What’s in your Toolbox?

Some state that a great career is formed by the people you collect and the skills you develop. That is very true and great Product managers add to that a toolbox of experience with many processes, organizational structures and reporting configurations.

Product teams need to evolve with their products lifecycle cross tabbed with the companies lifecycle. Mastering the latest business book or process is not enough. The clear delineators are new products vs. mainstream, this is clear in similar company profiles. Start-ups are an all hands moment in time where process is face time and stand-ups, a just get it done attitude.

Mainstream adds cross functionality, compliance and analytics, recreating that start-up feeling with a tiger team, or evaluating features with ROI models and sales relationships in the market.

Start-ups can be like the first dates, easy to enter or walk away from. Just you and her until you introduce each other to friends or worse family! You can get just a little wet! Then you get investors and customers that are not strong allies, you get investors and some of those are friends.

Mature companies seem safer, spending others money or market equity, errors buffered by scale. BTW this is not true, when things go wrong somebody has to go to the corner. But this is also a challenge because your market thinks you are the expert, they expect you to remember anniversaries, birthdays and take the initiative. These customers expect hardened code, pressure tested products and for you to stand by them in the market, that is why they choose the big guy.

As a PM understanding where you are and which program of process has a bigger chance of success is key. The real fun comes when you are the platform integrating solutions from many partners. I am clearly biased but I challenge CEOs and investors all the time about structure and why organization structure is not built around your products and customers. If you call you company an Agile or Innovative company what does that mean?

Figure out a shared value or your value not your internal skills. Your company, team and R&D value is all parts of the puzzle but the value ultimately is what the market gains from you. It can me Innovation, it can be quality, it can be hardened bullet proof tech, whatever it is be sure it is what your customer want and experience. Embrace your reality and find customers who value the value you have or change your value to what the customers need.

Plan for Revenue

Strategies and analytics are essential to sustainable success. Break your strategies down to revenue streams that are quantified. What is the revenue mix and the personas ore channels that will deliver.

Portfolio product planning does not mean losing your agility or Lean edge. I am not sure where this idea comes from but it needs to be put away. “Big Company” planning and measurement is not anti-Lean/Agile start-up.

Working with investors, Boards and funds they want to see young companies’ decision making strengths. Planning and analysis is part of success for all companies, so pull up your big boy pants and put your best work on paper then commit.

So many think the pivot demonstrates their test respond cycle. This is partly true but only half the story. How do you know where to turn and how much and if you do what will that buy you?

It is intrinsic to long term success to be able to build strategies, plans, develop tactics. The tacking action part is easy, and if I hear ops we missed one more time without an analysis of where the estimates went off track I will scream!

A learning organization does not just make mistakes and be good with them. A learning product team stops making the same mistakes. Plan for Revenue and if at first you need users or market share great but conversions are essential to sustainability.

Holding the Vision

One more time and start at the top, says the band leader. There are so many conversations about vision, objectives, strategies, tactics and similar terms. We touched in the last post on, What are you as a company?

So many conversations on these topics because there are so many versions of the terms and who holds them. To a major degree the term and the activity is different at different levels of engagement with the success of the effort.

Founders hold a vision of their solution, second level leaders of the first multi-product direction and large company leaders of a multiple market company making many products in many markets.

Regardless of which stage you are working in we all yes even staff grunts hold a vision of success and the point on the horizon. My father a union truck driver had his vision on sustaining a family, his children going to college and a comfortable retirement after 30 years. He did not make the 30 years without being forced to change the tactics of working for one company and union safety net, but that is another story.

Holding a vision for the company is everyone’s responsibility. Founders hold the larger vision and learn to be flexible as the circle of leadership and market environmental conditions change. The vision that is all about you and your career no longer works in our fast moving world. Yes more than ever having skills that you can market across companies through your career is critical but what I am talking about is while in a role.

The duality of holding a vision for you as a Product Management Professional and the products in your responsibilities is not difficult. You as a professional need to develop and keep your awareness up on skills and trends in the profession. It is great to bring new ideas to your work enriching the process.

But the more difficult is to hold the vision for the product inside and outside your company. Owning something that is outside yourself and which may change abruptly is more difficult. One day you’re all in on one widget and next month something new. How to stay authentic is easy if you are embracing a vision.

Other team members will look to the Product Manger to hold that vision and will bring you the tests that come up in their minds and workday. If you are holding a vision, you are flexible enough to honestly evaluate new ideas. Rigid adherence is easy and not holding a vision, honest evaluation and willingness to adjust to new data is.

Your core competency as a company

So your solution is rocking the market! What is your company’s core value? Are you an application provider? A solution provider? Or an expert in a particular industry?

I look back on my medical shared desktop solution 5 years ago. When I exited at that time the team had come up with some great core solutions to some rough market/user issues. those solutions helped us accelerate to the top and exit but would not be cool today. Eight years ago voice to text conversion was a breakthrough add to our solution that made it user friendly. Today with more common and wireless broadband partnered with smartphones data entry would not be a user barrier it was.

