I previously spoke of ‘Empowered’ by Marty Cagan, founder of Silicon Valley Product Group. Marty is also the renowned writer of ‘Inspired‘ the bestseller for product managers who want to build tech products customers love, and that will work for your business.
As I did with ‘Empowered’, I’ve noted a few punchlines that struck me. These are guidelines to support you in your way to attract the right people, and build the right product with the right process. According to Martin, all strong product teams should innovate according to this framework, and ‘innovation should not be carved out with a protected team that can go out and innovate with some air cover’. Thus Martin is ‘not an advocate of so-called corporate innovation labs’. Techniques of product discovery and rapid test and learn absolutely apply to large enterprise companies, and not just to startups, he claims. The best product companies have institutionalized innovation: innovation is not something that just a few people get permission to pursue, it is the responsibility of all product teams.
Though I agree with the target, it might not be easy to reach it immediately for all companies, who want to redesign as tech companies. Therefore one might want to monitor the innovation cursor, and start progressively the innovation endeavor with a pilot innovation program: it will first embed a few teams into the discover, test, and learn techniques, and then propagate to all teams, while the company reorganizes itself in a product-teams structure. These pioneering teams can also help when you want to address completely new businesses without unbalancing the current organization or putting it at risk. Furthermore, innovation programs should apply the same discover, test, and learn techniques that we discuss here for products, so that they become programs employees love, and that make sense for the business! As you go along this path, you might well end up with a portfolio of innovation programs just like you handle an innovation programs portfolio or a products portfolio.
Beyond every great product there is someone who led the product team to combine technology and design to solve real customer problems in a way that meets the needs of the business.
Your reality as a startup is that you’re in a race to achieve product/market fit before you run out of money. When scaling, we need to replicate our earlier successes with new, adjacent products and services, and grow the core business as fast as possible. The leadership style and mechanisms that worked while the company was a young startup often fail to scale. Leaders are forced to change their roles and, in many cases, their behaviors.
Product innovation means constantly creating new value for customers and for business. Not just tweaking and optimizing existing products but, rather, developing each product to reach its full potential. Even with the ideas that do prove to have a potential, it typically takes several iterations to get the implementation to the point it delivers business value: this is called Time to Money. When projects are output, product is all about outcome.
With strong product teams, risks are tackled upfront, rather than at the end. Products are defined and designed collaboratively, rather than sequentially. It’s all about solving problems, not implementing features.
We need to discover the product to be built, and we need to deliver that product to the market. We use prototypes to conduct rapid experiments in discovery, and then we build and release products in delivery, in hopes of achieving product/market fit, a key step on the way to achieve company’s product vision.
A product team is a group of people who bring together different specialized skills and responsibilities and feel real ownership for a product.
The product manager is responsible for evaluating opportunities and determining whats gets built and delivered to customers (product backlog). The four key responsibilities of a strong product manager are deep knowledge of the customer, data, business and stakeholders, market and industry. Successful product manager must be the very best versions of smart, creative, and persistent. Like a CEO, the product manager must deeply understand all aspects of the business. Great products require an intense collaboration with design and engineering to solve real problems for your users and customers, in ways that meet the needs of your business.
Rather than being measured on the output of their design work the product designer is measured on the success of the product. Good product designers are constantly testing their ideas with real users and customers. They build testing into their weekly cadence, so they’re able to constantly validate and refine ideas as well as collect new insights.
Tech lead is helpful because of the broad knowledge he brings that pertains what is possible, sharing this knowledge with the other engineers on the team. He has an explicit responsibility to help the product manager and product design discover a strong solution.
Product marketing plays an essential role in discovery, delivery, and, ultimately, go-to-market. They represent the market to the product team: positioning, messaging, and a winning go-to-market plan. They are deeply engaged with the sales channel and know their capabilities, limitations, and current competitive issues.
User research are trained in discovery techniques. Keep in mind that the learning must be shared learning, you need to witness the insights first and.
Data analysts help teams collect the right sort of analytics, manage data privacy constraints, analyze the data, plan live-data tests, and understand and interpret the results.
Test automation engineers write automated tests for your product. It’s not unusual in complex products to have multiple test engineers dedicated to each product team.
Delivery managers are a special type of project manager whose mission is all about removing obstacles for the team. They are typically scrum masters for the team.
Leaders help to understand how the whole product hangs together, with an holistic view, connecting the dots between the teams. The head of product is first and foremost responsible for building the skills of the product managers, hes’s strong at team development, product vision, execution, and product culture. VP product needs to complement the CEO. All the great vision in the world doesn’t mean much if you can’t get the product idea into the hands of customers: you need a product leader who knows how to get things done. A strong product culture means that the team understands the importance of continuous and rapid testing and learning. They understand the need for continuous innovation, and know great products are the result of true collaboration. A dedicated principal product manager is able to focus on the product itself and is readily accessible as a critical resources to all the product managers.
The head of product design is responsible for the holistic user experience. The technology organization leader ensure a holistic view of how the entire system fits together from a technology point of view. He’s responsible for architecture, engineering, quality, site operations, site security, release management, and usually delivery management.
The three holistic-view leaders, head of product, head of design, head of technology, are obviously very valuable individually, but in combination you can see their real power.
Splitting your product across many product teams can be achieved reflecting investment strategy, minimizing dependencies, aligning with architecture (including platforms teams which work on core or common services for all teams), or user or customer, or business units. Structure is a moving target, the organization’s needs should and will evolve over time.
