Tag Archives: product leadership

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.

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Happened in the previous episodes of Product Guy series:

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

 

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Product guy – dream living other people’s lives

shutterstock_95792512 dreaming 600pxDoes Product Guy need to be of the target audience? Can a bald guy sell shampoo? Does the baby food product manager need to wear a bib at breakfast? But on the other hand, should golf companies only hire lousy golfers as product managers to ensure they really know how their hacker customers feel after pulling two identical hooks to the wrong fairway?

Tough ones. No wonder that in the post-Steve Jobs era, there is no clear-cut answer to this eternal question that was perhaps the most asked one, when I collected input for this Product Guy series.

What matters is the passion for the product and the people who use it. That passion can come from within one’s own life, but interestingly, it can equally arise from having the imagination and the curiosity about other people’s lives (note: If this feels too creepy or outer space now, take a breather and read something tangible, like Facebook Graph API documentation)

So when the life is too short to develop a new skill – like a consistent golf swing – Product Guy should focus on trying to understand how it feels for those who have it.

The ultimate stage of dreaming to live other people’s lives is what happened to Jesse Eisenberg. He went to see basketball in London Olympics and was introduced in the TV broadcast as Mark Zuckerberg. And he probably can’t code at all.

For the record, I am so rooting for Ashton Kutcher to be able to pull off the same.

*****

Happened in the previous episodes of Product Guy series:

Stay tuned for the next episode: Product guy – understand your levers

 

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Product guy – know your theories

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Every product looks like a winner at the time of its inception. It’d better. What would be the point otherwise? Unfortunately, between the go-decision and the delivery date, things tend to change. Even if the plan would hold – and that’s a big if – the world around the product will surely change. That is not all bad news because conquering the uncertainty and delivering the better future is a part of the thrill. It’d be so boring to have the perfect crystal ball (well, not really, but let’s move on).

“Is that a fact? Or an opinion?”

By definition, the uncertainty also means that there are, strictly speaking, no facts about the future. Only opinions. And probabilities. Yet product decisions have to be made.

An easy way out is to declare opinions as facts. The product guy can declare, as the urban legend goes about one Nokia exec: “Yes, for me this is an opinion. But for you, dear team, this is a fact. So just go do”.

That kind of works. Sometimes. But for most people because of luck, not skill.

A better way is to do the hard work and think your way through. But not factually, because that is not really possible because there are no facts, remember.  The product guy must think conceptually, and for that some simple theories can provide the framework.

Theories are useful because surprisingly often you don’t need to know the exact number. You just need to know whether your parameter is more or less than something that the competitors are likely to have or what consumers would expect. Or whether your product will provide more of the same, or something different. In other words, a good theory can give answers that math can’t.

Knowing which side of the gravity you are, or which ballpark you plan to play at, will often be enough, because at the end, everything in the market place is relative and contextual. In absolute terms, the E.T. looks like a cheaply manufactured plastic toy (a direct quote from my 12-year old goddaughter this Christmas). But what really matters is that in 1982, when the movie came out, it looked as real (or more real) than the movie aliens that had passed the audience test before. And, more importantly, the E.T. wasn’t the umpteenth science-fiction story about inter-galactic heroes in colorful tights, but a new kind of heartwarming story about a lonely boy who finds a new friend (Ed. note: This is a long post, so fully okay to have a small break here in case you get emotional)

Old skool theories rule

Now, I don’t want to take away anything from the How-to and 7-steps (upgraded to 10 with the emergence of the internets) type of books (especially if I end up writing one of those one day) but for product work it is a good idea to keep the theory base simple. The review meeting tends to be long enough, even without the one-hour theory class up front.

Old theories have not only the odd chance of people knowing them already (meaning, saving time), but also tend to have survived the test of time. For example, the insightful wisdoms of great Greek philosophers like Aristotle and Socrates have remained relevant for millenniums. The simple persuasion principles of ethos, pathos and logos have aided great speakers from William Wallace and Bill Clinton to Herb Brooks.

Great theories also, unlike for example Police Academy movies, get better over time, including the time after death. Once, one particular Nokia EVP declared in one strategy sharing: “There is only one management guru I believe in, and he is Peter Drucker……and he is dead.” To this day it is unsure whether he trusted him because he is dead, and hence can’t change his mind, or because Drucker’s theories outlive the guy himself. I believe the latter. That may not be just luck. Peter.F Drucker (1909-2005) honed his theories over 60 years from the time of pre-WWII to post-war to industrial revolution and all the way to the information revolution, teaching his last class in 2002 at the age of 92.

Also keeping it simple worked for Rocky Balboa. He did beat Ivan Drago at Russian turf, with the good old training technique of carrying logs and doing sit-ups at the barn. And an inspirational playlist.

Last, Aristotle was again ahead of this time when he believed logos (logic, reason) is most often the foundation. Again, that’s not to say all three wouldn’t be important. It is just that the people who occupy the Corporate Board Room tend to have an alpha dog personality. They do want to see the product guy display passion – eye of the tiger and burning heart – but at the end, they need the product guy to provide foremost the logos. That’s because they themselves are happy to provide the pathos and ethos when the time for the product launch or the hero article in Fortune comes.