Our core was shared medical desktop not the features and tech. Tech comes an goes, delivering user/market innovation is eternal.

Opponent or Competitor based Leadership

Companies and countries reflect their leaders, how those leaders drive forward as people is how the company moves forward. We see this in our country today. For the first time in decades we have a leader who is opponent based, looking at the world in a finite Zero Sum manner. I win or you win, you see this in the leaders favorite sport basketball. This is a sport where I try to achieve a goal and you defend or block your turf. One on One is the apex of the sport for a star. Even other territorial sports are not best One on One, ever hear of one on one football?

Competitor based sports see the goal more the way a competitive market is in the business world where multiple players put their best foot forward to win market share. This is the act of winning over others with better ideas and execution.

Leaders in business fight on the field of ideas and execution to win market share. We pull the best from out teams to win hearts and minds of prospects. The old adage that negative advertising does not work is a truth, while recently we have seen some attempts at this with Apple and Mac even done cute it grates on our cultural norms over time. Recently Apple had that strategy turned on them by Samsung and one of the reasons it worked was they played on Apples earlier arrogance.

When a leader drives to pummel their opponent they are not focused on the market and customer, they are not fighting for you they are fighting for themselves. The focus is not innovation and solving problems the focus is their position relative to the other, Zero Sum thinking. Zero sum is not a future based mind set, there is no room for others there is only you and them.

How can someone join if the field is full, why would I join if it is all about you? Leading teams and winning hearts and minds is about taking your eye off yourself and seeing beyond what is there. This is where innovation happens. This action gains true support from your customers because it is inclusive

My sport is Cycling, individuals compete to be the best, they also know that without each other they can’t win. There are starts and support, there are differing skills required like climbers and sprinters. Many winners at various levels, teams, rookies, king of the mountain! Even Football had linemen and runners and receivers. We do talk about the quarterbacks but great QBs without the tools to receive are failures.

Think about how leadership works for you. Are you finite in your thinking or do you compete to be the best for your customer? When Coke and Pepsi changed their focus from opponents they both grew and innovated with new brands and I personally love the new multi-flavor dispensers.

Focus on the customer and be your best, Markets reward competitors especially when they are competing for them.

Product to Platform – the transition to a viable company

Think about where you are on this continuum and are you moving toward a threshold where your company is viable, serving a customer base with a common need. Great products in today’s technology marketplace partner with others to deliver a whole or integrated experience. Seems obvious however few early stage companies understand the value and role that others play in their future resulting in poor behavior as a partner.

The only way around this is to embrace the idea that your product/market fit needs to expand beyond the singular “Problem Fixed” stage. We all know that “problems fixed” are the peak of success for start-ups. “Great ideas” and “better solutions” come in second then the dreaded “Nice to have”.

That said when you get a “Problem fixed” you can start adding Nice to haves and a few “better solutions” to create a platform. Think of getting your toe hold in an industry by solving a problem, now expand to deliver a more highly configured solution for that industry then the common solution in an adjacent function.

Now you have a great platform solution for that industry and a platform for a viable strong company. Let’s dream up a MRP solution that serves the bread baking industry and they solve a Gluten free compliance problem. Great solution the industry starts buying and they are off to the races growing to an 80% market saturation position.

Now what? Sure there are POS solutions out there but what if one had a POS that tracked just bakery products and was easy to use as they tracked Gluten or spelt or rice sales and would leverage recipes for instant reorder of ingredients. Now you are adapting more common functions to create ease for your industry and a bigger footprint.

This will allow your “solution” to become a platform then company that lives beyond the gluten free phase of the industry lifecycle. This is where Product managers with cross domain experience become more valuable than those in Just from your segment or those that started with your company and share that initial experience.

Many start-ups focus after success on creating a new even hotter innovation. What if that innovation was broader custom solutions that end up part of a suite of components? Now you are truly servicing a customer persona, making marketing easier, improving the lives of other small business owners!

The bottom line is helping people live better or businesses to do what they do better. Rarely are our customers in the technology innovation business they are in the Baking or brewing or cleaning business. Technology should help them do more with less and do it better. They are not in the technology buying or process changing business.

Poverty of Pragmatism

Go Big or Go Home! The easy way to state this but the truth is as we increase risk we increase return and the reverse, as we lower risk we lower return. This is finance 101 but I ask you to think about this in terms of features in your product.

Low features is low risk, you will be an also-ran in the customers’ eyes, no one talks about the banal, and a tool that just does the job. It is pragmatic to deliver minimal viable but if there is no wow there will be no sale. No shouting to friends about the great find!

You may have heard the rule of thumb about 3 starts on Amazon a launch threshold. Those three starts are coming harder with each product in your sector or with each problem that requires a solution. I enjoy the talk these days of component based software at the end user level rather than inclusive large systems with modules.

