A product’s success is determined when all parts are considered holistically. Building the actual software and putting up a linear backlog in everyone’s favorite backlog management product is only a part of the entire endeavor. This written piece tells my story as product manager in a product that held its vision strong from the very beginning and understood the importance of letting go of fixated ideas as it grew.
In the beginning there was a businessman with a vision: to bring together the world of sports through digital networking and education. Students aged 18-35 in the sports field connecting to the industry in a focused environment where all share the same passion. That vision was beginning to be materialized through a niche networking platform that was suited to connect students and organizations in the sector.
Then, something came up. While all these people were successfully networking and sharing experiences, a gap was found. Students struggled to land a job fresh out of college. They lacked the hands-on practical knowledge from those who already worked in the industry for some time. Universities weren’t able to satisfy this demand for competitiveness.
Given this context, a new outcome was created: to continue bringing students and organizations closer together through adequate education. This opportunity had significant benefits:
- Allow organizations to advertise themselves.
- Allow them to sell adequate, pertinent and affordable content to all.
- Allow students to acquire pertinent education and become more qualified.
- Establish credibility and reputation to the business through agency and partnership.
The first step was to gather the people to do the work. There was a need for technical talent so a team was hired to handle the execution of the initiative. The team had enough competencies to work together on a solution that would serve customers well, while supporting empiricism and quick adjustments to the product as they built it.
Marketing, sales and finance were secured by a partner, and they established a somewhat decent foundation to work with.
While the company I was working for had a typical understanding of the role of product manager to be more of a backlog manager, I entered this initiative to manage the product as a whole. It was particularly important at the time to have someone that was qualified to manage relationships with everyone: engineering, UX, marketing and sales, and finance, among other stakeholders. Because this was an entirely new initiative for the business and it required frequent learning validation, it was important that whatever was thought of, developed and shipped would be flexible to change.
Given that this was a new initiative and the team was freshly assembled, it was important to set the foundations right:
- Understand the original vision of the business and the strategies that were at play, as those would somehow influence the overall direction of the product.
- Consolidate all ideas onto a single, public location, so as to accelerate a shared understanding of the problem space by everyone involved.
- Create a discovery team with product, UX and engineering that would meet almost daily to define and explore both the problem space and solution space.
- Set routines and lightweight processes with the team and stakeholders so as to promote strong collaboration and facilitate decision-making.
Some competitive analysis was conducted in the meantime as it was important for our stakeholders to understand the positioning of the new product.
Because the product was being built from the ground up and had to be validated somewhat quickly, our team has worked together to map out the entire initial value proposition into a map. It had a main narrative that was broken down into smaller bits. After the breakdown, prioritization took place so as to maximize the most value in the shortest amount of time.
We were all conscious of the fact that the map was merely a representation of our vision at one particular moment in time. Every day we would look at it and consider what had changed in the full landscape.
Showcase of leadership
The company I was working for typically expected receiving detailed specifications, pre-approved high-fidelity prototypes of what the final result would look like without any possible compromise. Contrastingly, this initiative had an entirely different approach. In fact, the whole point was to build a minimally viable value proposition that would engage with customers directly at an upcoming convention and trigger engagement. The strategy for this initial stage was rather aggressive: we cut a lot of corners to increase speed of delivery and subsequent validation from customers, while not losing sight of the ultimate outcome. While it may seem a concern to cut corners, it’s important to realize the trade-off: our goal was to validate our assumptions quickly in the early stages so we could uncover deeper problems we were not aware of.
From the very beginning, I was cautious about the road to take with the product. Stakeholders were somewhat apprehensive about deviating from their initial expectations. Fortunately, the mindset of resilience was cultivated early on, as the aforementioned problems came in. The initial expectations had changed in a matter of a few months. The more product was developed, the more problems we had to solve. This empirical realization led to a couple of remarkable insights within the company:
- Premature specification does not solve problems that don’t exist yet.
- Premature, airtight designs and solutions don’t scale, and they increase the cost of operation and change.
All of a sudden, the product that had a single direction branched out to multiple different important ones. The more we sat down to review the current state of the product (which included marketing efforts as well as sales and customer feedback), the more opportunities we would find to add value.
Upon this realization, we immediately set out to document all the opportunities we found to add value, proposed lightweight solutions to meet those opportunities and thought of breaking those down into smaller experiments that would allow quick feedback from customers and stakeholders. This shed an incredible amount of light to the bigger picture and to the details, from stakeholders to the team directly.
