3 Ways to Address Internal Naysayers

The following excerpt is from Groundwork: Get Better at Making Better Products by Vidya Dinamani and Heather Samarin. 

Let’s face it, we all have naysayers in our organizations. Naysayers are strong influencers who object no matter what, think they have a better idea, or believe an alternative option is the right path. And sometimes that alternative path won’t be one of the primary options already being considered and analyzed. It happens. And some of these influential naysayers can derail the decision process. These folks have to be addressed to get broad commitment.

But there’s hope. We use the following list of good practices:

1. Identify any highly influential naysayers who could derail the decision-making process. 

They may or may not be a person who must be primarily consulted, but they hold strong influence in the company. We’ve seen tenured engineers, senior leaders of non-impacted organizational functions, board members, and investors be naysayers. They could have the ear of the CEO, your executive leader, or your CTO.

2. Understand their point of view. 

A simple feedback gathering session might be in order. Trial ballooning a proposed decision is a good way of getting their point of view. Understand what their objection or their desired path is and why.

3. Use data. 

When possible, to do a quick thought exercise on what the path they suggest looks like, asking these questions:

  • How does their idea or path measure up to the criteria you are using to decide? Evaluate it with any data you have available.
  • What are the critical dependencies (e.g., technical, manufacturing, political, resourcing) in executing their idea or path?
  • What would you have to prioritize in the product (e.g., features, infrastructure, roadmap items) to make their path successful and how does that differ from the proposed decision path?
  • Are there other, possibly unforeseen, operational requirements for their path (e.g., marketing, support, operations)?

These are questions you should already be asking of the obvious options in your decision, but they are important to ask as they relate to the strong naysayer’s path as well. Don’t make this a huge, time-consuming expedition. We don’t usually spend more than a 30-minute discussion and a 30-minute thought exercise fleshing through their desired path to understand the implications it has, building a case as to why it isn’t the right thing to do considering the criteria at hand. Or maybe it is? There have been times when their perspectives bring new thinking to the table that must be considered.

Always anticipate who your most influential naysayers will be and gather the information you need to understand their perspective. Do quick due diligence to understand what it would take to execute their presumed path so that you can confidently speak to it. It not only ensures you haven’t missed anything, but it also shows the naysayer that you are thinking broadly and considering all options, not just what you are proposing, makes them feel heard, and sets you up for a much higher probability of commitment.


If you like what you see, there’s more where that came from. Pick up Groundwork: Get Better at Making Better Products by Vidya Dinamani and Heather Samarin from Amazon.

Product Rebels is a product management training and coaching firm run by long term product executives for companies like Intuit and Mitchell International. We have trained over 200 companies, small and enterprise level, in the skills and frameworks that help product management leaders and product managers deliver kick-ass customer experiences. We have a passion for finding efficient ways of infusing customer insight into everything product teams do in pursuit of experiences that customers love …and that drive growth.  Join us in the Product Rebels Community on Facebook or the Product Rebels Community on LinkedIn.

Take a look at our very practical training courses and coaching programs that give you practical tools, frameworks, and support you can use tomorrow in becoming a more effective product leader.  www.productrebels.com

Consensus Does NOT Mean You have Commitment

This is for any product person that has felt the frustration of overturned or unnecessarily delayed product decisions. We’ve all been there. Check it out.

The following excerpt is from Groundwork: Get Better at Making Better Products by Vidya Dinamani and Heather Samarin. Buy it now from Amazon.

Your job as a product person is to be a thought leader and to execute effectively. It’s a unique challenge that only a few functional roles within a company experience. As product leaders, we must influence and gain commitment across multiple functions and leaders; and usually, none of them report directly to you. 

This unique aspect of our job is partly what makes being a product person so fun (and exhausting at times)! So, we would be remiss if we didn’t discuss gaining commitment across complex organizations as one of the most critical practices a product leader should master. Whether you are a chief product officer or new product manager, proficiency in this practice dictates your success.

Getting commitment is required as the first step when implementing any strategy or product decision, big or small. Without commitment, agreement is moot. Commitment is something that many people in business, and in life, don’t understand and are caught off guard by when they realize they never had it. We define Commitment as:

A state in which the decision-maker(s) and critical stakeholders intend to and follow through on making the accommodations necessary to implement a decision while holding themselves accountable for their part in the success of the project, regardless of whether they agree with the decision.

Let’s break this down.

What do we mean by critical stakeholders? 

These are the business people who will be significantly impacted by the decision; not customers—you’ve already done the Groundwork to propose a product decision that meets your customer’s needs. Stakeholders are people like operational partners (internal and external), your development team, your manufacturing partners, your support team, and so on. These are the folks who have to take action in order to ensure success of the project.

What do we mean by the necessary accommodations? 

This could be anything required to execute, such as funding, human resources, operational or technical tradeoffs. 

The last part of our definition of commitment is important. 

We want to get to a situation where people may not agree with the decision, but they are committed to it because they understand how the decision was made and why. In this section, we talk about the elements involved in giving you the best chance of getting commitment on decisions: collecting the data required, presenting your case, and pressure testing commitment.

Getting commitment is very different from getting a head nod in the meeting where you propose a product decision. Many times, the head nod of agreement is taken as a “go.” But we all know that a lot happens after people walk out of a meeting. People are bombarded by inputs from others, conflicting priorities, and shiny objects that potentially change a head nod to an eventual head shake.

Sometimes getting commitment doesn’t mean you’ll get a consensus. If you strive for consensus, you could be waiting a long time. Some cultures require consensus. And to those of you working in those cultures, our hat’s off to you. We respect anyone that perseveres through consensus-building even at the cost of progress. There is a better way.

