Product Managers trading in land mines for gold mines

Is your product built on a gold mine or land mine?

As a product manager I would like to ensure that my product is built on solid technology so it can be maintained with minimal effort.

Scenario you’re a Product Manager, you work for a big organisation.  You inherit a product that causes you a lot of frustration because:
  • Your development/engineering teams have been diverted for a number of months to migrate legacy/unsupported databases across the portfolio of products to new DBS.
  • Your product is being migrated to a new CMS or other type of system.
  •  The platform is being rewritten from the ground up because the legacy technology is on its last legs.
The frustration is caused because your product is in lockdown meaning while development and engineering resources are being diverted to address the above-mentioned issues, or similar,  you can’t get the items on the top of your backlog done.  So what do you do?
Firstly realise that in all probability your product will be better off because of the technical work being carried out – especially if it’s going to empower your teams to do regular releases with minimal effort, therefore enabling you to create meaningful release plans, respond in a truly agile way to a rapidly changing market and to competitors who are much smaller, nimbler and don’t carry the overhead of a large company e.g. the checks and balances of Saranes-Oxley. 
 Secondly appreciate that the engineering and development teams would probably rather be developing and releasing features that are customer centric and data driven.  That’s to say developers generally get job satisfaction in seeing the products they build being used and appreciated by users as opposed to implementing technology for technology sake. 
 Thirdly understand it’s a means to an end – it’s a case of replacing the land mine you’re sitting on with a gold mine that if rightly managed (identifying the right market opportunities, being customer led and data driven, collaborating with technology, UX to discover the right product blend…) will produce golden nuggets of user valued features for many releases to come.
Finally take the time during lock down to do all those things that you don’t usually have the time to do or would like to do more of, including getting closer to the new technology that promises to enable a better future. 

In my career I’ve been through four lockdowns – one lasted for 9 months L because my development team was deployed in migrating sites to a new CMS, whilst painful at the time the wait was worth it.  The alternative is to end up spending +80% of your sprints paying back technical debt and fixing bugs (I’ve seen it happen and it’s  wasn’t a nice experience for the product manager) or worst still going out of business because you’re not agile enough to keep up with the demands of the fast pace changing digital world.


Product Management needs to tackle objections before they are raised at steering group meetings.

As a product manager I need to tackle objections before they arise at the product steering group meeting so that key decisions are made in a timely fashion.

"The smart product manager will have individually briefed the members of the product council prior to his/her presentation to learn of any issues and resolve them, so he's not caught by surprise."  Marty Cagan 

The product steering group is designed to do exactly what is says on the can and that’s to give a steer to product management regarding the products direction.

 It therefore stands that all  senior stakeholders (those that could delay or prevent the product from being launched or a release going out) should be part of the steering group.  From time to time, if the agenda warrants it, others may attend to give input.  For example, leading up to my last product launch the Head of Communications was invited to attend so we could discuss the communications plan.

Ideally the product manager should chair the meeting,  she/he needs to keep the group focused on the agenda, ensuring that the discussions don't go off on a tangent - if they do the product manager needs to pull the discussion back on track.  One way to do this is to tactfully suggest the discussion continues when the group reaches the last agenda item: any other business.  That said its part of the product mangers responsibility to preempt any objections or concerns, by being proactive and taking appropriate mitigating actions.

 Here are three examples of concerns that I've experienced from various steering groups I’ve chaired; along with the actions I took to mitigate them. Mitigating actions were often a result of previous lessons learnt.

1. The Steering Group are not designers.

We've all had experiences where the visual designs are being reviewed and a senior stakeholder says something like "can't we move that button over to the left and move the ‘most popular’ module so it sits above the fold" etc...  Design by committee results in what I call a patchwork quilt.  Product design is the responsibility of the product team (Visual Designer, UX Designer, Tech Lead and Product Manager).

How the Product Management team can mitigate design by committee.

If they’re not already doing so I tend to get the design team to post hard copies of the designs on a wall (better still in a room) and then I, along with the Visual and UX Designers, will talk through the designs with stakeholders in an informal way.  For example towards the end of a meeting I'll raise the topic of the designs and say "would you like to preview the designs" the fact that it’s a preview and done in an informal way helps mitigates against the stakeholder feeling that they need to make edits.  Of course each stakeholder needs to be managed in a different way - some, for example a CEO, who has a design flare my need a slightly more formal showing.  It’s wise to give this type of stakeholder one or two different options early on in the process before too much time is committed to producing wireframes or designs for every screen/page. The key is to show early and get feedback early. That way there are no surprises when designs are shown at the steering group meeting for sign off.

2. The steering group should not aim to do the architectural design

I've chaired steering groups before where there were a few stakeholders who had studied a technical unit or two on their advanced degree (MBA or MSc) or had a technical background.  They could not resist showing-off their technical knowledge. That coupled with a previous migration project that was not future proofed,  led to a level of distrust of the engineering team.  This meant that steering group meetings became a platform for these stakeholders to air their frustrated technical views.  (Note the company was in the process of looking for a CTO.)  The result was diminished agenda items and therefore difficulty in driving through key decisions.

