That whisper in your ears is the voice of your customer

Most Product Owners are really proud of their ideas. They pursue their self-defined product objectives with passion and dedication down to the tiniest detail. A lot of effort goes into managing development and roadmap. We are bombarded by project management concepts, efficiency measures and team communication tools. Yet many products never sell. Successful companies know how to interpret the signs, put the right focus on the market’s needs and pivot the product idea into something customers really want. Unsuccessful companies end up with a product no one really wants.

I am fascinated by Reid Hoffman’s “if you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late“.

What does he exactly mean with that? This apparently simple statement tells a long and complex story. Reid thinks about startups, often running out of money before having their product on the market. In it there is all the philosophy of the “fail fast” and serial entrepeneurship. However there is a broader bigger meaning.

An often forgotten parameter in product or portfolio strategies is what the customer really want. How can you tell without listening? How do you get answers if you do not ask questions? And how can your customer give you a feedback if you do not have a product?
Even more important than pitching your product idea should asking about your customer’s problem. So an essential part of your product strategy should be keeping asking “what does my potential customer need?”, “what would my customer think of this?”, “what real world problem are we trying to solve with this?”.

The right way to build a product is focusing on its core first and go to market right after. Details and refinement will come. Speak to your customers and work on the details when your are already trying to sell.
Having the right customer-facing strategy and the market analytics in place is as important as your first idea in the roadmap, if not more. You must launch the product your customers want, not what you want.

The whisper in your ears is the voice of your customer! Stop listening to yourself and pay attention.

What is a product strategy? Differentiation opens up an ocean of opportunities

What is a product strategy? Differentiation opens up an ocean of opportunities

“I will have the beef and vegetable please and a glass of chardonnay”

…where did I put my bag? oh yes here it is…

“You need to excuse me, I need the bathroom”

…syringe, cap, insulin vial… this stupid sect, the rubber is not tight! Need to open a new one…

Oooh this bathroom is filthy! Nowhere to put my stuff… ok the dose… 20mL… can’t see anything here, too dark! mmmh… all right, damn needle! ok done. Now, cap on the syringe, vial, all back in the bag. Need to bring this damn bag with me all the time! Back to the table… 

 

This is exactly what someone at Novo Nordisk was thinking about in the mid 80’s.

At the time all the other insulin manufacturers were focusing their efforts on product’s purity strategically looking at winning with doctors, the key influencers.

At that time technology progress started making production of high quality insulin very easy for major manufacturers. Competition was shifting to price, with shrinking margins and threatened growth despite favourable market drivers. So that’s why Novo Nordisk in the pursuit of diversification took a disruptive route.

The attention moved from the doctor to the patient. While focusing on patients, they found that insulin, which was supplied to diabetes patients in vials, presented significant challenges in administering.

What if we could change the experience of the patient? What if we can make it easier, quicker, less embarrassing?

 

“Can you excuse me for a second?”

…my compact pre-filled NovoPen is in the pocket. Just need a second. Oh it’s dark here… and filthy… never mind, I just need a moment! Done. Let’s enjoy the food now!

 

What did Novo Nordisk do?

They looked across the chain of buyers, identified a problem and developed a new solution. In doing so they changed the product’s focus from insulin itself to the administration device. This simplification for the user added complexity to the product, costs and a re-designed supply chain. Nevertheless, the attractiveness of the new offer justified a price premium and took Novo Nordisk out of the price war. This was pure product differentiation. Furthermore it was smart differentiation as it was solving an annoying problem for the users.

In other words, Novo Nordisk did not try to be the best at every aspect of their product. To beat the competition they just created uniqueness and relegated price and insulin purity to the background. The innovation came at a cost, but one that users where mostly happy to pay for the added convenience.

What is a product strategy?

This is product strategy at its best. Strategy is about choices. Choices imply risks. However, rewards can be huge.

In this successful example, the innovator pursued a Blue Ocean Strategy, shifting the industry landscape and reinventing themselves from an insulin producer to a diabetes care company.

