The challenge with problem centric product management

Why is it so hard to talk about problems? We recently started to adopt a problem centric approach to product management to help us focus on the right things. This basically means moving away from having the business stakeholders think out features and then ship them to the software development team. Instead we need to start thinking about which problems we have and then collaborate between teams to come up with the best solution.

The concept of problem management over product management is not new. We were very inspired by Googler Jen Granito Ruffner and her outline to why this needs to be the way to do product development. In an organisation, lot’s of people have ideas that they want to communicate and pursue. Ideas are great but they are not focusing on what we want to achieve.

An example: A marketing executive makes a feature request: We have tons of good product videos and we need to put them on the product pages of our e-commerce site.

It’s a clear task. It’s also fairly simple to get done. But is it the right thing to do? This is where we need to understand the problem we are trying to solve. There are methods for this but the best way is to, in a non provocative way, ask why? And if one why is not enough, try four or five times.

Product manager: Why should we add the videos?
Marketing exec: Because we get more rich content!
Product manager: And why do we need more rich content?
Marketing exec: For the customers to understand our products better!
Product manager: Why do they need to understand the products better?
Marketing exec: The drop off rate from our product page is 50%!
Product manager: Ok, and why do they drop off?
Marketing exec: Well, most drop off to visit a price comparison service.
Product manager: Ok, so the real problem is that people are leaving the site to visit a price comparison site. So, what is the best way for us to make people stick around.

What happens here is:

  1. A problem opens up for more people to come in and suggest solutions
  2. We have a clear metric (drop off rate) on what what we want to improve
  3. We can prioritise how solving this problem is more or less important for our business (by comparing with other problem’s metrics).

So why aren’t everybody doing this?

Well for a start we have a global culture of suggesting solutions to each other. What is 2+2? What should we eat for dinner? What should we do with all of these product videos? You don’t go to a colleague and say “Hey, I see a problem, can you help me solve it”. For mangers this is even worse. A manager is really good at coming up with ideas, because you have role were you are expected to always have an answer.

Secondly, if you have an idea, it’s really hard to change our mind about not doing it. It’s your little baby and when someone suggests something else you immediately feel offended that someone might think differently. Even worse, you might have promised someone else that you are going do it and of course you don’t want to go back and say that it’s not happening!

Thirdly, looking for problems is boring and hard. We don’t want to think about problems, we want to generate ideas, have fun and be creative! It’s a cliché but looking for problems is actually about looking for opportunities, and that is creative. Is my team productive? Is the conversion rate of our web shop good or bad? Am I a good parent?…

To formulate a good problem, you need to quantify it with a good metric and assign some kind of value to it. Metrics are hard but some metrics are better than no metrics. A simple exercise to find a good metric is to think about the problem in a worst case scenario.

What’s an extremely bad web shop? Zero customers.

What’s an extremely bad tech team? Zero items shipped to production.

What’s an extremely bad parent? Zero time with the kids.

These are your basic metrics and the problem/opportunity you can focus on.

If we are reluctant to think about problems. How do we make the shift?

My personal opinion is that this mindset boils down from managers (like me) and they need to enforce it. If you ask your team to report on KPI’s then they will. If you ask them to build a process on how to find their key problems, they will. I’m not saying it’s easy. But it’s my firm belief that this can be achieved.

Min final words on this problem centric approach is that if you dare to ask why enough times, then you will realise your purpose as a business or even as an individual. I’ll continue with the product videos example to prove my point.

Product manager: Ok, so why is it important that people stick around on our website?
Marketing exec: Well, we have the best price on products they need, they should buy from us!
Product manager: Why do they need these products?
Marketing exec: Because our products removes the boring stuff from their lives so that they can have a happier life with their family!
Product manager: Ok, that’s pretty cool.
Marketing exec: Yeah.

Why Agile Business Development is more effective tried to find a partnership to help grow your customer base? Well, that’s one of the most important tasks for a business developer. This post focuses on that task and how to improve it by using inspiration and tactics from the world of agile software world.
Enter Agile Business Development.

