Product Managers own the “What” and the “Why”: Part 2

Part 2: The Why

This is the second part of a two-part blog. If you haven’t yet read Part 1: The What, I encourage you to take a look before going any further.

The “Why”

The What and the Why of Product Management are inextricably linked. You don’t pull your Vision, Strategy and Objectives out of thin air — they should always be rooted in the customer experience, in particular a customer problem. You can think of the why as “Why will this improve the customer experience?” and subsequently, “Why does that present an opportunity for our business?”

To back your Why with customer input, of course, you need to listen to your customers. How do you know what problems your customers are facing? Have you built out channels and processes to help you listen to them?

(The unicorn is the PM —it’ll make sense if you read Part 1)

Listening to your customers

At Atlassian, we use a variety of methods to keep a pulse on our customer asks and pain points:

Customer interviews — A great goal is to speak to at least one customer per week. Not only can stories from interviews be used to justify your “Why,” but they’re a great way to invigorate your team and put a face to sometimes distant users. We have a great Playbook play to facilitate these interviews.

Support tickets & bug reports — Like in-product feedback, customer support provides a direct line to customer pain points at scale. As PM’s, it’s crucial to stay close to our support counterparts and keep a pulse on the tickets coming in.

In-product feedback — Giving customers a direct line to your product team allows you to identify bugs and iterate fast. The catch of this channel is grooming and prioritizing the feedback that comes in — consider a rotating team position to reduce the load.

Surveys — Both short and long-form surveys create a more quantitative outlook on customer feedback. You can use something like a CSAT (shown left) to easily understand on a scale of 1–5 how your customers are feeling.

Usage data — While this isn’t “officially” listening to customers, it is a great indicator of where there are gaps in your product. You can back your Why with usage data in cases where you’re not seeing the usage you expected, or seeing more usage than expected and trying to replicate that elsewhere.

Market Research

In addition to customer feedback, the Why can be backed up with evidence from your broader competitive market. Start by thinking about general trends (driven by other external forces, not necessarily competitors) that are impacting the end user; e.g the future of work and shift towards more remote working, which has been accelerating due to highly competitive talent pools in certain metro areas, improved technology (video conferencing, chat), and of course COVID-19.

Then ask yourself, “What are your peers building that would benefit your customers as well? What trends are sweeping across your field that your customers will soon expect you to follow?” Engaging in regular market research, and citing that research when determining what you’re going to build, helps you keep your roadmap in sync with competitive trends. The SWOT analysis (template shown below) is an effective exercise to understand your position with respect to competition in the market.

SWOT template from Confluence

Explain the Why by explaining the customer problem

You are only good at explaining the why if you are great at clearly illustrating the customer problem and helping the team build empathy for the customer pain. A helpful framework for outlining why you’ve prioritized a certain feature is to outline the customer problem, and the impact of that problem on both your customers and your business. Example:

The problem: Due to stay-at-home restrictions, our customers cannot stop by the store to get the fresh-out-of-the-oven, warm cookie experience.

  • Customer impact: Customers are disappointed when delivery cookies are not up to the same quality and taste as in-store, and they can’t get the full sensory experience of a warm cookie.
  • Business impact: Rather than ordering our pre-packaged cookies, customers choose alternatives (e.g. take and bake dough, homemade, < 30 min delivery times). Lower quality cookies hurt our brand and reduce our CSAT and NPS.

This problem-impact framework can also be found as a part of our Project Poster template, which helps PMs to articulate the What and the Why, among other things, for specific projects or features.

Wrapping Up

You cannot land on a solid “What” for your team without a deep understanding of the “Why.” The two key parts of the PM job are necessary in parallel, not sequentially.

Empathy for customer pain points and understanding of the competitive landscape should NOT be an afterthought for backing up your what, but rather a constant foundation for your prioritization. In the event that you do have top-down directives for your What, it’s critical to validate and challenge those with an exploration into the Why.

The central “PM hat”

Regardless of seniority, team size, or company type, the core tenets of Product Management and the central “PM Hat” are rooted in what you’re doing and why. That said, different may teams may require additional asks of PMs, and other hats can be added or removed accordingly.

In conclusion, the PM role can take many shapes and forms, but the next time you’re at a cocktail party (COVID allowing), or your mother asks you yet again what you do as a PM, you have your answer:

“I define What my team is going to do, and Why we’re doing it.”

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