Today pre-filled devices account for most of the insulin market.

Product strategy is a complex subject that cannot be developed in a short article. However I find that the simple Blue Ocean’s Four Action Framework is the best way to start.

  • Eliminate
  • Raise
  • Reduce
  • Create

The approach is based on acting on product “factors” or features and postulates that a proper strategy should be based on all four actions in the framework. What this means is that the product design should identify the factors to be eliminated, the ones to be raised above industry standards, to reduce below industry standards, and newly created factors that the industry never offered.

Resisting the temptation to try to respond to all possible demands from the market is key. Adding all possible features, focusing on all possible aspects, trying to build the universal product responding to every possible scenario is the contrary of strategy. It is in fact about not making choices.

The NovoPen created a completely new easy to use drug administration device. It increased the attention to the patient’s needs, reduced the attention to insulin’s and eliminated the attempts to market it to doctors. It also moved away from using price as the main attractive parameter in an ocean of comparable products from competition. Pure Blue Ocean.

I will dedicate more attention to these concepts in future posts, for now I can only recommend W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne’s book.

How to deal with difficult team members: a 5-steps process for team success

How to deal with difficult team members: a 5-steps process for team success

We have all been there. With multidisciplinary teams, often big, very few (or none) direct reporting lines, delivering efficiency in product management is difficult.

A particular challenge are difficult team members. It is not unusual, you have someone who is clearly very talented in an aspect of the job, but very difficult to deal with, either because of his character or lack in other skills. The right solution is not  getting rid of the person, but learning how to work together in an optimal way.

Over the years I have developed a standard 5-steps process that I will try to describe here. It has worked multiple times, but it requires discipline, patience and dedication. It really helps if you naturally possess people skills, but can you really be an effective product manager if you don’t?

1. Understand their values.

Every person has a ranking of values that I call their value inventory. This is very diverse and it is connected to the different personality types. Most people do not rationally take a personal inventory. Consider it a set of feelings and beliefs that guide personal actions.

In an ideal world one defines and configures his own life ensuring all his values are met and fulfilled. Coming to terms with reality, what everyone of us does is working hard to have their top values in order, while accepting that some others will be kept in the background or ignored.

There is another phenomenon that is strange in many ways. Many people, accepting their inability to control their life compatibly with their value inventory, change their inventory instead. Ever tried to convince yourself about something that didn’t seem quite right in the first place? How many people valuing their freedom very highly end up with a “suffocating” partner?

Coming back to the general concept, if life is not aligned with the value inventory happiness is out of reach. Consciously or unconsciously, it makes no difference.

The value inventory is very intimate and not many people are willing to share it openly (some are though!). However it is not difficult to understand someone else’s top values.

  • What takes them out of bed in the morning?
  • What are they interested in?
  • What makes them happy?
  • What frustrates them?
  • What do they really hate?

With a bit of interpersonal skills these things become evident very quickly, however it could be as easy as asking!

2. Get trust.

After you have understood something of the person’s inventory it’s time to share yours. You need to be smart here and focus a lot on the common values. It can be challenging to apply the right strategy if the other person has a strong emotional intelligence as he/she would certainly understand your value inventory more quickly than you can understand his/hers. However it does not really matter as finding common values will bring you a long way! Everyone likes to share common views and opinions. In a short time you can develop that feeling of “being on the same side”.

Sometimes a trick is using value misalignment with a given situation. Identifying something that clashes against a common value (there is always something at work that you don’t like!) and spending some time openly discussing that can help. Measure is the key here, investing too much energy in negativity is never good.

3. Identify the other person weaknesses

We all have strengths and weaknesses. Ensure you understand very well what the other person is good at and what he/she is bad at. If you are lucky there will be something the person is very bad at that is a strength for yourself!