Instead of consensus, strive for a shared vision (we touched on this earlier in the book) of the data and in light of the decision, get a commitment to the actions required to be successful. Shared vision sounds like corporate jargon, we realize. But as you already know, it’s a concept that has stuck with us in our careers, because of how powerful it is. We strive for everyone impacted by a decision to understand how we got to a decision, versus just telling them what the decision is. We do this by communicating compellingly clear logic, data, and customer insight, all of which we obtain through the Groundwork and Practices we’ve explained up to this point.

The next time you see a lot of head nods in a meeting, do a double take and make sure you actually have a shared vision and a commitment on the actions that will result from the decision.


If you like what you see, there’s more where that came from. Pick up Groundwork: Get Better at Making Better Products by Vidya Dinamani and Heather Samarin from Amazon.

Product Rebels is a product management training and coaching firm run by long term product executives for companies like Intuit and Mitchell International. We have trained over 200 companies, small and enterprise level, in the skills and frameworks that help product management leaders and product managers deliver kick-ass customer experiences. We have a passion for finding efficient ways of infusing customer insight into everything product teams do in pursuit of experiences that customers love …and that drive growth.  Join us in the Product Rebels Community on Facebook or the Product Rebels Community on LinkedIn.

Take a look at our very practical training courses and coaching programs that give you practical tools, frameworks, and support you can use tomorrow in becoming a more effective product leader.  www.productrebels.com

3 Ways to Build Team Productivity Through Access to Customer Insight

This excerpt provides a little glimpse into how we’ve gotten our extended teams working in unison by expanding the access and participation in customer research. There’s lots more where this comes from! Take a look.

The following excerpt is from Groundwork: Get Better at Making Better Products by Vidya Dinamani and Heather Samarin. 

Your job as a product leader is to infuse customer insights into the broader team’s work, not just present the personas. As a reminder, a persona is a user archetype created based on your research that represents how someone might use your service, product, site, or brand. It’s about your ability to help the team get to know the persona as a person and to enable them to stand in the shoes of this person while doing their job. We’ve observed, through years of experience, that the deeper our extended team’s understanding of the customer, the less we have to rehash requirements for the project and the less rework we see.

Back in the late 1990s, when both of us were at Intuit, Heather was on the QuickBooks team and Vidya was on the TurboTax team. We were just implementing the concept of Follow Me Home across the company. This was a form of ethnographic research where we conducted onsite observational research sessions. We’d go to our customer’s place of work or place of filling out their taxes and quietly observe the process of managing finances or taxes.

The QuickBooks team conducted a bunch of these Follow Me Home sessions with small businesses and invited our engineers to observe. There was an interesting side effect of this. We found these engineers going home on a Friday after seeing and hearing these customers firsthand, and coming back on Monday having fixed an issue they observed in one of the sessions. They were so excited (and frustrated) by what they saw during the observational session that they couldn’t help but try and make the users’ experience better. We were seeing things like this across the company. The point is that seeing and hearing your target customer is by far more valuable than reading any documented persona. 

There are a couple of things to consider in achieving this kind of intimacy and motivation:

Get your extended team participating in the research whenever possible. 

Observing everything firsthand is far superior to waiting to get the CliffsNotes version. It’s not always possible, but you’ll get the best outcomes if the majority of your extended team has seen and heard your target users through observation or interaction. If they can’t participate, then organize ways for them to view or listen to the recordings of your interactions. Brown bag lunch, anyone?

Debrief the team on what you all learned through the research before putting pen to paper to write the persona. 

Make them feel just as much ownership over the persona as you do. The more ownership they feel, the more they will utilize personas; ensuring consistency and delight in the user experience they are all working hard to develop. 

Share what you learned first. 

When you learn something new through research that leads to an evolution of the persona, make sure you share the learning before reposting a new version of the persona. Focus on the infusion of learning about the persona and the implication of that learning on what the team is working on. Focus on this more than on presentation of the persona.


If you like what you see, there’s more where that came from. Pick up Groundwork: Get Better at Making Better Products by Vidya Dinamani and Heather Samarin from Amazon.

Product Rebels is a product management training and coaching firm run by long term product executives for companies like Intuit and Mitchell International. We have trained over 200 companies, small and enterprise level, in the skills and frameworks that help product management leaders and product managers deliver kick-ass customer experiences. We have a passion for finding efficient ways of infusing customer insight into everything product teams do in pursuit of experiences that customers love …and that drive growth.  Join us in the Product Rebels Community on Facebook or the Product Rebels Community on LinkedIn.

Take a look at our very practical training courses and coaching programs that give you practical tools, frameworks, and support you can use tomorrow in becoming a more effective product leader.  www.productrebels.com

6 Elements of a Strong Hypothesis

In this excerpt we change the way you think about the formulation of hypotheses to expedite your product creation process. Where we used to think of hypotheses as scientific fodder, our book transforms the definition and formulation of hypotheses into something we can use in our day-to-day product efforts; proving and disproving our assumptions so we can make quick product decisions and continue our forward momentum. Check it out.

The following excerpt is from Groundwork: Get Better at Making Better Products by Vidya Dinamani and Heather Samarin. 

We are constantly inspired with new product ideas—whether that’s through customer observations, the competition, or an “aha!” moment in the shower. Every idea has the potential to be formed into a hypothesis. The way to ensure you have a strong hypothesis, one worthy of testing, is by reviewing that they conform to these six characteristics:


This seems obvious, but think about the number of times someone has a good idea on the team. Good ideas are a dime a dozen, sadly. We’ve seen multiple teams become overwhelmed with new ideas entering the system because they see a competitor launch a new feature, or because an investor or senior leader gets inspired by the latest shiny object. Being logical means that there is clear, sound reasoning connected to the hypothesis. The idea doesn’t come from left field; you can point to evidence to suggest the outcome will be promising.


