Be the Product Cheerleader and Bring a Playbook

by Wes Royer

Be the Cheerleader…

Being the product manager responsible for bringing a new product or feature from concept to launch can be a frustrating journey. Even with executive backing to make your product a priority in the company’s portfolio, there will be roadblocks (internal and external competition), obstacles (defects, misses), and constraints (funding, speed to market, resourcing).

But no matter how frustrating a meeting, day, or week gets, a good product manager remains the product’s cheerleader in front of the project team and stakeholders. There needs to be a balance with reality, but the product manager needs to constantly be a positive light in face of issues and risks. The product manager needs to consistently and gracefully reiterate to the team why the product is important to the customer and why the product is integral to the company’s strategy. Note that the word “cheerleader” contains the word “leader.”

I have seen project teams strive and smile through challenges when their product owner maintains this “glass half full” attitude. When a product owner expresses a “glass half empty” attitude in front of the project team and stakeholders, I have seen lack of collaboration and efficiently quickly take over the project team. This only leads to doubt, poor delivery, and even defiance, which in the end will result in a blame game.

…and Bring a Playbook

Let’s assume that the product manager is a captain cheerleader. Is there a playbook, a roadmap? If they don’t have a clear roadmap and strategy for their product, the project team will notice and start asking questions about direction and purpose. Being a product cheerleader without a roadmap is like running onto the field without a playbook.

For example, let’s say your project team is a strong group of resources that has worked well together for the past year. Each team member respects one another, and consistently delivers on-time with quality, but keeps the environment fun. If this team starts working on a product that lacks clear goals and lacks an actionable roadmap strategy to meet those goals, the team may push through a couple sprints or releases just fine. But it will not take long before you start hearing questions in and out of meetings such as, “What are we working on next?” and “How do I know what we’re building now is scaling the product for what we need to build for the next release or client?”

Even worse, resources start stating, “Guess this product is not a priority,” or half joking say, “When are we getting our pink slips?” I have witnessed this, and it is uncomfortable and alarming. At this point, cheerleading will be ignored for blind enthusiasm.

In today’s world of increased real-time collaboration and Agile methodologies, team members wear and share multiple hats of responsibility and any coworker may ask strategic questions.  Having a documented roadmap and being able to clearly explain the strategy behind it helps keep the team on track with direction and purpose, which should lead to a happy and productive team for your product.

Roadmap template, copyright Wes Royer & Product Fencing

And for you Agilists, see "Even Agile Teams Need a Product Roadmap."

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Product Management 101: Identifying and Assessing Opportunities

by Sam Bryant

One of the core responsibilities of a product manager is identifying and assessing opportunities. There is no shortage of product ideas. Everyone has ideas for products. Just think of how many times you've heard someone say or you've said to yourself, "I had that idea years ago," when you learn about a new product. Identifying product opportunities is fun. Most everyone likes to brainstorm and dream because pretty much anyone can do it and, again, it's fun.

The product manager does not need to be especially good at idea generation but must be able to elicit and capture ideas from others. Facilitating idea generation or brainstorming sessions is skill itself, though many companies may be hired to assist with this process.

The product manager's key function is to take a group of product ideas and evaluate and assess those ideas for viability. This is no easy task.

A framework I have seen applied for both identifying and assessing opportunities is approaching growth from your core. At one organization I was employed it was approached as an adjacency strategy where product development was approached by always staying adjacent to your core product offering, including customer, market, channel, geography, etc. and not straying too far at one time. At another organization, a consulting firm we worked with followed a growth from your core strategy focused on only moving one aspect of your business away from your core at a time. For example, same product in a new geography or new product to the same customers.

A growth from the core model eliminates the possibility for transformative change but mitigates risk when investing resources in growing a business. When applying this strategy to assessing product opportunities, it is essential to first define what is the core:

  • Customers
  • Channels
  • Geographies
  • Technologies
  • Sales team
  • Markets
  • Financials (margin, revenue, EBITDA)
Once you define your core you can evaluate potential opportunities based on their distance from your core. For example, if the new product idea will be sold to new customers in a new market via a new sales team, then the idea is 3 steps away from your core. You can use this methodology to quickly evaluate the risk and feasibility of success associated with product ideas and prioritize the ones that are closer to your core (they will have the lowest scores). While most product managers dream of developing the next iPod that will transform an entire industry, the majority of successful products are close to a company's core.

