Let’s face it: brainstorming has gotten a bad rap. And deservedly so.
How many of us have been part of a “brainstorming meeting” that turned out to be a total waste of time? Too many people. A purposeless agenda. Meandering conversations that go nowhere. And no follow-up afterward. Sound familiar?
In fact, doesn’t “brainstorming meeting” sound like an oxymoron?
The irony is brainstorming is actually an important tool to uncover creative solutions to thorny problems. Brainstorming broadens one’s perspective, allowing for new and unexpected ideas. It fosters collaborative thinking and the sharing of ideas, uncovers unexpected questions, and encourages creative exploration. These are important ingredients to fueling innovation.
If done well, brainstorming can be an invaluable tool for any product manager, entrepreneur or innovator.
So when Essay.Expert shared the following infographic on “Keys To Constructive Brainstorming”, with some useful tips on effective brainstorming techniques, it was a great reminder of how useful brainstorming can be if done right.
I particularly like tip #2 as it increases the likelihood of greater engagement during the brainstorming and continuity after.
What brainstorming practices have you seen successfully applied in your work?
We’re all familiar with the Eisenhower Decision Matrix:
We know we should be spending more (most) of our time in quadrant 2, the yellow box.
I must admit, though, I’ve been guilty of spending too much time in the urgent column. Heck, I’ve wasted time being in quadrant 4.
There’s always a fire to put out, an urgent meeting, a request from up the chain to satisfy, someone stopping by the desk to ask a “quick question”, an email to answer, a phone call to return.
The problem is that while it feels like we’re getting stuff done in the moment, we’re actually not getting anything of real value done. It’s an illusion.
And we know this, because by the end of a day like this we usually feel drained, and lack a sense of real accomplishment.
This problem can be particularly acute for product leaders, who are responsible for (among other things) the product vision and strategy of the company, the business results of the company’s product portfolio, the performance of the product management process, and the success of their team.
Yes, every day. As much as is practical, do this at the top of the day.
One way may be in the form of a stand-up or huddle where folks provide a quick update on progress and highlight any major impediments to getting work accomplished.
Another way is to check in individually. You may “walk the floor”, stopping by each team member’s desk for a few minutes to see how things are going, how they’re feeling, and if there any major issues they may need help with.
This is somewhat related to point #2. For example, you may be performing due diligence on a potential partner or acquisition as part of a developing product strategy. Or you may be conducting some market research or customer interviews. Make sure these things are on your calendar.
In addition, there may be major initiatives either you are personally championing or that your team is working on that require your priority attention. A new product launch or a major release, for example.
If you want to get traction on these things, be sure to block off a reasonable amount of time for them — time that enables you to achieve flow.
4. Align Everyday Work To The Product Vision
In product management, it’s easy to get consumed by a particular feature, requirement, story, page layout, design construct, thorny technical issue, project delivery date, PowerPoint slide, or Excel analysis.
And you need to do this constantly. All the time. Every day.
As Dan Martell describes it perfectly in his video:
“People forget. They get in these funks. They don’t understand why what they’re working on is going to be aligning to the bigger purpose. You should be going around to your team and saying, ‘Hey, you know that interface you’re designing? That’s going to allow us to do X, Y and Z, and allow us to achieve these big results we’re all agreed upon.'”
5. Talk With Customers. Every Week.
If you’re a product leader, this should be a “Duh!”
In fairness, though, it’s easy to become preoccupied with the demands of senior executives, the CEO, the Board, your peers, and your own team. Certainly, the larger the organization, the more demands on your time from people within the organization than without.
Even if you have product managers reporting into you, perhaps an entire hierarchy with Directors, Senior Product Managers, Product Owners, etc. on your team, you need to spend time with your customers.
Not so much to get feedback on a specific feature or an interface design, but to immerse yourself in their world — what challenges they’re facing, what trends they’re seeing in their industry, what opportunities they’re pursuing, what defines business and personal success for them.
By doing this, you can not only make sure the current product vision and strategy, even the company mission, is aligned with the needs of your customers, but also identify opportunities to pivot on these things if necessary. It also enables you to do point #4 above — align the every day work with how you’re creating value for your customers.
Disclosure: I don’t know Dan Martell personally, but am a follower. All credit and many thanks for his excellent video in inspiring this post.
Being “innovative” is all the rage nowadays. Companies big and small, tech and non-tech, are striving to seem innovative to employees and customers.