Making sure a hypothesis is testable is one of the hardest aspects of generating a great hypothesis. Often, teams feel like they need to fully build and launch their product to get actionable data so they forgo hypothesis testing altogether. While your results may not be statistically significant, think about how you might, with minimal resources, prove that you’re heading in the right direction. With practice, writing a testable hypothesis becomes easier—teams get very creative and quickly adapt to creating small tests with minimal resources.


How you put together a hypothesis counts. Using deliberate words that indicate a specific outcome is important. Otherwise, any given outcome can be seen as either confirming or falsifying. Being precise means being crystal clear on what you’re testing and why, and documenting the rationale for what it means to run the experiment, what resources you’ll need to experiment, how long it will take, and when you’ll know the results.

About Something Measurable

You need to understand which numbers matter before you do the research. If your hypothesis is that more visitors will see your webpage when you make a certain change, then you need to know exactly how many more must visit for the change to be meaningful, and thus, for the hypothesis to be confirmed. An increase of 1% may mean nothing to one company, and it may mean millions in incremental revenue to another. Understanding what measures are important gives you a good indication of whether the experiment or test should even occur. If the results can’t confirm or falsify your hypothesis, why do the research? This is a hard characteristic to pin down, but it’s critical to ask both if you know what the measurement is, and whether the measurement is meaningful.

Has an Expected Outcome

We want you to be able to explain with a logical, clear reason what outcome you expect. The line gets tricky here—if you already know the outcome, then go get the data to prove how you already know this. Why spend time testing things you already know? We see teams share hypotheses with us all the time about things they already know. They do this because it’s comforting to be proven right. On the other extreme—if you don’t know what outcome to expect, then how will you plan the precise experiment that could achieve that outcome and how could you know what to measure? Make sure your hypothesis specifies an outcome and that the outcome will address your hypothesis.


The last of the characteristics is making sure that you can invalidate your hypothesis. The way to think about this is to make sure you don’t set your research up in such a way that the results are subjective, or that you’re not capturing the right data to be able to have a clear result.

These six characteristics are intended to help you coach your product managers. Instead of just providing feedback on a hypothesis (or rejecting it outright), point to one or more of the guidelines and discuss how their hypothesis may miss the mark. It’s a teaching moment and a much more productive conversation at the same time.


If you like what you see, there’s more where that came from. Pick up Groundwork: Get Better at Making Better Products by Vidya Dinamani and Heather Samarin from Amazon.

Product Rebels is a product management training and coaching firm run by long term product executives for companies like Intuit and Mitchell International. We have trained over 200 companies, small and enterprise level, in the skills and frameworks that help product management leaders and product managers deliver kick-ass customer experiences. We have a passion for finding efficient ways of infusing customer insight into everything product teams do in pursuit of experiences that customers love …and that drive growth.  Join us in the Product Rebels Community on Facebook or the Product Rebels Community on LinkedIn.

Take a look at our very practical training courses and coaching programs that give you practical tools, frameworks, and support you can use tomorrow in becoming a more effective product leader.  www.productrebels.com

Why Your Product Should Be Needs First, Features Last

As product leaders, the number one issue we see is with the concept of uncovering needs. We all have a tendency to proceed straight to features or solutions because as product leaders, we are problem solvers. But we’re here to ask you to please refrain from this tendency. Instead, pause and take time to articulate a need before jumping to solutions.

The following excerpt is from Groundwork: Get Better at Making Better Products by Vidya Dinamani and Heather Samarin. 

Earlier in our work, we worked on developing a fitness app and created the persona (a persona is a user archetype created based on your research that represents how someone might use your service, product, site, or brand) Melanie who “won’t travel more than 2 to 3 miles from work or home to work out at a studio.” That’s the need. We could have said, “We need our app to show only fitness classes or studios within 3 miles of the user’s location in the search results.” Which is a possible solution for the need. Sort of. But it shortchanges the wide-sweeping impact of the need we identified.

Instead, if we focus on Melanie’s need, we learn that she needs classes that are close to her home or work. Focusing on her need forced us to change our studio recruiting strategy in the target county to ensure a critical mass of fun fitness classes where the persona (Melanie) lived. It narrowed our studio lead-generation efforts to specific boroughs in the county. Even more specifically, it prioritized our studio recruitment efforts within each borough. If instead we had merely worked to narrow our search results by default, the search results might never have revealed enough classes. We would have had great search tech, but not enough classes in the results to drive usage.

Let’s take it one step further. What if the root cause behind the persona’s need for a 2 to 3-mile limit on distance was that the average traffic patterns in the county meant that a 2 to 3-mile distance equated to a 20 to 30-minute commute during the 5:30-6:30 p.m. rush hour time, a popular exercise time for the Melanie population. And that the 20 to 30-minute commute made it almost impossible to take classes during that hour, unless Melanie left work early. Those search result filters don’t look so great anymore, do they?

The point is, you must explore different ways to address the persona’s need and its root causes before presuming a solution. If you document and communicate needs as features, you’ll defeat yourself before even getting out of the starting gate.

Needs Aren’t Benefits

This mistake is very similar to translating needs directly into solutions. Before we jump into the feeling or benefit the persona wants to achieve, we must look without bias at the insight or need. Don’t get us wrong—the benefit helps you understand what the persona is trying to achieve, but the underlying reason for not being able to achieve that is what facilitates focus and enables action. Focus on the underlying insight or root cause of what you are observing or hearing before jumping to a solution or end benefit.

Why Individualized Needs Are Important

How do you know what to work on first for any given problem–persona combination? Can you and your team agree on a path and stick to it without overturning decisions later? Defining the Problem Statement and the Persona is your north star. That’s your starting point. The prioritized

set of needs corresponding to a specific problem–persona combination gives you the path to a solution that delights the customer, and provides the guardrails for the areas to focus on or avoid when solving for that problem and that persona. It ensures your focus for ideation and feature tradeoffs, whether it be your first version or your next product release.

