Product management is as much an art as it is a science. And what is the right mix of those two? I don't know if there will ever be a right answer to that question. The role of product manager encapsulates so many aspects, from discovery to ideation to roadmapping to research to implementation and back around again, that there are no shortage of opinions on the best way to do the role.
So with that said, here's my overarching philosophy. It's not so much a process (though I've got lots of thoughts on process) but more a set of guiding principles as I go through the processes involved in managing a product.
The image at the beginning probably gave this away. Spoilers, I know. But for me this is one of the most important aspects of product management. We, as product managers, have awesome ideas. A lot. But not all of those ideas are the right ideas. And if you dig a little deeper, they may not even be that awesome (gasp).
I remember a team I used to work with deciding to adopt a new internal tool that was going to save all sorts of time for everyone. It was going to cut down on all manual work being done in Excel and whatnot, and ultimately free up people for a lot more strategic, value-add work.
All very awesome sounding stuff. Of course, no one who was deciding on purchasing and implementing the tool talked with most of the people who would have to use it. They assumed they knew the users well enough to make the decision. Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly), it was an ultimate failure. The work the tool could automate was a small fraction of what the end users actually did. And the time it took to set up things in the tool was often longer than it took to do them manually over the course of a few months, so adoption was nil.
Listening is really the key to understanding what customers and users need. So obviously this means having conversations with users and customers. often. We can't listen to them if we aren't talking and asking questions.
But it really needs to go deeper than that as well. We can't just listen to what they're saying, we have to listen to the issues that they're having, the problems they're encountering, the needs they may or may not be articulating.
And that leads to the next part.
It's not enough to just listen, we have to understand the problems and issues. That often means digging deeper into what users are saying to find out why they are saying it. Maybe a customer says that they are having an issue using a product. But before we can solve that issue, we have to understand what is at its core.
My son loves to play with little toy cars. He asked me recently to "come play race cars" with him, and I happily sat down on the floor and started pulling toy cars out to play with. He promptly grabbed them from me, threw them back in the bin and told me "that's not race car." So I tried again to choose cars that looked like race cars, but was met with the same result. Finally, he started pulling out cars for me, clearly disappointed that his dad didn't know what a race car was.
As it turns out, race cars are any type of toy car that have a stripe on them (whether or not they are even cars). I didn't know that. I thought I knew what a race car was, but my son's definition of race car is different than mine.
How often do we do the same thing as product managers? We listen, and believe we've understood, when in fact we may still have completely different ideas than our customers do. That's why digging deeper to really understand is so important.
Once we've listened and understood, it's time to take action. This part should feel pretty obvious after the last two, but it's really an important part. After we've listened and understood what the problem is, it's time to solve it.
Of course, this will mean different things for different areas of product management. If we're doing initial research, it could mean creating ideas or solutions. Or if we've already got solutions, it may mean creating prototypes and mock-ups. It may mean creating different tests to run to try out various theories or approaches. But no matter what, it's the natural outcome of really listening and understanding. Acting on what we've learned.
As easy as it sounds though, we all fall into the trap of not taking action. Even when we understand what the problem is and have come up with some great solutions! Sometimes setting up the right test can be difficult. Or prototypes could be pretty time consuming. Or maybe there is already a solution in place but we just don't want to rock the boat with a new way of doing things.
Years ago I worked on another internal product that was used to create marketing materials. Anyone could use it to put together slide decks or brochures based on information that was already there. Unfortunately it wasn't a well-loved tool, but I knew it could be better. So I started talking with all the teams who used it. They showed me what they did and gave me the chance to really understand how they used it and where it was lacking. I also talked with the people responsible for maintaining all the info. Once I had done that, I came up with several new features that would radically change the product and make it more useful and easier to maintain. I met with the developers to go over it and came up with a plan on executing.
Armed with all the information and my proposal, it was just a matter of getting management on board. Unfortunately, that is where things went wrong. They saw the benefit and loved the ideas, but held off on making a decision. So we waited. And pushed harder. And waited some more. Unfortunately, by the time we got approval to move ahead, the product was all but dead. Not taking action had doomed it to go unused. So even when we could improve it, it was too late to get people back on board.
It is crucial to not only understand the issues, but to move forward with solutions. If we don't take action, all the work we've done is for naught. And that's how good ideas, and good products, die.
So once we've created, it's really time to start over again with listening, understanding and creating.
So there you have it. My general philosophy around product management. It really starts with listening. Listening to customers, listening to data, listening to business stakeholders and even listening to competitors to understand how to move our product forward.
Listening, understanding and influencing are steps all along the product management process. Whether it is in analyzing the market, coming up with new product features, testing ideas, building and launching, or iterating, we have to be listening and understanding customers and team members.
And at the end of the day, if we've listened, understood and influenced correctly, I believe that the likelihood of a successful product or feature will be much higher.
My personal musings on a variety of topics.