May 15

The 3 Key Characteristics Of Effective Product Managers – Podcast Episode #6

It’s a question that comes up all the time – how do I get into product management if I am trained to do something else? I answer the question obliquely, by listing out the characteristics, skills, and mindset you need to be a successful product manager. (Tweet This)


  • Bob Sutton on strong opinions, weakly held. “I’ve been pretty obsessed about the difference between smart people and wise people for years. I tried to write a book called ‘The Attitude of Wisdom’ a couple times. And the virtues of wise people – those who have the courage to act on their knowledge, but the humility to doubt what they know – is one of the main themes in Hard Facts [one of Bob’s excellent books].”
  • My earlier article about optimization.

Thanks for listening

I’d like to hear your feedback on this episode, and on the podcast in general. Comment here, or tweet me at @nilsie on Twitter.

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May 15

5 Tips For When Your Release Is Running Late

The other day I got a question on a PM chat system:

“Wanted to tap into the experts here, although might sound like a stupid question. What are some of the PM strategies to apply when you know your product release is running behind schedule?”

As software product creators, most of what we do is surrounded by uncertainty. How do we keep our releases running on time despite all that uncertainty? How do you get to a point where you’re never behind schedule even though you are inventing the future?

Picture of vintage London Transport locomotive

Vintage Train, illustrating the concept of a release train. Photo by DC-1971, CC licensed.

After ensuring the questioner that this never happens to me (LOL), I came up with a short list of ideas that I hope will be helpful. There are, realistically, a few things you can do.

  1. Make sure you’re always working on the most important things (aka agile). That means that at least the stuff you are getting done is more important than the stuff you aren’t getting done. (Tweet This)
  2. Recognize that software dev/product dev is inherently highly uncertain – it’s invention, and at best your estimates are predicting an uncertain future. As Yogi Berra famously said, “Prediction is hard, especially about the future.”
  3. Use a “release train” method – the release always leaves the station, and anything that’s done, or “done done”, goes on the train. Things that aren’t done wait for the next train. This means that releases always go out, and features go out as they are finished. That’s hard if you have big monolithic features that take a huge amount of time and effort to complete. Try to avoid having those, or at least try to avoid delivering those as monolithic features.
  4. Sometimes working 24 hours a day for a short period can work to recover a schedule. But it has to be a short period, with a very focused – and important – goal. You can’t do it often, and you definitely need to show a lot of appreciation for the efforts and sacrifices that people are making. And they have to see that their efforts also resulted in a good outcome. Otherwise it definitely won’t work a second time.
  5. Obviously, you have to be really good at cutting scope. An especially important PM skill is to be able to work with the dev team to surface and eliminate assumptions that cause development costs to go up. (Tweet This) For example, it’s often much cheaper to stub off unlikely corner cases than to do costly additional coding to support them.

Those were the thoughts I had – what do you do when your release is running late?

Apr 15

The Astonishing Financial Benefits of Improving PM Effectiveness

Image of man holding hand-lettered cardboard sign saying "Give Me One Million Dollars"

Give Me One Million Dollars (by Klaus M, CC licensed)

What if you could increase your company’s revenues by $1 million simply by changing what you do? Not by adding any new employees, or buying a business software package. Just by doing things a little differently. What would $1 million more on your top line mean for your bottom line?

That’s the kind of return you can get by improving your product management operation – per product manager!

A Massive ROI

The business value of a product manager is about $10 million in revenue, based on standard industry ratios. A 10% improvement in product management effectiveness is therefore worth about $1 million more revenue. (10% of $10 million.) And if you gain that improvement simply by changing behavior, by doing things differently, that new revenue is going to flow all the way to the bottom line.

That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? So, how do you do it? How do you increase product management effectiveness by 10%? Do you just increase the hours a PM works? Or can you get them to put in 10% more effort? Unlikely.

Instead, a 10% improvement is going to come from doing things differently. (And everywhere I say “PM” in this discussion, I also mean “the PM organization” or “the PM function within your company.”)

How To Be A More Effective Product Manager

What are the levers we have to increase PM effectiveness? At a very high level:

  1. We can do a better job of discovering important market problems.
  2. We can do a better job of creating solutions to those problems.
  3. We can do a better job of taking those solutions to market.

For example, let’s say I want to do a better job of discovering important market problems. This is often the highest leverage I have. No one will buy my solution, no matter how good it is, if it doesn’t solve an important problem! Therefore, step 1 is to focus more of my time on market discovery. If I’m not spending much time finding problems, I’ll have to reprioritize my work to spend more time on that activity.

This means I won’t be able to do some other things – they’ll fall off my plate. I might not be able to babysit customer enhancement requests. I might not have as much time to write detailed user stories for developers. Spending time discovering market problems to solve is almost always a higher payoff activity than spending time decomposing requirements.

More Effective Means More Successful, Higher Quality Products, Faster

This is because when I understand the market problem well, I can do a better job of prioritizing the work of the product team. Whether it’s choosing between different features, or choosing between different products to invest in. Prioritization is a complex subject in itself, but having good market intelligence is the most critical part.

If you have more market intelligence you can write better features. You can tie the feature more explicitly to specific market needs. The feature will be worth more (versus “this seems like a good idea”). And the developers will be more motivated – they’re solving a real validated market problem! So you get a higher quality solution.

Finally, better problem discovery gets us to market faster! We don’t get more efficient or code faster. We simply make better decisions and create less waste. A feature that doesn’t really solve a problem, or that’s incomplete, or is implemented in a less valuable way is waste. And waste is always a drag on revenue and profits. By being a more effective product manager you’re eliminating waste from the product development process.

When Japan innovated their manufacturing systems in the ’70’s, their great efficiencies were not the result of working faster. (Although they also developed techniques for working faster, analogous to unit testing and code templates.) They focused on eliminating the waste of doing work that was bad or incorrect or unnecessary. Not only did their efficiency skyrocket, but so did their quality. Now we in product management have the same opportunity.

Three things you can do today to start being a more effective product manager:

  1. Calculate how much time you’re spending today finding market problems. This means talking to customers, prospects, the customers of competitors, and lost prospects – outside the context of sales – to understand their most important problems.
  2. Plan how you’ll start spending more time on market discovery.
  3. Practice your market discovery skills such as asking open-ended questions, putting yourself in your customers’ shoes, and “asking Why? five times.”

By the way, Justin Wilcox has a great resource on how to do a market discovery interview. If you start doing a few of these every month, you’ll learn a lot about how to offer more value to your market, and thereby start creating more revenue for your company!