Product Mgmt for newbies #7 – Prioritise your time, learn to let go.

One of the biggest challenges I had when I moved from engg to Product was this – I started a lot of activities / tasks and couldn’t finish them. This felt bad. Sometimes when I tried, I ended up finishing tasks that were not that important any more. That felt bad again.

Lesson #1

Slowly and painfully, there was no option but to be okay with letting go of half finished tasks. Take a deep breath, let it go and focus on the most important activity.

 

Especially in a role where there are no well defined daily / weekly targets.

As a PM there are a bunch of activities you can potentially do/ get involved in:

  1. Gathering customer feedback.
  2. Converting that feedback into Product solutions/ enhancements.
  3. Discussions with design team on various open design issues w.r.t your product.
  4. Various different kinds of discussions or meetings with the engg team  (
    1. Estimation / feasibility feedback on an upcoming ambitious project.
    2. Backlog grooming
    3. Sprint planning
    4. Daily Standups
    5. Demos
    6. Retrospective meetings.
    7. UAT testing
    8. Clarifications to QA / Dev team members on various on-going activities.
  5. Discussions with different stakeholders on their pain points.
  6. Discussions with your boss(es)  / top mgmt on current issues / future plans
  7. Meeting with Product Marketing / Sales Teams on upcoming partnerships / dealing with competition/ upcoming marketing campaign.
  8. Studying competition/ reading latest consumer reports.
  9. Following tech news for new possibilities and use-cases that could fit your product.
  10. Prioritizing next week / month’s backlog items.
  11. Detailing our requirements for the upcoming sprint.
  12. Program managing cross functional deliveries.
  13. Client/ partner meetings where you are involved as a Product Expert.
  14. Meetings / demos with new vendors who could help you measure your product usage better.
  15. Studying metrics and analytics/ digging for patterns and insights.
  16. and the list is endless..

 

Product Mgmt is not a very well cut-out role, the boundaries are usually blurred, the expectations are not crisp, the control you have is limited. Its extremely easy to slip into doing things which are not going to get you the outcomes your business / product needs.

For you to be making an impact you need to be cognizant of where your time gets spent..

Lesson #2

Spend some time every fortnight / month thinking about what exactly did you accomplish and deliver. Were you satisfied ? Yes – great. No – see where you could have saved your time.

 

Lesson #3

Another habit / trap was to start doing things with which I was comfortable with. Tasks that were easy. I think I still sometimes fall into this trap. Too bad. Not effective. Face the important tasks head on. Don’t be afraid. Go in the unchartered territory & get some results.

 

To summarize:

  1. DO NOT get swept away with the barrage of distractions and requests you get every day / week. Decide to spend your time consciously.
  2. Learn to be be okay with un-finished tasks. Control your urges to finish lower priority tasks and to get addicted to the dopomine high you get on finishing them.
  3. Learn to attack the important tasks even if you have no idea how to do them. Control your urge to do the easy stuff first.
  4. All of the above are hard. But keep trying 🙂

 

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Product Mgmt For NewBies #6 – Think Metrics

Have you ever measured how much time do you spend having coffee / tea breaks or having random water cooler discussions / sutta breaks with colleagues ?  Have you measured how much do you spend checking / responding to email ?

I had taken a stab at measuring these back in 2008 and I had realized I was spending just way too much on them. A few days of measurement helped me improve my productivity and time spent in office tremendously. I was trying to measure and improve my productivity as a software developer, that was also when I took a series of steps to improve my productivity using little tips and tricks (published quite a few blogs posts too on the topic).

There is a famous saying, “you cant improve what you don’t measure”.

When building a product/ feature, the idea is to move some metric. What is that metric ?

Your users ability to accomplish a task ?

Your ability to make money from them ?

All objectives can be defined in the form of a metric and can be measured.

And yes, keep in mind there are LOTs of metrics you CAN measure. Does not mean you need to measure/ focus on them all.

