By Saeed Khan
As we start 2020, I’d like to suggest the following to people working in Product organizations and who also want to accelerate product success.
Focus less on Product and more on Management
Or said a little more explicitly:
Focus more on managing product success and less on building/shipping product features.
If you’re like most product managers, you spent a LOT of effort in 2019 researching, building and shipping product. That’s great. But how are you ensuring you are maximizing the value of all that work? It’s not going to happen by researching, building and shipping more features in 2020, that’s for sure.
You’ve probably heard the phrase “Always be Shipping”. That’s one of the worst pieces of product advice I’ve ever seen. It’s based on the (false) assumption that shipping product somehow equates to delivering “value”, though few can actually clearly define what that value is.
And lately, there seems to be a lot of focus in product blogs and forums on two things: discovery and delivery: discovery is understanding what to build; delivery is building it.
This is slightly better than “Always Be Shipping”, but not by much. Doing both of these things well is important, but they are only a small subset of what Product Managers need to focus on.
Product Managers and Product teams need to focus on Product Success. This is much more than building and shipping.
What is “Product Success”? Well, you tell me.
- How does your company or organization define and measure product success?
- What business goals are you striving to achieve with your product?
- How are you tying the work that you do to align and support those business goals?
If you’re unclear on any of those, then that’s first thing you should go talk to your manager about, because you need to align your actions towards real business goals.
The definition of success can vary from product to product even within a company. Product success depends on the form, market, maturity etc. of your product.
- Are you responsible for a mobile, B2C, B2B, B2B2C SaaS product?
- Are you creating games, educational software, FinTech, HealthTech or something else?
- Is your product an early stage product striving for acquisition and adoption, or later stage looking for expansion & profitability, or something else?
- Do you have a direct or indirect business model?
- Do you sell licenses, subscriptions, advertising, or are you part of a transactional or utility-based value chain?
- What are your product’s business goals for this quarter, this year?
I could go on, but I hope you get the point. What you ship is really just a small part of what you need to think about when it comes to being a Product Manager and driving product success.
I use the following Venn diagram to illustrate what Product Management is about.
Product success, which should be goal of every Product Manager, means meeting or exceeding business objectives. This can only be achieved with the right mix of product (or service) capabilities, great go-to-market execution and overall organizational alignment to achieve those objectives.
But sadly, this balance and overall focus is rarely the case in most companies I see. Product Management’s role often looks something like this:
i.e. a huge focus on Product and significantly reduced focus on Business Objectives, Go-to-Market and overall Organizational Alignment.
And sadly, in some companies I’ve seen, the Product Management focus look something like this:
i.e. a complete lack of business, go-to-market or organizational focus from the Product Managers. This is the proverbial “Feature Factory” that you might have heard about. It’s basically about defining requirements, building and shipping product functionality.
If this sounds like your company or your job, have a talk with your managers and work to change it. Despite possible short-term wins, it’s not a path to real and lasting product success.
Product Management is a CROSS-FUNCTIONAL leadership role. Cross-functional means working across the organization (sales, marketing, support, services, executives, alliances etc.) to bring alignment and focus on what’s MOST important to drive product success. Product success means business success, and business success should be your ultimate goal.
Implement More Management
So what does it mean to be more management focused? Well, at a high-level, it means focus more on the OTHER 3 circles in the Venn Diagram.
- Business Objectives
- Organizational Alignment
There are a number of levers you can pull/push or adjust in each of these areas, and it’s important to think about (and track) what is or isn’t working and decide where adjustments or changes should be made.
Let’s start with product objectives. i.e. the business objectives for your product. There are several levers you can pull on here; the main ones of course are the actual business objectives of the product.
- Do you have a clear understanding of the business objectives for your product in 2020?
- Is there a revenue target or a profitability target?
- Is there a set of acquisition and retention targets?
- Is regional or global expansion part of the plan?
- Are there partnerships or other usage goals to be met?
- Are the objectives actually achievable? (This is a whole topic unto itself)
If you don’t have a clear understanding of your business goals, then there will be a separation between your work and the business goals your product is meant to achieve. That’s not good.
Even if your own job doesn’t include participation in some (or all) of these areas (e.g. you’re an individual contributor), your managers (Directors, VPs etc.) should have this knowledge and should convey it to you and your peers to ensure the broader team is aligned and focused on the business goals.
And on a personal level ask yourself how, without clear business goals, would you define product success as you progress through the year or at the end of the year? How will you know you’ve done the right things and had a real impact on the business?
To achieve objectives, you need clear and effective strategies. What exactly is a strategy? Without going into it too deeply, think of strategy (or strategies) as:
a framework of aligned initiatives aimed at achieving goals and objectives.
There are a couple of key words that should be explained:
Framework – it’s a structure to drive focus and help make decisions. It’s not a set of specific tasks.
Aligned initiatives – macro level activities to support the objectives and that help address weakness or challenges you will face.
There can be many types of strategies, but common ones include partnerships, go-to-market strategies, pricing/licensing strategies, marketing strategies etc.
