Do you have a product looking for a problem to solve?

Product with no problem to solveHow would you answer if you were asked to talk about the value proposition for your product or solution offering?

Do you begin by articulating the features of your product or solution? Do you present architecture diagrams showing how your product can integrate into the customer’s network? Do you talk about the great things that your company or product can do and include a lot of technical spiel with a sprinkling of ‘ilities’ … reliability, flexibility, usability? Can you talk at length about how performant your product is, how well you support the customer when they find a bug and what a fantastic user interface you have?

At what point in the conversation would you start to talk about the customer?

Many companies struggle to talk about the market that they are targeting and the key problems or needs that they are solving for that market segment. Often they have little understanding of the buyer personas in the target market – what jobs they do, what motivates them, the difficulties they have in doing their job.

So why are technology companies generally so poor at representing the customer in their value proposition?

In my opinion, it is because they feel more comfortable jumping straight to the “how” without trying to articulate the “what” and the “why”. Technology people just want to make things – they love to create new things and to apply cool technology in interesting new ways.

Technology companies are often not so good at understanding or articulating the problem they are trying to solve for their target customers.

Even when companies do take a stab at describing the customer, they struggle to provide evidence that they have ever validated their hypothesis with existing or prospective customers. They rarely talk to customers about their needs or wants. They often operate in broadcast mode – selling the latest feature or attempting to upgrade the customer. If they listen to their customers at all it is often in a support role where the customer logs bugs or issues with the existing product.

If you base your product strategy around incrementally adding new features to your product, without a clear understanding of how these features benefit your target customer segment, then you run the risk of having a complex product searching for a problem to solve!

Product Management Festival – Zurich September 2014

Badge-03_SpeakerWas great to get the opportunity to speak at the Product Management Festival in Zurich this year. I presented on how portfolio management techniques could support corporate ideation – had some great conversations on the topic with other attendees after my talk and there seemed to be a lot of interest in the area of innovation.

It was fantastic to be part of a great lineup that included Ellen Gottesdiener, Rich Mironov, Teresa Torres , Michael Eckhardt to name but a few. It was also really great to meet so many European counterparts – so interesting to get their perspective on how product management is working in their organization.

The event offers great opportunities for Product Managers to network and is certainly not just about listening to speakers. It is really great to see an event focused on Product Management. Unfortunately I couldn’t get to all of the speakers but here were just a few short takeaways for me:

Michael Eckhardt – 7 Deadly Sins to Avoid

Don’t just talk to current customers – talk to mainstream customers who have not yet adopted your solution. Understand your customers compelling reason to buy. Ensure your messaging is clear – communicate a “superior selling proposition” – good template provided.

Thomas Bauch – Crossing the Strategic Gap with Product Portfolio Management:

Thomas walked us through some really useful tools in the area of Product Portfolio Management: 9-Array Matrix, Extended ABC Analysis, Project Value Contribution Index.

Gaurav Katyal – Gamification for Product Managers:

Gaurav helped us to recognize how gamification techniques could support other real world examples. Understanding what makes games engaging and how they motivate user behavior. How to drive user engagement of our products.

Teresa Torres – Moving Past Vanity Metrics:

Teresa presented a very insightful case study from a company where she worked previously in where they recognized that they were really capturing metrics that just made them feel better rather those that would really show if the product was successful. She encouraged us to “define product success in terms of when your user has success – not in terms of business success”. She also recommended “evaluating every idea, every decision based on expected impact on your goal”

IPTV Portfolio Funnel – Thomas Haas

Thomas reinforced the importance of  portfolio management techniques and he described how he applied this technique in an IPTV case study – defined criteria for prioritization that included cost of delay, duration and weighted the prioritization based on shortest job first (WSJF). Requirements prioritization is a key function of product management and good to see focus on this throughout the conference.

