Following Tail Lights into a Ditch

Okay, dumb metaphor but I gotta say, a lot of the training for product managers out there is pretty misleading and doesn’t get at the heart of what product management is all about. And having more and more aspiring product managers following the suggested training that I’m seeing, feels very much like following tail lights into a ditch.

I just got done reviewing another training program and found it totally disheartening. Why? Well because it seems to be touting skills that, yes are important, but that completely overshadow what’s required to be successful in your job as a PM. For all you aspiring and new product managers (and even for some experienced PMs that have gone through some of these less-meaningful training programs) listen up! Here are 3 foundations that if you aren’t well versed or don’t have a natural inclination to set before any project you embark upon, then your projects will experience constant decision delay, unnecessary rework, and customer dissatisfaction.


Most decision overturns & delays, excessive re-work, or just plain unhappy customers are driven by a lack of shared vision around the problem. Each person on the team has a slightly different take on what the customer problem is and therefore a different take on what it means to solve it. Most training programs don’t tell you this nor do they help you build muscle to avoid this situation.

Without actually documenting the problem you’re solving in a way that clarifies what you are and are NOT solving for, slight variations in understanding will creep in and cause major havoc on the team. Vidya and I have often asked product teams to individually write down the problem for which the team is solving given a feature, a new product, or change in an existing product. Most of the time, we find that there are at least 2 people on the team that have different definitions of the problem and therefore have been advocating specific features, design elements, tradeoffs, etc. as a result.

For instance: What if you worked for a hand tool manufacturer trying to redesign your hand drill. You’ve been solving for a quarter inch drill. But guess what…The problem is not a quarter inch drill, it’s solving for a quarter inch hole. And what if it was for a quarter inch hole for hanging a 20 pound canvas? Or a 20 pound canvas on a concrete wall. Imagine if each of your team members believed you were solving for a different problem in this list. Getting agreement on functional and design prioritization would be troublesome to say the least.

Our point? As a product manager, your goal in every project is to start with a clearly defined problem that your entire team (including your leaders) has shared vision around. If not, you’re going to experience challenges every step of the way. So make sure any training you choose makes a point of helping you get to the root of the customer problem, effectively communicating that problem, and getting to shared vision with your key stakeholders around said problem. This encompasses research techniques, effective problem definition, hypotheses testing, and communication and influencing skills that many programs don’t spend a lot of time on.

#2 Defining the Target Customer

NO DUH! But I have to be honest. A lot of product management training curriculums breeze through defining the target customer or building a persona. Too often we see the target customer (persona) defined with demographics, with job descriptions, and with a couple likes or dislikes. They go into a lot of depth on market sizing, and analytics, but not in building an actionable persona.

Defining your target customer takes extreme empathy and should be enlightening and ongoing. Bringing that target customer to life, with day to day activities, but also with the relevant beliefs, attitudes, and the relevant traits that make product decisions possible.

For instance: Here are some ‘trait spectrums’ that I purposefully listen for and consider when I’m defining a target customer for software applications.

  • Organized <–> disorganized
  • Analytical <–> creative thinker
  • Tech savvy <–> tech phobia
  • Quick learner <–> slow learner
  • Confident in his/her ability to complete the task <–> no confidence
  • Patient <–> impatient
  • Extravert <–> Introvert

Depending on where your target customer sits in these spectrums will you would choose different design approaches and make different tradeoffs and even choose different vernacular in the experience.

There are many other traits that can and should be considered across different experience types (retail experiences, consumer packaged goods, etc.) The point is, it has nothing to do with demographics.

So make sure you find a training program that spends time on defining your target users in ways that are actionable in product and design decisions. This includes research techniques, actionable persona development practices, testing practices, and UX partnership skills.

#3 Contextual Customer Needs

This one is a little more elusive than the other two, I realize. So I’m going to jump right in with an example.

You are a wagon manufacturer. And there are a ton of design elements that need to be considered. Wagon size, turning radius, wheel size, wagon material, etc. The list goes on. In order to make the right design/feature tradeoffs, you’d need to know a little bit more than the problem and who you’re solving the problem for. So…

Customer Problem: I often have to make many trips carrying loads of stuff from my apartment to my car in the parking structure, which is a total hassle, can be painful, and often makes me late; especially when it comes to groceries and weekend recreational activity stuff.

Target User: People that live in urban environments that are weekend warriors (This is the short version, you’d define the intimate details now that you’ve learned a little more about how to define your target ;-))

You say, great! I know what I’m building. Hold on a minute. What if your research surrounding the problem yielded the following needs in this order of priority:

  • My parking spot isn’t close to the elevator so I have to carry my load a ways
  • Parking spots in my garage are tight; I need to be able to maneuver around my car and between cars
  • I have to store this in my closet because I use it so often and don’t have storage living in an apartment building
  • I’m usually carrying at least 20lbs+ of odd sized stuff including groceries, ice chest (that is sometimes wet,) big water containers, camping equipment
  • I’m often carrying my stuff on the sand and dirt and gravel to get to my destination “spot” (campsite, park site, beach site, etc.)
  • I have to maneuver in and out of my elevator with lots of people

Okay, now tell me if those needs don’t help you better define the solution! Clear tradeoffs emerge…right?

Without the relevant needs surrounding the problem, how do you prioritize features or make design decisions? Most product management training programs struggle to address the importance and art of these 3 foundational elements to product management..

There are some great UX programs that get at this but I’m a bit old school and believe that the product manager is just as much responsible for intimately understanding the customer and problem space as is the UX person…if not more… because the product manager must evangelize and get commitment from the organization on the resulting product roadmap and requirements. Without having that intimate understanding, getting shared vision by cross-functional organizations is almost impossible.

Bottom line here: Make sure the program you choose comes from successful product management leaders that have demonstrated their ability to define a kick-ass customer experiences that drives business growth. Make sure they enable you to set the most important foundations to any great experience. Without that, I’m sorry to say, you’re following tail lights into a ditch.

Check out our product management bootcamp if you’re interested in learning how to build the muscle around these foundational elements of product management.

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