Photo credits: Jack Zalium

Product manager: shut up and listen

An African story

A couple months ago, someone told me the story of a non-profit who failed implementing a humanitarian project. This non-profit discovered that on many towns in several countries from Africa women had to walk for several hours a day to get water, so the thought “hey, we can help these poor women by building a well close to their houses”. And they did it! They collected the money, built a well close to the houses of one of these African villagers and women started using it. A year later they went back to the village and realized that the well was sealed with stones and women had gone back to get water a bunch of hours away from their homes.

The non-profit guys were appalled by the discovering, after all the effort invested on getting the money, organizing the project and building the well, it all was gone! They talked to the women to see what happened and they discovered that the time these women spent going to get water was with difference the best time on their day, when they could socialize with other women, talk freely without the presence of the men that during the rest of the day kept them working at home. And that is why they shut the well.

Wasn’t this about product management?

I think there’s a really important lesson we can learn from this story. If these guys, led by a great vision, whose only goal was to help others, had spent a bunch of days living in the village, talking to the women, looking for different ways to help them by analyzing their behavior and getting their buy-in and feedback BEFORE they even start to implement the solution, they would have never built the well, or at least they would have found better ways to help them.

In Product Management something similar happens quite often: we have a clear goal to build something that solves our customer’s and user’s problems, something that makes their lives easier… that is a great goal and something we need to always keep in mind! But for us really to succeed, we first need to “spend a bunch of days in the African village”. It is true that part of our jobs is to define and communicate the vision for the product, the roadmap, the long term goals for the product and so on, but we need to stop defining our road maps from our ivory towers, from our offices. trying to define where the market will be in the future based on our predictions, trying to build the most incredible features with the latest technology … Without the buy-in from our customers.

The question

The most important question we need to ask ourselves today is who are you building your product for? And then, instead of talking and talking about how great your vision and your roadmap are, contact that user, that customer and yes: shut up and listen. Listen to what they’re trying to achieve, what their daily sufferings are, the processes they have, which are they needs and dreams.

I have experienced this “epiphany” during last week, when I had the chance to get in touch with lots and lots of users and customers at an event, and I can tell you: everything changes.

Just wanted to share this with you.


Juan Fernández

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