Nikolai Mokros – Product Management Training on the Job

Encouraged us to hold “Quick Product Management Intelligence” sessions on a weekly basis – no more than 30 minutes. Understand your “golden nugget” learning of the week – building up a suite of topics that can be accessed even by those who could not attend on the day – very useful idea.

Ellen Gottesdiener – Rope your Scope

Understand “what” you are building – the 7 product dimensions, “who” you are building it for – reign in your scope creep.

Mentor and Support Companies Establishing a Product-Oriented Discipline

The Challenge

Many companies over the last few years have made the bold move to establish a product management discipline in their organization. They understand that to be successful they need to:

  • Create scalable and repeatable products or services that customers love
  • Continue to generate and prioritize innovative ideas
  • Ensure the organization is marching not only in the “right direction” but in the “same direction”
  • Work to a clearly defined business model that meets corporate strategic objectives
  • Prioritize and resource many projects, with a finite set of resources, whilst achieving maximum ROI

This requires someone to hold it all together and keep the company focused. As Steve Jobs said “You need a very product-oriented culture… lots of companies have great engineers and smart people. …there needs to be some gravitational force that pulls it all together.

Initially, when the company is small, the CEO or CTO will fulfill this role – but as the company begins to scale it is important that the CEO looks for support. Adding a product manager to the team is the right next step… but what exactly does this product manager do and how will they integrate with the existing team? Often there are a myriad of political obstacles that need to be addressed as people’s roles change and the organization settles into a new way of thinking.

The Product Management Dilemma

The new product manager has a myriad of functions that they “could do” – the question is what functions “should they do” that align best with the organization’s structure, vision and strategic objectives? Although there are many organizations that provide great frameworks to help product managers understand all aspects of their role, quite frankly the breadth and depth of areas to be covered would give any new product manager palpitations! You would need to be superhuman to address everything effectively! So, how do you decide which aspects of the framework make sense for your new product manager? How do you ensure that your new or existing product manager has the right level of domain expertise, can perform key aspects of the product management discipline, can communicate effectively and can earn the respect of engineering?

Addressing the Challenge with In-House Mentoring

Applying a product management discipline does not need to be an overwhelming challenge for a company.  I think it is best to start with a “lean” approach to product management – don’t overwhelm yourself and your new recruit from day one.

For many new and established product managers they exist in a state of constant bewilderment and despair as the enormity of the role becomes apparent to them. They often have a very unclear definition of the role, unachievable expectations are set by senior leadership or often no expectations are set at all (which is even worse), there is no clear prioritization of projects and they have to juggle the demands of a sales and engineering team who expect their undivided attention 24/7. This situation can become a cycle of despair where the product manager becomes increasingly disillusioned and the leadership team begin to dismiss the product manager as ineffectual.

Things do not have to be this way – understanding who does what in your organization and clearly defining the role and Org-Structure 2boundaries for each group is a first step. Then, applying a structure and discipline to product management that aligns with the stage your company is at is crucial. Helping the product manager to apply methodologies in areas such as portfolio management, value proposition creation, requirements management, agile development, customer validation, ideation, ROI analysis, sales management and leadership alignment will undoubtedly help alleviate the pressure.

As someone who has performed the role of product manager and ultimately managed both a portfolio of products and a team of product managers I understand more than most how to make this demanding role effective. I learned quickly that applying structure and discipline ensured myself and my team could work effectively.  We can all read books or attend courses that will give a good grounding in the product management discipline but the application of this discipline and the understanding of what works in reality comes with experience.

Don’t wait until either you or your product managers have reached the point of despair – seek the support and help of those who have done this before, who have been at the coalface and who understand the demands of the role.

 “Start-up success is not a consequence of good genes or being in the right place at the right time. Success can be engineered by following the right process, which means it can be learned, which means it can be taught.”  Eric Ries, The Lean Startup

Contact: Siobhan Maughan, IntegratedThinking (

Approved consultant with Enterprise Ireland – funding available.