Approach product management as you would a puzzle

Putting the pieces of product management together

Alison Hickson
Apr 18 · 8 min read

What are the rough steps you take when doing a puzzle?

  1. Lay out all of the pieces
  2. Build the border
  3. Identify the easier sections (do these first)
  4. Then do the harder bits
  5. Finish the puzzle (hopefully there are no pieces missing)

Now let’s move onto product management.

What are the rough steps you take when ‘doing’ product management?

Hmm, that’s a bit harder.

However, maybe it doesn’t have to be. What if we used the steps we do for a puzzle as a framework for the steps to take in product management?

In this blog post, I’ll take an easy to understand concept (doing puzzles), and apply it to a more opaque area (product management) to create a useful product management process that will give you more confidence as you tackle your next product challenge.

If you’re new to product management, starting a new role, taking on a new product remit in your current role, or just want a bit of a refresher on the PM process, read on!

NB: The title of this blog post clearly indicates I’ve been in London lockdown too long, and have been filling my time with too many puzzles. However, if it makes sense to even one reader, I’ll feel the post well worth it.

1. Lay out the pieces // Know your inputs

It’s hard to do a puzzle when you can’t see what you’re working with. When you lay out the pieces of your puzzle, you are building an understanding of all of your inputs.

In the same way, when it comes to product management, it’s important to gather all of your inputs up-front so that you can start to make great product decisions. When you don’t know all of your inputs, you’re making decisions based on incomplete information — which may render your decisions suboptimal and hinder your product impact.

In the case of product management, ‘inputs’ are not as simple as puzzle pieces. Inputs look like:

  • Company direction and business model
  • Potential customers, jobs to be done and pain points
  • Product history, product market fit, competitor positioning and stakeholder viewpoints

When you’re gathering your inputs, you’re trying to answer these three questions:

  1. What is our company vision and mission and how will my product area make it successful?
  2. What customer problems could my product solve to achieve the vision?
  3. Who are my key stakeholders and how can I bring them on the journey?

Top tip: You will gather a clearer understanding of your inputs, more quickly, by having as many conversations as you can in your first couple of months and asking as many ‘stupid’ questions as you dare to ask.

Once you think you’ve got a good idea of your inputs, go back to your stakeholders and confirm your understanding with them. This builds social capital ahead of the next step…

Understanding your product inputs is like laying out your puzzle pieces

2. Build the border // Define your remit and strategy

Now that you’ve laid out all of your puzzle pieces, it’s time to form the border. You do this so that when you start to fill in the puzzle, you know where it starts and ends.

In the same way, now that you have your product inputs, you can start forming your metaphorical product border. This isn’t about defining solutions, but rather about defining your product remit and goals, and the strategy you’ll take to achieve these goals.

Define your target customer:

  • What are their needs? In addressing these needs, what impact do you expect to have for your company?

Define what is in your team’s remit:

  • What problem areas will and won’t your team tackle and why? Make sure your stakeholders understand these decisions.

Set out your team strategy:

  • I’ll write a followup post on strategy, but essentially your strategy sets out how you will create differentiated, long-term value as compared to your competitors. Your strategy outlines how you will achieve this value in the fastest way possible. It is made up of strategic pillars or focus areas. These strategic pillars don’t just cover off everything your team could possibly work on. Instead, they indicate the product decisions you have made about what you will and won’t do to achieve value.
  • Each strategic pillar should have measures of success underpinning it. This helps you to track whether you’re achieving your desired impact. A good measure is understandable, measurable, comparative and behaviour changing.
Build your border, defining your remit and strategy

3. Identify the easy sections // Solve the obvious problems first

Once you’ve got your puzzle border, you will inevitably recognise some patterns and start working on these first. In other words, you start doing the obvious bits first! Of course you do. Doing this lets you build momentum quickly and reduces the whitespace left to be filled in, making the harder bits a little easier to do.