Needs Enable Confidence in Early Feature Tradeoffs

Doing the Groundwork to identify and prioritize needs surrounding a specific problem for a given persona allows you to quickly say no to certain features or exploration. You can easily justify to leadership why you didn’t pursue a particular feature area with a statement like, “Melanie’s primary needs are X and Y, which is why we focused more on these features and tabled these other features for now.” It keeps the tradeoff discussion out of “opinion land” and solely in “customer-data land.”

Needs Enable Clear Prioritization of Your Time

When you know and agree upon the prioritized set of needs for your persona(s) your team has the permission to focus their time on what matters most. Providing focused ideation time, testing, and iteration around the most important aspects of the solution. Which said a different way, you aren’t spending time on random, broadly scoped aspects of the solution that are less likely to drive delight. It’s the other side of the “saying no” coin.

Needs Enable Faster Time to Market

Because you can confidently make tradeoffs early and test and iterate on only what’s most important to your persona(s) you’re able to avoid the delays that come from endless feature debate, overturned decisions, and designing or testing things that don’t impact the delight of your primary persona(s). This dramatically reduces your cycle times and your overall release cycle.

Needs Minimize and Potentially Eliminates Costly Rework

Finding that you didn’t hit the mark on the most important needs of your persona after you’ve built and released your shiny new experience is painful. Doing all the Groundwork reduces the pain of rework after you release. We’ve all spent a lot of sleepless nights agonizing over something learned soon after release that seemed so obvious and could have been identified early on had we just done the needs investigation and prioritization.


If you like what you see, there’s more where that came from. Pick up Groundwork: Get Better at Making Better Products by Vidya Dinamani and Heather Samarin from Amazon.

Product Rebels is a product management training and coaching firm run by long term product executives for companies like Intuit and Mitchell International. We have trained over 200 companies, small and enterprise level, in the skills and frameworks that help product management leaders and product managers deliver kick-ass customer experiences. We have a passion for finding efficient ways of infusing customer insight into everything product teams do in pursuit of experiences that customers love …and that drive growth.  Join us in the Product Rebels Community on Facebook or the Product Rebels Community on LinkedIn.

Take a look at our very practical training courses and coaching programs that give you practical tools, frameworks, and support you can use tomorrow in becoming a more effective product leader.  www.productrebels.com

6 Common Mistakes to Avoid with Customer Personas

This excerpt is great for any product leader or product manager trying to make more customer-driven decisions that won’t be overturned at the next meeting. One artifact that helps in this plight is the persona. Don’t roll your eyes! There are ways to develop effective personas that drive action for your teams and not just collect dust on a shelf. This excerpt from our book introduces some pitfalls that teams fall into in the development and use of personas. The full book expands on this and more!

The following has been excerpted from Groundwork: Get Better at Making Better Products by Vidya Dinamani and Heather Samarin. 

We once walked into our client’s building (name not mentioned to protect the innocent) and as part of the kickoff for the project, we asked for any documentation they had on their target customer. “You mean personas?” they asked. Yes! Exactly! 

They tapped out a message on Slack and minutes later, the UX designer walked into the conference room and placed three laminated, full color, 20” x 30” flip charts on the table. Each had four pages of detail, including pictures and text. Our eyes widened for just a second. As we started to thumb through the beautifully produced flip charts, we started asking questions. 

PR: How are these used?

Client: We use them when we design or redesign areas of the UX.

PR: Does the extended development team have copies of these? 

Client: No. They don’t need them.

PR: When was the last time you used them? 

Client: About three months ago, when we redesigned the onboarding experience.

PR: How were these developed? 

Client: We hired a design firm to research and produce these for us.

They had big, beautiful, professionally created personas they could hang on the wall, and could even spill food and water on without issue! And the research team used them. So, what’s the problem here? There were a few things:

It’s Not a Contest to Write the Longest, Most Detailed Persona

Don’t be fooled. Less is more here. You want the entire organization to know the personas, use them, and refer to them in all aspects of the product planning and creation process. They need to be simple, easily communicated, and constantly referenced.

It’s Not a Broad Persona

Too often we see wide swaths of the population depicted as the target market because they all experience the problem we’re solving. Hence, we create a broadly scoped persona. That may include solving it for someone who has the problem but doesn’t feel enough pain to act on that problem. This is a huge pitfall to avoid. Your target personas are only those willing to take the action you want them to in exchange for solving their problem; be it open their wallet, donate their time, respond to your communication, and so on.

One question we recommend asking during persona-related research is, “What would you be willing to pay to have this problem solved?” or “What would it take for you to open your wallet to pay for this solution concept we’re showing you?” or “What would you expect to pay for a solution like this?” Choose your own words to help you understand whether or not the research participant would be willing to take the action you want them to take. 

This is not meant to be a pricing discussion. We don’t recommend interviews for pricing research. To be clear, you should be focusing on people who have expressed a willingness to pay, donate, or act to have their problem solved and not those that show a mere interest in solving the problem. Your persona will become clearer as you understand who is willing to pay and who isn’t.

It’s Not About Outsourcing

Taking ownership of your customer is your job. This is the Groundwork you and your team must do with your own hands. Interacting with customers, discussing what you learned with the team, and coming to a shared vision on your target persona is a requirement for creating products that customers love. Don’t get us wrong—we do outsource research, but there is a time and place for outsourcing. For this aspect of the Groundwork, you need to learn from your customers firsthand.

It’s Not A Laundry List of Demographics

Our client didn’t make this mistake—they did a great job of deeply understanding the archetype and bringing each of these personas to life. But we frequently see personas represented as a list of demographics and a couple of attitudes, rendering the personas one dimensional and not actionable. Demographics are good for marketing in terms of buying direct mail lists, filtering within social media campaigns, and calculating available market sizes. But they are bad for making product and design decisions. You need to understand attitudes, behaviors, goals, a day-in-the-life, and similar information.