How the Product Management Team can manage stakeholders with partial technical knowledge:

I called sub meetings a few days prior to the steering group meeting and got the Tech Team Lead to give an overview of the proposed architecture at a level where all the semi tech savvy stakeholders could understand.  He sketched the design out on paper - and handed out photocopies to everyone.  I believe the rough hand drawn sketches gave a sense that he was open to suggestions. The stakeholders were always satisfied because they felt their voices where heard and they had the reassurance that all technical aspects had been thought through and the solution was future proofed.   The result was that the semi tech savvy stakeholders went into the steering group meeting with a high level of confidence in the Product Management teams - they were onside.

3. The steering group should not determine how long development of features should take.

I've sat in meetings where senior stakeholders have strongly suggested how long a particular feature should take.  This can be detrimental if either sales or marketing get the wrong impression which could lead to a premature sale or premature communications to external parties. The result is that the development team then gets put under pressure to drop everything in order to develop and release a feature so that the company does not loose credibility.

How the Product Management Team can prevent the steering group from estimating features.

Present well thought through release plans.  Work hard outside of the meeting to determine the vision and priorities for each release and then present the release plans to the steering group for their sign-off.  It also helps to circulate release notes so Stakeholders are able to compare what the product manager said would be released (in the release plan) and what actually got released.  If there's a gap then give a brief explanation why.

 Product steering group meetings are critical if the product management team want to streamline the number of meetings that are often required to get decisions made.  Steering groups are a good platform for ensuring that transparency is maintained through out the product life cycle.  That said it’s important that the product manager leads out and identifies and tackles objections before they are raised so that the air is clear for key product divisions to be made in a timely fashion.  


Product Managers need to help stakeholders define the problems as opposed to solutions

As a Product Manager I’m responsible for ensuring that stakeholders express their requests in terms of  business problems as opposed to a pet feature, so that their real needs are met  and do not get lost sight of when backlog items are aggregated into common themes as the product team figure out the best solution.
Albert Einstein said “If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it,”

Product Managers tend to spend a lot of time listening to internal stakeholder requests, from the business, as well as external stakeholders, customers and users. Ultimately product development needs to be driven by data: we know, from experience, that data beats opinions.   

Like all Product Managers I’ve experienced receiving pet feature requests from both external and internal sources.

I’ve had external requests usually via the sales team for a customer special e.g.:

“If you add an additional ad format then I’ll sponsor a channel”
and from internal stakeholder:
    “I want to display nonstandard content in the playlist player”
With respect to the internal requests the Product Manager needs to be able to help stakeholders express their requests in such a way that the underlying problem/user need is articulated as opposed to a solution/ per feature request.

This is how I helped one stakeholder change from a mind-set of requesting a list of pet features to identifying a list of business problems and user needs.  

  • Prepare the way:  Before I’d received any requests I spent time understanding the stakeholder.  I discussed, in an informal way (e.g. at the cooler fountain etc…) what their aims and objectives were for the year, what challenges they faced, what their past experiences were.  In this instance the stakeholder was the web-editor and they were tasked with building audience and increasing traffic to the site.  I would use a slightly different approach for a more senior stakeholder but still prepare the way as early as possible. 

  • Explain the problems with submitting a list of pet features as opposed to identifying the problem.  I explained to the web editor (who happened to be a new hire) that there was a constant stream of requests from several sources. Therefore their feature requests would most likely get lost when the product team worked on combining individual problems, on the product backlog, into common themes ready for a resolution. 

  •  Set the context of their input- I explained that a feature fulfills a need and problem for the user.  We need to identify the users needs if we want to solve the right problems. I did this by quickly sketching out the ‘needs, feature, requirements’ pyramid.  

  • Assist in re-framing each request.  I discussed each request in light of the web editors overall goal and helped him re-frame each one as a problem/user need, as opposed to a pet feature cum solution. I did this by using the card part of the user story:  “As a I so that .” After a few iterations we finally got there – there was a realisation that it would take a change in mind set. I then went on to explain that we were working at the Epic level which is akin to an individual scene in a film – as opposed to writing out the individual lines each actor would say in a particular scene.  

  • Demonstrate the cases in point:  We eventually reversed engineered the list of feature requests into a list of business problems. I then picked a few problems and quickly sketched out 2 to 3 possible solutions to the defined business problem.  I did this, in a humble way, in order to illustrate the point that there are many solutions to any given problem and that the product team would come up with the final solution based upon aggregated problems (the big picture) as opposed to an individual problem (an isolated instance).   I also stressed the importance developing the product in such a way that the user has a consistent experience which would only be achieved if development was done with the big picture in mind at all times.  Which is the job of the product team.  
Once the requests were properly re-framed they were entered onto the backlog ready for prioritisation. See blog post: Process for Prioritising the Product Backlog

It goes without saying that different stakeholders will need to be managed differently: depending on their pay scale, personality and knowledge of product development. 

Hopefully this blog post will serve as a catalyst to help you think how to best go about changing the mind-set of the stakeholders in your organisation.