In this week´s session about Information Systems and outsourcing @HEC we have discussed what to think about when considering outsourcing. One quote was “don´t outsource the problem, but outsource the solution”. This is interesting from a Product Manager´s point of view.
One thing I keep talking about, is that one should refrain from jumping to solutions too quickly. Before that step, a Product Manager needs to understand the problem to be solved for the users. And this requires going deep on the needs of users and thinking about their mental model. So, if you are thinking all day long about potential solutions you might start on the wrong foot. Actually, you might even consider not to outsource your product development at all nor to trust your own product development teams to come up with the right solutions.
I am sure that some readers of this post will even doubt the necessity to understand the needs of the users. This is a core competence and not peripheral. Outsourcing the solution is legitimate, but outsourcing your problem (aka understanding the needs of your users) is not an option.
If you see your own product development team as a vendor, what are you doing to direct them? What is the “contract” between you and them? Do they know enough about the problem to be solved so that they can operate on their own? Considering your own product development teams as “external vendors” might help you refrain from micro managing the solutions they come up with. You need to focus on your core competency: understanding the “problem space”.
“Show me the product, I will decide to give it a go or not!” – this is a more than a legitimate request from an Executive. There is nothing wrong about it. But in reality, the very same person might be saying something like this: “Show me that you have invented something really new. Something that outperforms everything I have seen so far. Something that obviously will be very successful. I don´t want to take any risk, you know. If it doesn´t convince me now, you have done a bad job, I am afraid.”
And later, in another discussion, she/he might say something like this: “They showed me their ideas. It went no where. It is good that we are not pushing too hard into this new direction. I could have told you before. Why are we even exploring this direction?”
In product management we name the one solution that nails it the “Silver Bullet”. Unfortunately they rarely exist. Especially in digital. And sometimes, people might have it in front of them – and they literally don´t see it. It is as if you showed a car with a fuel consumption of only 1 litre per 100 km, and the reaction would be: “Well, this is nothing new. It has wheels and doors.”
I believe, there are two main reasons for this attitude: one is avoiding risk and uncertainty and the other one is not looking beyond the obvious. Both are common on Executive level. Those not only following, but also really driving change are a marginal species. Only very few embrace the opportunities and don´t shy away from risk. Getting the Silver Bullet means no risk. It is as simple as that. One could start printing money on a Silver Bullet concept. How often are we in situations like this?
The other one is more subtle. Looking beyond the obvious requires unbiased thinking. Requires abstraction from one´s own character and learning curve. The more experienced we get, the more we believe we “do know already”. Do we really? How about the digital transformation – do we have a clear feel for what it means for my company?
I frankly admit that I don´t know much. But I am curious and do have tools at hand how to tackle the challenge. Welcome to our joint journey…
Have you ever observed a bunch of fans watch a soccer match in a pub? They all seem to know best what strategy to follow, what to do next etc. Now go into a product related meeting with managers at a company and look what is going on there. Listen to the comments people are making, the thoughts they are having and to what extend they are listening to the experts in the room.
I often do experience this. Product management is a little bit like marketing creatives: everyone has an opinion. Even the consumer out there has an opinion. Actually, some executives suggest to run product management by surveys. The majority of asked users decide about the next feature. The rest is project management only. It is as easy as that. Is it as easy as that? For sure not. I do see at least three dimensions where this thinking is falling short:
- Users don´t know what might be the best solution for what they need (you know the story about the faster horses, do you?)
- Listening to users today only partly gives the needed answers for tomorrow´s products. (There is anticipation of technology developments needed. Think of the tablet phenomenon or the touch screen.)
- Users only see their part of the delivery system (aka the user interface). Actually they don´t have to understand the complexity of delivering the service to them. And they shouldn´t. But this doesn´t prevent us from having to go beyond the obvious.Think of a service like a flight. It is much more than the airplane and the stewardess serving us. There is a whole machinery behind delivering the service to customers. (“Nonstop you” is a nice Lufthansa slogan that describes this pretty well.)
So, Product Managers need to make their points in discussions. Going beyond the obvious means elevating the discussions to a different level. Refuse to discuss only visuals for example. A couple of times I experienced situations where people didn´t listen to the results of my qualitative user interviews. They didn´t want to know about the personas created. The mental model was too abstract for them, etc. They only woke up when I started sharing screens. Then suddenly everybody had something to contribute. But they were not able to reference their input back to the framework introduced before. So it became generic without adding any value.
Soccer coaches are typically hired for at least an entire season. And I am sure they don´t always listen to the fans. What counts is coaching a winning team. Let your Product Managers build winning products. Input welcome, but decisions stay with your product coaches.
During the last couple of months and countless inspiring talks with very diverse people, it is becoming more and more obvious that there a many great opportunities for your company. And some of those are around product management and its function in the corporate world. Let´s call out the most important ones:
- Good product management is the answer to your strategic challenge. If you get it right, you will manage your company in a way that it produces the right products. And if you produce the right products, then there is a much higher likelihood of success. Don´t get lost in all those IT and business discussions. Be consequent!
- Don´t make the mistake to believe all product managers are more or less the same. There are huge differences. I think I should write a separate blog post on how to assess the quality of product managers.
- Product Managers listen to customers. And executives should listen to (good) product managers. Why am I writing this? Well, because in most cases there is at least one executive who says: “believe me, I am more senior than you. And I know what needs to be done.” If this person is good at product management (aka listening to customers), then it is ok. If not, your company will get into trouble – sooner or later.
