Value talking. Product managers do a lot of it. Why? Isn’t it just stating the obvious?
The same laws of supply and demand have always driven the market, so of course we need to deliver value.
I see this desire for discussion all too often draw product managers away from their core competencies.
They become good talkers but forget how to design, produce, test and refine. The ‘talk’ becomes the focus, not execution and refining value.
Let the market make the decision
Whether you are managing product development as the CEO of a startup or as a product manager within a larger organization, the path to a successful product remains the same: Do more, talk less.
Letting the market decide doesn’t mean that product managers should not have a value–mindset, though.
In fact, if you don’t have a value-mindset, you shouldn’t be a product manager.
Output =/= value (or a value-mindset)
Recently, I read an article by David Pereira, The Agile Product Manifesto is Born (Defeating the Feature Factory). The article is an indictment on product processes that focus on the wrong objectives and, as a result, lose time and the opportunity to create real value.
Pereira advocates for freeing product managers and teams from the feature-factory mindset so they can embrace a value-mindset.
What particularly caught my attention was Pereira’s observation that PMs are failing to deliver value because they and their teams are “celebrating increased output” while ignoring outcomes.
As a PM, delivering something that the marketplace wants and needs should be your reason for being. A value-driven mindset should be your default setting.
You are the protector and advocate of the product, the processes and your team.
Your job isn’t to declare value by saying, “This is value-adding.”
Your role is to be the champion of product-market fit.
Product managers must be the mini–CEOs of their products. They have to guide the making of an idea, assumption or initiative into a component that can be tested and its worth to the market weighed. Then, they iterate until attaining product-market fit and on to expansion and scale.
At every stage of product maturity, product managers exist to maintain and optimize processes that give the market what it wants — altogether no easy task.
Achieving product market fit and scaling a product’s success is a long, hard journey full of obstacles. So, please, let’s stop talking about the theory of value and start talking about how to deliver the ideas that customers may decide are valuable.
How to deliver, increase the pace of execution, iterate, and test faster is a function of management practices, production workflows, techniques, strategies, and hacks.
My process is simple and straightforward and hinges on communicating expectations clearly at every phase of the product’s path to market:
- Execution: Controlling the engineering beast
- Enablement: Guiding the product’s market introduction
- Rapid Iteration: Pursuing excellence through continuous feedback and response
Execution: Controlling the engineering beast
Whether you call them developers, coders, or engineers, we rely on this massive community to transform ideas into products.
They take a product manager’s ideas and dreams, carry them through the IDE tunnel, and emerge with them on the other side–live and ready to be tested. When all goes well what comes out of that tunnel looks like what you had planned.
In too many companies, though, the coding process doesn’t go well. The powerful beast that is engineering gets out of control and the idea is lost in a coding desert.
Keep ideas alive by staying clear-eyed and focused
Populate your development team with problem solvers. You need people who can maintain momentum and execute on your company’s ideas. However, initiative has to be controlled to achieve the desired outcome. Too often the desire to solve a problem becomes a problem…
That’s not possible. We can’t do that… What if we did this instead?
Too many people doing “this instead,” and your concept morphs into something unrecognizable. Excessive improvisation–overthinking, over-engineering or misguided last-mile decisions–happen when the product specifications aren’t clear and complete.
Creating specifications that don’t leave room for dangerous improvisations is a critical product management task.
Be accountable and create accountability by developing concise, detailed specification documents and loading them into the engineering task management system.
Don’t ask your engineering team to learn to speak your task management language — communicate with them in theirs.
Your specifications should be detailed, but concise and not tiresome. Each step should be broken down into phases with distinct milestones and tasks that allow your team to experience regular progress and success.
Tickets are your key tool of orchestration
Tasks (a.k.a. tickets) are your key tool of project orchestration and the materials of its infrastructure.
Meeting discussions and verbal instructions can be misinterpreted. The tickets you create from your specification document and add to the engineering task management platform serve as the single source of truth for what should happen.
Your tickets are the tool through which you create boundaries, set clear expectations, draw a finish line and track your team’s progress.
Product managers are responsible for ensuring accurate and actionable ticketing.
But that doesn’t mean that no one else should be involved in writing them. Leadership requires knowing when and how to collaborate and listen.
Work with your system architects, engineering and team leads, product designers and other departments, such as marketing, to develop clear and comprehensive specifications.
