It’s Not About the Product

Why the product is the last thing to consider in a Product Management health check

Six weeks ago I set up a Product Management consulting and training business, in Auckland.

For any business selling standardised software or hardware at scale, Product Management is the key to executing the business’s strategy. The rigour of a strong Product Management function optimises the ability of the business to make a lasting impact with the resources it has.

My goal is to give clarity and confidence to business leaders and Product Managers. Through great product management practice, they will deliver products that solve real world problems, and achieve their business goals.

I’ve been speaking to a bunch of people, from startups to some of New Zealand’s largest companies. One of the most common requests I’ve had is for an audit of the business’s Product Management function. Typically, business leaders recognise the need for Product Management, but don’t know exactly what good looks like. They may talk about immaturity of the team, or being too tactical, or lament their lack of speed to market. They know there are dozens of things they could do to improve, but aren’t confident in what the highest-leverage changes are.

So, I created a model. I call it The 4 Ps. And it was a bit of a revelation. Aside from the fact that it actually seems to work, the most illuminating moment is recognising that to improve your product, the product itself is not the focus. Let me explain by showing you a high-level view of the model.

Firstly, let’s get the company’s mission and vision out of the way. These are presented merely for context. During a Product Management health check, I won't perform a detailed assessment of the company-wide strategy or reason for being; I check that it’s well articulated and understood, and I move swiftly into the Product function, for which I define four high-level components.

I’ll highlight below a couple of the key considerations in each of these areas. Rather than definitive summaries, they’re illustrations by way of example. Let’s get into it, starting with arguably the most important…

  1. Problems

Make that definitely the most important. The biggest enabler of success, the most seemingly-simple-yet-so-often-done-badly factor for a Product Management function is developing a deep understanding of market problems.

This is about looking at the breadth of customer problems, both quantitatively and qualitatively, to find common threads. To do this, it’s important that a business is regularly speaking with and deepening its empathy for all customers and potential customers, not just the loudest and most accessible ones. It’s also critical to not take anything (particularly product feature requests) at face value, but rather, to ask why, why, and why again, to reveal unstated, underlying problems, needs and motivations.

It is only by determining the shared problems of a cohort of customers that you can confidently scale your product (which is nothing more than a solution to one or more of their shared problems), and avoid the trap of building a Frankenstein product; a loosely-aligned collection of features requested individually by your most vocal customers.

A simple test is to observe the ratio of problem-oriented discussions to feature-oriented discussions in the business. It should be at least 2:1.

Good product companies are focused on making their understanding of the market their competitive advantage. If your company isn’t doing a good enough job of this, the silver lining is your competitors probably aren’t either, so it’s not too late.

2. People

So you’re obviously going to need the kind of people who can nail the Problem space. Easier said than done. I have found that Product Managers need to be both highly empathetic, and yet quite willing to be unpopular, as they fight conventional wisdoms to do what they know is right by the customer. This is a rare combination. This is just one of many characteristics to focus on as you hire and develop your team.

Another question is how well have you set up the team to focus on the problems they’ve identified? It is so easy for Product Managers to get bogged down in admin and distracted by internal noise. Keeping out of the weeds and focused on the stuff that matters, the work that really moves the business towards its vision, is critical.

Product Managers need to be able to wear multiple hats and prioritise their time smartly and ruthlessly. Like many people, I’ve done a terrible job of this at times, and have found that as a team, it is vital to keep each other honest and aware of slip-ups.

A tip for Product Managers: over-communicate and encourage challenge. If you can’t explain with confidence why you’re doing something, then perhaps it shouldn’t be that way. Keep everyone (yourself included) working towards the needs identified in step 1.

3. Process

With the right people in place and the right problems in focus, your use of processes will define how and when you get the job done (read, deliver the product). Product Management processes (e.g. roadmap development, go-to-market planning, backlog management) touch all parts of the business and the other business areas’ processes all touch Product Management.

A common observation (particularly in transforming businesses) is that there are misaligned processes in different areas, leading to inefficiency and angst. One part of the business will be all Scrum everything, while another area will wonder why everyone keeps talking about rugby, as they take comfort in filling in their paper form for a new stapler, just as they always have.

Processes and ways of working tend to become goals in themselves, especially when they are embodied in cultures such as Agile, or The Resistance To Agile. The key is to look beyond any methodology and assess them in the context of shared business goals and values; are they helping people work together in the right ways to get the right product out the door at the right time?

Ensure that the business is owning the processes, not vice versa.

4. Product

Finally, we reach the bit that’s in the job title. It’s last, and in this case, it may even be least.

I don’t mean to trivialise the creation of great products. There are elements of both art and science in delivering beautiful customer experiences, through technology, to achieve business goals. You only need to consider how many companies with deep pockets have tried and failed to be like Apple to realise it’s no mean feat (side note: I enjoyed many happy years at Nokia, until the iPhone launched). The point is that if you’re really struggling to deliver products that are usable and useful to your market segments, it’s probably because your health isn’t where it should be in the first three areas.

Be experts in customer problems, hire and develop good people, apply processes pragmatically, and the product will build itself.

In future posts I will bring to life one or more of the Ps or a specific aspect within them. Let me know in the comments where you’d like me to take it.

While I haven’t consciously appropriated anyone else’s material or methods here, I have over the years been influenced by many great product people out there, not least Julie Zhuo, the folks at Intercom, and Rich Mironov. Thanks to Micah Gabriels and Steve Arnold (great people I actually know) for their contributions.