About 2 years ago, my product management team at Beeline, a flexible workforce solution provider, was struggling with two challenges: development and product management were not aligned and the sales team resisted product-management involvement in post-decision research.
When I brought this up after a training session with Pragmatic Institute’s Jim Foxworthy, he said, “You have an issue with credibility, and credibility comes from the market, not from your product managers.” Right then and there he asked me to erase everything on my whiteboard and write “N-I-H-I-T-O.” He paused, pointed to the word and said, “This is the only thing you or your team should worry about.”
NIHITO, I knew from the training class means “nothing important happens in the office.” You must get out and talk directly to your market—regularly. We had become trapped in the cycle of inside-out thinking. We were also trying to do too much at once on the Pragmatic Institute Framework. It was time to rethink our strategy. We needed to pause and become a data-driven organization.
Our NIHITO Journey
Taking Jim’s advice, we devised what seemed like a logical approach, implementing market-visit quotas to ensure the team was learning about the true needs of the market. At first, we required 10 visits per quarter per product, documented with call reports. But we quickly learned that was too rigid for how we worked and how our products were evolving. Every product was in a different phase of the life cycle and needed different levels of research. Some products were in the strategy phase while others had a well-established customer base and feedback loop. We’re a group of fast learners, so it didn’t take long to realize our mistake.
NIHITOs weren’t just about quantity. We needed to focus on quality and having the right quantity, given each product’s phase. We dropped the quota, and instead established a guideline for everyone to share market knowledge on a monthly basis with the rest of the team. Product managers are inherently competitive, so nobody wanted to come without information to share. They were accountable to their team and their product for this information, which changed how NIHITO was viewed by our organization.
When we shared what NIHITO meant with the rest of the organization, their first reaction was, “Everything important happens in the office, or we wouldn’t even be a company.” True, everything that happened in the office was important. But as product managers began to change how they talked about buyers and users and employing a vocabulary and perspective from outside the company, it became clear to everyone that “in the office” is the last place product managers should be. Product management is most valuable to the business when we are listening to the market, including our clients, and sharing what we learn with the company.
Working better with development. NIHITO was the catalyst for aligning development and product management. Product managers now integrate what they have learned, as well as what they hear, into their backlog discussions and development roadmaps. It is about knowledge sharing. Everyone benefits from NIHITOs.
One significant outcome of NIHITOs is collaborative problem solving. When product managers host ideation sessions, they present their research findings and leverage the collective knowledge of other product managers, analysts and developers. Development learns why our buyers buy from us, how our users engage and the problems they face, which creates inspiration. An inspired developer can accomplish just about anything.
As a result, developers generate more great ideas that really impact the market.
Now we’re seeing them reach out to product managers to say, “I have this great idea, what do you think?” If an idea resonates, the product manager tests the concept in the market before any code is written. Usually this is done through dialogue with users or by development creating a quick prototype for users to view. Oftentimes, product managers invite architects to market visits to hear pain points firsthand. One of the most valuable benefits of performing market visits is they reduce the effort we spend on things that are insignificant to the market or unimportant to our clients.
Working better with sales. NIHITOs also opened a door to better alignment with sales. Naturally, sales people are protective of their contacts and leads. Our culture values relationships, so our sales team’s contacts are more valuable than leads. They invest time and effort in the relationships they have built and are very protective of them. Product management needed to earn the right to be a part of the conversation.
It took a year, but eventually sales began to trust product management and recognize the value we could offer. First, we attended our company’s industry events and worked at the trade show booth, talking to their potential leads and learning as much as we could about them. We provided post-event summaries to the senior vice president of sales about the people we met and whether they were shopping for our product or just wanting to learn more.
Next, we offered our help. We scheduled and conducted post-decision interviews. The interviews provided us with critical insights into buyer personas, challenges and perceptions of our products and services. Initially, getting permission to do the interviews was a challenge. We started off with the least risky deals and were very transparent with the sales team, sharing whom we were talking to and why. Once we were able to share unique insights from post-decision analysis, we started to earn credibility.
Identifying product management’s role as a voice of the wants and needs of our buyers helped us overcome the challenges we were facing with both development and sales.
From NIHITO to NIHINA
During the same time period that Jim and I had our conversation, we were working on an international expansion strategy. We realized that even with our newly found information from NIHITO, we didn’t have “real” knowledge about the international market. Of course, everyone had an opinion and we did have some pockets of international clients, but there was still much to learn.