All you have to do at this point is a simple trade. Offer your strengths in exchange for your colleague’s. Selling the idea can be the tricky part, but a bit of commercial skills will go a long way. Being honest and direct is usually simple and works most of the time.

4. Deliver before asking

Do something for the person. You will have your chance. Help with a problem, support a situation, do something concrete. If you have understood the values and strenghts/weaknesses it will not be difficult. Just find something you are better at than him/her. You need to be altruistic here. Besides what your long term objectives are, you need to put yourself in an altruistic mind set.

So do not ask anything in return. Chances are your investment will pay off with interest quite quickly, but do not expect it. This is very important.

5. Set the other person up for success

Once you have done all that, there will be a growing underlying trust, a sense of reciprocal understanding, the awareness of how you can be useful to each other. You will instinctively start to like each other even if you are far from being friends.

Only at this point you can start discussing about each other’s role in the team and how you can deliver value through the right strategy. What you need to be able to do is setting up the person for success. Everyone deserves the chance to apply his/her strengths and be supported with his/her weaknesses. This is what each manager should do in the first place even if not many seem to be able to do it consistently.

 

A good product manager must be able to negotiate that position, putting his/her skills at disposal of all the other members of the team. It is in the interest of the team after all.

In science and technology businesses technically strong team members with poor communication skills are not rare. Bad communication in the team is a disaster in the making. Sooner or later big problems will arise. An easy set up is something like this: “you ensure I understand what you mean and what you want to do, I will do the communication enabling you to just focus on the action. This way, you do what you really want to do, I get the job done and the communication is properly delivered.” Win-win.

I have done that so many times! It works!

Ensuring the right equilibrium in the team is established and maintained is key to success. Sorting out these situations will be a massive step forward and will ultimately set yourself up for success. Product managers should enable others to be successful to be successful themselves!

The Long Tail: profiting from big product portfolios as the new paradigm for Product Managers?

The Long Tail: profiting from big product portfolios as the new paradigm for Product Managers?

Recently I wrote about how killing a product can be the best choice for an efficient portfolio management. The idea of investing heavily on the blockbusters and limiting costs and effort on the niche products is consistent with the Pareto 80/20 rule and is the foundation for a lean product management approach.

That said,some schools of thought go in the opposite direction. When Chris Anderson formulated his Long Tail theory, back in 2004 as a post on Wired, which became a book 4 years later, he proposed a controversial idea. The idea is selling less of more products. At the time this was a completely new fascinating paradigm. In brick and mortar retail, shelf space is limited, therefore shops must focus on a small number of as big as possible hits. They stock few products and they sell significant quantities of all of them. If anything does not sell it gets quickly replaced by another product to avoid wasting precious shelf space. This is commonly known as the blockbuster strategy. In a nutshell, it is relying on a small number of carefully selected products and maximising sales for all of them.

This strategy has worked for centuries without substantial changes until the advent of digital retail. Online stores offer virtually unlimited shelf space and carrying unimaginable levels of stocks becomes suddenly feasible. This is particularly valid for digital content (movies, software, e-books, etc.) rather than physical goods, for which warehousing still carries some cost burden. However, while storing digital products is undeniably cheap these days, e-commerce also allows efficient distribution and warehousing, inaccessible to normal retail shops. This obviously drives down the cost of keeping stock. Moreover, modern online marketing strategies make possible to give proper visibility to a big number of product like never before.

In this novel scenario the Long Tail becomes fascinating and disruptive. The elimination of shelf space and stock keeping constraints make a completely new strategy entirely possible. You can now effectively sell a much bigger number of products. Even if each one contributes to a small revenue percentage, the virtually unlimited scalability of online businesses makes the concept extremely attractive. So attractive that the Long Tail made it to Business Week’s “Best Ideas of 2005”. Since then the idea got undeniable traction. Businesses like Netflix, iTunes, Amazon Prime Video and Spotify leverage the strength of their immense catalogs. It looks like the Long Tail can finally defeat the Pareto rule. Or does it?