Weak teams just plod through the roadmap they’ve been assigned, month after month. Strong product teams understand time and money constraints and embrace them, rather than deny them. They are very good at quickly tackling the risks and are fast at iterating to an effective solution. They work at solving an underlying problem for the customers and the business, not just deliver a feature. Therefore the product teams need to have the business context, and specific, prioritized business objectives. Outcome-based roadmaps lay out business problem to solve rather than features.
Product teams need the time to validate the solution with customers to ensure it has the necessary value and usability, with engineers to ensure its feasibility, and with stakeholders to ensure it is viable for the business. Once done, they can make an informed and high-integrity commitment abut when and what will be delivered.
Product vision describes the future we are trying to create. The product strategy is our sequence of products or releases we plan to deliver on the path to realizing the product vision. It is structured around a series of product/market fits. The product vision should be inspiring, and the product strategy should be focused.
Product principles speak to the nature of the products you want to create. Product objectives empower and motivate people to do their best work, and meaningfully measure their progress. Objectives and Key Results technique (OKR) is a tool for management, focus, and alignment. A good cadence for team’s objectives is quarterly. Objectives do not need to cover every little thing the team does, but they should cover what the team needs to accomplish. OKR becomes an increasingly necessary tool for ensuring that each product team understands how they are contributing to the greater whole, coordinating work across team, and avoiding duplicate work. The cascading of OKRs in a product organization needs to be up from the cross-functional product teams to the company or business-unit level. Leadership team looks at the proposed key results from the product teams and identifies gaps and then looks to what might be adjusted to cover those gaps. When using OKRs at scale, there’s a larger burden on leadership and management to ensure that the organization is truly aligned.
Product evangelism aims at communicating the value of what you’re proposing to your team, colleagues, stakeholders, executives, and investors. Show the customer pain, share learnings, be the undisputed expert on your users and customers, be excited and sincerely show enthusiasm, spend time with your team.
Hereafter we focus on discovery techniques as our focus is on product managers, and that is their primary responsibility. Strong teams work to meet dual and simultaneous objectives of rapid learning in discovery, yet building stable and solid releases in delivery. If you want to discover great products, it really is essential that you get your ideas in front of real users and customers early and often. If you want to deliver great products, you want to use best practices for engineering and try not to override the engineers’ concerns.
To address critical risks (value, usability, feasibility, business viability), product manager’s opinion is not enough, we need to collect evidence. Product discovery is all about coming up with the fastest, cheapest way to test ideas. Creating the necessary value so that customers ultimately choose to buy or use is the hardest part. Coming up with a good user experience is a challenge as well. Functionality, design, and technology are inherently inter-twined. Our goal in discovery is to validate our ideas the fastest, cheapest way possible, and share the learnings with the team. Teams competent in modern discovery techniques can generally test on the order of 10-20 iterations per week. Discovery techniques include framing, planning, ideation, prototyping, testing (feasibility, usability, value, transformation).
- Framing techniques: opportunity assessment, happy customer / happy CEO letters or Amazon working backwards press release, startup canvas;
- Planning techniques: story map with critical user tasks and progressive level of detail, customer discovery program involving a handful of happy reference customers;
- Ideation techniques: customer interview, concierge test (doing the customer’s job manually), customer misbehavior (using products to solve problems other than what they were planned for), advanced users suggesting evolution of product features, hack days;
- Prototyping techniques: feasibility (no user-interface, 1 or 2 days of time), user (simulation, smoke and mirrors, a façade with nothing behind the curtain), live-data (a subset substantially smaller than the eventual product, a couple days to a week), and hybrid (wizard of Oz, it looks and behave like a real product from the user perspective, but is absolutely not scalable); prototype is also a powerful tool for team collaboration and develop shared understanding across the team and with business partners;
- Testing techniques:
- Usability: defined set of tasks for the users;
- Value: demand (fake door demand test with button or menu item, or landing page), qualitative value (interview; money, reputation, time, access to demonstrate value), quantitative value (A/B testing, invite-only testing, customer discovery program);
- Business viability;
- Transformation: discovery sprint in one-week (created by Google Ventures as Design Sprint, pilot teams (roll out of change to a limited part of the organization before implementing it more broadly).
Several process consultancies that specialize in ‘Agile at Scale’, introduce methods and structures intended to scale to large numbers of engineers, yet which absolutely destroy any hope of innovation.
Managing stakeholders: they are part of the community at large, another source of input on the product, along with many others. Product manager must convince every stakeholder that he hot only understands the issues, but he’s committed to coming up with solutions that not only work for the customer, but also work for the stakeholder and the business. Success means that your stakeholders respect you and your contribution. Spend one-on-one time with key stakeholders, commit to previewing your discovery solutions with them before you put this work on the product backlog. Meet privately with each stakeholder, in a weekly lunch or coffee, show them high-fidelity prototype, and give them the chance to raise any concerns.
Product and Innovation Culture
- Customer-centric test and learn process: discovery techniques, customers observation, product mindset, compelling product vision and focused product strategy for customers and business, experimentation, rapidly trying out product ideas engaging directly with users, rapid iteration, data-driven adjustments, continuous integration and release
- Active and trustful relationships: product, design, and engineering smooth collaboration (including engineers in discovery), stable product teams, stakeholders management, reference customers, open minds and risk-taking culture, respect, diversity;
- Virtuous Leadership: high-integrity commitments, firm priorities, corporate courage, empowered, accountable, and recognized product teams, time to innovate, sense of urgency and impacts.