Choosing your theories

You need to decide yourself what is your playbook. What matters as much is that you, the product guy, have done your homework on the theories you choose. You may not need to be lecturing them into your nineties, but you need to know them well enough to be able to apply them in your own thinking and in your own argumentation logic.

In my years at Nokia, I learned to use four core theories:

  • 4P’s – Product, Price, Place, Promotion. This split of marketing mix – actually not invented by Philip Kotler, the author of Marketing Management, but by a guy called Jerome McCarthy in the 60’s – is as classic as it gets, and one of the (rare) things that I actually remembered from the Business School. True to the nature of marketing, there are so many variations (7P, 4C) that it can get confusing. Hence, I use this theory mostly as a checklist to remember to direct my attention holistically. For anyone with a geeky streak, it’s so easy to get carried away with the Product P and think that all the other P’s fall into place afterwards somehow. They usually don’t. And by the time you notice that you may have locked some of the product parameters – such as design or component list (i.e. Bill of Material) – making the sales and marketing job the equivalent of trying to cast Leslie Nielsen into a serious role.
  • Technology adoption cycle. This simple social behavior model puts some bones on why the product guy’s excitement over some thing is often met with a blank stare from the sales guy. I have found out that theory holds well in the mobile and consumer electronics in general. There’s an evolution of the theory called “chasm theory” by Geoffrey Moore. I have found that useful too, though with the caveat that it is easy to mistake the differences in context with the differences in need between the segments (see e.g. my post about QWERTY users and their need for smartphone).
  • Disruptive innovation theory. All good will come to an end at some point, or at least carrying it too long can result in this “yeah…I am supposed to be wowed but I am not “ feeling that can be borderline embarrassing, like watching Bud Fox/Charlie Sheen cameo in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”. I’ve found Clayton Christensen’s disruptive innovation theories to be really helpful in understanding the dynamics as industries mature and collide, resulting in multiple ways to “get the job done”. Compared with the previous theories, the disruption theory is much newer and much more complicated to apply. Hence, like in the case of Nokia Nseries being steamrolled over by Apple, I’ve been able to use this theory mainly in the Flash Forward or the C.S.I. way (i.e. to reconstruct what is about to happen or decipher what did just happen) than in the Armageddon way (i.e. to prevent it from happening).
  • The DVD minibox of Band of Brothers. This is my choice, but you may interchange it to any story about respect and humility, provided by your favorite religion, book, movie or TV-series. Further, as an anti-gun, anti-war type of guy, I definitively do not want compare the horrors of war with the cozy life of modern corporate world. Yet I feel the importance of personal reflection about one’s own role in any challenging endeavor comes across well in the quote from Major Dick Winters:

Winters quoted a passage from a letter he received from Sergeant Mike Ranney, “I cherish the memories of a question my grandson asked me the other day when he said, ‘Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?’ Grandpa said ‘No… but I served in a company of heroes.'”

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Happened in the previous episodes of Product Guy series

Stay tuned for the next episode: Product guy – make one scoreboard (scheduled when ready)

 

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Viva la Vida and the Office

One of my all-time favorite bands is Coldplay (yes, I know).  It is not only their unique sound and stadium-hugging presence that I find appealing, but also the lyrics that have depth and meaning.

Yesterday I wrote about the executive changes at Apple, only to wake up this morning to read that also Steve Sinofsky, the Windows Chief, is going out. Add to the equation all the executive suite drama of Nokia and Motorola in the past five years, and it does seem Google and Samsung are the stable ones, despite their reputation of autonomous groups, fast pace and hard turns.

It seems there is a common ending to the saga of people responsible for delivering products. But why is that? Maybe Chris Martin of Coldplay has the answers in the lyrics of Viva La Vida

I used to rule the world
Seas would rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning I sleep alone
Sweep the streets I used to own

That’s probably how the departing execs feel. One bearded dude can perhaps part the seas, but it takes masters of technology to make them rise.

I used to roll the dice
Feel the fear in my enemy’s eyes
Listen as the crowd would sing
“Now the old king is dead! Long live the king!”

The engineering ranks are always sad to see their ferocious leader go. For about a minute. Or slightly less if one has already signed in to LinkedIn. Then it’s time to figure out how to get stuff done under the new leaders.

One minute I held the key
Next the walls were closed on me
And I discovered that my castles stand
Upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand

The chief responsible for the product delivery has access everywhere and the world revolves around his/her calendar. Until the product is out. Then the empire gets way smaller.

I hear Jerusalem bells a ringing
Roman Cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror, my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field

Truth to be told, I never got the meaning of this paragraph. I presume every song needs a catchy chorus. Hereby this slot is for the marketing department.

For some reason I can’t explain
Once you go there was never
Never an honest word
And that was when I ruled the world

The product kings are surrounded with other noble people in the transparent, fact-based debate about the future of the mission. Only later on might one find that some people were pawns or jokers.

It was the wicked and wild wind
Blew down the doors to let me in
Shattered windows and the sound of drums
People couldn’t believe what I’d become

Who cares if there were some mistreated souls, bad blood and collateral damage in the mission of getting the stuff out, right? Well, many people do. And their time to speak is after the delivery date.

Revolutionaries wait
For my head on a silver plate
Just a puppet on a lonely string
Oh who would ever want to be king?

Yes, why indeed. With so many nice and easy posts available for capable people, why take the one in the front line with most bullets coming from the front and knives from the back.

Because of the thrill.

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