I’ve worked at such companies, and I’ve helped many product managers working at such companies through my product help calls. As such, I’ve seen companies that are actually trying to be innovative, and those that seem more interested in giving the appearance of being innovative.
So here are ten things a company can do to appear innovative than actually be innovative:
#10. Start using buzzwords, like “MVP”, “lean”, “experimentation”, “hypothesis” and “failing fast” without actually understanding what they mean or what they involve.
#9. Visit Silicon Valley a lot, and come back to share stories of t-shirt wearing founders and how everyone there uses Macs.
#8. Start sponsoring and hosting lots of local tech meetups.
#7. Change the office to look more “startupy”. Or better yet, build a brand new one with an open floor plan, sofas, “nap rooms”, and an Xbox.
#6. Offer lots of free food and unlimited sodas, and host “Pizza Tuesdays” and Wednesday afternoon NERF gun battles.
#5. Tell folks at company town halls that you’re embracing innovation. Just keep saying this. Over and over.
#4. Declare that “mobile is the future”.
#3. Enthusiastically share with employees the millions the company is spending to acquire hot tech startups and entrepreneurs (instead of investing in the existing employee talent).
#2. Declare “entrepreneurship” as a corporate strategy. Or better yet, start challenging employees to be more “entrepreneurial”. Make sure they put it in their professional development plans.
#1. Launch an innovation lab. It may not actually do anything real, but this must be done.
Do these 10 simple things and your company can look innovative too.
Many businesses are sustained and driven by product development. From small businesses to multinational corporations, the creation of new products is vital to market survival, especially in a world where trends, likes, and dislikes appear to change on an almost daily basis. Because of the swiftly changing market, many businesses have looked for ways to make the standard development process a little faster, or at least a little smoother.
In standard product development, there are several stages in the process like idea generation, screening, commercialization, and so forth until the product is finally ready for launch. While this development process works well, and is still in use by a great many organizations, it doesn’t always foster quick change and a fast development cycle.
A Holistic Emphasis
Holistic processes, used by major companies in the United States and Japan, do not get rid of a company’s stages of development, but merge them. When the idea is born, for example, it might move through the development team before the screening team compares and contrasts it with new product-related ideas, but both ends work in conjunction with one another. Instead of moving through incremental stages, everyone simultaneously contributes until the product is done.
Today, when a product needs to be built before the next big thing comes along, flexibility is a must. Having more hands on deck during product development requires more trial and error than the standard linear method. However, it also necessitates more communication between departments, which fosters transparency and openness through every level in a company. Once everyone understands what the other departments do, they are far more likely to take advantage of cross-departmental collaboration, allowing the company as a whole to reap the benefits of teamwork.
A Little Push
As always, development begins with an idea. In many cases, it’s a very broad idea — one that requires limits to be stretched and tested. When ideas arise in big companies, they are usually generated and imposed from above, unlike small companies, which can think big and aim for something they’ve never tried before. The problem with “thinking big” is that big ideas are often daunting to execute in real life.
Naturally, the idea has to be feasible. It also has to have a time limit. It’s going to be challenging, so everyone involved will have to be pushed a little — by themselves, by management, by the other members of their team. Enforce deadlines, maintain high standards, and monitor the quality of work, but do so within reason. Too much pressure can destroy a team, but just the right amount can drive people to achieve accomplishments they never believed possible.
A Team of Their Own
Product development teams tend to be extremely independent. Basically, they are given a concept, and they build a design around that idea. If the people involved are qualified in their specializations, the project will gain a life of its own. If upper management is involved in starting this kind of team, they should remember that such an arrangement works better if they just stay out of it. Shifting already established parameters as the potential to destroy the entire process.
Over time, the team will develop its own personal goals in an effort to complete the task in the time allotted, often fostering a strong sense of unity through the shared task. In effect, management won’t have to move the goal posts because the team will do this on their own. With each victory inspiring them to further success, every challenge overcome will instigate another even more difficult challenge in a kind of snowball effect.
The process of streamlining product development is great for many companies, but it is not for everyone. A freeform creative process tends to involve a great deal of overtime. For instance, a team that is not willing to put in the extra creative hours to bring an idea to life would be better off with the standard, more stratified process. Likewise, the naturally unstable and flexible teamwork setting of a holistic development process is not conducive to a huge project involving hundreds of people.
Some companies are run by a single individual who basically invents the products on his or her own and then gives the specifications to a design team. In this cases, it’s best to simply design the product as ordered rather than trying to improve upon the design.