To explain what agile business development is all about I’ll refer to the man that coined the term and presented it during an interview with Mixergy; Harley Finkelstein. He is the Chief Platform Officer at Shopify and has found great ways to use the analogies from the agile movement and apply them to building partnerships and business development.

Agile is about reacting to change and new business needs. Done is better than perfect and focus on collaboration over negotiation. If you haven’t watched/listened to the interview do it after reading this blog post. There is a link at the bottom.

What problem is Agile Biz Dev solving?

Usually partnerships can be a massive project that takes time and resources to come together. What agile does is to work in smaller steps, finding out if a relation works and if two partners have something to gain from each other. It gets something going fast. Finkelstein uses the metaphor “the teenage guy who tries to score on the first date” as the problematic methodology most commonly used in non agile biz dev. Use the following tactics to get more agile.

Stop wasting time. What are the objectives?

Skip the company presentation slides. You can send them in advance or after the meeting. Finkelstein describes a typical agile biz dev meeting as cutting right to the chase and trying to understand each other’s needs – “Here is my objective for this meeting. What is your?” Of course this can seem intrusive or aggressive at first but briefly explaining that this way has worked before (for Shopify) and that you don’t want to waste the other persons time.

Not every partnership is obvious on forehand. By stating the objectives you will develop a deeper understanding for your partners business.

Finding the centerpiece

The centerpiece is the beautiful vase or object that stand in the middle of the living room, which everybody can enjoy and talk about. It’s a common interest that makes us feel comfortable and more eager to work with each other. In Finkelstein’s example Gary Vaynerchuk was publishing his book “The Thank you economy” about the same time as Shopify was launching. As there were many key points in the book that also tied in with entrepreneurship and launching an e-commerce store, there were obvious gains in making Vaynerchuk one of the front heroes for the Shopify vision. This centerpiece was about evangelizing for entrepreneurship and increasing sales on both ends.

Finding the centerpiece is about doing research to find something that is going on right now, but also finding the passion and the driving force behind an individual or a company. It’s about identifying needs/passions, removing pains and increasing growth for others. Good examples are product releases, political stand points or in this case, a book release.

Start small and iterate

By suggesting collaboration around a small test run or a proof of concept, you gain tons of knowledge. It’s a low commit in time and money on both sides which is often key. If you perform well on the test your can use it to back a bigger project. Also, if the test fails or if your partner tries to screw you, you will have lost little compared to a situation of greater volume.

Leverage loyalty

Finkelstein refers to this point as a new type of “Greed”. He means that if you find people that are your fans you should encourage them. An Australian blogger that were sending Shopify lot’s of paying customers got a call from Finkelstein and a paycheck. They paid him retrospectively in cash according to their affiliate agreement to make him a loyal follower for the coming decade.

I don’t agree with Finkelstein on the payment reward. I think just the fact that he got noticed and contacted was worth so much more. By paying your contributors you turn them into employees and changing their incentive on why they want to help. Make sure to build partnerships with fans that last by making them feel special.

Don’t forget about timing

If you try to sell yourself on the same day as your potential partner is stressed out over a product launch, is leaving on vacation or just having a crappy day you are less likely to succeed. Your timing can be improved by simply following the news, monitoring when companies are likely to release new products or when authors are about to release books.

Relations, rejections and rebounds

This ties in with the Timing issue. If you catch your potential partner at a bad time it is likely that your will be rejected with no way to comeback. By offering a way out of your proposal without the partner loosing face, you can come back at a later time and be more successful.

The basic layup:
”I know you are super busy. I’m in town beginning next week. It would be great to meet you, but if you can’t that’s fine too”.

This works well for media relations too. You might have a strong PR message that you want to reach out with that is not a 100% relevant for one certain news site. Just offer a way out without destroying the possibility of future talks.

“I hope this is relevant. If not, I still hope I can buy you a beer on conference X this fall. “

That’s it. That’s the basics of agile biz dev. Please comment and add more discussion to this subject.

Mixergy link:
It’s probably behind a paywall but it’s worth paying for mixergy!