Creating great products is not factory work. It’s not a question of putting tab A into slot B or displaying this OK button on that dialog. Instead building a great product is more like working with a sports team. There’s offense and defense; there’s strategy and tactics. The good coach knows the strengths and weaknesses of his team as well as the other teams in the league. The coach works with the players, other coaches, and also the owners. Sounds like product management. Like a good coach, a good product manager is tuned in to executives, colleagues, customers, and the competition.
Craig Stull, Phil Myers and David Meerman Scott explain how to get in touch with—or tuned in to–your market and products in their excellent book Tuned In: Uncovering the Extraordinary Opportunities That Lead to Business Breakthroughs. In Tuned In, the authors identify six steps that build towards launching a “resonator,” the perfect solution to a market problem. Finding the resonator is key to the success of the company, and tuned in entrepreneurs and executives find ways to make their products and services stand out. They create opportunities for their ideas to take off and become successful. They understand their market and products.
Where do product managers fit in the Tuned-In company? What’s their role to identifying and creating the resonator? A product manager’s ability to create and lead a Tuned-In team may be critical to your company’s success.
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Applying Tuned In to Product Management
We’ve all seen this scenario: the founder was the product visionary until the pressures of being president became overwhelming. Now the president spends more time on hiring and firing and financing and cash flow and dealing with emotional customers and political employees. And without realizing it, the president becomes out of touch with the market. When was the last time your president did the job that your customers do? How much has the market changed since the president was last in it?
When the president spends more time running the business than running the product, it’s time for a product manager. The Tuned-In Product Manager identifies problems that the market wants to solve and provides context to help the company create the solution. For product managers who have attended Practical Product Management from Pragmatic Institute, these Tuned-In concepts are very familiar;they’ve been implementing these practices for years.
Tuned In to the Market
It has been a founding principle of our company to listen to consumers and not just guess what they want. — Montgomery Kersten, VitalSigns Software (acquired by Lucent)
People don’t know what they want. Technical people know this to be true. But customers do know about problems that they suffer and would like solved.
Think about some of the breakthrough products of recent years: Zipcar, iPod, the Blackberry. Each of these products solved a specific need for a specific persona in a specific market or markets. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, Zipcar focuses on urban drivers who only occasionally need a car. Apple’s iPod is for people who want their music with them when they travel. RIM’s Blackberry is for sales people who need to stay in touch with the office.
Each product idea began with a deep understanding of the market and its problems. Rather than saying, “we have this technology, who needs it?” the Tuned-In Product Manager sees a problem and uses technology to solve it. Find a problem and solve it –and the rest is simple.
Tuned-In Product Managers understand their customers and also their potential customers, the untapped market. In almost any company, the number of people who are not customers is larger than the number of customers. What problems do those people have that are different than your existing customers?
If Linksys had listened only to their existing customers, we’d have faster wires, not wireless networks.
Finding and getting time with potential customers can be tricky. They may not have an established relationship with the company and may not even know anything about the company. Luckily, they often gather and associate with the same people who are customers.
Michael: One of the best places to get feedback from customers and non-customers is at industry trade shows. I recently attended a trade show that targets companies make up the bulk of my potential customer base. The show had relatively few attendees (~400) and was not particularly well-organized. My company had a booth on the exhibition floor, which a few members of the sales team staffed for the most part. I spent about four hours in the booth over the course of three days. I spent the rest of the time in breakout sessions and talking with people at the show. The sales guys were not overly impressed with the show leads. However, the show was a huge success for me because I spent three days talking and interacting with non-customers. I found out more about their businesses, struggles, and the market than I could have learned in weeks or months of reading or talking with existing customers. The key to success at a trade show is the degree to which it attracts many potential customers, and the effort that product managers take to meet people, ask questions, and be willing to learn what they did not know.
You’ll learn more by meeting a real, live customer and spending an hour with him than you can learn from fifty research studies or analysts’ reports. — Adrian Slywotsky, The Art of Profitability
Tuned-In Product Managers discover unresolved problems and find ways to create products that will fill the unmet needs. A product succeeds when it solves problems, including those problems created by other solutions in the market. Tuned-In Product Managers find solutions for these problems and communicate them to the team clearly, helping the team see the vision and appreciate the direction they are being led.
Tuned In to the product and delivery teams
Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity. –General George S. Patton
Creating and delivering products to market isn’t factory work. It needs creativity and brilliance and innovation. It also requires expertise in the domain, the market, and the persona. Every product manager will recognize this one: the developer who doesn’t buy into the product requirements; the engineers who believe that their views are more valuable than the product manager’s. And who knows?…maybe they’re right. A product manager without market facts is just another employee with an opinion. And, as stated in Tuned In: “Your opinion, although interesting, is irrelevant.”
And the truth is, you can’t make anyone do anything. After all, the product manager has little control over salary or bonus or other HR-related factors that tend to motivate people. In most cases, the team members do not report to the product manager. The Tuned-In manager needs to make people want to do what the market wants. Tuned-In Product Managers must learn to lead in order to work well with people.