Dealing with Change
It’s not easy to do something different from the standard procedure, especially the “old way” is deeply engrained into a company’s routine practices. However, change is often necessary. A new streamlined product development process may feel a little strange at first, and it may seem like it’s not quite working, But every new process takes some getting used to. Whether it’s a new software program or new machinery, mastering an innovative new process typically produces fantastic results.
Emily Hunter has been writing about business topics for many years, and currently writes on behalf of the product development specialists at Pivot International. In her spare time, she cheers for Spirit of Atlanta, Carolina Crown and Phantom Regiment, creates her own sodas, and crushes tower defense games. Follow her on Twitter at @Emily2Zen.
Yours Productly is a podcast series hosted by Ravi Kumar, founder of ProductCamp Singapore, where he talks about the business of building great software products with product rockstars and marketeers like Rich Mironov, Steve Johnson, Michael Eckhardt from Chasm Institute, Roman Pichler, and John Mansour, among many others.
A few weeks ago, I spoke at the Modev MVP Conference and the Lean+Agile DC Conference about using a bootstrapped Customer Development approach to pursuing a new product idea in an existing company.
I talked about how the traditional product innovation process of writing a business case with long-term financial projections, then writing a big PRD, then doing development and launching doesn’t work, and presented a case study of a better approach that used Customer Development and Lean Startup practices that produced far more impactful results.
Here my slides from those talks (same set used for both):
A Sales Exec and I were debating whether amount of time spent with a customer is a measure of the quality of the customer interaction.
Just curious — do you see 23 touches for 5 mins the same as 23 touches for 1 hour each — I think it is different and material.
From my perspective, I need to allocated a certain number of hours per week with customers, and believe that number in a normal week is likely 5 hours. I am not sure if that is right, but 5 hours out of 40 per se seems about right. To me, a 3-hour dinner with a customer will be very revealing.
Time matters… Speaks to quality, don’t you think?
His assumption here is that there’s no meaningful insight to be gained in a 5-minute conversation. He’s also arbitrarily picked 5 hours per week. (Why not 4? Or 2? Or 8?)
Here’s how we should think about it.
Why are we seeking VOC? What’s the purpose?
At the most fundamental level, in any situation, there are three kinds of customer insights we’re trying to gain:
Problem Hypothesis Testing
Solution Hypothesis Testing
There are many techniques to accomplishing these. The specific ones we use depends on the situation.
For problem discovery, a series of 1-on-1 interviews is best. These take time. 45-60 minutes an interview across 10, 20, 50 customers, for example.
For hypothesis testing a broad problem domain, again, 1:1 interviews may be best to start with.
So in this case, I’ll opt for 23 phone conversations of 30-60 mins each, because I know neither email nor a survey nor a 5-min phone conversation will provide me the richness of insight I need.
For solution hypothesis testing, it can vary.
If I’m validating a mockup of a potential solution the customer has never seen before, a 20-60 min interview may be needed.
In all the above situations, I want the richness of the fluidity of the conversation, have an opportunity to ask follow-up questions, and feel the customer’s emotional responses.
But let’s say I’m trying to validate the need or usefulness of a specific feature — i.e., will it or does it solve a specific, previously identified customer problem.
In this case, using an email or an automated tool would enable 23 touches in 5 minutes, and work perfectly. I could do it via phone calls, which would have taken longer, but ultimately would have given me the same quality of insight.
Another example is having weekly meetings with the Sales team.
The meeting doesn’t preclude the opportunity for a Product Manager to get on sales calls and demos. However, there’s great efficiency and value to these meetings, because in 30 mins I get buyer feedback across all our products from 9-10 folks who are making a large number of customer calls every day.
Which technique to use in any given situation depends on the type of VOC one is seeking, the purpose of seeking it, ability to access the customer quickly, the time available to seek and act on it, and of course reasonable judgment.
With respect to allocating time for yourself to obtain VOC, that’s a different thing.
You’re a busy person, so it’s perfectly reasonable you need to figure out how much time to allocate for VOC vs. other tasks.
But that’s solving your problem — your problem of time allocation.
It’s different than the how, what and why of obtaining the VOC itself.
And provides no guarantee of the quality of customer insight that you may gain.
A fellow product manager that’s working on a new product idea recently wrote to me:
“Common feedback I receive from our our engineers and executives is they don’t have a good grasp of the product vision. They say, “OK, that’s great, we can build that. But where are we going with this if we find the hypothesis to be true? What’s the long term vision for the product?” In essence, they’re asking what’s the end goal in 2-5 years, and if you show me that I’ll have a better sense of the architecture and tools I need to account for.”