From these strategies come strategic objectives (a set of smaller measurable objectives for each strategy) and tactics (how you will achieve those strategic objectives)
There’s a huge amount that can be written here, and I’ll probably write more on this topic in the future, but in the mean time, take a look at Gibson Biddle’s 12 part treatise entitled: How to Define Your Product Strategy.
And in particular, read Part 3 – The Strategy/Metrics/Tactic Lockup. It’s really short but it elucidates the point of putting strategies into action and measuring the success of them.
You can also use an OKR-like model to implement and measure your strategies. In this model:
- The Objective is the Strategy (e.g. Partner with consulting companies to drive awareness and adoption of your product)
- The Key Results are the (proxy) metrics you’ll use to measure success of the strategy.
- The Key Actions are the tactics you’ll implement to drive those (proxy) metrics.
Regardless of how you define and implement, product strategy is a key first step to align on business objectives.
Remember that the advice is “Less Product, More Management”. So you will definitely do some product work this year, but that product work should be guided primarily by your objectives and strategies.
Your product roadmap is the product-centric portion of those strategies. E.g. if one of your strategies focuses on regional expansion in Asia, then part of your product roadmap must include internationalization, localization, and other product enhancements to support that strategy.
The overall roadmap should consist of the big-ticket items from your strategies, and major investments from a bottom up perspective. E.g. your product needs new APIs to enable integrations with some new partner products your company has signed deals with.
I use the following diagram to show the relationship of all these with actual release planning that is the focus of a lot of product managers.
Note the relationship and hierarchy here. Each layer above, constrains the layers below it. So once you’ve got objectives and strategy, the roadmap comes (primarily) from it. And the roadmap in turns constrains the product plans that you eventually define.
Pricing / Packaging / Licensing
A lot of product managers are not directly involved in setting the pricing, licensing or packaging of their products. It is often handled by product leaders (Directors, VPs, CPOs etc.) or sometimes Sales teams, or in larger companies, often by a dedicated Pricing team.
But even if they are not the decisions makers, Product Managers should be key players in how their products are priced, licensed and packaged. Why? Because, if – and this is not true in many companies – if Product Managers have close user and customer contact – they have the most complete knowledge of where customer value is derived through the product, the size/amount of that value, and what packaging/bundling/tiers of product may generate more revenue for the company.
This could be from repricing existing tiers, modifying what those tiers include, new pricing models or new product tiers/bundles. Additionally, major NEW capabilities need to thought of from a business/licensing perspective? Or does your company simply give all new functionality “for free” to existing customers?
As a quick example, I worked in a company that had a product that was sold as a perpetual license, but was regularly used in a short term project use cases. i.e. the product would be used for 6 months for migrations, but not used much after that, except possibly on another migration project at some point in the future.
The problem was that customers had project-specific budgets, and they didn’t want perpetual licenses for a 6 month project. But they were willing to buy again for a new project with a new budget IF they could get project (or short-term) based licenses. This was an entirely new license type that was proposed and accepted by the company. This reduced friction in the buying process for those customers that didn’t want perpetual licenses, but didn’t impact the perpetual license buyers. This was an insight from the Product Management group (via some partners) that helped drive new revenue.
Metrics and Analytics
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one of my favourite topics here. There are pages and pages that could be written on this topic, but as Product Manager, think about how you will measure and monitor both the state of your product and your path towards achieving your product goals. Your company may have implemented OKRs or maybe it uses a North Star Metric for alignment. Perhaps you’re using a product analytics tool like Amplitude, Pendo etc. All of those are good. But what are the product specific areas (specifically in your actions, processes and organization) you can measure and track to identify weaknesses or gaps to address?
As I said this is a big topic, but one place to start is the topic of Product Lifecycle Metrics. I’ve talked about it in a number of place. Below are links to a slide deck and podcast to help you out. I’d love to hear any questions you have on this as it’s a deep but evolving topic.
- Product Management Metrics – slide deck
- Understanding the State of your Product – H2R Product Science Podcast
In most companies, the Go-to-Market for a product is handled by Marketing, Sales, and, if they have it, Product Marketing. Having said that, Go-To-Market doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and greatly depends on leveraging what the Product Management team has researched, defined and created.
Product Managers should be a key contributor to overall GTM strategy and plans.
Product / Market Fit
There’s a lot of talk about Product/Market fit, but what is it actually? How well is your product maintaining product/market fit? Have you ever measured it or are you assuming that you have it?
This article, entitled “How Superhuman Built an Engine to Find Product/Market Fit” is a good one on how to do it in an analytical way. Adapt the process to your product and market, but make it a regular exercise to measure, track and adjust as needed. It may be a bit harder for B2B products than B2C, but it’s still doable and worth the effort.
I had a great conversation with a Director PM that ran this exercise last year. He said that they learned a lot about WHO was actually using their product and what they were using it for.
Turns out that their main user persona (an analyst) was not the role that valued their product the most. Another category of user (operations) was using it extensively and placed a high value on their product. This opened up new avenues of discussion in the company and new potential marketing and sales efforts that they weren’t aware of before.
Don’t just assume that because people are buying your product, things are going well. You may be missing significant opportunities without knowing it, just like that company above.