Define the objectives & focus on the key metrics.(Top 1 or 2 metrics only)

Its extremely easy and usual to get lost in a barrage of metrics. Page views, bounce rate, exit rate, conversion rate, click through rate and a thousand other metrics. But you need to very clearly define the objectives of a product and just focus on the top 1 or top 2 metrics at any given stage of the product / company.

  • For example, at product launch, the key metric to measure might be the # of users doing the first step or the first few steps after installing the app  – essentially answering the question whether the users are able to see value in the app to invest the time for those first few steps ? Is your app’s on-boarding experience appropriate ?
  • Next phase could be to measure how many users are taking the key step of accomplishing the task that the product was designed to do. For example, for Practo, it would be whether users are calling the doctor / scheduling an appointment with the doctor they were looking for ?
  • The following phase might be whether users are coming back after the first use ?
  • And so forth.

After a point you might be measure a combination of the a few metrics ( the top 2 metrics I referred to.). But restrict yourself to a max of 2. Do not go beyond that. They are a distraction. ( There are enough distractions in a PM’s life anyway)

Feel free to measure and go through a 100 metrics for sanity purposes. To ensure that nothing is completely broken / has a bug. The idea is to focus your time on moving only the top 1 or 2 metrics.  

Feel free to setup alerts for several sanity metrics.

Just so that you don’t end up wasting time going over all the sanity metrics you can setup alerts so that you get an email when there is something abnormal. ( like # of users in a particular segment of users, or the usage rate of a particular important feature etc.)

Here is how you can do this on Google Analytics. Having these alerts in place will give you a bit of peace of mind that someone is checking them every day / week so you can focus on the other stuff.

The top 1 or 2 metrics will also ensure alignment and help you take trade offs.

Your boss / peers / engineers / designers  and all other stakeholders. You might be chasing a different metric and your boss might be looking at a completely different one. Align yourselves on metrics and not features.

When the discussion is all about that top metric, its much easier to take those trade offs while designing  / architecting a feature / system.

When planning/ prioritizing a feature – try to predict how much change do you expect to see in the top metric.

This will help you prioritize. A feature that’s cool and the latest in-thing but will not move the key metric does not deserve attention at that given stage. This will also help you improve your product judgement about what product change brings about how much change in the key metric. Key to being a successful PM. Its calculated bets you take after all.

Master Product Analytics tools 

You wont believe how effective you can be in your decision making if you knew how to make use of Google Analytics / Localytics / Mix Panel or whichever Analytics tools you use.

There are tons of video resources available on the internet to help you learn. Spend your weekends on them. These tools are going to be your bread and butter. You HAVE to be master. You have NO choice.

Caution: Don’t be too obsessed by Quantitative Analysis, Qualitative study is equally important.

Many folks believe that quantitative data and Analytics tools like Google Anlaytics etc have all the ‘insights’ they need. I strongly disagree. There is no better alternative to actually seeing your products being used by real users. (Whether you see them face to face, or you see recordings is your choice).  I have said this many times, metrics/ analytics are symptoms of a problem / behavior, the root cause is usually found when observing / talking to your users. So please do talk to your users as often as you can ( 1-2 times a week is a good number).

Useful Follow up Resources:

Would love to hear your thoughts  / feedback on the topic.

Prod Mgmt for Newbies #5 -Understand your business holistically

In one of my early days as a PM, when I talked to people about making more money, I always used to say build new products. Sell them to existing or new customers and make more revenue.

I was so wrong and limited in my understanding of a business.

Understanding one’s business in-depth is extremely important for a Product Manager for him to take the right decisions given a business objective.