The team was initially unsettled with the whole approach. Because they were used to being spoon fed everything from their managers or clients, they struggled with the autonomy and purpose they were given. However, with proper guidance and trust, the team slowly started to understand their true purpose: to figure out a solution to the problems I gave them.
In the course of the development, we encountered a specific challenge that required adjustments to the original roadmap. This situation proved unsettling for the stakeholders involved. Due to tight timelines and limited team throughput, there was insufficient opportunity for a comprehensive discovery process.
Recognizing the need for swift action, I intervened and facilitated the prioritization process. Collaboratively, we worked to identify the absolutely essential components necessary for the value proposition to be delivered within the given time constraints. The original story map proved useful here to regain perspective of the whole picture, and the team remained focused on delivering the highest value within the limited timeframe.
Throughout this process, I effectively communicated with stakeholders, managing their concerns and guiding the decision-making process. By establishing an open and transparent dialogue, I helped stakeholders understand the necessity for adapting the roadmap to address emerging challenges and optimize resource allocation.
In the end, the revised roadmap allowed us to navigate the tight schedule successfully while still delivering a compelling value proposition. This proved crucial to meet the high-integrity commitment to the upcoming convention.
This revised text provides a clearer and more concise description of the specific challenge faced, your intervention, and the impact of your actions as a product manager. It highlights your ability to prioritize effectively, manage stakeholder expectations, and make crucial decisions in time-constrained situations.
Leading the team
The product team consisted of four engineers and a technical lead/architect. Because there was already a visual system for a previous product, there was little need for a full-time product designer. Also, my former experience as a product designer helped mitigate that absence.
When I got to know the team, I learned that there was a culture of silos and isolation. Each individual would be assigned tasks based on a spec and a Gantt chart. Little to no collaboration would take place and changes to the original needs would be frequently contested. There was a lot of focus on the output alone, without properly considering early and frequent customer feedback as each solution was designed.
Part of my responsibilities was to train, mentor and coach the team on a new mindset of empirical, emergent, iterative and incremental product development. While there were some preconceived notions of working in smaller timeboxes, there was no substantial foundation for a genuine culture of experimentation, and I took it upon myself to lay that foundation. The effort was successful, in the sense that our stakeholders were very satisfied with the quality of each increment, and they were content with the fact that we incorporated their ideas and feedback onto the product. The team was motivated to work with this approach and found themselves more purposeful than ever before. This dynamic was particularly useful in the aforementioned situation where priorities had to be reassessed.
Very much regularly, either the team or stakeholders would get together to discuss the product. This routine was important to establish so as to keep good levels of trust and to enable early detection of potential issues.
One of those potentially concerning situations happened. Some time after our initial public release of the product, we have received customer feedback saying that they were struggling with paying for the content we were selling. Fortunately, we had the privilege of talking to these customers and asking what the issues were in specific. Upon understanding those symptoms, the marketing department and I looked at the root cause behind them, and we found some simple yet incredible improvements that would increase conversion.
At this point in time, I was faced with a decision. On the one hand, I recognized the importance of keeping up with the initial roadmap so as to continue to meet our contractual agreement. On the other hand, I knew for a fact that it was more important to unlock the product’s selling capabilities at that instant, which would add value to the product and gain customers’ trust, while we continued to proceed with the agreement afterwards.
Once I shared my concerns with all our stakeholders, they were now sensitive to the problems at hand and agreed that fixing the product’s conversion rates was more urgent. The team finished what they were doing and I partnered with them to create the conditions to implement these improvements as quickly as we could. The result was positive in the sense that previously stuck customers could now buy our content.
In the end, the product was released and subsequent work has been delegated to another team. Nonetheless, we kept a strong record of lessons for us to reflect on:
- Customer-centric vision is the glue that holds everything together.
- Business outcomes must include that customer-centric vision. Business shapes the problem space, product discovery explores it into a solution space, with the rest of the product team.
- The product manager embodies the vision and strategy for the product and supports the team ensuring their understanding of that vision, which includes setting proper expectations of the responsibilities of each key component in the initiative.
- The team embodies the design, execution and delivery of the product and supports the product manager’s decision making process.
- Stakeholders shine light on their fundamental interests and they support the team in doing the best work they can.
- The relationship between the product manager and the rest of the team is very proximal and fluid.
- There is a significant benefit in keeping stakeholders close to product teams in order to foster collaboration and meaningful work.
- Different demographics require different pricing models. There are customer segments that simply cannot afford the same as others.