Digital products are the natural habitat for the Long Tail, for the above mentioned supply chain and stock keeping concepts. With moderate costs, the tail can be of infinite length adding massively to the total revenues even if pretty thin. If it wasn’t for the fact that this does not seem to happen consistently. In an eye-opening article on HBR, Anita Elberse published her research on digital music and video consumption. The expectation was a flatter sales distribution curve, with top products accounting for a decreasing proportion of total sales. What the study findings suggest instead is the contrary. Numbers speak for themselves, 15-20% of products account for 80% or more of total sales. The longer the tail, the more successful the top products become. This is a winner-take-all scenario, not what postulated by the Long Tail theory.

Citing from the article, “rather than bulking up, the tail is becoming much longer and flatter”. The Long Tail seems to make niche product even more niche and blockbuster even more blockbuster. Interestingly, what the long tail does is attracting what Anita defines as “heavy customers”, after a wide assortment of products. Heavy customers are attracted by the broad offering, however they seem to contribute for a negligible push in revenue generated by the tail. As Wharton researchers put it in a study on Netflix published in 2009, “since only a small fraction of consumers constitute heavy movie watchers, it is not surprising that there is weak evidence of the Long Tail effect”.

The data is leading to questioning the Long Tail theory’s fundamentals. Citing from Wharton’s study, “whether or not the Long Tail exists is a fundamental question for decision makers in marketing, operations and finance who face the prospect of further penetration of the Internet channel, which offers expanding product variety and new recommendation systems to help manage it”.

Leaving any philosophical considerations about the theory on the side, I’d like to go back to a concept that emerges from Anita’s article on HBR. In the final remarks, she makes a very important reference to development cots: “strictly manage the costs of offering products that will rarely sell. If possible, use online networks to construct creative models in which you incur no costs unless the customer actually initiates a transaction”.

Shifting the focus from digital to physical products, this becomes even more critical. Assuming shelf space is still an insignificant cost, development and marketing do not come for free. Investing in products that won’t sell is a waste. Moreover removing resources from the more profitable ones is an additional opportunity cost. Even if the Long Tail effect exists, it deals with revenue, not necessarily profitability. For that you need to look at costs and they can kill you. Maybe it’s better to kill a few products instead.

Kill it! Or The Art of Managing Small Product Portoflios

Kill it!

In a product portfolio business, the product manager (or more appropriately product portfolio manager) usually oversees part of an often complex catalog of products.

Here are some examples:

  • catalog-based B2B businesses (electronics components/parts; scientific research: specialty chemicals, biology/biotechnology; mechanical; finance and insurance)
  • catalog B2C businesses (think about amazon, with a huge catalog of diverse products; online shops; bricks and mortar retail chains; personal finance)
  • technical/scientific field, either B2B or B2C. These are usually highly specialised companies servicing specific market niches, with a certain numbers of products in different categories (engineering companies; pharmaceuticals; FMCG)

A typical portfolio is made of the star products (or cash cows), the potentials (new or growing products looking to become star) and the laggards. Realistically 20% or less of the portfolio will generate most of the revenues, while the majority of the rest is there for historical reasons, for “completeness”, “because you never know”, or by pure mistake.

 

Examples from physical goods industries

Let’s use, as I often do, the specialty chemical industry as an example. Many chemical compounds suppliers offer comprehensive sets of molecules belonging to a specific chemical class. Usually these are molecules with the same basic structure and only minor variations differentiating them. You can see a few examples here:

The electronics and mechanical industries also offer many excellent similar cases:

 

The argument for the large size portfolio

Most often the argument for keeping a large portfolio is value of choice and completeness of the offer. Companies go the extra mile to add yet another small variant of a given product or technology to ensure anything thinkable is on offer, not to lose any occasional potential customer.

The truth is that more often than not, among the hundreds or thousands of products, there are just a few bestsellers and most things don’t sell at all.

There is a huge opportunity cost in maintaining such a big catalog. Efforts are diluted on the majority of products that do not have any real market traction.

