Product principles can help us focus on what matters most
Operating in fast-growing startups/scale-ups can be extra chaotic and difficult due to the pace of growth, the desire to break new ground fast, and all of the ambiguity that comes with that.
Product teams are at the coalface. Product managers are required to make decisions with limited information, face constant pressure from above and around to show results, and all the while are expected to bring everyone along on the journey. While it’s a genuinely fulfilling job because of the impact we can make, it’s not always clear what we should do or how we should tackle certain dilemmas.
Principles help to provide clarity in the face of such ambiguity. Guiding our decisions and the way we work, they push us closer to achieving our aspirations for our craft and our culture. I’ve found a few principles particularly helpful during my time as a PM at Deputy. Refined with some reflection, I thought I’d share them here in case they’re of benefit to you too.
1 — Start with the why
Don’t jump to solutions.
It’s quite easy for product teams to get wrapped up in putting out fires. Or to jump to something just because an Exec or a Sales team member said to do so.
That’s the easy way to do product management.
“Let’s launch feature x or y because all of our competitors are doing it”.
But if you don’t understand the root of a problem, you have no guarantee that your intervention will work.
You will risk wasting your team’s time and energy and forgo the opportunity to truly solve your customers’ pain.
Instead, you should work quickly to understand the problem space — the WHY. Starting with the why means listening, being curious and empathetic and probing to deeply understand your customers’ context. i.e. Why is it that our sales team is asking for this? Why are our customers requesting this?
At a minimum:
- Understand your target customer segments intimately — Who are they? What are their goals? What are the ‘jobs’ they’re hiring your product to do? Ask the 5x Whys to probe further, and to understand what enables and obstructs them. Which of these enablers and blockers are in and which are outside of their control? Carry out effective user research methods like Contextual Inquiry to fully appreciate their contexts and ascertain what they say (expressed needs) and don’t say (unexpressed needs). Use the Jobs to be done framework to synthesise and articulate their core and peripheral needs.
- Map and prioritise their pain points. Highlight the opportunities then to resolve their pain points. User journey mapping is a highly versatile technique that your team can use in problem discovery and definition. It can also serve as a useful visual tool to communicate your customers’ context and to highlight the various points of opportunity: where your team might be able to act to resolve customer pain.
- Rate the opportunities you have based on available information, data from experiments and pre-agreed, objective criteria — This will help you to think critically about the avenues of action you have available. Broadly, ensure you weigh up opportunities based on the value you could create for users and the business, vs. the effort and complexity involved in proving and delivering it in your product. There are many prioritisation frameworks out there that you can adapt e.g. RICE model.
2 — Think Everest, build Basecamp
I heard this said quite a lot at Deputy. Everest is cool. Well — it’s freaking awesome. But you’d be kidding yourself if you thought you could climb it without being physically fit and or without concerted climbing practice!
Everest might be the long game but remember to start small.
Focus on setting and testing hypotheses, one release at a time, checking all the way that you’re delivering on the customer outcome that you’re shooting for.
Breaking up a feature into smaller releases that each offer incremental value can be great for the customer but also highly motivating for product development teams to see the fruits of their labour.
It can also satisfy sales and marketing teams who are constantly thinking about how they can demonstrate the value the product offers to customers.
3 —Have a learning mindset
Take risks and learn, from everything and everyone.
Product management is part art and part science. You’ll be wise to adopt a learning mindset because you’re not always going to get it right. Acknowledge what you do and don’t know.
That goes for feedback and handling failure too. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve released bugs. I’ve made bad decisions too. However, I’ve reflected and learnt from those experiences and have been lucky to have had good mentors around me to debrief with me and provide constructive feedback and support.
Others will make mistakes too — encourage due reflection and learning rather than throttling action due to fear of making errors. Creating an environment of fear or negativity around failure is likely to be counter-productive. I’ve learnt that it can threaten psychological safety and innovation culture.
4 —Be inclusive
Inclusive design for accessibility is a foundational requirement in product development in my opinion. However, this particular note of inclusivity is about colleagues.
A product manager is nothing without others. Fast-growing startups may go at a million miles per hour, but nothing will actually get done without strong working relationships within and between teams.
Take the time to get to know your team personally. Build a connection with them and earn their trust. Understand their unique strengths and areas of growth potential. Give them strong constructive feedback and empower them to shine. Praise publicly and critique privately and ask them to give you constructive feedback too. Recognise other teams’ efforts too.
Practice ‘plussing’ for pushing ideas further
There are often a lot of fires fighting for our attention. It can be difficult to choose which to put out. Disagreements are likely to occur about the product roadmap and decisions we make. Nurturing an “us vs them” mentality between teams won’t help, and instead, they may foster tensions and toxicity.
Work hard at both an individual and team level to promote positive working relationships between teams. You are all working together for the same vision and mission after all.
One strategy to steal here is from Pixar, called “plussing”. It requires that you only criticise an idea if you can also add a constructive suggestion to it. This sort of healthy, positive dialogue will promote trust, collaboration and high-performance. And create a generally kinder workplace of course!
What product principles have you been pondering of late? 🙏