Tag Archives: get-out-of-the-building

Why Product Managers Need To Get Out Of The Office

By Kevin Dewalt

For the past few months I’ve been doing Customer Development on product managers to explore their viability as a customer segment for my new startup, sohelpful.me. I’ve been asking them about their challenges in getting insight to customer problems. I haven’t had a job as a product manager in over 15 years, but if you’ll forgive my naivety, I would like to offer a few observations on how the role of product managers has to change, at least if their employers want to survive the coming onslaught of worldwide competition from startups.

The Best Product Managers are Learning from Entrepreneurs

The management science of entrepreneurship has changed more in the past 5 years than in the previous 500. Through Eric Ries’ Lean Startup movement and best practices like Steve Blank’s Customer Development, we are finally seeing the emergence of repeatable patterns and best practices for mitigating the risks of product failure. Prescient product managers — often former entrepreneurs themselves — are seeing these best practices emerge and looking for ways to bring them into their own organization. Unfortunately, many are describing practical challenges with getting their employers to embrace this change.

No Established Processes for Connecting Product Managers & Customers

Unlike entrepreneurs, product managers are beholden to an organization’s behavior, rules, and roles. These structures often create practical barriers between product managers and the very tedious process of developing problem-solution assumptions and testing them with customers.

Customer Input Filtered by Other Stakeholders

Many are frustrated with what they describe as filtered customer input — often by sales or marketing teams who are focused on the most recent customer conversation. They recognize the importance of this feedback,  but feel that it needs to be considered in a larger strategic context.

Overwhelmed with “Inside the Office”

Product managers tend to be multi-skilled, dynamic people — those who are already overwhelmed trying to get an organization to execute. Many describe themselves as spending way too much time focused on day-to-day fires or “project management”.

Your Employers Need to Wake Up: The World Wants Your Customers!

Forget Silicon Valley. Through my free startup help sessions, I’m giving advice to entrepreneurs worldwide – Beijing, Bangalore, Singapore and Manila. They’re often 3-5 person teams trying to build highly customized solutions to micro-segments of your customer base — for a lot less. At least 50% of my discussions are about doing Customer Development on the American market. Their biggest challenge is “getting out of the office” — talking to customers to get insights. They’ve read Ash Maury’s Running LeanEric Ries’ The Lean StartupJeff Gothelf’s Lean UX, and watched Steve Blank’s (free) Udacity CourseI try to help them find your customers to get better insight using lower-cost techniques like recruiting them over Craigslist for problem-solution interviews. For the moment, your employer has some practical advantages over these new competitors – language, time zone, trust, experience, and relationships. In the long run it won’t be enough if your employers don’t wake up to the reality that your job has to change. But, alas, they probably won’t change. Most likely you’ll realize it before they do, but by that time you’ll already be gone — you”ll be “getting out of the office” building your products in your startup. Perhaps after they acquire your startup — for 1,000x your salary — they’ll listen.

Kevin

Kevin Dewalt is an American entrepreneur & investor currently living in Beijing, China. He writes about his experiences building products at his blog and on Twitter.

Guidelines For Conducting A Customer Conversation Session

By Prashanth Padmanabhan

There are some basic principles that you can follow while telling your story to your customer.

1. Show up at the customer’s office, if you can.

It shows respect. It tells them that you care for their thought. It is money well spent. As a product manager or product designer you are the voice of the customer and that is your only advantage over every other function. So customer visits should be your number one priority. Nothing else is more important than that.

2. Always show a prototype or draw a picture on the white board.

Don’t show a set of slides. This forces participants to think differently, look at the prototype and imagine rather than go into a passive finger-pointing mode. The prototype must include a list of concepts that you want to confront them with for feedback. Organize those concepts in the form of a story you can tell by going through the different screens in the prototype. Pause for a few seconds after each concept is outlined and let the interviewees share their thoughts. Acknowledge any interesting thoughts that come up and move on to the next concept in the story.

3. After introductions, ask them what they plan to get out of the session, and write that down on a flip chart.

If the crowd is large, ask everyone they plan to participate or if they are merely there to observe. Differentiate between the participants and observers and direct the conversation to the participants.

4. Listen more. Speak less.

You should be talking for about ten percent of the time and listening for the reminder of the time. If you have a hard time keeping quiet, take on the role of the writer on the flip chart. This will help you talk less and listen more. It will force you to keep quiet and will nudge customers to think aloud and direct you writing.

5. Write or draw on a flip chart.

Don’t sit down in a chair and write in a notebook where no one can see what you are writing. Writing on a flip chart, conveys to customers that you are listening, synthesizing and are open for comments. They can see your thought process, point out gaps in your thinking and, if necessary, correct what you write. So take notes publicly. Not privately.

Tip: Avoid total silence when in a conference! If you are running a workshop via conference, while taking notes, please avoid silence. Tell the customer you’re taking notes so they know you are listening.

6. Display all the flips charts all the time.

Do not flip the chart over and go to a new page. Tear the paper you wrote on and tape it to a wall. Don’t worry. Customers do not mind you posting 4-5 flip charts on the walls of their conference rooms. Pausing to tape the flip chart paper on the wall will give you a logical break after about 15-20 minutes of conversation. If your colleagues are present, it will give them an opportunity to chime in. It will also give you a minute to collect your thoughts.

After your paste the flip chart on the wall, underline the key words in the notes, recap the conversation, point out who said what, and ask participants if you missed anything. It gives participants an opportunity to point of simple errors that are bothering them.