I believe the same argument can be raised for apps that keep adding functionalities in the attempt to attract all kinds of user. They end up losing their identity down the product roadmap, failing to retain customers attracted by the original core idea of the product.

There are several unanswered questions behind strategic business choices:

  • Why do some products sell while other similar ones don’t? Is it because there is a real need for a specific variant? Is it because sales or marketing naturally tend to favour one thing rather than others?
  • Are some product variants intrinsically superior to others?
  • How true is it that the bestsellers sell thanks to the availability of all the alternatives?
  • So are customers really attracted by the completeness of the offer?
  • If I dropped the non-sellers and focus on the bestsellers, could I grow the business?
  • Should companies follow the existing market or should they try to create new markets?

Investing in launching some products (or variants) to sell others seem counterintuitive. Yet this is what many companies do. The unanswered question is: does this really help sales?

 

How laggards inherently compete vs best sellers

In the most typical organisation, Product Managers sit between R&D, Manufacturing/Supply Chain, Sales and Marketing.

To lead the portfolio development and manage the technology lifecycle they need to keep the focus on what makes business sense, resisting the technology-driven mindset of completing the offer by adding variants or pursuing product introductions as a natural evolution of all R&D results/projects.

At the same time, to drive growth Product Managers must in fact compete for Marketing and Sales resources. Sales people will always focus on the most promising leads, the shortest sale cycle, the biggest potentials. It is also human to go for the path of least resistance: if a product needs half the effort to generate the same deal size as another product, what do you expect to be the commercial team’s favourite?

Diluting the resources at your disposal on too many fronts (read: too many products) is inefficient and risky.

 

The most reasonable solution

The right solution is one and one alone. Look at the big picture and focus on your biggest assets. The rest? Kill it.

I know, you are afraid of losing opportunities. We all are. But you will naturally give preference to your best bets anyway. You’d be afraid of neglecting a commercial push for the highest potentials to try and improve a laggard. Then what? Your laggard will remain laggard. You have spent time and effort developing it and maintaining it. So you will spend more time and effort to keep it alive, to justify its presence in the portfolio. The reality is, that’s time you could better invest in more productive activities.

Do yourself a favour. Look at the data, test it meaningfully, identify your stars and your promises. Give them your heart. And your laggards? Kill them.

Product Management Associations and Training

Associations

Some regions have a vibrant local Product Management community. I recommend to check the local resources and network with peers geographically close to you. They are too many and too dynamic to be reliably captured in a single post. However feel free to post a comment suggesting your preferred ones!!

Face to face interaction is the best way to progress and remain up to date in such a dynamic and constantly evolving profession. Besides the local communities, there are a few international organisations that are a great way to start.

Product Management Associations and Training

PDMA 

The Product Development and Management Association (PDMA) is a community of more than 2,000 members whose skills, expertise and experience power the most recognized and respected innovative companies in the world. PDMA’s members include product development and management practitioners, academics and service providers in a variety of industries and knowledge areas, including new product process, strategy innovation, market research, tools & metrics, organizational issues and portfolio management.

AIPMM 

The Association of International Product Marketing & Management, the world’s largest professional association of product managers, brand managers, product marketing managers and other related fields. AIPMM is the only organization that represents you throughout the entire product life-cycle across any industry.

PMA

The Production Managers Association (PMA) is a long-established professional body of film, television, corporate and multimedia production managers. It is made up of the industry’s most experienced Production Managers, each of whom must have a minimum of 3 years’ experience as a Production Manager and at least 6 broadcast credits (or equivalent) to qualify for membership.

Local Product Management – related Meetups

SVPMA

The Silicon Valley Product Management Association (SVPMA) is an organization that was founded to address the needs of Product Managers, Product Marketing Managers and other professionals working within the Product Management field.