It Isn’t A Job Description

Many B2B personas we see describe a job and the daily tasks within that job. A list of job responsibilities is very helpful when you’re trying to understand where your problem space fits into the world of that persona and when you’re identifying relevant needs that must be addressed to solve the problem well. However, just knowing a person’s daily job tasks tells you nothing about who the person is or how you should build an experience that delights them. So, in other words, a job description is helpful in describing the “what” you’re going to do, but it doesn’t give you any guidance on “how” you’re going to do it. There are many ways to design a feature depending on the traits of your user. The feature addresses the task at hand but the design approach (the aesthetic, placement of buttons, vernacular used, types and number of steps to complete the task, etc.) will vary widely depending on who you are building that feature for. Avoid just focusing on what could turn into features (job tasks and responsibilities) and focus more on the inputs to your design approach (this person’s aspirations and how they go about their daily life).

It Isn’t “One-And-Done”

Personas are always evolving. Most of the time, you start with hypotheses about who your target user is. You’re never right the first time. For example, you may assume your persona is focused on accuracy given that they are an accountant and spend a lot of time playing the role of “accuracy police” with their staff. But as you conduct more research to investigate their needs you find that, yes, accuracy is important, but they actually view themselves as a coach that helps their staff build good data hygiene. 

Think about how differently you might design an accounting software experience for someone who views themselves as a coach to help others with their accuracy checking instead of someone who views themselves as the “accuracy police.” The former might have the product team prioritizing data reconciliation functionality for the staff roles, while the latter might prioritize the ability to check their staff’s work. It doesn’t mean you can’t do both, but it certainly would dictate your prioritization of the two areas of functionality.

As you conduct more research you will learn more about your target customer, proving or disproving your hypotheses and refining the persona. Without this refinement, personas get shelved and become out of touch with reality.


If you like what you see, there’s more where that came from. Pick up Groundwork: Get Better at Making Better Products by Vidya Dinamani and Heather Samarin from Amazon.

Product Rebels is a product management training and coaching firm run by long term product executives for companies like Intuit and Mitchell International. We have trained over 200 companies, small and enterprise level, in the skills and frameworks that help product management leaders and product managers deliver kick-ass customer experiences. We have a passion for finding efficient ways of infusing customer insight into everything product teams do in pursuit of experiences that customers love …and that drive growth.  Join us in the Product Rebels Community on Facebook or the Product Rebels Community on LinkedIn.

Take a look at our very practical training courses and coaching programs that give you practical tools, frameworks, and support you can use tomorrow in becoming a more effective product leader.  www.productrebels.com

Virtual conferences create delight

Like you, we’ve were disappointed and sad to see all the in-person conferences cancel one after another. In the early days of the pandemic, some brave conference organizers decided to switch to virtual experiences , but these first few experiments were mostly pretty painful. Trying to recreate the excitement of an in-person experience was so daunting, most didn’t even try. We watched webinars, and gave presentations had no interaction with anyone else other than through a chat box, or moderated through a host. Luckily, there’s been a lot of experimenting in the last six months, and now we’re starting to get delightful online experiences. In the last month, we’ve attended three amazing virtual conferences which have exceeded expectations. They’ve transformed expectations of conferences and they created delight. We want to share three examples of these experiences with you because they’ve re imagined their offering and we hope it inspires you to think differently about your product and customer experience.

  1. Personal Connection. Networking can be hard at in-person conferences. They can be awkward affairs where it’s hard to make a meaningful connection. I have tons of business cards from various conferences, but no memories of their owners. In the Product Leader Summit conference last week, the organizers offered up three virtual networking sessions starting a week before the conference. There are multiple networking apps, but the better experience was that there were multiple chances to connect in six minute chunks, which is enough to have a real conversation when it’s just 2 people. You get to sample a personality, make a connection and then decide if you want to continue the discussion. There are multiple apps that offer networking, but consider the experience. The networking portion was received so well, there were requests to continue these post-conference.
  2. Shared Experience. It’s hard to create a shared physical experience when we’re all sitting at our own desks. However, the Women’s Venture Summit, offered a happy hour get-together in between their 2 day conference. This event asked the audience to purchase a set of ingredients a week prior to the conference (with lots of reminders so that we were ready). The maker of the featured cocktail, Emily Josenhans of Domain Sante, made a new beverage (crafted by her team) online. She took us all step-by-step through the process, and we created a cocktail (or mocktail) together. I’ve been to many happy hour events online, but creating something together made the experience much more delightful.
  3. Insights & Learning. Zoom breakouts are a good way to break up any large group and have people able to talk to each other. In two conferences, rather than a random distribution, we were told why we were put together in the groups. This information about who would be in the room with you was shared a few days in advance, so we could look up (linedin stalk) the people we would be meeting with. This act of forethought made the breakout room immediately more active, because there was a sense of knowing the other attendees were. They also helped much better attendance, knowing that a group was expecting you to show up. There were better conversations because we felt accountable to prepare to share thoughts with a team we’d never even met. We all use breakout rooms, but consider designing an experience instead of hoping for the best, so that attendees have a significantly better chance of learning from each other.

Each of these examples elevated and improved the conference experience because the conference organizers deeply thought about the attendee (customer) needs. They knew what in-person conferences promised, and they worked with existing technology (not developing a single new feature or product) to not just improve, but create delight. How can you go back to your core customer needs and given the new way in which we all live and work, deliver an experience that delights?