Understand your business

Here is a basic list of questions I would suggest you to ask yourself and your peers/ leaders:-

  1. What do we sell ?  ( do we sell experiences ? physical products ? Phone numbers ? )
  2. Who are the customers and how do we acquire them ?  (understand the acquisition strategies we use)
  3. Who are our suppliers and how do we acquire them ? 
  4. How do we grow our user / customer base ? (On all sides of the business)
  5. What generates the most revenue ? Or rather whats the revenue split by user / product segments ? ( iPhone generates the most revenue for Apple, did you know that? when there is a conflicting priority between Mac and iPhone, you know which way Apple is going to go.
  6. What incurs the most cost ? Or better if you can get a high level split of the costs.(Many companies have Marketing as their biggest cost, for some its RnD, for others it might be operations – you need to understand the split)
  7. Who are our competitors ? And how are they different ? 

When I started to develop an understanding of the above, I stopped saying build cool new products, my thought process on making more money started to bend around expanding the customer base, or increasing pricing by offering a premium feature on an existing product, or monetize an existing asset which we are not monetizing today..or automate some aspects of the business to increase profitability, or may be just optimize a particular flow in the product to increase revenues.

Why are certain new products built/ sold ?

Next, lets try to understand why do companies build the products they build, or features they add.

  • Why do you think Google built Google Chrome ? To provide a better browsing experience to the world ? To make websites faster ? Think again.
  • Why do you think Amazon built Kindle ? To provide next generation book reading experience ? No. e-Book readers already existed in the market. Think again.
  • Why do you think Google is building project Google Loon and Facebook is trying to provide free access to Facebook ? To help people get access to internet and improve their lives ? Not exactly.

All these products are built to help the company

1) Acquire new customers 

  • Google chrome search bar leads to more google searches. Hence more people see/  click ads. ( and hence more money)
  • Kindle leads to more people buying books from Amazon. And seal the existing ones  to amazon forever.
  • Google loon / FB free access – would provide internet access to people. What would those people do ? Search for stuff on google or browse content on FB. Hence more ads and hence yet more money.

2) Strengthen their current position/ assets.

  • If one gets used to using google chrome and searching from the search bar on top. Google’s position as a search leader is further strengthened.
  • Amazon’s position as the biggest online book seller gets further strengthened.

 

Why are companies built ? Why do companies exist ?

Two reasons

  1. Solve a user problem / fix an inefficiency in the system.
  2. Make Money. For most companies, #2 is all that matters.

So don’t just think that a new cool product is going to solve a real problem and stop at that. Think money too. Make it a part of your habit.

Useful Resources & Parting thoughts

Product Mgmt for newbies #4 – Start small / trim to the most imp. use-cases

When I first took up the PM role, my first assignment was to make my product stable & bug free. It was a B2B product being used for a high stakes client supposed to generate quite a bit of revenue and establish company’s reputation with the client and win more business & client for us.

Now stability, you might think, is engineering team’s role. But I wouldn’t say so.

Why do smart phones have more bugs, than the old simple feature phones ? Because smart phones have a lot of features. The more features, the more the complexity and thus more bugs are obvious.

I made a list of features my product had vs which ones were REALLY business critical in the MVP stage and trimmed out / cut down stuff that wasn’t critical at that point.

Ideally, one should decide the list of most important features by looking at product usage data and if thats not available, then try to prioritize the requirements you have understood by talking to your stakeholders ( including users of the product). Here is a really good article on feature audit by intercom.

After that ruthless trimming the product became a bit less complex and easier to change & manage. It took us 3 months of trimming, testing,  simplifying to get the product to a usable state.

After that, we added only those features, which were the most important and REALLY required for the user/business.  Sometimes, we mis-fired and added a complex feature which wasn’t used as much. Regretted that. But keeping a very close watch on number and nature of features you add is extremely important.

Don’t make  / keep your product complex to the point that it becomes very hard to manage or use.

There are several reasons why the Product backlogs are overflowing with features/ tasks / bugs.  This being one of them.

So while planning your roadmap / your MVP, learn to say no. Learn to argue. Go by data. Go rock !

PM for Newbies – #3 – clearly understand what value PMs bring.

Many times, people ask me, what is it that a PM does. There is a business (operations / marketing /sales) guy who run the business, there is an engineering team who build the product, so what exactly PMs are supposed to do.

