Tag Archives: Leadership

Indispensable habits of great product leaders

As a product management leader, there are many demands on your time. It’s easy to get sucked into working on the most pressing issues and on meeting other people’s expectations.

As “do-ers”, it’s in our nature to jump on these issues immediately. We pride ourselves on our competence to tackle these right away.

But when we do so, are we as product leaders really making traction on the things that matter? When you get to the end of the day, do you feel a sense of accomplishment?

We’re all familiar with the Eisenhower Decision Matrix:

Eisenhower Decision Matrix

Eisenhower Decision Matrix popularized in the self-help book “First Things First” by Stephen Covey

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.

The challenge is if we don’t make time for the important stuff, the urgent will always win.

But it’s easy to say we should spend time in quadrant 2. How do we actually do that?

Dan Martell, successful serial entrepreneur and investor, published this video on his YouTube channel in which he talks about what should the day of a startup CEO look like.

He talks about how as he grew in his career, he began thinking about how he could make time for the things important to him, and what are the things other people can support him on and help him with.

He lays out 5 things that startup CEOs should focus on. As I listened to this list, I realized that these same habits apply to successful product management leaders!

They’re habits because they do these regularly, every week, every day. It’s how they ensure they’re making traction on the things that are most important.

As I’ve grown in my own career, I’ve done these same things, and found them to be indispensable in the successful execution of my products.

Here they are:

1. The Daily Check-In

The most effective product leaders check in with their team every day.

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.

As a product leader, you need to stay in tune with the “pulse” of your team. A daily check-in will enable you to stay on top of things tactically, as well as ensure you’ve got the temperature of your team members.

2. Keep Half Your Schedule Open For Strategic Stuff

What? Half? Really?

OK, so this one may be a challenge. But it’s SUPER important.

As a product leader, you’re responsible for setting the product vision and strategy.

That means spending time doing research, discovery and analysis, AND having some thinking time.

In addition, as a product leader, you’re responsible for communicating the product vision and strategy to everyone else in the organization.

So the point here is you need to keep a good chunk of time dedicated toward strategic activities.

If you think this is difficult, look back at the Eisenhower Decision Matrix, and ask yourself how you realistically plan to get quadrant 2 stuff done?

If you don’t make time for it, if you don’t protect that time, trust me, you’ll never get it done.

I’ve actually blocked time off on my calendar to do strategic stuff. I fight not to give up that time.

Keep half your schedule open for strategic stuff.

3. Major Projects Should Be On Your Calendar

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.

As a product leader, you need to make sure everyone understands their work serves a higher purpose.

That it ties back to something bigger, a shared goal. This is typically the product vision, product strategy, even the company mission.

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.

But the primary job of product management is an executable product strategy. To do that means spending time with customers.

So it’s imperative product leaders dedicate time to hear directly from their customers.

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.

And it enables you to 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.

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!

Product Manager as CEO: A tired conversation

In his recent blog post, Steve Johnson talks about that age old metaphor of the Product Manager being the CEO, President or even COO of his or her product, correctly questioning its merits. Is this a tired metaphor by now? Must Product Management continue to be defined by what other role it is or isn’t similar to?

Product Management is a strategic function that is most effective when focusing on discovering market problems, engaging in customer discovery, working cross-functionally to craft solutions, and finding ways to profitably bring those solutions to the marketplace. Besides things like defining features to launch, roadmapping, product positioning, and go-to-market planning, this includes identifying the right business processes, resources, and even organizational structure to support the product lifecycle.

This is not to say the Product Manager doesn’t get tactical, doesn’t have to “get hands dirty”. Indeed, small or large company, Product Management often needs to do just that to set an example for the rest of the organization, particularly when developing brand new products or attacking new markets. But Product Management cannot be expected to continue doing the everyday tactical activities over the long-term – running UAT, writing detailed functional specs, managing customer service, handling vendor invoicing, etc. At some point, these things need to be handled by SMEs who are better equipped to do so. Product Management’s challenge is to find ways to delegate these jobs to others and empower them accordingly, which may include modifying existing processes or even creating new ones for organizational efficiency in support of the product, so it can get back to what it does best. This is a form of leadership, and Product Management is all about leadership.

Maybe this is what a CEO, President, COO, whoever does. Maybe it isn’t. Whatever. Seems time to put this to rest and focus the conversation on the thing that really matters: execution of profitable growth.

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A successful business case is not about the analysis

You’ve worked hard to prepare an air tight business case for that new product idea or that additional investment your current product needs to take it to the next level. You’ve clearly quantified the opportunity, identified the product solution, crafted the marketing strategy, thought through all possible risks and mitigation strategies, validated all assumptions, analyzed the investment requirements, and have developed a robust, stress-tested ROI model. You’ve vetted the business case with your boss and his or her boss as well. You’ve even practiced your presentation in front of the mirror. Despite some understandable anxiety, you’re feeling confident. You’re ready.

But your presentation ends in disaster. Your business case, while solid, falls flat. The execs either trash it completely, or worse, end up making no decision at all leaving you in limbo with no direction whatsoever. What happened? What did you miss?

In a nutshell, the people factor. When I started out, I thought if I had a well thought out presentation backed by solid analysis, that would be enough. After all, that’s what they taught us in business school, and it’s what the experts tell us we should all be doing. Good enough, right? Wrong. What I learned in the real world is that at the end of the day business runs on people, and you need to get people on your side if you want buy-in for your ideas and proposals. Yes, your analysis and recommendations have to be solid – that’s a given. But if number crunching and logic were all it took to convince people, this would probably be a very different world.

I learned that “pre-selling” ideas are critical to getting buy-in for my proposals, be they from execs or even among peers. And to do this, understanding “trust networks” is critical. This means figuring out who trusts whom, who has credibility with which folks, and understanding the personalities involved – what are their motivators, concerns, agendas. And the larger the organization and the more layers between you and those whose approval you seek, frankly, the more intricate the trust networks and the more “pre-selling” you will have to do.

The goal here is two-fold. For one, you can identify potential concerns and challenges early, and so be prepared to address them during the formal pitch. Second, in a ideal situation, everyone is already pre-sold on your proposal, so the meeting is really more of a formality with everyone at the table prediposed to nodding their agreement.

It’s tough work, and it requires its own special planning. But if done right, it can make your actual formal presentation go a whole lot smoother.