Take the same approach to product management. Prioritise solving the most obvious problems first. There will always be other, more opaque problems to solve that are also potentially more impactful. However, if there is a lot more discovery work to be done in order to be confident that solving these bigger problems will be impactful, start with solving the obvious problems.

What does an obvious problem look like?

  • You have a validated customer problem to solve.
  • You are confident that in solving this problem, you will move your measure of success (and you know roughly by how much).

Solving obvious problems first helps you to:

  • Get started and build momentum with the team;
  • Achieve some of your measures of success, or not — in which case you learn and adapt; and
  • Reduce uncertainty around how your customers use your product and where your team is strong or slow to deliver.

Essentially you are learning by doing. You are reducing uncertainty, or ‘white space’ in puzzle speak. You are also gaining insights that will help you tackle your more opaque problems next. Many product managers fall into the trap of spending a lot of time performing discovery of an opaque, large problem space rather than just getting started.

If you’re unsure of the obvious problems to solve, try thinking about whether the following problems are solved, in order (gathered from Lean Analytics):

  1. Have you achieved product-market fit? How confident are you that your product is actually solving the right problem for your target customers, and solving it well?
  2. Once users start using your product, do they continue to use it or use it once and forget or are they sticky? Before pursuing growth targets, it’s important to nail this step so that you maximise the impact of your growth efforts.
  3. How much do your users want other people to use your product as well? Do they invite teammates, friends, or other people in their organisation’s network?
  4. Can you make money from your product or feature set?
  5. How well does your product scale? Can you achieve scale economies by decreasing cost to scale and cost to run your product at scale?
Do the obvious bits first to reduce uncertainty and to learn by doing

4. Then do the harder bits // Take little bets

After completing the obvious parts of the puzzle, you’re starting to fill in the pieces that all look the same. If your measure of success is how fast you can finish your puzzle, it’s unlikely that you’re going to take every individual piece and try it in every potential spot to see if it fits. The permutations are endless and it would take forever!

Instead, you’re likely to use your intuition and a test and learn approach to completing your puzzle as fast as possible. Things like grouping similar shaped pieces together, trying them in similarly shaped puzzle gaps, and separating them into a different area once they’ve been tested.

It’s a very similar story for product management. Once you’ve addressed the obvious problems, there will be more opaque problems to tackle. You will know which problems to solve based on your research, but it’s difficult to know what order to solve them in to have the most impact, and maybe even how to solve them.

As you would do for your puzzle pieces, use your intuition about what experiments you could run that would give you the greatest signal around impact. Do to be able to learn. This is the Little Bets approach. Launch experiments to be able to learn how much impact solving a problem would have. Understand why an experiment has or hasn’t worked. Don’t just move blindly onto the next experiment.

For each experiment, think not about how much you expect to gain, but rather about how much you are willing to lose in team time in order to validate whether or not the experiment will improve your measure of success.

Do the harder bits with a systematic test and learn approach

Finish the puzzle // A product is never ‘done’

Unlike a puzzle, a product is never ‘done’. There will always be something left to do to improve a product. However, after a certain point there are diminishing returns.

As a product manager, it is critical that you create and communicate a definition of done for your product. This will likely translate to the achievement of your strategy. At GoCardless, we have created the RAD Framework (Recap, Assess, Determine) to help our Product Managers understand when to stop working on a product.

  • Recap: Why did we build it?
  • Assess: How is it going currently?
  • Determine: Where should it go in future?

Doing this with your team and stakeholders helps to build a common understanding of what ‘done’ looks like.

A product is never ‘done’, but a Product Manager must know when to move onto the next product problem set

Conclusions

The next time you’re tackling a new product management area, think about what you’d do if you were doing a puzzle.

Gather the inputs, clarify your remit and strategy, tackle the obvious problems first, then the harder problems taking a test and learn approach, and don’t forget to clarify what ‘done’ looks like.

Following these steps should help you to feel less puzzled…!

Tech @ GoCardless

Sharing experiences from the people building GoCardless

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store