And this great post by Marty Cagan at svpg helps me answer that question. Go ahead and read it.

Quick summary

  1. Deep understanding of the user
  2. Deep understanding of the business
  3. Deep understanding of the industry /competition.
  4. Reference Customers
  5. Motivation

So what should we do ?

  1. Users: Talk to users at least twice a week. Try to understand what their problems are, what their behaviour is etc. There is quite a bit of literature on on how to do user interviews on the internet. Tip: This video is nice. If you do not talk to users that frequently, you are going to assume a LOT of things about them. Don’t let that happen. Take data driven decisions. Google Analytics and other analytics is nice, but nothing beats qualitative direct user feedback. I would even argue that the analytics data is like symptoms, in most cases, you wouldn’t see the root cause, unless you talk to users.
  2. Business: Spend time with folks in other non-tech functions – Marketing, Sales, Finance, Operations. This would be give you a solid edge in your job. No other function would know so much about your business as you would if you spend time with each one of them. Park, say an hour, every week for this one. The ROI here is going to far bigger than you can imagine. I have done this mistake of not spending enough time outside of my focus area with other functions & I regret it ! (Even the ones I do not necessarily need to interact with for my product – have been very enlightening and helpful). So please don’t think of this as a low priority, nice to have task in your list. This is as important as your sprint planning meeting.
  3. Industry: Study your competition, follow blogs and news about the industry. But do not spend too much time on it. Spending an hour or two once in two weeks is also fine. This can drain a lot of your energy. So just be judicious on this one.

But be very clear, if you are not doing the above, you are going to take very sub-optimal decisions. The core job of a PM is to take the right decisions about the product.

So do get out of your comfort zone, make a bit of discipline and build awesome products !

https://pankajghanshani.com/2016/04/04/pm-for-newbies-3-clearly-understand-what-value-pms-bring/

PM for Newbies – #1 – Whats your problem?

WhatsYourProblem

As a way to learn myself (by sharing what I have learnt 🙂 ) , I am going to make notes on all my key learnings as a Product Manager.

So I am starting this series today and I am going to organise into the following categories — Newbies, Business & Finance Intelligence and Product Management general practices.

Here goes my first post for Newbies —

Understand the ‘Problem’ . Define the ‘why’.

Many times early in my career as an engineer / developer, we used to talk about solutions. Cool Features. Cool new technologies.

Not problems they were going to solve.

Define the problems and make them the most important guiding light. It could be problems of a user segment, or specific business problems. These problems should guide the solution.

Why ?

If you are very clear about the problem, comparing solutions would become easy.

Calculating ROI (return on investment) of a particular solution is going to be easy.

Validating the solution is going to be easy. You can ask/ validate whether this solution is solving the original problem you set out to solve.

So, very very clearly define the problem a product / feature is going to solve.

Your solutions might keep changing but the problem wouldn’t / shouldn’t unless its not a valid problem at all.

How ?

Step 1: Talk to people. Become a user yourself.

When you talk to people, they wouldn’t usually tell you their real problem directly. So talk to a lot of people and make your own notes on what is underlying common theme. Whats the underlying real issue at the symptoms people are describing.

Hint: Empathizing with users and the ability to get into their shoes is a key skill you would need. (So work on that.)

Step 2: Then write your conclusion about the problem down. Validate that written definition with the users.

Step 3: If users agree, you now have a defined problem. If not, go back to step 1.

And next time if you have to compare two existing apps in the market, or two solutions, don’t compare their features, compare how well they solve a given set of problems in their order of priority.

The Single Most Important question for Product Leaders

I think this is the single most important question for Product Leaders:  What would you do next for your Product ? Which feature / feature set would you prioritize ?  If you are senior product person / a PM with a large product portfolio, you would know that many of us get lost in day to day deliveries, stakeholder mgmt, customer requests and the ten thousand other things that PMs are supposed to do and in such a situation its easy to lose sight of big picture.