- Product management is the leading function. Why? Because it ensures that your company is building products “customers love” – enabled by IT and by business. It is the function that helps to pave the way into uncertainty and how to deal with it.
- Don´t believe product management is mere tactics. If you do it right then it becomes very strategic. Let me give you an example: changing from a static website to a data driven app (which is increasingly the case) requires not only investments in IT, but also a fundamental rethinking of business modeling. You need to anticipate future user behavior and align your company deliverables to leap frog your competition. This doesn´t happen over night and requires focus of the entire company.
So, when are you prepared to really focus on the needs of your customers? Good Product Managers can help you with that. But you have to give them the empowerment they need. And bet on the right candidates 😉
By Jörg Malang
Disruptions: Mobile Competition Shifts to Software Design – NYTimes.com.
As said, it is time to make technology serve users (and not vice versa)…
Impressions from the Best of Both 2013 in Berlin
Create a new conference format that goes clearly beyond investment pitches by start-ups to get funding. Bring people together who would normally only meet occasionally, but not necessarily discuss with each other about what is really important to them. Hope that they meet on peer level. Hope that they discuss content and go beyond clichés like start ups are faster and bear higher risk.
This is what I would hope for if I organized a conference like this year’s Best of Both in Berlin. Hosted by SWAB, a German foundation focussing on bringing the two worlds together, it gathered more than 200 people from the old and new economy respectively.
A lot of interesting speeches and statements, but beyond “vision, sales and leadership” there was not so much concrete input. On the other hand, the representatives of the new economy also focused on things one would expect them to say (e.g. ” watch out, the social wave is coming” or ” we are just at the beginning”). As very often in similar situations, it felt like them creating fear and leaving behind uncertainty among the more traditional folks. Just as @Ibo put it: “there is a lot of uncertainty around digital. But nearly no one dares to admit it.”
The good news wasn’t discussed: that there are ways to deal with the challenge of transformation. Social or big data are much more than technology. It is a fundamental change of behavior of customers. I was happy to hear Cafer Tosun from SAP Innovation talk about Design Thinking. This focus applies the same way to an old economy company trying to deliver a world class service to its customers as it applies to a startup that is trying to build products that customers love…
Finally, Burkhard Schwenker, the CEO from Roland Berger Consulting was also trying to identify the common ground of old AND new economy: good entrepreneurship. And with that speech the conference ended.
All together this type of content only represented a small share of the whole program. I personally believe this is a missed opportunity for a conference with its legitimate ambition to bring together both worlds that are facing similar challenges. But thank you to SWAB for hosting this event and to Caspar von Gadow & Team for organizing it. Keep it up!
Looking forward to interesting discussions. And also hoping that the “old” economy is not only interested in giving money and the “new” economy is not only interested in receiving funding. At the end of the day it is also about products and strategies to be delivered… Let´s see tomorrow!
Typically “lean” is used to describe how to develop products. But you can also look at it from a service point of view. If you aim at delivering a world class service to your clients, it makes sense to have a very clear picture of your customer in mind. A customer is playing a vital role in service delivery, she/he needs to contribute to the process – otherwise the result won´t be as expected for both sides.
What do I mean with this? Let’s take an example: every car hire customer is rewarded a certain level of attention by the front line employee. Who wouldn’t know those customers who are very demanding and seem to be eager to get as much attention as possible? The car hire company might decide not to serve this type of customer. It could be that this means not generating revenue from e.g. VIP like customers at all. This would then allow a higher level of standardization and a would then result in a more equal share of resources and attention respectively.
Personas serve as a proxy for behaviors of real world users. You could see this a typology. So, if you create (and try to serve) too many of them, you won’t be able to a) satisfy them all well enough and b) streamline the product you build. Less is more: have ONE problem and ONE persona in mind when you are building great products.
Thinking lean = standardizing = appealing only to a few or only one persona
When thinking about the role of technology or “digital” (as many people would prefer to call it), we have learnt during the Services major @HEC in Phoenix, Arizona that it can replace so called front line employees. A service is been delivered to the customer. Almost like the process of car rental or sleeping in a hotel.
At first sight, this sounds pretty trivial, doesn’t it? But, please think twice: if we design websites, apps etc. with the mindset of delivering a service to our customers (not users 😉 ) this might have an heavy impact. One impact can be the the value we deliver to the customer isn´t worth mentioning because it might have become a commodity. Another one could be that we will focus more and align our efforts with much more rigor. We need to focus on delivering on the promise we make to our customer.
So, please take a moment to think about the promise a service like Google is making to its customers. And then think about potential solutions. And finally compare your ideas with the real solution that Google have built. Any gaps here?
We have been told about the “moments of truth” concept. Do we deliver to our customers when it counts or do we fail? It might be worth considering either making the promise smaller or focusing on a more specific target audience. But you will better deliver in a moment of truth or your customers will look for alternatives or substitutes respectively.
Yesterday I stumbled upon a book with the title “Wer wir sind und was wir wollen – Ein Digital Native erklärt seine Generation“ by Philipp Riederle (@Phipz). In English this means “Who we are and what we want – a digital native explains his generation”. This is an amazing book for a “Digital Immigrant” like me, I can only recommend it. Unfortunately it is in German only, and I don’t know whether there is plan to publish an English version soon. Could also imagine German Execs needing a book like this more than US Execs.
Philipp portraits the “Digital Natives” in a very comprehensible way, and I am absolutely sure many Designers will use his descriptions to describe their personas even better.
And for those who are still reluctant to listen to a 19yr old man: if you don’t seize this opportunities, I am sure, others will…