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Product guy – review the unknown

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Running review meetings is a core Product Guy skill. Even if the trend of product-making is towards more iterative and short-cycle processes (Ed. note: I don’t use the word ‘agile’ on purpose, in order to avoid religious topics), after a certain operative scale, a holistic review process – which can be called milestone, gate, phase or whatever – is the only practical way to get a comprehensive snapshot of the progress.

Now, the corporate culture for product (or program, as some call it) reviews may vary greatly. Some are formal, some are informal. Some are dog & pony shows aimed at impressing the big chiefs, and some are checklist marathons between experts.

Yes, sometimes important decisions are done in the reviews, but not as often as people think. In real life, the engineering flow, not process chart, dictates the timing of many decisions. That, in turn, means that at the time of review, the “decision” ends up being just pretty much “take it or leave it”. (Ed. note: that too is important because ‘the power to pull the plug’ or ‘the power to change the goalposts’ gives an incentive for the engineering organization to listen to the Product Guy)

So if that’s how the world works, what’s the point of pulling those review preparation all-nighters?

First, there certainly is value in the journey. Through the journey of creating a common snapshot, more people get a better understanding how different pieces link to each other. And at best, the positive cross-team feedback increases energy and team bonding.

Second, an experienced Product Guy can add a lot of value to the review process by asking the right questions. There are times when Product Guy may need to provide the answer too, but most often the purpose is to broaden the thinking of the product team.

But what kind of questions are the ‘right questions’?

Now, some questions need to be “teed up”. They need to be like in the first few rounds in the Who Wants to be Millionaire, usually cleared with ease and growing confidence. Professionals who are properly prepared very rarely have embarrassing moments – like this and this Millionaire contestant – especially with the options of Phone-a-Friend or Ask-the-Audience readily available.

Now, it is a human temptation for the Product Guy to stay in the “nice guy” zone. But more is needed. As important as it is know the plans, it is to know what is not known. Because it is often the surprises coming from outside the plans that create the most problems. Maybe the consumer feedback sample wasn’t as representative of the whole target market as assumed. It could be that the competitors have something disruptive up their sleeves. Or the pricing assumptions on the component costs couldn’t foresee some natural disaster.

Finding out all those risks, and having a sense of the potential mitigation actions, calls for some tough questions, no matter how awesome the progress and plans are.

Now, it is hard to to tip toe that line of consciousness, like Kiefer Sutherland in Flatliners, without the line of questioning feeling arrogant and know-it-all.

There are different kind of techniques. Surely for some boneheaded project manager the Mickey Goldmill type of motivational speech could work:

Mickey: You can’t win, Rocky. This guy will kill you to death inside three rounds
Rocky: You’re crazy
Mickey: What else is new
Rocky: This guy is just another fighter
Mickey: No, he ain’t. This guy is a wrecking machine

In today’s work environment, however, I do suggest gentler methods. It is a lifelong mission to learn the skill of “soft, constructive tension”, and each Product Guy has to find their own way through using feedback and self-reflection.

At the end, however, the review objective of the Product Guy should be the same as Mickey’s – give credit for the progress so far, but more importantly, increase preparation for the next difficult things to come.


Happened in the previous episodes of Product Guy series:

Stay tuned for the next episode: Product guy – isolate the problem


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