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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Product Manager: You Are a Keystone

I have an overview presentation on product management that I've been refining for years. One of the most interesting slides is entitled "Why product management is hard". Reviewing the slide recently, a theme emerged that I had considered previously but I hadn't thought about deeply: one of the key sources of complexity and confusion for product managers and those who must work with them is the fact that product management spans so many boundaries that are much clearer for other professionals. While I often refer this delicate situation as "bridging" different worlds, I now prefer the analogy of a keystone. In case you're not familiar with the term, a keystone is "a central stone at the summit of an arch, locking the whole together." I like the idea that the keystone sits between two opposing forces, making the entire structure stronger. In this post, I'd like to enumerate some of the ways that a product manager acts as a keystone.

Product managers are a keystone between:

The Functional and Technical Perspectives

In a previous post, I described how the "outside in" functional perspective, which defines the "why" and "what" of a product, is fundamentally different from the "inside out" technical perspective, which defines "how" something gets built. Even though product management accountabilities are functional, in highly technology-oriented domains such as software product management, it is important (if not critical) for PMs to have technical knowledge relevant to their domain and to understand how software is built and tested. Bridging these worlds can be difficult as technology changes rapidly and too much familiarity can constrain what a product manager perceives as possible.

The Problem and Solution Spaces

I've also written about the problem and solution spaces and the product manager's relationship to them. If you read this blog, you know that I think a thorough understanding of the problem space is absolutely critical for product managers. In terms of our relationship to the solution space, you need look no further than our title! We *are not* problem managers; we are product managers! As a product manager, you must identify a compelling market problem and address it with a solution that will generate expected business results.

"On the shelf" and "off the shelf" Professionals

I've previously used the analogy of a shelf as a simple model to demonstrate the traditional accountabilities of a product owner. In my experience, product managers are primarily responsible for getting the right product "on the shelf", or available to the market at the right time at the right cost. Marketing and sales are more often accountable for getting the product "off the shelf". As a product manager, we are often in a unique position to keep these worlds communicating and aligned. I typically use "business reviews" as an opportunity to bring the "on the shelf" and "off the shelf" folks together. I'll write a bit more about this practice in a future post.

Outside the Firewall and Inside the Firewall

Although all members of the product development team should be exposed directly to the "outside world" (including customers), there's no denying that the product manager plays a special role in brokering this communication and making sure each "side" is aligned and in balance. Regularly sharing your experiences with customers and partners is a great way to increase your credibility with engineering and keep them in the loop. Taking a developer or quality professional with you on customer visits from time to time can make development feel more involved and improve your relationship with technicians in general.

Product strategy definition and execution

As a product manager, you're not only accountable for defining your product's vision and strategy (with the help of others, of course!), but you're responsible for making sure it gets executed! On the definition side, you should be working closely with executive leadership and other disciplines to define the right vision and a plan for achieving it. On the execution side, you should be making sure you're doing something strategic every day and "orchestrating" the efforts of others to execute your plan.

Would you agree with my assessment? Are there other "keystone" roles that product managers play?

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Thursday, May 21, 2015

Strategic Software Product Management (SPM) White Paper

I've just finished a white paper on the strategic role of software product management in software product organizations. You can register for a free copy on my site, Looking forward to hearing your feedback!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

What product managers need BEFORE they prioritize release investments

The fact that I see lots of blog posts and other content on feature prioritization makes sense -- it's generally considered one of the key accountabilities of product managers. There are all kinds of prioritization techniques, e.g., value vs. complexity, the Kano Model and MoSCoW,  that can help you focus on investments that are most likely to contribute to your product's success. Recently, I realized that I see much less emphasis placed on the preparation required to prioritize features, irrespective of the approach adopted. It also occurred to me that very often product managers are prioritizing the wrong things.

It is common for product managers to create lists of requirements or the associated features (requirements and features are *not* the same thing) and then try to prioritize or even stack rank them based on a combination of intuition and perhaps one or more of the prioritization techniques mentioned above. The problem with this approach is that individual features, by themselves, don't necessarily support a broader use case or scenario that actually delivers customer value. Imagine someone asking you as a car buyer if you prefer a stereo in the car *or* speakers. The truth is, your requirement is that you can listen to music. I was years into my career before I realized that I should be prioritizing use cases/scenarios rather than individual features. I must admit I'm a bit embarrassed that I regularly provided customers and partners with flat lists of features and asked them to prioritize them (sometimes based on a fake budget) without their having an understanding of how these features would work together to support their key scenarios. I realize now the results from such exercises were extremely suspect and often misleading.

So now that we know what to prioritize (use cases/user stories scanrios and not features), what do we need as input for the prioritization exercise regardless of the method we plan to use? I would suggest the following:

Business Motivation
Here I refer to the "why"aspect of product development, referring specifically to the OMG's Business Motivation Model, which defines key concepts such as vision, goals and objectives. Defining a product can be thought of as an exercise is balancing stakeholder needs with your product vision, which, if you desire to be innovative, will, by definition, imply investments in features your customers don't know they want yet! Understanding your vision and business objectives clearly is critical to prioritizing investments in your product.  I've written about the business motivation model in a previous post.