( Thanks to Dilbert :))
( Thanks to Dilbert for the image 🙂 )

I suggest that we first understand and build the larger context around the Product and then the feature prioritization process would become much easier.

  • Organizational Direction : 
    • What is the direction of the company ?
    • What role does your Product play in the future direction of the company ? 
    • Whats the current purpose of your product for the company?  Revenue ? Cash-flow ? Profits ?  Customer Acquisition / Marketing ? 
    • Is your Product able to fulfill that current purpose very well ? What are the gaps / strengths ? 
  • External View:  
    • How is the competition ? 
    • What is the future of a product like yours ? Where is the industry going ?  (think what happened to digital cameras when phones started to ship with Cameras, think what happened to Data center Mgmt companies when a huge part of the world moved to the cloud etc.)   
    • How do your customers use and perceive your product ? ( Are they happy ? For what reasons etc.)  
  • Execution Abilities & Constraints.
    • How much risk appetite you have in terms of spending money / engg bandwidth ?
    • How much time do you have in your hands ? Whats the urgency ? Can you start on something that would take 3/6 months to build ? 
    • How much engg capacity you have ?
    • What are the engg teams strengths ? 
    • Where does the organization stand in terms of other required organizational capabilities  ( that are important to your product / features’ success)? Like design / supply chain mgmt / marketing etc.
  • Based on the above you need to articulate your Product’s Vision, Strategy & Goals.
    • Which aligns well with your Organization’s Vision, Strategy and Goals.

Based on all of the above you should come up with the most important directional priorities (or themes)  for your Product for the next few months / quarters.

And then prioritize stuff within themes which would primarily be based on the ROI (Impact / effort) keeping in mind the factors mentioned above.

Doing all of the above should not take more than a day or two and would then make it easy to communicate those themes to your individual sub-product owners / teams.

There is also quite a bit of reading material on prioritizing features once you have the larger context figured out – check out this thread on Quora.

Would love to hear thoughts / comments / feedback.

Six things to learn from the iTunes Story

I just read the iTunes chapter of Steve Job’s bio last weekend and it just completely full of business lessons. Here are some I observed:

Background: Consumers wanted to download songs into their computer, into their iPods, and there was no easy way. Buying CDs offline and then ripping them into the computer was a bit too inconvenient. So consumers used to download using file sharing networks. Piracy. Apple solved this grave problem for the music industry, by creating a way for people to download songs legally from their computer and pay for them.  iTunes store was the solution.

 

Lessons

  1. Apple solved this problem in a way that kept the consumer in mind. Consumers could buy individual tracks from the album (and were not forced to buy the whole album). Completely untraditional.
  2. Sony was in a much better position to do exactly what Apple did, probably better. But organizational mis-alignment was a huge handicap for them. (Music and tech departments could not work together to come up with something that worked for both). Organizational mis-alignment can make you lose on huge opportunities.
  3. The pitch that Steve made when revealing the product was 1) High quality music  2) A way to try songs before you buy 3) Good karma (no stealing). Steve talked about ‘Karma’.  A sales pitch that directly hits the soul. Wow !
  4. The end-to-end integration between iTunes, iMac and iTunes was completely seamless from day 1. That says something. When you launch a product, make a compelling story.  Think through the experience.
  5. A Million songs sold in 6 days. Obviously huge success, but it also tells that Apple’s infrastructure could scale to support that kind of traction in the first week itself.  When going live and trying to make it big, keep high standards for your platform infrastructure.
  6. Microsoft and Sony tried replicating the same model with their devices, clouds, but Apple kept launching newer  & better versions of the iPod.  It was very hard for the competitors to grab a significant market share. Lesson: For product companies – the speed of innovation and delivery is the ultimate competitive advantage.

Would like to hear your thoughts on these / any other observations you made on iTunes.

