As product managers our job description is pretty simple: to make all of our software development projects succeed. In fact, I would go so far as to say any failures or successes of the team are failures or successes of product management.
While the product manager is not the manager of the team per se, they are in charge of all critical elements that lead to a team’s success and need to own that responsibility. Here are five simple things I’ve found that product managers can do that can ensure success every time:
1. Define Success
It is important to set your definition of success at the very beginning so everyone is working towards the same goal. Without defining success, it is quite likely the team may work towards different objectives. Defining success also means it is possible to create metrics and improvement plans, which means the team is clear in how to succeed.
This needs to happen at every level. Chiefly:
- What makes a release successful? What are your KPIs for the product post-launch? What are your QA goals? What features are must-haves?
- What makes a sprint successful? What are your sprint goals – both in terms of story completion, but also non-story related? One thing that has worked for me is to set high-level goals – like getting a specific feature built out – as opposed to using your stories alone as the goal. This helps keep the team thinking about the big picture and forces the product manager to prioritize what it means to finish that feature in terms of stories.
- What makes a story “ready”? Setting a definition of ready can help the story writing process by ensuring you have everything you need for a story when a developer grabs it to dive in.
- What makes a story “done”? Setting a definition of done can help to set expectations within the team of when a story is ready to ship – and ensures that your shippable product will meet these criteria.
2. Make no Concessions
One of the most common mistakes a product manager makes is to capitulate to outside forces. As a consulting product manager I have seen this happen at many levels: giving in and allowing a feature in your SaaS that only one single customer really needs, adding something or modifying a design to make a VP or project sponsor happy, or lowering the bar to success because of a team shortcoming.
It is always hard to say “no” to a VP or a really important client – especially when you don’t have support of your management to do so, but these little concessions plague product after product and it is important to eliminate them. There are a couple great tricks you can use to overcome this:
- Concede only to testing the idea. Then conceive of a simple A/B test or user study you can do that will validate or invalidate the idea. Maybe it really was a good idea but needed refinement, or maybe it is exactly as bad as you thought it would be. Either way, you now have evidence to bring back and show why it’s not a good idea.
- Create a layer of abstraction. Using process or structure can help. The creation of a secondary layer that requests must go through can take the product manager out of the tricky business of having to say “no” directly to the client or stakeholder. This can be as simple as creating a process of voting or filtering for new requests or defining a set of criteria that must be met for new features. The solution can also be more complicated – like changing roles to have an account manager gathering customer requirements instead of a product manager (which I’ve seen done in some organizations).
- Escalate team problems. If you see it, say it. If you don’t have QA automation, find out what needs to be done to make that happen. If you have concerns about someone on the team, meet with them and talk to others and take action. This means paying attention to your team and knowing best practices in different areas (UX, engineering, QA) so you can see when they aren’t being practised.
3. Eliminate Risky Assumptions
Success is really about outcomes. Which means just launching a product exactly as you conceived it could still be a total failure. Product managers need to be cognizant of all the assumptions they are making and run user tests to eliminate the riskiest of them.
User testing doesn’t have to be expensive or extensive using lean validation techniques. Sites like respondent.io can help you quickly to find people to interview (remotely). Also think about posting on nextdoor.com and finding people in your area you can meet in person. Many people will do these interviews for a small stipend ($50-$100 for an hour), and you can get valuable feedback on your designs and a better understanding of your customer and the problem you’re trying to solve. Running a simple landing page test can get you more quantitative data and can be done for a couple of hundred bucks in ads.
4. Stop the Storming
It is normal for teams to have some spin. There are new libraries to try, new technologies to learn, new team members we don’t know how to talk to, and a host of other potential issues that can slow down teams. A lot of the time it is assumed the project manager or scrum master is responsible for these, but there is a lot a product manager can do to make things go more smoothly:
- Include developers in product sessions. Developers love to have input. It is important for them to understand why decisions are made and take their opinions into consideration. In the end, they often have valuable insight, and their inclusion in these meetings makes them more capable to build the solution and to make all those little choices required of them on a daily basis.
- Make sure roles are clearly defined. A lot of confusion in young and dysfunctional teams arises because it’s not clear whom they should go to for different needs. Be clear what you can provide and where they can go if they need help in other areas.
- Protect your team. Your team and its objectives is the most valuable asset you have. Spend your time and management capital ensuring that they have everything they need: licenses, work-life balance (burn-out kills), time free of meetings, technical support and anything else that comes up.
- Don’t set unreasonable goals or deadlines. While it is important to have drive, missing dates, overwhelming developers, relying too heavily on estimations without weighing uncertainty, these all can create an environment that is not conducive to success.
5. Provide Vision and Clarity
In the end, it is the product manager who should always provide the product vision. It is important to remember that most team members are heads down on their project, in the moment, and that it is up to the product manager to look constantly towards the finish line and make sure the team arrives there.
Take the time to inspire your team with the eventual end results. Remind them of the importance of their work. Update them with roadmaps. Bring them results of previous launches. Share the results of your research. All of these actions reminds everyone that their work is important and keeps everyone on the path to success.
In the end, the product manager can make every project a success but they need to define what success is, avoid making concessions that don’t improve the product, eliminate risks, keep the team on point and keep a clear vision of where everyone is headed.