10 Tips to move Strategy Sessions Online

We’ve written this article to help you plan a focused and effective strategy session when you’re all online/virtual. This is targeted towards product strategy sessions, but these 10 tips will work as effectively for bigger company strategy sessions. Just a note – moving your session online takes work. At the very minimum you need 3 weeks of pre-planning. Start soon!

  1. Design for outcomes. Remember a strategy is the plan by which you achieve your company/product objectives. A strategy meeting is the means by which you collectively create the plan on which you’ll execute. This might seem obvious – but it’s easy to lose sight of the reason you’re bringing people together. We’ve been in lots of in-person strategy offsites that end up more as information sharing sessions – or team bonding, or an excuse to talk about loads of new ideas (shiny new object syndrome!).  Then all the decisions get made at the post-offsite strategy session. Virtual strategy sessions need to be designed carefully. Start by getting really clear on what you want at the end of the virtual sessions and what information is needed to achieve the results you’re looking for.  Are you looking to refresh your strategy entirely, or are you looking to validate existing strategy? Has your business set new growth targets because of the pandemic, do they have a new set of objectives for the coming year? What factors will you have to consider – COVID impact, competitor analysis, market research, customer learnings, sales & finance updates, technology needs – what has changed and what is relevant?  Now write down what success looks like – share them with your peers so that you’re on the same page. Here’s an example: We need to update 2 out of 4 of our existing strategies in order to meet the new growth target (list the two). A successful strategy session means that we have produced a draft set of product strategies that are aligned to the company objectives and strategy, and each team is positioned to create a set of initiatives that are driven by strategy.
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  1. Break it up: We’ve all been on all-day offsites where we immerse ourselves in strategy and so the urge to replicate the process is strong. But you just can’t possibly do an all day strategy online – it’s painful even thinking about sitting in front of your screen for that long for one meeting! We’ve learned that 2 hours is the ideal time to have the team fully engaged, energized and effective. We’ve tried longer periods and it’s hard to keep everyone focused. 1 hour isn’t quite enough – people are getting warmed up and you’ll find yourself going long anyway. Some teams have insisted that we work in 4 hour sessions – but we see fatigue set in, then we take longer and longer breaks – it just doesn’t work. We recommend a series of 2-hour sessions spread over a week. With the right planning, this set of sessions can be even more effective than an in-person offsite.
  1. Set mandatory pre-workTo make the most of 2-hours together, you need to set pre-work. As you determine success outcomes – you’ll naturally uncover the most relevant topic areas (competitor analysis, market/economy, customer success, etc.). Two-three pages of pre-reading for each area is recommended. Summarize each of main points:  clearly list market & customer insights that are most critical to the discussion, articulate each of the major problems that need to be addressed. Write these down  in a paragraph or two, providing key data and backup links for anyone wanting to dive deeper means that everyone coming to the sessions is prepared. You can send all the pre-work together a week before your session, or set your sessions to be 3 hours, with the 3rd hour individual time for the team member to do the pre-work each day. This isn’t easy – but it’s invaluable for having great sessions. And we recommend asking people not to attend if they haven’t done the pre-work, don’t let your sessions devolve into opinion-sharing. Keep discussions focused on facts/data.
  1. Assign Champions. Share the workload and assign champion to each of the major sections of work. This is a great opportunity to highlight your team, or to even ask important peers at your strategy sessions to lead. When you engage others in leading the pre-work research, or summarizing the data points – you take the burden off being the sole facilitator, and all the research coming from one voice. You want everyone at these sessions to feel ownership over the strategy that’s developed, and one of the best ways we’ve seen to achieve this, is by starting with ownership right from the start.
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  1. Write down assumptions. When doing the pre-reading, have the team write down their assumptions. This way, each team member is coming in prepared with a set of notes that lend themselves to a discussion. The pre-reading is not just for information, but to help form product strategies (remember #1, outcomes!). The reason we recommend this approach is that it helps provide the rationale for the opinion.  It’s much easier to invalidate a stated assumption, rather than argue opinions. We really don’t like opinion-based discussions if that isn’t already obvious. When the team can’t readily invalidate an assumption – this can easily be turned into a hypothesis that can be tested after the meeting. We know exactly what information we need to help us make sense of the data.
  1. Address the elephants. Don’t bury bad news in the pre-reading or avoid it altogether. Some of the teams we’re working with are losing their funding, others have seen their customers disappear or put purchase decisions on an indefinite hold. This is critical information, and it’s not business-as-usual. You want the most out of these strategy sessions – you want your teams to armed with all the data. The impact of the elephants are pretty significant in terms of how the company will respond – perhaps the growth targets have doubled, or the retention goal has increased significantly. Make sure the pre-reading provides the “why” and the context – and don’t avoid those big, hard problems.
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  1. Standalone Ideation. It’s really easy for each of these 2-hr strategy sessions to devolve into ideation sessions. Once people have their pre-reading done, and they understand what the business is trying to achieve – they’ll want to solve problems – it’s natural. We’re all full of product ideas, and asking people not to share them can be painful (and derailing). But you don’t want to continually talk solutions before you get a full understanding of all the areas that need to be reviewed. We suggest having a shared whiteboard to capture all the ideas generated. Don’t have this as a shared screen, you don’t want it visible and distracting – you just want a place where people know that they can add their ideas/solutions. Once you’ve finished the information sessions, you can move into ideation for product strategies. This is towards the end, and a 2-hr focused session on strategy ideation is ideal. Having your list of whiteboard ideas is a perfect input for this. Your team can self-select which ideas move forward, and which go away now that they are fully armed with all the background.
  1. Small Discussions. We design our strategy sessions to be about 5 minutes together as a large team, then 15–20 minute sessions with a small team. By small team, we mean about 3–4 people, a group where everyone has a voice. We move in and out of this format — so that we’re constantly regrouping, sharing updates, and then going back into real discussions. Consider if you want random groups so that different people are constantly reviewing data. This is good when you have a close working team, and the groupings are less important. Perhaps you want to deliberately create cross-functional breakouts if you have invited others in the company — you’ll want to design each small groups to have a voice from all the functions that are represented. This is an important part of pre-planning, looking closely at putting the right people together.
  2. Document Collaboration is a must. Zoom, or teams, or whatever video software you use is insufficient. You want to be virtually around a working board where the pre-reading is loaded, the assumptions are listed – everyone can see and have access to the documents and be able to write their own thoughts/comments. We have been using the in-built notepad on zoom, and then Mural to share all documents. We pre-build our boards with stickies – color-coding for teams, and sometimes individuals – so that we can make sense of all the notes at the end of the session. Avoid a facilitator writing down other people’s ideas – it’s nowhere near as effective as enabling everyone to have control over exactly what and how much they contribute.
No! No! Not Another PowerPoint! (BoomerBlix)
  1. Lose the PowerPoints. Hopefully this goes without saying given the first 8 tips – we want the strategy sessions to be all about working together, discussions and making decisions. Feel free to create PowerPoints for pre-reading if that fits with your company culture. But by no means spend any time (not even 1 minute) sharing a PowerPoint deck. You’ll set the tone and expectation for this session if you avoid PowerPoints altogether. Let’s be clear – we’re still asking you to make sure that everyone understands the pre-reading. You should still start each session by recapping or highlighting the relevant facts, check in for understanding and questions and then jump into the assumptions that people have written down. Work through the data in a structured way. We just don’t want you reading slides!
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Bonus tip!: Don’t lose the happy hour. Last, consider how you can celebrate together at the end of the strategy session. Maybe it’s a separate hour after every session is complete – but it’s important to acknowledge the end of this hard work. Here are some ideas that we’ve experienced or seen work. Send everyone a bottle of wine, or their favorite beverage a few days in advance, so you can open it all together at the end of the session. It’s always fun getting a surprise in the mail! I took part in a chocolate tasting by an expert a few weeks ago – I was sent a package of 4 bars (yes, it was hard not opening those) and couldn’t wait for the event. It turned out to be a really fun experience, as we all opened packets and tasted together while the expert shared the history and taste notes of each bar. A month earlier, I was part of a sommelier experience, and the prep for that was to bring in the bottle of wine that you’d always been saving for a special occasion – so the only company expense was providing the expert. Hopefully these ideas get your creative juices flowing – whatever you do, mark the end of the session with something fun and a way to connect and have a shared experience.

