I’m excited to kick off the new year with a new installment of my ongoing “10 Questions” series, surveying leaders in the Product Management world for their thoughts on the fundamentals of Product Management as well as questions related to their specific areas of expertise. For this January’s article, I reached out to Teresa Torres who is an amazing product discovery coach working out of Portland, Oregon — just a few hours south of me. She’s also the primary author of an amazing product blog at ProductTalk.org. I’ll let Teresa introduce herself to you in her own words:
Teresa is a product discovery coach who helps teams gain valuable insights from their customer interviews, run effective product experiments, and drive product outcomes that create value for their customers and their businesses. She teaches teams how to connect the dots between their research activities and their product decisions, inspiring confidence that they are on the right track. Recent clients include Allstate, Capital One, The Guardian, and Snagajob.
Before becoming a coach, Teresa spent the majority of her career leading product and design teams at early-stage internet companies. Most recently, Teresa was VP of Products at AfterCollege, an Internet startup that helps college students find their first job. She was CEO of Affinity Circles, an online community provider for university alumni associations and a social recruiting service used by Fortune 500 companies. She also held product and design roles at Become.com and HighWire Press.
Teresa has a BS in Symbolic Systems from Stanford University and an MS in Learning and Organizational Change from Northwestern University.
And, without further ado, Teresa’s 10 Questions:
What does “Product Management” mean to you?
Product management is the art and science of creating value for customers in a way that creates value for our businesses. It’s a team sport that encompasses multiple disciplines and requires true collaboration. It requires juggling many competing needs against real technological constraints, while shipping value week over week. It’s a blast.
How did you wind up becoming a Product Manager?
I started out as an interaction designer and front-end software engineer. I spent most of my career at early-stage startups that rarely had product managers. I found myself doing product management long before I formally knew what it was. Somewhere along the way, a boss said to me, you do great product work, let’s make you a product manager. I still blend and identify with all three roles.
What one piece of advice would you have to someone who wants to be a Product Manager?
Always be learning. It’s a broad role that is evolving quickly. Every day that you aren’t learning is a day that you are falling behind. But don’t dabble in lots of areas. Pick one or two areas that interest you most and dive deep. Become an expert. Once you’ve exhausted one area, move on to another area. But remember to go back and refresh old areas often. This will help you build a well-rounded set of skills with depth rather than being a one-trick pony or a shallow generalist.
What is the most commonly overlooked ability that separates the “1%” Product Manager from the rest?
Curiosity. Curiosity about our customers and end-users. Curiosity when an experiment or feature didn’t have the intended impact. Curiosity to get to the bottom of odd behavior. Curiosity to stick with it when it takes far more iterations than you expected. Curiosity when your head of sales bangs on your door with a feature request day after day. Curiosity when your CEO shifts strategy quarter after quarter.
Most people move on too soon. They make the quick decision and move on to the next thing. This leads to shallow products. It takes curiosity to understand the nuances that lead to deep products that are closely aligned with a customer’s needs in a way that can drive value for both the customer and the business.
What’s the best advice you’ve personally received or read that positively affected your approach to Product Management?
Be prepared to be wrong. Chip and Dan Heath wrote a book called Decisive summarizing what we know about good decision making. I think every product manager should read it. One piece of advice has become a north star for me, which is to be prepared to be wrong.
I love it because it removes the burden to be right. But it also adds the burden of iterating until you get it right. It’s both a relief and a commitment to show up and do the work.
What does the process of “Product Discovery” mean to you?
At it’s core, it means co-creating with customers. With the rise in popularity of user experience design, we’ve gotten good at validating with our users. We make all the decisions, design the product, and then validate it with our customers. But for me, product discovery is more than that. It’s co-creating with customers.
It’s bringing them into the process before we’ve made all the decisions. It’s giving them a whiteboard marker and letting them draw with us. This is where the magic happens.
It involves interviewing customers early and often so that they can help us choose what problems to solve, they can be the judge of whether our solution solves those problems, and they can help us find new solutions when we miss the mark.
Some people here this and they bring up Steve Jobs. They argue customers don’t know what they want. There’s an important distinction to be made here. Customers don’t know what’s possible with technology as well as we might. But they know what they need better than we do. That’s why we need to co-create with them. Good product discovery involves combining our technology expertise with our customer’s expertise about their own lives to build products that our customers will love.
What do you feel is the biggest myth or misunderstanding about what product discovery means?
Most people equate product discovery with usability testing and a/b testing. But both of these are validation techniques not co-creation techniques.
If you had to think of one thing that any Product Manager can do right now to make their decisions more data-driven, what would that be?
1. Instrument their product. 2. Interview customers every week.
Why do you think that so many companies fail to maintain ongoing product discovery efforts with their market, prospects, and customers?
We value delivery more than discovery. Most companies are still output-focused and not outcome-focused. We measure success based on how many features we shipped instead of by how much value we created. We like the idea of product discovery, but not at the cost of delivery.
And even that framing isn’t quite right. Because delivery should push the pace of discovery. And talking about them as two different things isn’t quite right either. We deliver to discover and we discover to deliver. This is where language does us a disservice.
But the reality is, as long as we measure technology teams the way we measure manufacturing (e.g. throughput, velocity, story points), we won’t make time for discovery. We need to measure value. When we measure value, we have no choice but to spend more time in discovery, because that’s the only way to deliver more value.
What advice would you give to a Product Manager who is struggling to convince their company to invest in ongoing product discovery practices?
Just start doing it. Talk to a customer on your lunch break. Ask for five minutes at the end of a sales call. Use one of the dozens of tools we now have to run unmoderated user studies. Every week, ask, what can I do this week? Try to make this week better than last week. Repeat.
Given the tools we have today, there is no reason why anybody shouldn’t be doing product discovery well.