Breaking down the multiple variables required to develop successful products

This interview with Ryan Hoover from Product Hunt on how to develop products people love is really interesting. For example, here he makes a really good point about the importance of systems thinking in product management:

Most products can be broken down into a math equation, where multiple variables need to be true for it to work. Many newer product managers don’t break this equation down as much as they should. Then, they don’t test some of their hypotheses soon enough. If you have x, y, and z, and you’ve figured out the x and the y but you failed to resolve z, then it won’t work.

Sometimes people focus on the easier things. They resolve two hypotheses that are easier to figure out, and then defer the last one. A lot of people don’t think about user acquisition. They think, “We’re going to build an awesome product, we’ll get press, and we’ll launch it on Product Hunt and that’s it.” They should probably reverse it — think about distribution and marketing first, and then figure out how to build that into the product itself.

I also love their approach to experimentation, which can basically be summed up as “do it as cheaply as humanly possible.” Great interview.

To scale effectively, product managers should focus most of their time on vision and strategy

This is an older article, but it was brought up in a recent thread on the Elezea Community (join us!) and I hadn’t seen it before. In Applying Leverage as a Product Manager Brandon Chu explains how PMs can have the biggest impact in an organization:

Managerial leverage is the idea that some things a manager does creates more output than others, and for each possible thing, the amount of output created per unit of time is its leverage. That’s the basis of how you should decide whether to do activity A or activity B.

When internalized, these concepts impart on PMs a sense of what matters most in their role. They have lots of choices in what they can do everyday — all of which produce some positive output- but developing awareness of where they have leverage is critical to their long term impact.

The crux of it is this:

Product managers exert the most leverage through vision and strategy — the rest is optimization.

Brandon shares a very helpful framework about the different types of work product managers do, and the best way to balance that work.

How to use “product forces” to increase product adoption

I’m a big fan of the product forces aspect of the Jobs-to-be-Done framework to help teams think through the challenges they need to overcome to get customers to adopt their product. In Product adoption: how to get customers to embrace your product the Intercom team discusses the product forces, as well as some strategies for overcoming those forces. For example, on decreasing attachment to the status quo:

What can you do to draw your prospects’ attention to your benefits over their feelings of belonging? It may be as simple as promising a feature they’re desperately missing (like online privacy) or mentioning the support options you have in place (so they don’t have to ask a friend for help).

How to build a system to avoid over-complication in your product

Google UX Designer David Hogue shares his thoughts on How to Reverse Over-Complication in Product Design and How to Avoid It Altogether. It’s a very good read for product managers. Here he describes how do build a process to avoid over-complication:

Critically evaluate every new and existing feature for the value it provides weighed against the costs of including in a product or service. Does a feature introduce friction or ambiguity? Does adding something more make flows, paths, and choices harder to understand? What are the potential positive AND negative outcomes of adding something, and is it worth it?

Constant vigilance against entropy, scope creep, and the accumulation of friction is necessary. Pausing for review after major releases, conducting retrospectives after updates or changes, critical analysis of product performance before and after a change, and ongoing quantitative and qualitative research can all provide information about and indicators of increasing and unintended complication.

PM Starter Pack — how to get started in product management

Training company Onfielder published a comprehensive list of learning resources for new product managers called PM Starter Pack. Topics include what the role is about, overviews of the skills required (such as strategy, user experience, and analytics), and how to apply a job hunting strategy. Each section provides an overview of the topic as well as links to external resources. Highly recommended for new product managers.

How news organizations are adopting product management

It’s pretty interesting to see how different industries are adopting the product management role. In Product teams have taken national news organizations by storm. What’s happening locally? Christine Schmidt discusses how product is impacting newspapers and magazines:

“Product managers are the ones trying to think holistically and bring people together on how to move forward with a big idea,” Becca Aaronson, Chalkbeat’s director of product, said. “Anyone in a newsroom can do product thinking. It’s really about trying to think holistically about the needs of the audience, the mission and business interests of the organization, and technically how you’re going to get things done and bringing that together in a holistic way to create a comprehensive strategy for your organization.”

