Playbooks

SEPTEMBER

September 4, 2017 | | 8 minute read

Product Management is picking the right ideas, executing them well, measuring their impact, and iterating. While that one line that does capture the essence, doing product management right well involves a lot more nuance. There is no dearth of disparate ideas about handling different aspects of Product Management — this is my attempt to unify those ideas under one umbrella and drive conceptual clarity.

This framework is designed for startups/teams that are finding their product-market fit, it’s incorporates discovering your product as you run MVPs and experiments while simultaneously delivering better products as you iterate on what you’ve built.

Product Management is a great career option but one that is still finding it’s feet with an abundant number of definitions.

  1. There are great frameworks out there like the “Lean Startup” but those are so obsessed with the product that they completely ignore people — for this, I look to traditional management tools.
  2. There is no single framework that incorporates all aspects of PMing from prioritizing between features to writing clear update emails to your team.
  3. I’m sure I haven’t cracked it either but this is my MVP and something I hope to keep improving on.
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Outline

  1. StrategyThe What and Why — Ideas to Item on a road map
  2. ExecutionThe What and How — Item on road map to Shipped feature
  3. People The Who — Managing the magicians who make 1 & 2 happen.
  4. The Big Picture — Putting everything together.
  5. Acknowledgement and thanks

This is Part I in a two-part series. In Part II, I’ll get into the nitty-gritties of implementing these ideas with examples from my own work.


Strategy

Strategy used to be the exclusive domain of a bunch of people in suits. They’d pull up some numbers, analyse the market and say YES or NO. Over time, the cost of trying ideas out dropped dramatically, which made it much easier to try things actively as opposed to just discussing them. We realised that we could create products iteratively as opposed to beating them to death on a spreadsheet. It was also more fun this way.

Strategy is Learning & Discovery

In an environment where genetic mutations occur rapidly, the organism that becomes the fittest the fastest will have highest chances of survival. Strategy is now an active process of understanding what’s working and why.

This is captured well in the famous lean startup loop of “Build. Measure. Learn.”

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Tenet 1 — Aggressively test your ideas

A big mistake product managers and product teams make is the brilliant and faithful execution of a bad idea.

The problem you’re solving is picking the right ideas; and ideas are not right because they seem logical or because the CEO pushed for it.

Ideas are right when engineering can build it, sales can sell it, operations can support it, customers will rave about it and together we can make money off of it.

I prefer a much simpler approach to picking ideas

  1. Do only obvious ideas
  2. Do your homework so ideas become obvious

What makes an idea obvious?

  1. What you’re going to do is roughly clear.
  2. Why you’re doing it is absolutely clear.
  3. What you’re going to gain out of it has been validated and is roughly clear.

100% certainty of success is a myth, hence the word roughly.

What is “doing your homework”?

“I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.” — Charlie Munger

We all get hunches; the idea is to play the devils advocate to your own hunches and poke holes. The point being to poke as many holes as possible before we build the product and/or spend time marketing it to customers.

Examples of homework:

  • Googling an idea.
  • Talking to someone who has worked/is working on the same idea.
  • Building a prototype and watching peoples reactions.
  • Building an MVP/minimal version and testing it till you conclude
  • A hundred more ways limited only by your imagination

In Conclusion

Experiments and data don’t provide all the answers and still leave room for intuition. I do things with a lot of intuition. But (borrowing from Richard Mullers book) I cheat by seeding my intuition with hard facts & accurate information.

Tenet 2 — Prioritise Themes not Projects

You’re all excited to create a road map.

You and your team are probably brimming with ideas. They may range from silly (“Maybe if we make the buttons blue, more people will click”) to aggravated (“The homepage is a complete mess. No ones getting it!”) to revolutionary (“What if we sent reminders via tiny drones?”).

The standard advice is take all your shit, make a big list out of it and use one of the many magical formulae to prioritise it.

Problems with that approach

  • Apples to Orange comparisons
  • Single factor optimisation

Instead a much better thing to do is prioritise 3–4 themes.

A theme is broad business problem for your team/company.

Each theme should have a metric or a clear way to measure impact. A second step in this process is prioritising projects within a theme. Since the metric for these projects is the same, it is easier to calculate/estimate impact and prioritise.

By prioritizing themes (as opposed to prioritizing projects), your focus shifts to picking the right problems instead of just ordering projects — which are the solutions to various problems. This also allows you the flexibility to later re-order projects within a theme based on new information that emerges, knowing that the broader problem is still being solved.

One PM should do a maximum of 4 themes.

Example: If a large chunk of items on your road map address difficulties that new customers face; Customer Onboarding is the theme you should spend time working on. That makes it much clearer what is the big problem being solved — it also keeps you aware that there are multiple solutions to the problem — customer onboarding could be solved with a simpler UI, a timely sales call, faster systems, a set of great FAQs or more.

Notes

  • Having a Mission & Vision is great and you should push yourself/your leadership for it. Makes the bigger picture much clearer.
  • Themes are typically set yearly.
  • Roadmaps can vary from quarterly to 18 months depending on the type of your business.
  • Your meta-strategy is always learning & discovery — about your customers, the market, your team.
  • Strategy should be communicated. Town halls, presentations, informatory emails — Do them all. Over-communication is a feature not a bug.