Training resources

There is really a lot out there. Most business schools and academic institutions offer product management curricula. It is hard to navigate the hige offer and everyone should evaluate the convenience of specific offers by big training organisations.I wanted to focus here on a few dedicated organisations, with strong online presence that focus exclusively (or mostly) on Product Management training and education. The offering is very diverse and targeted to different professionals or industries. I list them down here and let you find what looks most suitable for your needs.

280 Group

There is no other company in the world that offers our full range of courses and highly customizable Product Management training solutions.

Pragmatic Marketing

Provide practical, actionable training that can be implemented the day you get back to the office. We also provide templates and tools to support your new outside-in approach.

Blackblot

Blackblot is the developer of the PMTK® methodology and the premier provider of training and expert services for market leaders and innovators worldwide.

Product Focus

World class product management training and workshops. Based on many decades of experience working with industry-leading technology companies – we know what works in product management and product marketing.

Mind the Product

Host regular product management training and workshops in everything from product management essentials to product leadership training.

CIM 

Fundamentals of Product Management Course

Tarigo

Tarigo has built an enviable reputation for delivering high-quality training and consultancy solutions to product managers throughout Europe and the USA.

Roman Pichler

Roman offers a variety of product management courses suited for both new and experienced product managers, product owners, product executives, and business analysts.

Product Institute

The only class that teaches you how to THINK like a product manager.

iPM

Innovation Process Management offers various courses for Product Management in London.

Vilfredo Pareto and Product Management

Vilfredo Pareto was an Italian economist of the nineteenth century, inventor of the 80/20 rule (also known as the law of the vital few, or the principle of the factor sparsity). The principle is so strikingly simple but at the same time so universally valid that it is almost scary.

Vilfredo PAreto
Portrait of V. Pareto
  • 20% of the pea pods contain 80% of the plant’s peas
  • 20% of a company’s customers contribute for 80% of revenues
  • 20% of the world population own 80% of the total wealth
  • 20% of a football team’s players score 80% of goals

The first time I encountered the Pareto distribution concept I could not believe it. So I started trying to prove it wrong. 20% of my investment were giving 80% of my returns; 80% of my productive ideas were coming from 20% of my working time; in my product portfolio, 20% of the products were giving 80% of the revenues. I recalculated this 3 times! Then I looked at another product area and it was the same. I started noticing that among the 50 different recipes we normally cook at home, most of the time we were just going back to the top 10 (yes, exactly 20%!)…

I found one thing defying Pareto: I have thought about many different strategies to become rich, but none has worked so far. Maybe I have just not tried hard enough…

Pareto and Product Design Strategies

Going back to the point, many could argue that the 20/80 principle is often abused, but it is an undeniably useful rule of thumb. In business, if 80% of your customers produce only 20% of your cash, why not focusing on the productive 20% reducing your effort by 80%? Tim Ferriss in fact recommends this strategy in his 4-Hour Work Week book that should be on your shelf or desk.

Coming to product management, 80% of the customers will use 20% of the functionalities of your product. In case of a portfolio, 80% of customers will just care about 20% of the products in it. How do you identify the valuable 20% and eliminate the wasteful 80% ?

It seems a very “Lean” question to ask.

An approach that we designed and found very useful is what we called the Pareto Design Strategy. It is a very simple iterative process of ideas generation, prioritisation and categorisation. In a nutshell, it means challenging each single idea leading to a product “feature”.

I have prepared a public Trello Board that can be accessed at this link as a template to refer to.

For the few who don’t know it, Trello is a very intuitive online tool that reproduces the Kanban Board concept. Hence it is a set of lists each one containing items represented by cards. The cards can be anything, in project management they are usually tasks, or mini-projects and the board collecting them represents the full project. The lists can be categories or stages. There are lots of inspiring ways to use Trello but that is beyond the objectives of this post.

