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 In my opinion, it’s the primary cultural distinction between organizations that still cling to the old, outdated “waterfall” approaches.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.
It’s been awhile since I’ve posted one of my “PM 101” articles, so I figured with 2017 just kicking off now is as good a time as ever! Past articles have focused on marketing, sales, and design teams, but this time I want to focus on service teams. These types of teams are your integration specialists, your technical sales people who come in after a deal has closed to help clients onboard, or even your own internal team that uses your product on behalf of your customers. No matter where exactly they sit in your organization, service teams can be a prime source of information and validation for any Product Manager.
One of the ongoing challenges that we face as Product Managers is that we’re primarily charged with predicting customer and user behavior. We’re constantly asked to come up with new ideas, new features, and new designs that we “know” will delight our users, or at the very least satisfy them. But the fact is, predicting human behavior is incredibly difficult — there are many thousands of people who have spent hundreds of years trying to figure out why people do what they do (they’re called psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists), and we’re still making educated guesses at best. So, what are some of the challenges that we face?
Never have I heard a better description of the challenge that faces Product Managers than a quote that I overheard at this year’s ProductCamp Seattle — “Humans are hard…” spoken by none other than my fellow General Assembly Product Management instructor Tricia Cervenan, as part of a panel discussion. Those simple words struck a chord with me, as it made me think about all of the different ways in which we as Product Managers attempt to understand, document, and predict human behavior. Every single day I can come up with some variation on the idea that “humans are hard” impacts us in some way. [Read more…]
I’ve touched on User Stories on several occasions, my favorite being Why Your User Stories Suck! Today I’m here to share with you a very common, yet very commonly overlooked, way to check each and every User Story on your backlog to see whether or not it’s really “ready” for your Dev teams. One of the most frequent causes of delays and slowdowns in most Agile implementations that I’ve seen comes from a lack of balance in the User Stories that the team is being given to deliver — stories that are too big, or which are dictates, or which just exist on the backlog because “someone asked for it”. What we need to do as Product Managers is to occasionally take a close look at each of our backlog items and make sure that they meet the INVEST criteria — Independent, Negotiable, Valuable, Estimable, Small, and Testable. If we do this simple gut-check on a regular basis, we’re far more likely to see our teams succeed and to reduce the amount of time wasted in long, drawn-out planning sessions.
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.
There are a lot of potential pitfalls that threaten our success as Product Manager — but by far the worst, in my opinion, is falling too much in love with your own ideas, whether those are problems, solutions, or even assumptions about the market and our customers. While I think they take it a bit to the extreme, Pragmatic Marketing does have a point when they say, “Your opinions, while interesting, are irrelevant.” It’s in our nature to make assumptions and inferences from what we see going on around us — to create plans in the face of uncertainty and to identify potential opportunities that others are missing. But we do so at the very real danger of drinking our own product’s Kool-Aid and thinking that we have the one true solution and the one truth in the market. But in reality, that’s never the truth, and we need to check ourselves every single day against this danger.