – they have more to teach us about ourselves, our product, and our customer than many organizations give them credit for.
5. Our Mentors
Finally, this year I think it’s appropriate to think about our mentors and to extend our thanks to them for sharing their own experience, knowledge, and practices with us. Even if you haven’t had a formal mentor/mentee relationship, there’s someone in your career who’s taken the time and effort to give you feedback, support, and suggestions on how to become better at the things that you do on a daily basis, who’s been fearless in raising with you areas of improvement, and who’s happily provided praise to you when you’ve exceeded their expectations. I can think of at least three people I’d consider mentors, and I certainly wouldn’t be the successful Product Manager that I am without their influence, assistance, and guidance. If you’ve taken the time to bring a new Product Manager under your wing, you have my thanks this year – and hopefully theirs as well.
And, as with last year, I want to extend some specific thanks to a few folks who really made my 2015 a successful and prosperous year!
- General Assembly – This year I had the amazing opportunity to teach a 10-week, 40-hour intensive Product Management course with the Seattle branch of General Assembly. I cannot describe how awesome it was to share my experience and expertise with my class and to watch as they worked through the steps of creating a product idea and walking it through every step of the ideation process, ending in a final presentation before actual Product Management professionals.
- UserVoice – I was contacted earlier this year by a representative of UserVoice to join their team of Product Management professionals who create long-form content for their blog. It’s been a different experience writing 2500+ word posts for them, but it’s also stretched my research and writing talents forcing me to be a better and more thoughtful writer all around. I’m extremely thankful for that opportunity and look forward to continuing to provide great content well into 2016.
- My friends, family, and colleagues who supported me in all of my diverse efforts this year, with patience and kindness even when things were stressful and when time to spend with them might have been short.
As a Product Manager, we all have very close ties to our product — in some ways it’s our metaphorical baby. And like any parent, we tend to focus on the good parts of our product — the problems it solves, the efficiency that it provides, the benefits that everyone who uses it gets to avail themselves of. Unfortunately, the inverse of that is also true — we also tend to overlook the areas in which our product doesn’t quite meet our customers’ needs, where it barely misses the mark in competitive comparisons, and where it marginally loses out when compared side-by-side with other offerings.
And when these things are pointed out, some product managers immediately turn defensive — saying things like “they just don’t understand” or “they’re not getting the right training” or even “sales doesn’t know how to position”. Unfortunately, all of those things are actually your problem to solve, and sometimes you’ve got to accept some lumps in order to figure out where your biggest opportunities to improve actually lie.