Our chief technology officer and I went on what we coined a NIHINA (nothing interesting happens in North America) trip: 15 interviews in five countries in 10 days. The people we met with were in London, Amsterdam, Paris, Dusseldorf and Rome. We have international offices, but we didn’t have product management in those regions. So we asked colleagues and clients to help us coordinate non-Beeline-vested interviews with their contacts, partners and other associates that would represent a buying community. Simply explaining our trip with the name NIHINA was all it took to fill up our calendar. Our European community was quickly willing to talk to the Americans who were saying, “nothing important happens in North America.” That was an unintentional positive consequence of naming our adventure. NIHINA was an eye-opening and transformational experience for our company, products and services. We experienced language barriers, which would have been nearly impossible to overcome on a phone conversation, so doing these interviews face-to-face was key.
For example, when we spoke with a company in Paris, we all had our computers open the whole time and would look up some of the words each other used. While we were careful not to use slang, you can easily lose sight of the fact that sometimes industry terminology just doesn’t translate. When the words still didn’t make sense in the context either of us used, we were able to see the confusion and work through those conversations. We expected the language barrier. What was unexpected was how collaboratively we all worked to ensure equal understanding.
Another unintentional positive impact of NIHINA was that because the meetings were in person, our research contacts brought additional people to speak with us and make us feel very welcome. In fact, it happened in every country we went to and in every interview. People said, “I’m going to bring in other people because I want this to be valuable.”
In Germany, one company set up several interviews for us to meet with all the different parts of the company. They were very open to sharing their challenges and artifacts. Had we been on the phone, we would have missed this collaborative discussion about the market and their business challenges.
It was a meeting of the mind for all parties. At the time, because our products were very new to the European market, our intent was simply to collect as much information as possible. What the organizations were getting from us was knowledge about how companies using our products operate in America and best practices. And we were all just enjoying the conversation.
While it was a great experience as a product manager, the impact that one NIHINA trip had on our organization was profound. We realized how important it was as a global company to invest in product management for the international markets where we wanted to compete. Our research helped us validate that our successful growth into Europe and Asia Pacific meant more than one NIHINA trip. We needed product managers who understood the local markets, legislation and culture. We needed to leverage our cultural diversity and inclusion in our product development process. I am happy to say our international growth strategy has exceeded our expectations.
Lessons from Our Journey
The interview is a process. You need to recruit a research subject, schedule the interview, conduct the interview, follow up and record your findings. Experience has taught our team that authenticity and natural curiosity is key.
Start with a personal approach to recruit your subject.
“We’re not in sales, we would just like to get your opinion and your candid feedback on …”
“We’ve heard you’re an expert in …”
“John Smith referred me to you, because you might be able to answer my questions.”
Also, when recruiting, try to stay away from the word “research.” People tend to feel like it’s not worth their time.
Practice can feel awkward, but it’s worth it. Whether it’s a phone interview, face-to-face interview or you’re working the trade-show booth, your research subjects are likely very busy people and they deserve a well-prepared product manager. We learned that we needed to practice making an introduction, saying who we are and why we are talking to someone. Try pairing product managers with opposite backgrounds (e.g., sales vs. development) and have them conduct mock market visits to learn what works and what doesn’t—and help them overcome any barriers or nerves. If you can, try conducting visits or calls in pairs. It helps calm the nerves in the beginning, but you will also find more information can be uncovered in a shorter amount of time and the documentation of the research can be split.
If your company is like ours, it is full of smart, creative people who truly understand your business. Sometimes, we’re not really looking for epiphanies from our market visits. The most important value we get is directional guidance, because it validates or invalidates what we already see in the market and in the behaviors of our existing client base—then we can pivot accordingly. Additionally, it can also help us identify key trends that we can filter back into our overall strategy. My main piece of advice for anyone looking to implement NIHITO is to include a feedback loop for your team. One of the early mistakes we made was asking product managers to do market visits, but then letting them disappear into a black hole with a pile of research that they didn’t know how or with whom to share. A feedback loop is valuable, and allows product managers to do research and come back and openly share that knowledge with the rest of the team. I recommend time boxing the feedback loop, because research can go in many directions. We typically draw a line at 90 days (or sooner), before a product manager needs to present back to an audience.
People ask me, “How do I know when I have enough research, is it 20 NIHITO visits? Is it 30? Do I use a statistically significant metric or something like that?” And what I’ve learned is that it might take five or it might take 75, but you will know that you have enough research when you develop such a strong conviction that you can persuade the business to do something that they might not otherwise do and have the market facts to back up your argument.