This product manager is right at the very initial stages of their product idea, where he still needs to test the problem and solution hypotheses. But he’s already being asked for a long-term product roadmap! Sound familiar?
While the request seems perfectly reasonable, it’s misplaced at such an early stage. The question about architecture and tools seems perfectly reasonable on the surface, but it’s a scale question, and is not the right one to be focusing on before you even know if you’ve identified the right customer problem and have proof that your solution approach is viable to solving that problem. Execs are trying to assess the potential market opportunity, the underlying investment that will be needed, and the speed to achieving ROI. So naturally they want to see the long-term roadmap. Again, perfectly reasonable on the surface, but at such an early stage, you’re likely in no position to be able to answer the question.
Even at the conceptual stage, you likely have a list of potential features in your mind. You could prioritize them using one of the many scorecarding techniques written about by seasoned product practitioners. (See this, this, this, and this, to reference just a few.) These are all very valid techniques written by product folks who really know their stuff.
If you do that, though, you’ll be wasting your time. Creating a product roadmap is predicated on having a coherent product strategy, which is predicated on having a validated understanding of who are your customers, what are their pain points, and whether they’ll find your solution valuable. If you don’t even know if customers will buy your solution, what’s the point in having a roadmap?
So when do you develop a roadmap for a new product? I get this question a lot on my product help calls, so I thought I’d share my answer here.
For a startup product, the first step is always to identify the customer segment and customer problem. Quickly capture your product vision, formulate your customer, problem and solution hypotheses, and systematically test them. As you go along, you need to identify potential “innovator” customers and early adopters to whom you could deliver your solution — typically you build the product for these folks first. If practicable, test pricing at this stage as well.
Figure what you absolutely must deliver to these folks to solve their #1 problem, and work like hell to deliver it as quickly as possible. All other features get cut from scope and sit in the backlog. Again, with respect to pricing, what the customer is willing to pay to solve for takes clear precedence over anything else.
After delivering this, say, MVP, you need to actively gain feedback from these early customers. You’re using your delivered product to gain deeper insights into the customer’s problem, and you’re trying to understand what you need to improve in the product to (a) get these customers to stick, and (b) attract more new customers.
In addition, now that you have an initial set of engaged customers, you can also try to test their second level set of problems (or discover new ones). Understanding those problems may identify new enhancements/features. You’ll now be armed with a set of improvements, fixes and new ideas that you can put into the backlog.
If you have a sales force, and have armed them to sell your MVP, make sure you’re actively gathering feedback from them as well. Of course, not all their feedback may be feature-related — some may be about testing and evolving your sales messaging and positioning. However, as it relates to feature gaps, you put those into the backlog as well. I pay particular attention to feedback that’s preventing a customer sale.
You’ll have a pretty good backlog at this point, so you can now start building an initial roadmap. Start by prioritizing the backlog based on a reasonable customer-centric set of criteria that also help deliver on your company goals. I typically skew my priorities heavily toward voice of customer (VOC) feedback. While at any stage of the product lifecycle, features should solve tangible customer problems, it’s even more important at this early stage.
I also factor in the company’s strategic goals. For example, if the company’s focus is retention, features that create stickiness may carry more weight; if the focus is growth through customer acquisition, then sellable features may be more important; if it’s revenue through customer penetration, features that drive engagement and up-sells may take priority.
I also make some allowance for operational issues. I may not necessarily have a scale problem (yet), so these type of issues may not take precedence over VOC or driving revenue; however, I don’t want to completely ignore technical debt or reasonable operational fixes.
Once you have a prioritized list, socialize it. (Read this post by Bruce McCarthy on using “shuttle diplomacy” to get buy-in.) For the top priority items on the list, get t-shirt sizing from Engineering, and make a final call to sequence out the items based on customer value vs. LOE. Now you’ve got a validated product in the marketplace with a decent first-pass roadmap that you can build upon.
Many of my free product help calls are about ways to pursue customer development and gather VOC, bootstrap new product efforts, and apply lean principles to product management activities. I recently had an email Q&A with a fellow PMer in which I shared what’s worked for me. So I decided to post my answers here — of course, your mileage may vary, but perhaps there may be some nuggets that may help you.
Voice of the Customer (VOC)
Besides web analytics, do you have any tools you use to facilitate getting VOC from the market? Customer interviews are great, but my experience is that it can be hard to get this feedback on a continuing iterative basis. Are there tools you use to make sure you have the #1 customer problem identified?