How to do it?
Tuned-In product managers lead the product team with market facts.
Tuned-In Product Managers know their team members. They know what inspires them. They know what motivates them to go above and beyond their normal abilities. They create an environment where team members want to work. They create a buzz around their product set that attracts people to participate.
Every organization, be it a technology company or not, is composed of people. The people – not the buildings, equipment or intellectual property – compose the true assets of any company. All things that exist that might be considered assets in the accounting sense of the word were once the ideas of one or more people who did the work to bring them to market. Knowing this will help product managers understand the need to tune in to their teams and lead them to success. Product managers who are persuasive, flexible, persistent and optimistic create an environment of success.
Steve: I once worked with a team that was completely demoralized. They had lost faith in the project, largely because the executives couldn’t seem to decide what they wanted. It seemed that they had a new set of requirements every week. With no leadership, the team worked on bits of the product without finishing anything. My chief contribution was to say “no” to every new requirement. I pulled the team together, gave them a prioritized list of enhancements and requirements, and gave them permission to ignore all other requests. We quickly finished the prioritized list and shipped a product. Afterwards we worked on three-month cycles and started delivering every release on time. I didn’t yell and scream and tell them to work harder; I told them what the market wanted and protected them from executive meddling. Soon other engineers were vying to join this team.
An important aspect of leading the team effectively is trust. Tuned-In Product Managers understand that trust goes two ways: they need to be trustworthy in the eyes of the team, and they also need to trust the team members to do their part; to do what they say they will do. Ultimately the trust product managers can demand is influenced by their own personal behavior. They need to keep the commitments they have made to the team or with others to whom the team has visibility. They need to pay attention to what’s going on and make sure team members are aware of the things that will affect their work and their success. As mentioned earlier, because product managers do not have line authority over team members, they need to be trustworthy and trust others to lead the team successfully.
Michael: A few years back I took on a broadly installed product that was failing with many customers. Within days of taking over, I received calls from frustrated sales and product support engineers who wanted me to hear customer frustrations first hand. I accepted every request. Even though I didn’t solve every problem at first, the mere act of listening to customers, discussing their frustrations, and applying this knowledge to improving the product won me the trust not only of the customers, but also of my colleagues. With the resulting synergy among the team, we were able to release a successful new version of the product.
In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists. — Eric Hoffer
Tuned-In professionals look for opportunities to learn; they seek knowledge. Because of the nature of product managers’ duties to interact with most areas of the organization, they have an especially difficult task of gaining knowledge that will help them succeed. Nevertheless, Tuned-In Product Managers find key sources of information and spend the time necessary to learn. They spend time reading about and understanding the industry and doing things that will elevate them to the role of thought leader in their company. They read analyst reports, blogs, trade rags, and listen to podcasts and webinars. They make it a regular habit to stay at the top of their game. They find ways to put knowledge into action. Knowing what drives the market and communicating that effectively to the team are keys to Tuned-In leadership.Tuned-In Product Managers look for opportunities to teach. When developers and engineers say “you need to be more specific in your requirements,” they mean to say, “you need to give me context.” Requirements without context are pretty hard to understand. In too many cases, the requirement is a feature request. But what is the market problem?
Steve: As many do, I had teams saying, “just tell me what you want and I’ll do it.” This mindset fails… because every complex endeavor requires judgment. And without domain expertise, the developers and engineers queue up at the product manager’s desk with question after question.One of the roles I assigned myself was to teach the company about the domain we serve. Each week I brought a customer experience to our team meetings. Sometimes it was the result of a customer visit, feedback from a trade show. Perhaps the most popular information came from win/loss analysis (which is a product management job activities, not a sales activity). I held a quarterly sales update meeting to explain industry trends, new research, new sales tools, and customer success stories. I trained development, sales, marketing communications, customer support, operations, production, finance—I trained everyone. I made it my mission for everyone in the company to know what we do here. I didn’t want anyone to say “I’m just in” whatever department. We are, all of us, in the business of continuous problem-solving for our customers.
Tuned-In Product Managers are not afraid to make decisions. This drives them to define products clearly, understand their markets and provide a vision for how their products will play in the markets. They stand behind their decisions and back team members on their decisions. Their desire to make decisions and their willingness to stand behind them become crucial drivers to product managers getting tuned in. When you start with market facts, most decisions become obvious—to everyone on the team.
Tuned-In professionals want to associate themselves with a successful company and winning products. When product managers create products that resonate with the market, everyone from engineering to marketing to sales to support wants to be part of the tuned-in team.
The great thing about fact-based decisions is that they overrule the hierarchy. –Jeff Bezos, Founder, Amazon.com
To paraphrase a popular cliché, it takes a team to raise a product. Each of us on the team has a role to play. Product management finds and quantifies the market problem; Developers build a solution to the problem; marketers communicate the solution; sales people help customers buy. When all of these come together, the resulting product becomes a resonator.
Product managers who are tuned-in to their market deliver market context to the company. They break down political barriers, overrule opinions and thus foster productivity. They become the indispensable leader the CEO cannot live without.