Execution

So great! You tested the shit out of many ideas and a few of them survived. They’ve been validated are ready for prime-time. It’s time to bring this idea into the world and launch it. Welcome to the part we call execution.

Old school execution

Make a soap. Sell it for 30 years, maybe add some new smells in the middle. The Media-Industrial complex meant the only conversation that happened was a one way advertisement, your customers never spoke back.

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Then came internet and changed two things.

Conversations become two way — People talk about brands/institutions and also to them. Brands can respond as brands. These posts and conversations can go viral. It’s much harder to suppress your shit when it can go viral.

Everything speeded up — Tesla made it’s cars sentient overnight. Netflix launched in 150 countries overnight. Overnight. The rapid pace of technology is making the things around us visibly better in very short periods of time.

Execution is connection & iteration

A deep connection with your customers. Iteration on what you create. The execution loop is “Launch. Operate. Improve”. You have something built, you want to understand your customers needs more deeply and improve the product to serve them.

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Tenet 1 — Master project management

Project management is the fuel to execution machine.

It doesn’t matter if BCG said that X market will be a $100 Billion industry by 2020 — if you can’t hire a team, build a product and sell it — you stand to get exactly zero percent of that pie.

Whether you’re a new PM building various features or a veteran managing PMs — there’s no way you can survive without stating problems clearly, delegating work, checking on progress, providing context, etc. — summarily learning how to manage multiple projects is a meta-skill critical to execution.

Project management is a dirty bitch but find her, love her, marry her.

There is too much literature on this topic, so do your homework, discover what works best in your current context and raise your execution game.

Tenet 2 — Setup self-improving processes

  1. Always lean towards processes & habits.
  2. Continuously tune those processes and habits.

Thinking requires energy. Save your energy for the important things.

The faster you can get to state where people don’t have to invest time and energy in meta-work like figuring out who the actual decision maker is, meeting times, finding designs, filing bugs,etc. The faster you will have a team that work becomes and feels productive. You can read a note of mine on creating process here.

Processes created to solve problems eventually become a problem themselves because the original context gets outdated. Hence, processes themselves should constantly be improved.

In short, embrace Kaizen

Kaizen: A Japanese business philosophy of continuous improvement of working practices, personal efficiency, etc.


People

The secret sauce of everything you might forget to add.

5 kilos of rice is a resource. I can extract value in a couple of ways — yet 5 kilos of rice will always be 5 kilos of rice. That’s the amazing part about people, like water at the Wedding of Cana people can transform, adapt, push boundaries and can deliver you a miracle.

Tenet 1— Consciously create your teams culture

Culture eats strategy for breakfast — Peter F. Drucker

Culture is actions. The behaviours you practise, reward or disregard set culture. Define your principles. Public slap yourself if you violate them.

As manager/leader, your behaviour is what others mimic so the most obvious and powerful tool for shaping culture is behaving as you’d wish for others to behave.

Lead by example — Lead by doing, not by telling. Don’t be the person who makes an engineer slog through the weekend while you’re having a gala time at home. Be authentic. Be straightforward. If possible be inspiring.

Tenet 2 —Communication, Context & Feedback

Acquire complete context — PMs get feedback from a variety of folks. Listen patiently, understand their problems, speak their language, attend their meetings and read their logs. This will help you understand problems, sometimes better than the said folks themselves because you have the advantage of being an outsider in their context and asking new questions.

Give complete context — Take the trouble to explain things in detail; breakdown, simplify and give relevant analogies where needed. Always elaborate the “Why” in your specs. Your team should be able to explain why they’re doing X as well as you possibly could.

Give timely feedback — A stitch in time saves nine. Similarly timely feedback and nudges are much better than angry rants or nasty peer reviews which appear out of the blue. A good way to give quick feedback to call out a scenario where X person didn’t do the right thing, talk about what you would’ve done and why that would’ve been the right thing to.

Tenet 3— Treat people like people

Sounds dumb and obvious but bears repeating. Life is too short to take yourself seriously and stay professional all the time. Be nice. Be forgiving. Make sure there’s a healthy dose of fun at work.


The Big Picture

Form follows function-that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union — Frank Lloyd Wright

Strategy, Execution and People are not actually separate problems; merely aspects of a larger whole, they are inexorably linked. Like two sides of the same coin, they go in tandem and influence each other. You might want to hire the “smartest” people, but if you have neither capital nor charisma nor a challenge that can draw them; hard luck!

As shown below, the strategy loop gives you promising ideas to go after, the execution loop gives you real world insights that shape your strategy; all this shebang happening within the boundaries of your culture defined by your people, who themselves are operate in the context of a market/live on planet earth.

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Attribution & Inspiration

  1. The past and future of Product Management by Matt LeMay
  2. Tim Cooks of framework of Strategy, Execution, People.
  3. Dual-track agile as explained by John Peltier and Marty Cagan
  4. Getting the Right Stuff Done by Steven Sinofsky

Thanks to Kartic Rakhra for feedback on early drafts and proof-reading.

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Arjun Malhotra

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