7. Document while at the session.

Not after you come back to the office. Use a (phone) camera to take a picture of all the flip board charts. That is you documentation. You don’t have to write elaborate notes after you come back from the session. Post the pictures to a collaboration site, such as Streamwork, SuccessFactors JAM, Yammer or SharePoint, along with the notes and share it with customers.

8. Capture customer quotes and share them with colleagues rather than writing elaborate reports. Your colleagues will appreciate the quotes from customers and users.

Prashanth Padmanabhan is an entrepreneur, product designer, collaboration enthusiast, product manager for people and work management software, and SAP mentor. He’s co-authored two books, SAP Enterprise Learning and Look & Flow, a book on product innovation using design thinking and storytelling. His blog is Journal on Product Design and Development.
This post was originally published on Look and Flow, the blog site for his book. It is reprinted here with permission.

Top 7 Lessons Product Managers Can Learn From Lean Startup Machine

A few weekends ago, I participated in the Lean Startup Machine workshop held in Washington DC. For some time now, I’ve been thinking about how Lean Startup principles can be utilized to drive product innovation and if they can help product management become more efficient in driving product development and delivery. The Lean Startup Machine (LSM) workshop offered an opportunity to gain hands-on learning in applying Lean Startup techniques. The workshop proved to be an unforgettable experience.

Here are the top lessons I learned from the workshop and how they’re applicable to product management.

1. “Lean Startup is about running the simplest experiment to validate a business assumption.” – @SargeSalman. As I’m learning myself, there are many misconceptions about Lean Startup. Chief among them is that lean means cheap. It does not. Lean means not being wasteful. And the way it’s applied to business problems is by challenging you to think critically about the assumptions underlying your business or product idea, and then to systematically and rigorously test them to prove them true or false.

build-measure-learnLean Startup challenges the traditional business practice of using product releases as the as the metric of execution by espousing learning as the metric of progress through the use of validation/invalidation of one’s assumptions through testable hypotheses. As a product manager, this makes sense to me as one of the things I should be doing is thinking critically and analytically about my product solution.

2. Go talk to your customers. Constantly. Lean Startup starts with Customer Development, a method Steven Blank introduces in his book The Four Steps to the Epiphany. Customer Development asks entrepreneurs to “get out the building”, which is another way of saying, “go talk to your customers.” This exactly what product management should be doing.

As such, this should come intuitively to product management, because product managers should always be focused on the customer. What the Lean Startup movement has done, though, is provided a methodical way to think about and approach how to conduct customer research. At the LSM workshop, we were forced to continually go find and talk to customers. LSM goes beyond theory by providing its participants with a tool called the Validation Board to capture one’s assumptions, create experiments, document learnings, and make the next pivot.

3. Traditional product development is wasteful. On the surface, this systematic way of hypothesizing, experimenting and learning can seem slow, because it’s not visibly tangible. Whereas a requirements document is. And code is. So both business management and even product management get trigger happy to start getting some code written, as its a way of showing demonstrable progress and makes us feel good that the product is getting developed. After all, the sooner the product is out there, the sooner we can make money!

Unfortunately, this traditional approach gives us a false sense of progress. The LSM workshop was a valuable reminder that if you don’t spend time upfront understanding your customers and their needs, you will build products no one wants. I learned this the hard way from first hand experience when I built a first-of-its-kind web product that cost a lot of money and took 6 months to launch only to achieve a miserable 2% registration rate two years after its initial launch. Ouch.

4. You must have a strong team. Now, granted, product managers can’t always choose their team members. Yet, what LSM got me to think is how many product managers think critically about the kinds of team members they’d like and then actually ask for them? And even in the case where one cannot choose their team members, as the leader of that team, how many actually spend time cultivating team unity?

5. Leadership is always, always required. This falls from the above point. The LSM workshop groups participants into teams and each team pursues an idea that received the most votes from the participants themselves. My experience reinforced the need for strong leadership by the team lead. This not only means building strong team unity of purpose, but also being able to effectively arbitrate discussions and be decisive. Exactly what a product manager is supposed to do.

6. LSM will test your influencing skills. Leadership is about influence. Product managers need to be strong influencers and negotiators. At the LSM workshop, you are working with people you’ve never met before on a team, and under a stringent timeline all of you need to come together as a team and demonstrate progress. I found my influencing skills were strenuously tested during the workshop, and it was wonderful.

7. Your solution, while interesting, is irrelevant. Sounds familiar, right? A riff on the traditional product management mantra of “your opinion, while interesting, is irrelevant”, though this takes it to the next level and targets the proposed solution itself.

Customers don't care about your product

Entrepreneurs love their ideas. They love their solutions. And so do product managers. While I’m not saying entrepreneurship and product management are the same, like entrepreneurs, product managers are natural problem solvers and we’re passionate about our solutions. Heck, I get passionate about my product ideas all the time! But the sobering truth is that it’s infinitely more important to first be crystal clear on who is your customer and what is their problem. Because the customer does not care about your product.

The LSM workshop forces you to think about the customer and their problem first. During the workshop, I saw first hand how many people struggled with staying out of the solution zone, including, I must admit, myself. By validating your customer and problem hypotheses, you’ll be in a better position to provide a real solution that solves actual customer problems.

I would definitely encourage you to attend a Lean Startup Machine workshop near you. I’ve written a recap of the one I attended on my blog and explain why I recommend product managers should attend LSM.

Have you attended an LSM workshop? What was your experience like? Have you tried applying Lean Startup principles in your work? Please share!