10 Things I Learned at Mind the Product 2017

This week, I attended Mind the Product, a conference entirely dedicated to product management. Most of the people I typically meet don’t know what a product manager does (or they think I’m a project manager) so it was absolutely amazing to be surrounded by hundreds of people who understand the challenges and rewards of product management. It was great to swap stories, tool suggestions, and processes with other PMs. The conference had a really solid speaker lineup too. There was simply too much great advice from the eleven different speakers to cover even half of it, but here are some quick highlights from my notes.

1. Machine Learning Gives Your Users Super Powers

Aparna Chennapragada (Product Director, Google) talked about how you should view machine learning as a way to give your users superpowers. Ask the following questions:

  1. Are there ways that I can give beginner users advanced skills without much effort?
  2. Where can we make things 10x better, cheaper, or faster?

She also talked about how many machine learning methods and algorithms are open source, which means your competitors have access to them as well. Your job is to figure out how to differentiate yourself in the market. The key: choose the right problems to solve.

2. Focus on Outcome, Not Output

Nate Walkingshaw (CXO, Pluralsight) discussed how organizations get too focused on output: what it is they’re building and shipping. They chase features and ideas instead of asking the most important questions: What’s our desired outcome? What’s the desired impact of the work we’re doing and how will we know if we’ve succeeded?

3. Good Product Strategy Provides a Decision Making Framework

Melissa Perri (Author and Founder, ProdUX Labs) talked about escaping the “Build Trap”: a cycle of building random features from your backlog that you’re not sure if users want, need, or will even use. Companies should have a mission, vision, and strategy that’s clear enough to provide a framework for making decisions on what the top priorities are and aren’t. If your mission, vision, and strategy are too vague, they won’t serve their purpose as tools to help your organization succeed.

4. The Future: Fear, Follow, or Fantasize

Zenka (Augmented Reality & Sculpture Artist and Futurist) discussed how both people and organizations have an easy time imagining potential negative future scenarios but don’t spend nearly enough time dreaming about how much better the world could be. Organizations like Microsoft and Oculus are leading the charge to create “Internet 3.0” technologies that enable people to be smarter, more empathetic, more connected, and more altruistic by eliminating location barriers.

As an organization, you have three options. First, you can fear the future. This means you’ll stay exactly where you are and get left behind. Or you can play it safe and follow everyone else, which means you’ll never be a leader in your space. Finally, you can dedicate a percentage of time and resources to fantasizing about what the future will be like, and then play a role in making that future a reality. She broke this down into three steps: “dream it, plan it, do it.”

5. Be Dumb: You Don’t Know Anything

Dave Wascha (CPO, PhotoBox) went through all the advice he would tell his younger self when he started in product management fifteen years ago (working on IE 4!). One of my favorite tips was to “be dumb.” His advice was to accept and embrace that you don’t know anything and that you should always seek to understand things through the eyes of your users. Never assume you know or understand their struggles and needs without talking to them.

A product manager’s job is to hear and truly understand users’ problems. Don’t get too distracted by users constantly offering up solutions. Dig deeper, locate the core problems they’re struggling with, and then figure out the best way to solve them.

6. There’s Only One Metric That Matters

Josh Elman (Partner, Greylock) talked about the only metric that matters. The key question: are people using your product? Figure out how to measure that for your company, everything else stems from that. He discussed how this is going to be different for different organizations. Example: Comparing LinkedIn to Facebook doesn’t make sense. Facebook is a social platform that should focus on daily active users, whereas for LinkedIn, success might look like a user checking in once a month or even a couple of times per year based on their need. The key lesson: understand your use cycle before you analyze and interpret your metrics.

From here, separate your users into three segments: cold, casual, and core. Figure out what makes your core users unique, and then set goals to get users in the other segments into your core.

This was one of my favorite talks. He had a ton of great advice. One quote I particularly liked: “Onboard users all the way to the core.” Most people think onboarding stops when you get a user sign up, but onboarding should be designed to take visitors all the way through to core users.

7. Kill Zombies, Embrace Failure

Janice Fraser (SVP, Bionic) talked about the inability of the world’s largest corporations to grow. Coke, Ford, Dow, Walmart: all have growth rates around 0–1%. She said one of the biggest problems is people in the organization who discourage, punish, or hide failure. These are the zombies who suck the brains out of your company, and you need to get rid of them.

Her answer for radical growth is to take all the people who think differently and break the rules and put them in cross-functional teams together. Then allow them to work autonomously to solve big problems without being slowed down by the rest of the organization. The goal is to mirror the operations of small startups, which can dethrone top companies because they don’t have to play by the same rules.

8. Ask Brilliant Questions

Janna Bastow (CEO & Co-founder, ProdPad) discussed the most difficult part of a product manager’s job: people. Aligning people on projects, goals, etc. at every level of the organization without having anyone actually report to you can be difficult. A product manager’s job isn’t to always know the right answers for getting everyone aligned, it’s to ask the right questions that encourage discussion, empathy, and creative solutions. A good PM provides “psychological safety” for people to speak their minds and let their ideas and objections be heard.

9. Build Ugly Prototypes

Caitlin Kalinowski (Head of Product Design Engineering, Oculus) has built lots of both hardware and software prototypes. In her experience, the more “finished” a prototype seems, the more quickly people attach to it as “the right solution,” even when much better solutions could be arrived at through further exploration. By keeping your prototypes basic and “ugly,” you encourage critical feedback. The people testing the prototype instinctively understand that changes are easier to make when the designers are early in the process and are therefore much more likely to tell you when they don’t like something.

10. Tackle The Biggest Problems First

One more great piece of advice from Caitlin Kalinowski. She said she tells the people on her team to write down all the things they’re worried about for a particular project in rank order (the biggest problems go at the top of the list). Then she picks up the list, rips off the bottom half, and hands it back. “Focus on these.”

I’m an “in the weeds” thinker. I like to think through every little piece of a project and I can often get distracted by micro-decisions that don’t matter much when viewed against the more significant problems to solve, so I really appreciated Caitlin’s advice for focusing in on the issues that really make a difference in the project.

See You in 2018 👋

This was my first time attending Mind The Product and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Now go and tell your boss that you want to go. I’ll see you there next year!

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