In the Pareto Design Strategy we have 5 lists:

  • Ideas Containers
  • Essential Features
  • 20%
  • 80%
  • Discarded Ideas

The process consists in reviewing the board regularly focusing on 4 actions:

  • generating new ideas
  • moving the new ideas in any of the other list
  • prioritising the ideas/features in each list (the higher position means higher priority)
  • moving ideas between lists if necessary (higher priority ideas can be promoted to the previous list, on the left, and lower priority ones relegated to the following list, on the right)
Pareto DesignTrello Board
Snapshot of the Trello Board

 

Let’s look at each list in more details.

The Idea Container is the wildest of them, collecting all of the new ideas. I would recommend that anyone involved in the product design/development contributes with ideas of any kind. From experience, nothing is stupid and I would recommend you ask friends and family as well (well, this depends on the product really…). Ideas stay in this list until they are reviewed. After review they need to move to one of the other lists. Ideally nothing sits in the Idea Container for a long time. I recommend activating Trello’s card ageing function to ensure ideas get reviewed regularly.

The Essential Features list is the least wild of them. This list must contains the minimum number of features to make the product barely viable. I recommend to keep it down to the bone. Anything that is not strictly necessary to make the product work should not be here. No nice to have, only must have! If there is no perfect alignment to the core of the product vision, a feature does not belong here.

The 20% are the ideas that really make the product. The top 20% features. They can be not essential (the product could still work without them), but they are something most people involved in the design are uncomfortable not to have. You must be tough here. You should not have too many thing and the idea is try to keep everything down to the minimum. If too many things are essential or top 20%, nothing really is and you are diluting your top ideas’ value.

The 80% list contains all the other ideas. Please note that the number of cards in this list must be 4 times the 20% list. The strictest Pareto fans would actually consider the 20/80 rule as the sum of the essential+20% vs the remaining 80%. As an example if you have 5 essential and 10 20% ideas, you must have 40 or 60 80% ideas. The total number of cards/ideas is very important. If a lot of questionable features must be “promoted” to the 20% list in order to keep the 20/80 ratio, it means that you are not killing enough ideas.

The Discarded Ideas list is self explanatory. An idea can jump here from the Idea Container or it can be progressively demoted until it gets discarded. Importantly, retain the list of the ideas discarded during the process, not to replicate them at any phase, but also because they could be re-evaluated at any stage and go back into the product.

How to manage the process

The way the review process is managed is very important, as well as the prioritisation criteria. Regular meetings (more frequent at the beginning of the design/development, less frequent at more advanced stages) involving the whole team should be the core of it. However there are many different ways this can be done depending on the team structure and the work culture, so I want to leave this open. The use of data is paramount: business intelligence, voice of the customer, marketing analytics.

In other words, the decision making process at the basis of the ideas review is what makes it successful, the strategy is the script that keeps things together. This goes hand in hand with a solid and clear product vision. If you know exactly which problem you want to solve – why you are doing it – you can control the process easily – how you are going to do it.

Once the Product/Portfolio is reasonably defined, project management must start from the Essential Features and move on towards the right hand side as things get to completion. No 80% idea should be developed and implemented before all the essential and 20% ones are finalised. Failing to follow this rule defeats the whole purpose of the design/management strategy.

The Pareto Design Strategy is very intuitive for product features (e.g. functions in a software application; features of a hardware product) but it also applies perfectly to product portfolio design and management. In the latter case, cards can represent single products in a portfolio or features/characteristics of each product or sets of products.

In my experience in the chemical industry, I have found this process invaluable for killing products that were sitting in product lists or development targets lists for no real reason, demanding resources and efforts. Ultimately this has allowed re-focusing on new, higher value product introductions leading to tangible business growth.

What Pareto teaches us is efficiency: do less things, do them better, avoid wasting efforts.

Where does the Product come from?

It is possible to distill the many product design processes in two broad categories:
  • purpose-specific designs
  • technology implementations 
Purpose-Specific Designs are typical of the engineering world.
Technology Implementations start from a very different scenario.