This methodology can be applied to narrow down a list of potential product ideas to 3 or 4. Any more and it will take too long to pick a product idea to pursue and the market opportunity may pass. Any less and you might complete your analysis and realize the 1 idea you picked is not a winner.

When you have decided on the top 3 or 4 product ideas to evaluate, it is time for development of a business case. Projecting potential revenue from sales as well as ballpark estimates of expenses can result in short and long term profitably estimates, which will lead to the product idea to pursue. I will not dive into business case development, as this is a skill that is critical to numerous positions and there are many resources available to reference.

Once you have picked the product idea to develop, it is time to define the product.

Next: Product Management 101: Right Product, Right Time

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What if Public School Curriculum was Treated like a Product?

by Wes Royer

One evening during my commute home, that is the question that popped up in my head. And over the next couple weeks, I was further inspired along the same topic by several TEDxRVA speakers, my two pre-K daughters, and Sir Ken Robinson.

So what if we treated our children’s education like a product? What would that mean?

First, we’d need to identify who the customer is. But the customer is the child receiving the education, right? Yes, but your typical grade-school or even high-school aged kid probably doesn’t know what they need from an education. Kids may joke about what they want to learn about in class, but it’s adults that know what education a kid needs to make a living and be successful after high school and college.

So how would a disciplined product manager help with identifying who the customer is and what that customer needs from public education?

A product manager would interview and get to know the customer. Sure, that product manager very likely attended public school and indeed can look back with a critical mind about what he wished he had learned in school vs. what he thinks was a complete waste of time. But that is biased opinion of one. A product manager would need to interview, know, and represent kids, parents, university heads, and business leaders to define what it is that today’s kids need to learn today to survive in the future.

And speaking of the future, a product manager would need to understand that education as a market inherits unpredictability of the financial and job markets, and suffers from education inflation or academic inflation. This highlights the importance of the “right product, right time” principle. The product manager isn’t defining what problems an education customer has yesterday or today; instead, they are defining what problems the customer will have 12 years from now.

That’s why the product manager would try to understand what universities are looking for in applicants 12 years from now. What education, skills, and mindsets are universities hoping to see in freshmen students 12 years from now to enhance their scholarly reputation 4 years after that?

Likewise, the product manager would attempt to understand what the job market and corporations are looking for in young applicants 12 to 16 years from now. What emerging jobs require greater math skills, and are we assuming all mathematic studies, or just algebra and geometry? Is learning a second language more important or less important 12 years from now, and what languages are the most useful? Do computer and typing skills outweigh handwriting and spelling tests? Do students need to learn the big SAT words when professional writing courses tell us to write at a grade school level? Is it more important to memorize dates and places instead of understanding why things have happened in the history of our country and the world?

How do we apply technology without sacrificing the student’s need to apply creative thinking and problem solving skills. How do we foster children’s intelligence, passion, imagination, and invention over standardization, conformity, and trend following? How do we teach confidence, integrity, focus, time management, presentation skills, and interpersonal communication skills? Aren’t these all problems that education as a product needs to address so that companies can hire people that will succeed personally and for the company?

Yes, the questions seem endless and impossible to define a product from, but a product manager would handle that by creating a roadmap, defining success for each “feature” on that roadmap, prioritizing each feature based on customer need, and then hopefully addressing each feature one at a time in some Agile method that accommodates flexibility in the roadmap.

And then, the product manager would have to evangelize the product, selling the concepts and marketing the benefits to leaders at all levels (federal, state, and local; public and private) that will themselves become evangelists. Corporations would lobby for the product on the grounds of its benefits to the economy, because the product manager provided direct and indirect benefits that offset the cost impacts of redefining a curriculum. And the product manager would have defined geographical work forces and foreign economies as competition.

Twelve years from now, how would we know if the changes were successful? Well, the product manager would have defined success and quantifiable metrics to measure against. And understanding that no product manager gets it 100% right, the product manager would be continually reevaluating the customer, the problems, the roadmap, and the solution.

All the above is what a disciplined product manager could do for education. There are probably private schools that take this approach already at their micro level. And I am not sure where and who to start with to achieve a state or federal “product” strategy. But as a product management professional, I know there’s a discipline that could help improve our kids’ future and the future of our economy.

References of inspiration…

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