Stakeholder Analysis
The use cases or scenarios you're prioritizing should be a reflection of requirements you've gathered from all your stakeholders, including (but not limited to!) customers. Partners, executive management and even product managers of other products in the portfolio can have a profound impact on your product's success; don't overlook them! If you're not aware of all of your stakeholders or don't understand their influence on your product's success, there is a very good chance your prioritization efforts will yield half-baked results and ultimately, unhappy stakeholders. The stakeholder influence-impact grid can be a great start to understanding your stakeholders.

Implementation Estimates
You will need at least high level estimates of how much effort each use case will take to develop and test (development costs can be dwarfed by the cost of testing some features). It is impossible to reason over the net benefit of a given investment if you don't understand the cost side of the equation. Although accurate estimates can be hard to come by early in the release process, techniques such as t-shirt sizing can help.

Business Justification
Each user scenario you prioritize should be justified from a business perspective. I'm not referring here to a full-fledged business case, which can be difficult or impossible to reasonably develop at the feature level. What I mean is that you should have a sense of the likely business impact with enough detail that you can compare scenarios on this basis. Will the scenario increase adoption? Will it unblock a significant number of sales? Doing some thinking here can help exclude features that seem valuable but have questionable business impact and, of course, help determine which scenarios will give you the best bang for your buck.

What do you do to prepare for prioritizing release investments? What other types of data do you collect? What exactly do you prioritize?

Previous post: A simple life hack to deal with the mental "reminders" we receive on the verge of sleep

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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

A simple life hack to deal with the mental "reminders" we receive on the verge of sleep

One of the most annoying things about the way my brain works (there are many of them!) is that its task reminder mechanism works best when I lay down at night (usually exhausted). It seems that almost without fail, when I'm on the verge of sleep, I'll remember something critical that I should have done earlier in the day and need to do urgently when I get up. Until recently, thinking about how I could possibly remember these things in my sleepy state would keep me awake. I finally came up with a decent solution: I bought a pen that shines with a very dim red light. I keep it and a notebook by the side of my bed. The light doesn't wake me up and the peace of mind I get knowing I won't forget an important task is amazing. I realize this doesn't push the innovation envelope, but if you have the same problem, it's a pretty decent hack.

BTW, I have received no commercial consideration for the following link. :P

Monday, May 4, 2015

Are you managing your most valuable professional asset? You should be.

In my 20 year career, I've worked at 6 different companies ranging from multi-nationals to a tiny 2-person outfit run out of an apartment. I've worked in numerous cities on three contents, meeting innumerable other professionals in just about every professional context imaginable. I now realize that if there is one thing I wish I would have done differently throughout my career, it would have been to better manage my professional network.

That last phrase is probably worth dissecting. Firstly, I'm referring to my direct professional network, those with whom I've interacted enough that we would recognize each other's name . Some of these people were coworkers at all levels of the organizational hierarchy, others were customers and still others partners or consultants. When I say manage, I'm referring to the idea of treating that asset with the care and respect it deserves. Don't get me wrong: I have made efforts to network and keep in touch with folks, but if I'm honest with myself, I haven't  made an investment in managing this asset commensurate with its worth. Something that has become crystal clear to me in the last few years is that my professional network is probably the single most valuable professional asset I have. I'm writing this post primarily for people who are beginning their professional journey -- although I think these ideas apply to anyone. You're going to meet tons of people over your career -- managing these relationship can make a difference in your career that is difficult to overstate.

The first time the importance of my professional network dawned on me, someone I really respected left the first company that hired me. I mentioned how disappointed I was to an older co-worker and he said "Look at the bright side: You now have a good contact at Company X." (Whatever it was.) We were in a very competitive industry and job market so he went on to explain that, the way he looked at it, his network's "reach" was growing almost daily!

The problem with neglecting your network is that you can't recreate or easily invigorate it in short order when you need it most, typically when you desperately need expert advice on something or, even worse, need to find employment. On that note, staying in contact with folks just so they can help you out when you need it doesn't sit well with some and clearly shouldn't. You goal in maintaining your network should be to create a potentially mutually beneficial relationship. Indeed, one of the best ways to keep your network healthy is to be willing to help others.

So how do you go about actively managing your network? I would assume there a many approaches, but I'll share a simple practice that has worked for me. It starts by making sure you store people's contact information in a consistent system of record that doesn't change often. A lot of our contact information ends up in our-email client in the form of contact records. Make sure you take this information with you when you change employers! Regularly backing it up by exporting it is a good idea.

Once you have a system of record, you should keep notes on your contacts -- it's amazing what you'll forget after just a few weeks. It's also amazing how well people respond to your remembering a detail about them, whether it's about their job situation or their personal life.

The next step is to schedule "ticklers", reminders to contact folks every once in a while so you don't lose touch. I do this with private appointments in my Outlook calendar. If I work for a period of time with someone I really like or respect, I'll create an appointment for several months in the future to remind me to send a quick e-mail or make a quick call. Sometimes I'll just say "hey", asking them how they are and what they're up to. Other times I'll include a link to something online that is relevant to them or our work together. Either way, this simple gesture is often enough to sustain familiarity for years.

How often you contact folks is a matter of judgment. I would say that if you've been in the work world for more than 5 years, you could easily ping one or two people in your network every week or two. I can assure you that a few years down the road you'll be glad you did.

In closing, your professional network may be the most valuable professional asset you have -- manage it carefully. The brutal truth is that you either manage it or lose it.