Don’t forget though, in the end the product manager is the one who must make sure each ticket is prepared correctly and ready for the engineering team to execute.
Your leadership and accountability are not only critical to achieve an accurate prototype, but also to monitor and fine–tune your development processes.
As the PM, you are coordinating asynchronous work, monitoring progress, confirming that processes and the product’s development are property documented, ensuring continuity in tone of voice and user experience between features, and, of course, keeping an eye on costs.
Your engineering tasks are the waypoints on your product roadmap. Without straightforward and clearly defined tasks, you cannot know where you are or when it is time to take a feature to the next phase.
Enablement: Guiding the product’s market introduction
Meeting your production deadlines or other internal benchmarks is important. But execution doesn’t define your product’s value. Only the key decision-maker, your market, can do that.
Once your engineering team is finished coding or your designers have created the prototype, your work as a product manager isn’t done. You must put it to the test with focus groups, design partners and/or customers.
Whether this evaluation takes place in your production environment or in the real world, how you present your concept will affect how well it is received.
Think of it like serving a meal. You, as chef, have prepared the dish that now must be presented in a way that is appealing. Perception is critical to demonstrating value. A bad presentation can ruin even the best cooked dish.
But product managers aren’t the ones typically placing products in front of customers or design partners. Your company’s customer-facing teams in sales, marketing, customer success and support are the experts who perform this step.
Provide launch teams with the product backstory
These launch teams will create the story that elevates your idea, select the best penetration points to introduce it to the market, and gather the all-important feedback that will enable you to iterate and achieve product-market fit.
Your job at this phase is, again, to communicate with clarity and completeness.
You must provide enablement content that explains your idea, why you built it and why you believe it has value for your target user. Illustrate what is in it for them.
Use your skills and knowledge of the product to develop content such as demos, video clips, GIFs, one-pagers and other bite-sized collateral, that your customer-facing teams can then improve and refine.
Conform your communication to your audience’s preferences. Don’t ask the launch team to pore over lengthy descriptions to extract the information they need to present your product at its best. They don’t need the whole recipe complete with cooking instructions.
Your participation in the enablement process is important
As the product’s initiator, your input is irreplaceable. You know the product best and understand its potential. Enablement is how you deliver that understanding to the rest of the company.
It doesn’t matter how many others are on the team, you’re the one who is accountable for defining the product vision, its reason for being, and are the gatekeeper of its integrity.
Just as the product manager owns the engineering process, they must also own the product’s presentation to the market. This ensures that customers, or other decision-makers, are presented with the product as you intended and can judge its value based on that intent.
Guide every phrase of your product’s early life to prevent the introduction of variables or improvisations that erode its potential value and skew market fit results.
Rapid Iteration: Pursuing excellence through continuous feedback and response
Get feedback. Fast. Faster. Fastest.
After execution and enablement comes the exciting, scary, “this is it” part. This is where you get the feedback that tells you if the value you recognized in your product will be recognized by the market.
You gain this information through continuously active feedback loops. Feedback gathered with the support and assistance of the product’s customer-facing teams is how you’ll know when and what to refine.
Information gained through feedback loops can result in new tasks for the engineering team or changes to your enablement assets. Message–market fit is a close relative to product-market fit. Both are essential for guiding your go-to-market strategy.
Absorbing, prioritizing and acting fast on feedback will now determine your performance. You, the product manager, are responsible for making data–driven decisions based on what the market is telling you.
Gathering and processing input from key decision makers prevents your product from falling prey to a feature-factory mindset and keeps your deliverables aligned with your company’s capacities and your customers’ needs.
Why fast, faster, fastest?
Finding your way through the find value maze ASAP in the minimum number of steps at the quickest speed keeps you one step ahead of your competitors as you move from launch to growth. And growth is when you finally realize the fruits of your efforts.
Touchstones on my professional journey and Zest’s product lifecycle
Over the past decade, controlled execution, rapid iteration and a commitment to end-to-end product management have been my touchstones as a team leader, a startup founder and CEO, and now as Vice President of Product at WalkMe.
A commitment to these processes, rolling up my sleeves and doing the hard work of minding the details through every phase, are what led to Zest’s acquisition by WalkMe. Now, 20 months later, Zest’s technology is the foundation of the WalkMe Workstation, the product responsible for millions of dollars in ARR.
Product managers are the CEOs of the products they steward. We must be accountable for each decision and lead our teams to find and develop value.
Talk is easy. Value comes from action.