The answer in B2B is a larger system that uses basic user integration concepts but can be delivered as a component. Yes the big system that is easy to use and uses familiar interfaces. Think smart phones, most of the commands are similar swipes or pinches across the platforms. Interface commands should not live outside the innovators curve. A great feature can be lost behind new finger moves.

Pragmatism lives in the interface and kills at the feature. Go big with a feature, I always say our mind remembers one unique thing or combination of two average things for every person. Bill is a great DBA and loves beer. Jane, great dresser, great negotiator.

Your product needs to have that equation, two average with one wow: Solid performance and great mobile, easy to use and finally that cool widget. If the tow items are vanilla you don’t score, if the two items are big innovations in separate areas you lose the brand value. Imagine great x and great A? Which are you. But you can nail and X&Y for a defined persona.

Recently Microsoft got their new OS 9 labeled as “ A little 7 in your 8” not that bad as on the face it seems they have put together the best of the last two products. Problem is as all windows folks know the 7 and 8 are miles apart so we are all hesitant to know what parts of 7 what parts of 8?

My hope is they create a 9 that is 9 with some great kernels of 7 and 8. XP and win 7 were big steps and seen as the best stuff MS did since 95, the market hates the hybrid 97, NT, and 8, they never offered value to offset the change. Pragmatism was death, especially repeated pragmatism

80/20 RULE, Embracing Failure

Many times I have stated we learn through failure. Sounds cliché but it is true in so many applications in life. We have ideas and test them, these hypothesis succeed and break giving us data to build the next hypothesis.

A_B testing shows us which is better but not if it is the best so we test again. Often I tell the story of the US and Russia space race in building rocket engines. The Russian approach was build and break then repeat after analysis. In the US we used computer modeling rather than build and break. The US produced a highly capable efficient engine, Russia built a work horse that we still use today.

The lesson is that if we break our models we rebuild stronger. It is human nature to back off when reaching a goal then focus on efficiency over more power. I have had many failure start-ups and a few successes. Product tests and learnings show us direction but not how to scale. Early exit is a very smart safe path that I have taken and feel with no data that I have left upside on the table.

Recently I launched a service and found that the core was good but needed a communications layer that my team was unable to deliver effectively from a skills, core, and time/money perspective. The answer was sell my learnings to a competitor who can do both elements. My heart is low as I would have enjoyed turning what I knew into a new strong company but the math did not work for the market or finances.

The task now is to embrace the failure on my part/dream/idea and now embrace the consulting that will see the core concept emerge in a manner I did not expect but honors the core concept.

Ideas are not fixed, they flow through us and 80% of them are not so great but 20% are great. We fear that if we do not execute on the ones that seem to have greatness potential we loose our one ticket to greatness.

The truth is we need to keep failing then pulling ourselves up again, that is how we get stronger in spirit like the Russian rocket engine. Retrospectives are how we get smarter like the US engine. Shuttering a start-up is harder than starting one. One makes choices, then others see only a small part and judge then we look back in retrospective again and wonder did I make the right choice. It is our nature to look back through a long glass and question but we must embrace our choices.

Like other areas we all do the best we can with our current skills, our current knowledge the current environmentals’ and current market. Now to start building another 80 failures!


Policy and Principle

When policies are built on principles not as a tool to define or manage behavior they can be empowering rather than punitive. Polices are thresholds rather than brick walls to great teams. When a policy starts with “don’t” or the softer “You shall only” it begins down the punitive road.

Children get it when the parents are saying No, no! NO! The third no is a boundary that crossing will cost them, why or how does this play in Management? It doesn’t! Yet so many companies have no rules or Policy rules that are intended only to enable dismissal or worse.

Leaders of highly functional teams have principles and share them with the team allowing them to adopt them. Adopting a set of principles allows for policy development. If a principle of your team is cross-training the policy may be that you work actively each quarter with another in a deliberate action with a certain skill learned.

Other great principles are presentation, teaching skills, 1:1 coach/mentor sessions within the team. Research is a great principle of a learning organization. The policy would be to quarterly pick a topic and become the student, learn and teach the team.

Policies are also behavioral, teammates who know and are comfortable with their role or level of decision making embrace limits as to signing authority or customer contact. Customer interface almost always is a cross functional policy, teaming with sales or support groups. How you approach that and engage is often an unspoken policy that needs to be a spoken one.

Policy over rules allows teams to agree that on this customer visit we may deviate for this reason. The Policy is a baseline from which a simple change can be agreed on in a clear manner. Rules need to be escalated to alter. Policy over rules also allows deviation within a team, certain teammates may just be overwhelmed and be granted a by on team responsibilities from time to time while still meeting performance.

Communication is the core of policy governance. Clear, written, understandable policy tied to principles that are universal across the company and team are powerful. Policies should be reviewed much like a retrospective. Is this still working? Should we change? What needs to change and why?