“Marketing-driven development is bad,” and other misconceptions of product management

I like the reframing Sherif Mansour does in his talk Popular Misconceptions of the Product Craft. For example, here is his response to the common misconception that marketing-driven development is always bad:

As product managers we should always educate our teams on the value of great marketing, embrace the art of storytelling that infuses our marketing teams, and think about how we can bring that back to our teams. Whether you follow Amazon’s press release method, mock-up landing pages before starting a new feature, or do a box design exercise where you design the fictional in-store box for your new product, thinking about the Who, What, and Why of your product can help you build a better product for your customer.

Culture/market fit is more important than product/market fit

I really like the NOBL team’s focus on Culture/Market fit in their article The Only Thing More Important Than Product/Market Fit:

Find yourself a healthy market, yes. Then develop a culture that can deliver product/market fit. Your culture is what produces your products and services. You know you have culture/market fit when both talent and customers flock to your company for who you are, even above what you make. You know you have product/market fit when legions of customers buy your product.

Without culture/market fit, sustainable product/market fit (at any size, scale, or maturity) is impossible.

They go on to describe four competing flavors of organizational culture, each with unique traits and competitive strengths.

Users don’t want control, they want a better solution

Ian Bicking makes some very good points in his post “Users want control” is a shoulder shrug:

Control is what you need when you want something and it won’t happen on its own. But (usually) it’s not control you want, it’s just a means. So when we say users want control over X — their privacy, their security, their data, their history — we are first acknowledging that current systems act against users, but we aren’t proposing any real solution. We’re avoiding even talking about the problems.

I like the framing of the broad concept of “user control” in this very Jobs-to-be-Done way. It’s almost like a safe word to watch out for. Whenever we catch our colleagues (or ourselves!) arguing for giving users more control over something, we should immediately stop ourselves and try to uncover what deeper need the discussion about control might be obfuscating.

Why it’s not a good idea to define a fixed project scope

There are some decent day-to-day work tips in Sierra Newell’s 7 Project Management Principles Product Managers Can Learn From. There’s one principle I wanted to expand on, and that’s “Define the scope and stick to it”. First, from the post:

Product managers should set the scope of their products’ development as early in the process as possible. Learning how to say no to product requests is a valuable skill. But it is also a reactive method of keeping your product’s development on track. Instead, be proactive. Define your product’s scope from the beginning, and keep development within that scope.

I know that “define the scope and stick to it” is fairly common practice, but I don’t think it’s a good way to build product at all. First, that principle tends only to define one side of the spectrum — how not to add scope. It doesn’t, however, talk about the need to sometimes reduce scope. If you define a “fixed scope” and say you won’t go over it, but then things take longer than anticipated (as they are prone to do in software) and you have no mechanism to deal with it, you’re going to get yourself in trouble. Because at that point, you “committed” to a scope that won’t change, presumably saying “no” to a bunch of things, and still you’re “late” in delivery.

This is why I’m a firm proponent of “fixed time, flexible scope” projects. Under that principle, you don’t lock down the scope for forever and ever. You commit to an initial body of work, and an expected timeframe. Then, if something happens along the way — a developer gets pulled into an emergency, or something takes longer than expected — you have a mechanism to deal with it. Since you didn’t lock down the scope, you don’t have to choose between being “late” or the team working themselves to death. You can reduce the scope of your work to fit into the time you gave yourselves to do it in.

There’s another scenario under which I would go even further and advocate for “flexible time, flexible scope” projects. There are instances where increasing scope (and time) is the Right Thing To Do for a project. For instance, if the choice is between a hacky way of implementing a feature, and extending functionality properly with future-proofing in mind, which would add two weeks to a project, I believe it’s pretty much a no-brainer that you need to add the two weeks.

This is why I think fixing scope is a dangerous practice. There are too many unknowns, too many variables, and too many things can change along the way. We shouldn’t let our process get in the way of good product decisions.

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