 

Purpose-Specific Designs are typical of the engineering world. Think about a screwdriver: it fits a very specific purpose, its shape is optimised to the hand and the action of screwing. Their modern version, electric screwdrivers, are a technological evolution of the design. Its value is reducing the physical effort during the product utilisation. In this case we are completely focusing on the problem to solve (screwing) and technology progress leads to a design upgrade (less effort). The customer base of this kind of product is huge, everyone has used a screwdriver at least a few times in life! The product is an obvious response to a specific problem everyone has.  Competition is fought on price and perceived quality/features/design.

 

Technology Implementations stem from a very different scenario. Scientific research finds new concepts and product design becomes an exercise to monetise them. The creative utilisation of new technologies often creates new markets and disrupt old ones.  
This is quite a typical situation in the chemical industry, as an example. A scientist discovers a new chemical reaction that happens in the presence of some specific components. She studies as many applications as possible and someone starts noticing potential value in this new reaction.
The coordination of these special components which enable the new chemical reaction (laboratory equipment, chemical compounds, catalysts) is a typical solution looking for a problem.
Is the new chemical reaction useful enough to enough people to generate a new market?
There isn’t a market out there (yet), can you launch the product?
How to create a new market without a speculative (and expensive) product launch?

 

These situations are very common and a often a chicken-and-the-egg conundrum. The capacity to work with the customers and a robust dose of business intuition are key.
The main job of the Product Manager in these cases is to ensure the definition of a proper value proposition, rather than focusing on features and design.

 

The NUDE Product

What is really a Product?

There is a ton of literature about it and many definitions.

A nice way to start is the problem.

If there is no problem there is no need for a product.

 

A solution that is truly necessary (N), unique (U) and doable (D), that solves the problem effectively (E), is what defines a N-U-D-E Product.

 

In a nutshell, a product is a solution to a problem. Good solutions are reasonable and effective.

And what if the problem has already a solution?

The majority of products fail in this case. There is certainly value in alternatives, particularly when the market is big and diverse, but most products lacking uniqueness struggle to find a convincing value proposition. It becomes a matter of price (the exact opposite of the Blue Ocean Strategy)

Is the product reasonably easy to make, develop or implement? Can it be sold at a sensible price? In other words, is it really doable? Can I address and ideally solve the problem with it?

A solution that is truly necessary (N), unique (U) and doable (D), that solves the problem effectively (E), is what I define a N-U-D-E Product.

The NUDE Product is the ideal scenario for an new product introduction (NPI) and what every Product Manager should aim at.

Is that enough?

No, it is not. If I were the only one in the world experiencing the problem I would certainly be a potential customer, but why should anyone care? So the problem must be experienced by enough people to have a market. The NUDE product must make business sense to pay for the Product Manager’s salary, at least…

Useful Links for Product Managers

Definitions:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Product_manager

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Product_management

https://www.quora.com/topic/Product-Management

Useful resources:

https://designyourthinking.com/ – one of the best blogs on product design, ideas, management.

https://www.linkedin.com/groups/42629 – The Product Management LinkedIn Group is very active and highly recommended.

https://www.meetup.com/Cambridge-Product-Management-Network/ – The Cambridge (UK) Product Management community is quite active and offers lots of resources for those who live and work in the area. Interesting for everyone else, too!

Software and Tools for Project Management and Product Roadmap:

https://trello.com/ – my personal favourite tool on the internet. Project Management, Time Management, To-Do Lists, Collaborative and Communication Tool. There is not a single thing you cannot do with Trello and it’s free!

https://roadmunk.com – if you need to manage a project or a product and you want to spend your time with a modern, slick online collaboration tool, Roadmunk is your thing. Its main strenght is in the different levels of visualisation, reporting and simplicity. And the guys at Roadmunk are pretty cool!

https://www.wizelineroadmap.com/ – an agile product roadmap tool, very effective, simple and free for personal use.

https://slack.com – THE team communication tool. Do not look further, this is what you need especially if your team is spread across different sites.