Product management is often a delicate balancing act. Those on product teams or who manage them, know the struggles of balancing user needs with corporate and functional demands. How do you get product roadmap buy-in from all stakeholders involved? Furthermore, how do you ensure you’re building the right products and features?
Product management experts, Cassidy Fein, a product manager for Echo360; Kirsten Butzow, speaker and Pragmatic Marketing instructor; and Jesus Ramirez, partner and VP of product at Tallwave, share answers these questions in this Google Hangout and in the responses below.
What are ways to drive alignment internally?
Kirsten: Alignment really starts with a clear understanding of your market and corporate objectives. Before you can successfully drive internal alignment, your organization needs clarity on the problem it is solving for its targeted buyers and users.
Cassidy: A crystal-clear mission from the company overall will do 99% of the work here. It is vital people understand, and are excited by, why they’re showing up to work every day and what purpose their work serves.
Jesus: Clear understanding and prioritization of customer needs. There is no single way to do this, but a few things are important: (1) Open dialogue with key stakeholders, even if that means locking people in a room until you agree what is most important. (2) Engaging users early. They will help inform the priority of needs to solve.
What process have you used to choose the right thing to build?
Kirsten: Once you have clarity on the core market problems your organization is solving, you can really start to hone in on the right thing to build by asking two basic questions: What are you building? And who are you going to delight? A great artifact that we use at Pragmatic Marketing is a Strategy Matrix that helps you understand how to allocate resources as it relates to these two questions. For example, are you focused on targeting existing customers, competitor’s customers, new customers or entirely new market segments? Are you focusing on incremental product improvements, add-ons to existing products or new products, or underlying technologies? The bottom line is that you can’t build everything for everyone, so having a tool that helps facilitate a discussion on the allocation of your resources is really key.
Cassidy: Product managers shouldn’t be in love with process. They need to be flexible enough to do whatever works best for the team. Also, what does “right thing to build” mean? Any sort of process that involves other stakeholders outside of dev or product (aka C-level folks) that helps them understand there is a finite amount of resources can really help as well. I have a friend that uses Pandora’s process for prioritization – plan out the next quarter by giving everyone “money” to “buy in” to features.
People can then see how many features they thought they “needed,” but at the end of the day got left on the board.
Jesus: Prototyping and testing. Can’t stress this enough. I consider this PM’s secret weapon and the fastest way to understand users’ wants and needs. When at Zazzle, fresh out of college, I quickly learned that I could bring most value to our product team by being the voice of the customer and understand their needs better than anyone else on the team. I used prototyping and testing as way to do this.
What advice do you have for product managers who are looking to take a product to market, but are struggling with how to manage stakeholders’ needs?
Kirsten: Lock your stakeholders in a room, and don’t let them leave until you have agreement on those two key questions of what problem you are solving and who are you going to delight. I jest, but there’s some truth to it. Also think about putting a construct in place that throttles communications by audience. For example, a wider audience would be presented a roadmap as a predictive reference for the general direction you are heading that communicates broad themes, goals and timelines. Different groups would receive more detailed information as the development process advances. For example, maybe sales and marketing would get a review of what’s coming only when it is in demo-ready mode and support gets visibility of what’s coming when development starts.
Jesus: It comes down to visibility and communication. As a product manager you’re wearing a lot of hats including managing expectations. During product releases, good visibility and communication into the product roadmap, and what is going to be launched, will help stakeholders build their plans and do their jobs effectively. That might include sales, marketing, the client management team, or even operations. Managing them should necessarily fall on the product manager’s shoulders so long as they have a clear vision of what to expect with the roadmap.
How do you manage big requests (new feature set) with small requests (bug fixes, improvements)?
Cassidy: It’s all about balance. I lovingly call this the terrarium conundrum – you start with the big rocks and big plants (new feature sets, blocker bugs), then layer in smaller rocks and some smaller flowers (improvements, less dire bugs), and finally top it off with some sand (polish improvements, minuscule bugs). Sometimes you get to fit in more big rocks and plants, other times you get to layer in more sand. You’ll know if you need to adjust something along the line if you’re constantly getting sprints that have only one or the other.
For existing customers who may have disruptive demands, how do you deal with them and minimize their disruptive impact, especially if they threaten to stop using or testing the product?
Jesus: You have to ask how important is that customer or user. Do they carry a lot of clout in your community or represent a big portion of your revenue? If they are very important you may want to answer their demands. But you want to try to get yourself out of that position and diversify your customer base as early as possibly. Sometimes that’s easier said than done.
If the customer is not that important or influential to your brand, you should still empathize with them. Sometimes just hearing them out will appease them.
Cassidy: 9 times out of 10, if a customer has gotten to this point, it’s because they don’t feel like their voice has been heard in the product feedback process, or they feel like their issues are being ignored. Having an honest conversation and figuring out their workflows, why they feel a certain feature is necessary right away, and working through their issues with them is a great way to better understand your product as a whole and empathize with your customers. As a product manager, you naturally have a lot of pride in your product, so it can be hard to hear negative feedback, but it’s important!
How do you keep continuity in the midst of competing customer requests?
Jesus: Prioritize needs, not features. One effective tactic is to get to the root of the requests. Ask WHY. Ask what is the underlying need or problem a user is trying to fix with the features they’re requesting. The why is often more interesting and you may find that you’re already solving for those issues in the roadmap. You may also be able to consolidate multiple feature requests if they’re addressing the same problem in different ways.
Are there any thought leaders or product teams that you follow closely or would recommend to fellow product managers?
Cassidy: I’m always impressed by Jared Spool and his thoughts on product. Our company has some similarities to Box, so I like to get some insight on their processes and lessons learned when possible – luckily Aaron Levie is pretty vocal. He recently did a live chat on Product Hunt that was super informative. Mind the Product also has a fabulous newsletter. Every article they share I want to read. I also stalk the Medium team’s release notes. I have an obsession with how silly and amazing they are.
Jesus: I follow Slack. They have a very strong product team. They’re one of the few companies that understand the importance of embedding personality into the app as a way of driving engagement. Mailchimp also nails personality and branding. Ken Norton, former Google product manager, and a former colleague, Josh Elman, who is now a Partner at Greylock Ventures and is a great person to follow on the consumer side, are a couple others I really like.
How do you effectively manage the needs of team members? How do you balance their needs and keep them working toward the goals that are best for your team, your customers and your company?
Cassidy: I overly communicate with my team. I like to make sure, from the beginning, they know what the mission is, and help everyone understand the problems your customers are facing on the broader level. But also on the day-to-day, are there things your team is dealing with you can help them fix or make easier? Are there communications among the team you can help massage or bring people together? Just making sure everyone is communication and onboard with the vision and mission is key.
How do you balance the needs of perfectionists on your team (designers, developers) with requests from business stakeholders (CEO, sales team, customers) who always want new features faster and sooner?
Kirsten: There is the point of diminishing returns. We can over-engineer our product. There is a point where it’s good enough, and good enough is actually what the market wants. And the incremental value of those final little tweaks just doesn’t have the return and is not a good use of our resources. That’s where that early/often, prototype/testing loop is so critical. It provides us instantaneous feedback, and if we do that right, it should be pretty evident when we hit that mark. It’s ultimately what the market wants from us, not what we want to create.
Jesus: Before you launch, you’re not going to be able to learn everything about the new features you’re launching. Getting your team into the mindset that there is still going to be a lot of learning once you launch is helpful. It allows you to build 80% of the product or feature based on what you know from the prototyping and testing, and know that the other 20% you will learn from users. This allows you to make adjustments more easily and to what your users want.
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Written by Tallwave