A Practical Approach to prevent sprints from becoming mini-waterfalls

Let me admit. Preventing sprints from becoming mini-waterfalls is hard.nature-waterfall

There are interesting articles out there (here & here) which explain how agile sprints are different from waterfalls.

The thing is to break big requirements into small byte sized user stories and deliver a few stories in every sprint. But the essential 4 step sequence does not change –1)  Requirement Analysis -> 2) Design -> 3)Code -> 4) Test

Teams start doing these 4 steps for each story within a sprint.

Update: This is fine as long as you don’t have any new type of requirements, for which the steps 1 & 2 are significantly time taking. Or the estimates are going to be hugely different based on the design. Meaning situations where lets say a new architectural block needs to be brought it, or a major arch/ design change needs to happen.

If you do have to bring in a major change in steps 1 and 2, then there are 2 problems here:

  1. Since the requirement has not been analyzed very well and the technical design is not done yet,  the estimates for these stories are going to be highly in-accurate.
  2. Second problem is that you would want to do related stories together with the intention of solving one ( or maybe two)  user problems in a given sprint.  If these stories are related then step1 and step2 cant really be parallelized for these related stories.

As a result the team would be doing step1 and 2 for the related stories in the initial phase of the sprint. Then the team would get to coding and then testing.  Producing almost waterfall ? Also, there is going to be very little certainty on the estimates & high chances of missing the sprint goals.

The Approach to mitigate the above problems:  Do the requirement analysis and the high level design before your main sprint starts. Meaning, take up these steps as a part of the previous sprint plan.

Here is how it looks:

 

Sprinting nicely

The orange boxes are the key.

Some part of the analysis( in the orange boxes) can happen as a part of the sprint pre-planning exercise and some can happen as dedicated stories for the team to work on.

Obviously, this wouldn’t be possible for when you have completely new stories coming in the next sprint which were not planned in advance but try to avoid that situation from a Product Planning/Scheduling standpoint. Also, stick to 2 or 3 weekly sprints.  The above approach would be very hard to do in-case 4 weekly or longer sprints.

This is what worked for me, would love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.

The only way to make 2 week Sprints Effective

(Context: I am talking about software development teams, who ship using agile methods)

There is only one way: Automation. Automate everything – tests, build, deployment, monitoring, failure notifications. Every kind of test.

I have been in various teams / products where we tried doing this and failed. But lately also part of team where we had accomplished this to a great extent.
Here are the usual symptoms of teams NOT able to accomplish this:
  1. There is a ‘code freeze’ and then there is a dedicated time span – about a week for the QA folks to test the coded new functionality. That means only one week’s worth of code is going to get shipped. Isnt that too little.
  2. Another one is that several bugs get introduced in during these rushed releases.
  3. The QA team is under immense pressure to ship within the given timeline.
  4. The initial part of the sprint is where QAs have lots of free bandwidth.
For a heavenly sprint Automate the builds / deploys and automate tests at various levels.
 
Unit tests, functionality / UATs test automation, automate code coverage measurement, automate look and feel testing, automate security and performance testing and setup rules that if any of these produce major failures – then fail the build and send a notification to the developers / whole team.
 
Comprehensive Automation keeps the quality bar really high. At the same time, the developers & testers have to be on their toes to be able to produce such a level Automation.
 
When this happens here is how a typical sprints looks like:
  1. Dev and QA are involved early on during the design / requirement understanding stage.
  2. The sprint deliverables are broken into small byte sized tasks. Most of which can be coded in less than a day / 2 days.
  3. As and when these tasks are coded, QA starts testing them ( including automating their tests).
  4. Towards the end of the sprint only a few ( say 2 ) tasks are still being coded which typically finish on the second last day.
  5. And there is this last day for testing to finish off stuff and devs to fix any bugs.
  6. Last day EOD – release !
So practically the ‘code freeze’ duration is just one day (or less). Heaven, isnt it  ?

Automation is an engineering team’s brahma-astra to achieve God speed.

May automation be with you ( may God be with you 🙂 ) !