Agile is GREAT, but…

Agile is great, but…

Agile is awesome. Nearly every Product Manager we know would agree. But I bet you’d be surprised by how many conversations we have with product leaders around their questions, issues and sometimes not-so-stellar experience with agile development. Questions & comments like:

  • Our product managers/owners feel constantly overwhelmed working day-day with dev, we have no time for innovation!
  • Anyone else have confusion over roles within their agile teams, or is it just us?
  • How are others dealing with technical debt, our seems to just keep growing…
  • Do you need to have both product managers and product owners?
  • We can’t expect our product owners to also be strategic…can we?

Agile is so clear about roles, and ceremonies. Backlogs are groomed continuously to focus on the highest priority. Customer Value is built right into the manifesto. So, why are there so many “we love agile, but…” conversations in the product management community. What’s going wrong? We have a hypothesis on why this is happening, and a proposal for a universal fix across all agile teams. Let’s start with three assumptions that we have about how we believe products should be built.

  1. Before you build…You know what is important to customers. There’s a loaded sentence. We built an entire business helping companies get this right. Anyone can create epics and sets of user stories — that’s easy. That’s how exploding backlogs happen. Because it’s just so easy to create work, and agile is a well-oiled machine designed to keep churning out work in tidy increments. But, as we all know, outcomes aren’t equal to effort. And meaningful business outcomes are those that prove we’re providing value — because customers buy and continue to invest in the products we deliver. All that comes from deeply understanding your customer.
  2. Before you build…You can define the customer problem. That doesn’t mean being able to describe all the incredible features you’re building. It does mean being able to state the customer problem that exists, independent of your product ever being launched in the world. That means, there are lots of ways to potentially solve the problem, but you (team, company), are uniquely positioned to deliver a solution that will win in the market. And btw, the problem should be a big enough pain that the customer is willing to pay to make it go away. When you can do this, you know you’ve got an important problem to solve.
  3. Before you build…You have a vision and a roadmap. A roadmap is not a rolling collection of features — it’s a clear, well-thought out, logical and prioritized map to achieve a vision. Having a vision is what allows you to make tough trade-off decisions, and it’s what keeps the team (and you) energized and motivated to make it happen through all the ups & downs of development. Having a vision starts with #1 & #2 above — knowing what’s important to the customer and what problem you’re solving.

If you buy into these assumptions — then let’s talk about how you can leverage them to make a big impact on how well agile can work for you. This is based on years of experience working as a product leader with with dozens of agile teams, and from our coaching practice improving the ways that product managers and product owners can succeed working within agile development.

You have to know where you’re going. Remember the bad old days of waterfall development? If you don’t, lucky you! For those of you who shuddered when we asked the question — you had flashbacks of writing massive requirements documents. But, the one (and maybe only) good thing was that it forced you to think about where you were going. You had to think about the big picture before you could break it down to endless requirements and (depressingly) writing down every possible exception. We’re not suggesting for a second we go back to the dark ages. However, what we’ve missed in our head-first dive into agile is providing the team with the big picture in a way that’s meaningful. That doesn’t mean one flashy PowerPoint slide of a vision, or some high-level product mockups which makes your CEO happy. We’re talking about providing a real schematic that offers a picture of where you’re going, and enough details that allow the teams working with you to ask great questions, offer alternatives and help improve the overall solution.

