Product Management

Embracing Lean Startup Philosophies as a Product Manager

feature-57-the-lean-startup-book-pop_10909You've heard of Lean Startup, but you might be wondering what does it have to do with me as a Product Manager in a larger organization. Failing fast and pivoting sounds detrimental to my career, right? There's an interesting thread in a LinkedIn Product Management group  on the breakdown of Product Management activities. As you can see from my postings, my take is that the percentage breakdown in allocated time depends on a lot of things - maturity of the product, organization, and so forth. However, the list of activities is actually pretty good. The growing consensus is that a lot of time should be spend in understanding market, industry and competitive research.

That got me thinking about how to get the information needed to reach that understanding. While they might never admit it, so many PMs spend a lot of time doing this kind of research from within the four walls of their office or cubicle, primarily reading analyst reports and the Internet. Sure, they talk to current customers and hear from sales people, but that's the extent of their "research."

Lean Startup  has become the next big thing for entrepreneurs, who are attempting to implement the model with various degrees of success. Steve Blank is the godfather of the movement, which stresses taking an iterative, scientific approach to developing your product to ensure it meets customers' needs. Of course, the movement is now getting some pushback, and more mature companies with existing products have questioned Lean's relevance to their business.

(Not to get too existential, but to those companies who think they are beyond using Lean Startup: is your product without market traction really a product?)

However, if you step back for a moment, what the Lean model is basically telling you is to get out of your cube and find out first hand what's customers really want and need in a methodical, data-driven way to build and maintain a successful product. The key is understanding that managing a product or solution is always an exercise in making decisions with incomplete information. Lean is a reaction to the same issues developers faced with waterfall that eventually created agile development and addition of scrum to the technical lexicon.

Lean : Product Management :: Agile: Engineering

Of course, Lean philosophies can be abused as much as agile. How many times have you heard that there's no design or documentation because "we're agile?" If the only concept people understand about Lean is "pivot," then they're missing the whole point. Lean is not just about pivoting. It's about getting out there and getting as much information as often as possible to make better decisions. As with everything else, it's how you use the concepts, not a rote application of ideas that may or may not be relevant.

With cost-effective tools and approaches to gathering information and testing assumptions, Lean philosophies can be embraced by all product managers in both consumer and B2B looking to become more innovative or to gain marketshare in a mature market. How can you not do this?

The Part About Product Launches that Isn't About Launching

Hey product managers and engineers: Do your customers complain about your product releases? Does sales suck up your time trying to deal with how to explain the point of the announcement? Does customer support dread new releases? Is the marketing department failing to get you the "buzz" you know you deserve for the great new stuff you've launched? If it's yes to one or more of the above, it might be your product launch process that's broken.

When you think of product launch, what is the first thing that comes to mind?

  • What the press release will say and where you want to see coverage?
  • Updating your Facebook page?
  • Previewing your app with "influencers" who you hope will write about it?

Screen Shot 2013-03-13 at 2.22.38 PMThat's all great, but it scratches the surface of what needs to be canvassed in a well-executed product launch. The most successful launches are executed when the people in charge ensure that:

  1. The launch meets the product/feature goals of the release
  2. The company is ready to market, sell and support the release
  3. The market is properly "primed" or ready to receive the product
  4. The current customers are ready to understand and use the product.

Too often, product launches focus just on # 1 and #2 above. Product management takes item #1. Product marketing is pulled in like a tactical partner to tackle #2, viewed as the department in charge of putting a nice bow on the pretty release and generating the "buzz" about it. When that happens, service and sales tends to get sent into reactive mode, having to scramble to try to manage through #3 and #4 as best as they can.

To be successful, product launches must be planned like a symphony, with marketing, account management, and sales involved and engaged.

So, how can you best build a holistic preparedness launch process?

1. Begin at the beginning. Collaborate with product marketing at the earliest planning stage to craft a go-to-market plan, rather than waiting to do so when the release is being put into production. Incorporate the goals of the launch in that early plan -- get precise on metrics.

2. As deliverables and milestones are scheduled and tracked to completion in engineering, so should they be in marketing. In fact, in the meeting that product management and engineering decides on a go/no-go decision, marketing's progress on its plan should be a part of the evaluation criteria.

3. Work as a team. In the end, what matters most is that putting these activities together facilitates collaboration between marketing and R&D. Marketing cannot be effective without being a part of the process, especially in high tech. If you treat marketing as a facade for your product, that's probably all you're going to get.

Your Policies are Features, Too

terms of useby Henry Hwong The huge uproar over the attempt by Instagram to update its Terms of Service is a sometimes painful reminder for product managers and marketers out there that when you have an Internet-based service, your product is more than just the features the engineers are creating.

This is not news for enterprise SaaS vendors that deal with Fortune 500 companies (and their lawyers) when negotiating contracts. That being said, the Instagram event has, yet again, raised awareness that will increase scrutiny on every company's data and privacy policies.

Product managers should own policies and terms of service (ToS), not leave them to the legal team alone. Effective product managers manage these along with other features, with implications for business model, customer acceptance and, as Instagram found out, change management during a release cycle. Remember, you're offering a service, and services come with a lot of non-engineering facets.

What should Instagram should have done differently? Clearly they did not spend enough time with the change management aspect of their rollout. Had they spend sufficient time and resources clearly articulating the improvements through their channels (e.g., app, website, marketing communications), with the understanding that Facebook has its own set of baggage, this could have been a complete non-event.

Furthermore, these improvements could have been implemented incrementally and done on a regular basis to get users to used to the idea that the ToS changes over time (i.e. put it on the roadmap!). Apple does a good job with this on iTunes and App Store, where they have gotten most everyone to accept changes to ToS on a periodic basis.