For identifying the #1 problem, nothing beats interviews. You need qualitative feedback, especially at the early stages.
Solution hypothesis can be also be validated qualitatively via interviews, as well as quantitatively — e.g., watching engagement metrics on a feature.
Regardless of the stage of the product, I always dedicate time every week to speak with my customers.
For now, we capture this feedback in Google Docs. Works well enough.
For a launched product, depends on the nature of the hypothesis to be tested. If it’s an optimization type hypothesis — e.g., do customers convert at a higher rate with copy A or copy B — A/B testing or engagement metrics may work fine. Tools like Optimizely can help.
If it’s a more pivot vs. persevere type test, then it depends on the specific component of your product strategy or business model you’re testing. For example, if you’re reliant on lead gen to fuel inside sales, testing sales pipeline metrics, product positioning and sales commissions becomes important. If you’re an e-commerce play reliant on SEO/SEM, those are the metrics to focus on.
I have recently tried to combine problem/solution interviews into one interview, because l found that at the beginning of the Solution Fit interview I could test to make sure that I had the #1 problem nailed. As you stated in a response to one of my comments on your blog, you find that with an existing customer base you often have a good idea of what the #1 problem is, and that you can often just verify this in the Solution Interview.
I’ve done both: combined and separate. Pure problem interviews are great for immersing yourself into your customer’s world — what they do today, where they feel the pain, and how they articulate it. However, it is true that sometimes you need to get them to react to something to give some structure to your discovery.
There’s also an aspect of knowing your customer. If it’s a new product to existing customers, I may already have a pretty good idea of their pain points, and how well they articulate their problems. So I may combine the problem and solution interviews. If it’s a new product to new customers with whom I’m less familiar, I may prefer a pure problem interview to allow me to understand the customers better.
Ultimately, just need to use good judgment based on the nature of the problem, the solution you’re envisioning, and your target customer.
As you preach, long MRD/PRD’s make no sense. However, there is some need to provide our business analyst with some form of requirement. What do you do in these cases? I have a Feature Requirements doc I created, but I sometimes feel it is overkill. What would you recommend?
We don’t write MRDs, PRDs, or any sort of traditional functional spec. It’s a total waste of time.
If we have time, budget and bandwidth, we’ll always get a Designer to create the screens before getting it to Engineering. Doing otherwise is a waste of Engineering’s time. Only caveat is I keep my Engineering Head / Chief Architect informed and involved.
Since the Designer is the recipient of the stories, we can write them at a fairly high level. We don’t get hung up too much on granular acceptance criteria — the use case, user goal or job story is much more important at this stage.
As such, at times we’ve provided just a 1-pager with bullets. Because design is iterative, we lean more heavily on interactive ongoing conversations than paper.
If we don’t have time, budget or bandwidth for a designer, PM just hacks the screens — Balsamiq, ppt, whatever. Not ideal, but sometimes you just have to make do. I’ve literally sent a photo of a whiteboard doodle, and written the story around it.
As much as possible, for major new features or flows, we will do customer validation. Yep: phone interviews with screen shares. 5 may be good enough.
We don’t have a Business Analyst, so PM writes the stories directly, including me. It’s not hard, and removes a middle man. Not saying a BA/BSA is never needed — just saying in our case we haven’t had the need for one, and have managed fine.
When ready to provide the stories to Engineering, we do write more granular level stories. Granularity is determined by the detail put into the screens. Let’s say we had a designer mockup every detail — every click, button placement, font, color, and even copy —then it’s just easier to add the mockup as support documentation and point to it in the acceptance criteria. If the design was more high-level, like a ppt hack or my silly whiteboard doodle, naturally I need to provide more specificity.
We use Aha.io to capture ideas, convert them to features, write stories, attach documentation, do prioritization, and map out an executable roadmap. It has some super cool features:
It will spit out a req doc from the stories you write. This is helpful if you’re using a 3rd party dev firm and need to provide them a written doc during the initial planning stages. So we no longer need to use MS Word.
It has an awesome Jira integration feature, where I literally click a button and boom, everything is automatically placed in the Jira backlog.
It allows me to publish out status on our roadmap execution to senior execs. This is extremely helpful, as it gets me away from PowerPoint and Excel crap.
Ultimately what really matters is joint understanding between PM and Engineering. If there’s a good relationship, both sides can come to an agreement on how the reqs should be delivered. I’ve found regardless of how the reqs are documented, ongoing conversation between PM and Engineering is the key.