Let’s say you were giving the job of building a house, your first step probably wouldn’t have been to assemble a building crew, and say to the foreperson — we’re going to get started and build a room at a time. Let’s see where end up! Before you had a team start to pour concrete, or put up framing, you would have worked with an architect to create a plan. The inputs to that plan are customer needs. Imagine a home for a young couple, mobile, working from home, wants amenities/access such as pool/gym…and then think about a family with 4 kids, one member is in a wheel-chair, they entertain a lot, generally home-bodies. Very different needs, very different home. Your understanding of how the home would be used, the people who live inside, what they would do within their home — all of these are critical elements in understanding the type of building we’d create. We don’t expect a building crew to start building without a plan — and the opportunity to ask questions, and maybe suggest some changes that would make it cheaper to build, or offer additional value elements for the same price. Because they understand what you’re asking them to build — they can have a voice.

The same is true for a product — we need a picture of our customer, what she cares about, her habits and attitudes — and through understanding this, we enable our teams to imagine a real person that we’re building our product for. A product manager’s job is to provide this picture. Agile wants you to know these things -it really does. It just doesn’t give you any time to make it happen. If you forgive agile for not building in a ceremony just for product management, then it changes the way you will look at your development cycle. The way to coach teams to provide this critical information is to develop and share a Product Scope. A Product Scope gives the schematic, the plan for what you’re planning to build, it provides a picture to the team so they can imagine it. They can then connect with you on the plumbing, the electrics, they may even suggest shifting rooms around, or describing a completely different approach which you never imagined. This will happen because you have everyone on the same page, then…you can begin Sprint 0, start planning and happily create epics and write user stories. You all know where you’re going.

Having a Product Scope will change your experience with Agile

We’ll talk more about how to create a Product Scope in a follow-up post and the product work needed before sprint planning. We’ll give you a hint — writing kick-ass Product Scope documents comes from deep customer understanding, which starts with setting up hypothesis, ideating, prototyping, testing — all with customers.

Before we close, just a couple of extra agile tips for kicks. Spikes are not your friend. A lot of the time, we see customer research being placed on a sprint plan as “research spikes”. A spike, technically is something that is not clear to the team, or can’t be estimated well. The whole purpose is to provide an answer or solution so that the team can get going again. Assigning points to research is meaningless — your entire product success rests on your ability to learn from your customers and build that into every sprint. That’s right — you should be learning from your customer EVERY sprint. That doesn’t mean fitting them into research spikes. btw, spikes aren’t great for the team either, it impacts velocity and timelines and all the things your scrum master cares about. Don’t use them.

Build in Time to Watch Customers. Technically this isn’t an actual way to make agile work for you, but it’s just the very best gift you can give your team. It works whatever development method you’re using. It will change the way your team work. We suggest at the very minimum once a quarter, you should provide a way for your team to spend time watching customers. It will dramatically change the customer value your team delivers.

What other agile and product management tips do you have? Share your comments and thoughts.

Product Decisions in Crisis Mode

Are you feeling an urgency to make immediate changes to your product? Or trying to resist the urge to react to this current crisis? Are leaders in your organization bombarding you with ideas about how you should be responding? We’ve talked to dozens of product managers and product leaders over the past 2-3 weeks and we’ve heard many stories: teams undergoing complete pivots – scrapping all their current work and radically changing what they’re working on responding to immediate customer needs…to pulling up products with launch dates that were 6+ months ahead because they now seem to be much more relevant…to staying the course and adopting a wait-and-see attitude.

Now, more than ever, it seems critical to us that teams have to focus on core product principles to make decisions that aren’t just knee-jerk reactions, but based on real understanding. Before you stop reading because you can’t deal with yet one more thing to have to do…this core work can be done easily and quickly – and we believe can make all the difference. At least take 5 minutes to finish reading this before you completely change what your team works on.

Here’s a quick recap on the three steps that we describe as core foundations:

  1. What problem are you solving? Don’t just throw around new feature or product ideas – identify and discuss the actual customer problem. Get your team on the same page what’s the customer experiencing and why. Write it down so everyone is on the same page.
  2. Who is the customer? Is this a current customer, and if so, what’s changed in their attitudes, ability to pay, access in relation to your product. What do you know, vs what’s a hypothesis that can be tested. If this a potential new customer – how much do you understand them? Create a quick persona and build some empathy so that your solution ideas can be tested, before you start building something new.
  3. Validate with scrappy research. We know it’s hard to get to execs right now if you’re b2b, most leaders are completely unreachable. But think about who you might use as a proxy, test your thinking with someone you know who has a similar position – even if it’s in your own company. If you’re b2c, there’s a lot of people staying-in-place who are easy to access for a quick 10-15 chat – especially if you can offer a small stipend. Even if you contact just 5 customers (or prospects) – at least you’re getting out of your own head and testing your ideas.

We feel so strongly about teams needing to go back to basics that we’re offering up our foundations course for free to all product teams. This online course is less than 3 hours, usually people take this over a week, but you can cram it all into a morning. If you pick just one area to check out – refresh on the problem statement. Making radically different decisions can be justified if you have these basics in place.

Even in this crisis, let’s stay true to solving real customer problems that we understand.

Product Rebels is a product management training and coaching firm run by long term product executives for companies like Intuit and Mitchell International. We have trained over 200 companies small and enterprise level in the skills and frameworks that help product management leaders and product managers deliver kick-ass customer experiences.    We have a passion finding efficient ways of infusing customer insight into everything product teams do in pursuit of experiences that customers love …that drive growth.  Join us in the Product Rebels Community on Facebook or the Product Rebels Community on LinkedIn.

Take a look at our very practical training courses and coaching programs that give you practical tools, frameworks, and support you can use tomorrow in becoming a more effective product leader.  www.productrebels.com

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