Another area to review is whether the positioning and messaging for the product is as strong and focused as it could be. While there is a relationship here with the Product/Market fit, the messaging and positioning should be reviewed regularly, regardless. Why?
Product/Market fit is about who is buying/using your product. Positioning/messaging is about how you are presenting the product to the market and how well. you are communicating it.
Markets are dynamic. Competitors aren’t sitting still and neither are your potential customers. Messaging that resonated last year may simply be commodity messaging this year.
Additionally, particularly in larger companies, the organizational distance between product, marketing and sales dilutes messaging to a point where it becomes weak and generic.
You’ve seen it many times I’m sure. The compelling value of your product has been reduced to words that tell the prospect that your product saves time, reduces costs, saves effort etc. As if EVERY product doesn’t have those attributes.
So whether it’s external market changes or internal dilution or misalignment of messaging/positioning, you should look at it, review it with your marketing, product marketing and sales counterparts and ensure it is correct, meaningful and focused on the true value your product brings to market.
There are other aspects of GTM that can impact product success such as competitive analysis, analyst relations etc., and you may want to put some of your attention there if those areas aren’t getting the attention they need, but focus on the areas that will have larger impact on product success. You’ve only got 60 hours in your work week right?
Once you’ve got your business objectives clear, your strategy and roadmap, pricing, licensing etc. defined; and once the key GTM elements are ready, you can focus on aligning the various teams across the company (as well as those externally) in their messages, actions and goals.
Elon Musk was once asked:
“What’s your advice to build a great company that grows every day?”
His response went as follows:
“Each person within an organization is a vector that exerts energy to achieve a goal. A company’s progress is determined by the sum of all these vectors. For a company to achieve maximum impact, all vectors must be exerting energy in the same direction.”
This vector alignment is a perfect model for Product Managers to think about when they are working across the organization. Remember a vector has magnitude (size) AND direction. You want to MAXIMIZE the size (i.e. contribution) AND fully ALIGN the direction of each contributor to your product’s success.
This diagram shows the potential impact of misalignment. The corresponding arrows have the same magnitude, but different directions. The impact is quite different between the two is quite different.
In a single product company or startup, this may be simpler as people are generally focused on the same thing, and it may simply be a task of optimizing contribution or effectiveness. But in a larger and certainly multi-product company, this can be a huge challenge. Without getting into a detailed essay on organizational dynamics, there are a few tactical things you can do to increase and align the contribution vectors of each team member.
In many B2B companies, Product Management plays a key role in Field (Sales, Sales Engineers, Services, Support, Partners etc.) enablement on new products and new product releases. Sometimes Product Management delivers the training, sometimes they play a “train-the-trainer” role, and in some companies, they may only contribute content to the overall enablement efforts.
The challenge for Product Managers is to ensure those outward facing teams have the knowledge and tools they need to do their jobs effectively AND are aligned with one another so the combination of their efforts is additive if not multiplicative, and accelerates product success.
As a Product Manager, look to ensure the training/tools are well constructed and are themselves aligned across teams. Message mixing and dilution by other teams can easily derail all your efforts at getting the foundational pieces correct.
In one company I worked at, we added a feature that was meant to handle a very specific use case by some of our larger customers. It was a query optimization feature for very large databases. Yes, in that use case, that feature made queries much faster, but we explicitly told marketing (many times) that it was NOT a general performance feature of our product. We thought we were clear about that.
Lo and behold, a couple of months later at our annual customer conference, with 100s of customers in attendance, the CEO introduced our new release and that specific feature was highlighted.
On the main screen, center star, it read “1000x Performance Improvement”. I kid you not. Needless to say, we (Product Management) spent the rest of the conference and many weeks after that, walking back that statement and resetting both customer and internal sales/marketing expectations.
Clearly, we weren’t organizationally aligned in that instance. But misalignment is not always as blatant as in that example. In fact, it’s often something that creeps in over time as each team makes local optimizations for their benefit, or believes they are making “optimizations”. 🙂
Getting teams aligned (and keeping them aligned) takes both initial work and ongoing vigilance. Spend time with your partner teams (sales, marketing, services etc.) understand how they work, what their challenges and goals are and see where they struggle or where the misalignment is originating.
You may find that some teams devise clever or valuable ways to present or communicate product value. Leverage these. Be the bridge and bring those across to other teams. You may see gaps that need to be filled, and fortunately it’s you that will fit it. I say “fortunately” because it’s an opportunity to take charge, drive alignment and exert authority.
In one company I wrote several white papers, initiated (with Eng) performance benchmarks for my product, then wrote up the report. These were all driven by gaps in our collateral and challenges our sales teams were facing with customers.
It’s an additive process; one that requires listening, learning, coaching and actions on your part. But once you start and build trust with those teams, you, your product and your company will benefit immensely.
I’ll stop here, but this topic of organizational alignment is a big one. It’s not one that can be done single-handedly either. Work with your counterparts, particularly product marketing (if you have that) and move forward together to drive product success.
More Management Redux
Product Management is about managing products. Yet for many Product Managers, the management doesn’t extent too far beyond what the Engineering team builds. It’s time to change that. It’s 2020….Manage your product. Don’t let it continue to manage you.
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