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

4 Things Every Product Manager Needs to Think About Before Development

For you product leaders that are struggling to make the tough tradeoffs. Our book’s definition of the Convergent Problem Statement can help. This excerpt references some strategies in establishing just that with your team in order to make product decisions much more efficient and durable.

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

The Convergent Problem Statement is just as useful for new products as it is to prioritize features for existing products. We love starting ideation with a couple of the most compelling problem statements, helping us to explore and ultimately prioritize which customer problem our business is best positioned to address. 

As a reminder, a convergent problem statement clearly describes the most relevant difficulty the customer is dealing with and is stated with no attempt to address possible solutions.

For product leaders, the best way to support your team is to be deeply involved and invested at this early stage. When you help your product manager (PM) work towards a Convergent Problem Statement, you set the Groundwork for a successful product. Here are some strategies to working with your PMs: 

  • Insist that every “idea” is framed as a problem statement. In our work, we’ve even created mini templates and asked anyone in the company to share product ideas as long as they write the ideas in the form of a problem and not a solution. This helps cut down the noise of new product ideas since there is the small hurdle of entering it as a well-formed problem statement. This practice helps our team source new ideas, and highlights people in the organization who are passionate about solving customer problems.
  • Share the iterations that helped you converge to the chosen problem. You want to show by example that no one gets it right the first time. By showcasing examples, you provide a roadmap for how you want your product team to think. Many problem statements start with a lot of guesses, and then you refine them through learning. Show that journey for your teams to emulate.
  • Highlight “failures” or problem statements that ended up abandoned because you proved there wasn’t actually a problem! We’ve all been captivated by new product ideas or solutions that we thought were so obvious. When we do the work we uncover that customers had a simple workaround, or felt lukewarm toward the idea, or discovered the problem wasn’t important enough to want to pay for a solution. We’ve shared when a customer’s “good-enough” solution was sufficient or the pain wasn’t high enough for them to choose an alternative. By highlighting examples, you demonstrate the rigor that brings a product or feature onto the roadmap. You’ll see all the teams you work with gain confidence knowing that customers are waiting for their solution.
  • Never assign development resources unless you are satisfied that there is a genuine Convergent Problem Statement. This can feel painful when there are engineers available and both you and your product manager feel the urgency to create work. You have to stay strong! You’ll avoid much pain and suffering (which can manifest as bad customer reviews, rework, and unhappy teams).


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

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.
Pin by Amanda Dykman on Ahhh...The Work Life | Work humor, Work ...
  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.
How to Lead Better Virtual Meetings - Duarte
  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!
Zoom party tips: Virtual hangout ideas for a fun night in - Los ...

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.

A 6-Part Formula for Developing a Customer Problem

Okay product leaders, this excerpt sheds some light on how to create a problem statement that works to focus the team and allow for you to say ‘no’ confidently. Take a look.

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

Let’s examine what goes into a Convergent Problem Statement. As a reminder, a convergent problem statement clearly describes the most relevant difficulty the customer is dealing with and is stated with no attempt to address possible solutions. We want to clearly define the problem in detail so that anyone reading the problem statement can immediately understand the situation. Every problem statement should address the following six questions.

1. Who Does It Impact?

You need to be able to imagine the person impacted by the problem. Start by defining a real human being—someone you can relate to. Developing a sense of the person who has the problem immediately creates a sense of empathy. This empathy allows you to better understand the problem. Don’t focus on demographics; think about a specific person in a particular role. You don’t need to name them, but you do want a sense of who they are, where they work, and what their day-to-day life might look like.

2. What Are They Trying to Do?

You want to understand the context in which the person is operating. Here you’ll think in more depth about where they live, work, or play. Their surroundings matter. You need to know what they have access to, what their environment looks like, and what options are available for them. You start to build a picture of what they have access to, and the workarounds or options they may consider to naturally approach the problem.

3. How Do They Want to Feel?

We love this question. Yes, it’s touchy-feely, but it goes to the core of why someone will care about the problem being solved. And for all you super-analytical types, this will be a cornerstone as you think about marketing. Understanding the emotional toll of the problem will help you sell the benefits of using your product. Every problem in your life leads to an emotion.

When the person you envision experiences the problem at hand, do they feel annoyed? Grumpy? Frustrated? Angry? Exhausted? 

This is one of the hardest questions to answer, so keep exploring different adjectives until you find the one that resonates. When you land on the right emotion, it will feel like an “aha!” moment. Understanding how your customer feels can reveal whether the problem is a serious or a trivial one. Asking these emotion questions help you determine the list of features needed to solve the problem, develop the solution, and price it. But let’s not jump ahead of ourselves; there’s still more to learn about the problem.

4. What’s Getting in the Way of Just Addressing the Problem?

When customers have problems, they’ve usually tried to address them in some way if it’s important enough. Have they tried alternative solutions? Did anything partially work? Have they created workarounds, whether that’s through supplementary software or manual steps? Have they tried to reduce the impact of part of the problem? What are the biggest barriers to resolving their problem? Is it lack of awareness? Budget? Time? This question asks you to both ask direct questions, and also to closely observe behavior and actions.

5. When Does This Problem Occur?

This question is about timing. Is this a recurring problem? Is it a daily or a weekly problem? Does it only occur at the end of a fiscal quarter? Or does it occur once, but when it occurs, is it extremely painful? Understanding the frequency of the problem gives you a sense of the scale and size of the problem. This question pushes innovative thinking; understanding what’s happening for the customer at different points of time allows us to consider alternatives.

6. Why Does This Problem Exist?

As you complete the problem statement, start to develop a hypothesis about why this particular problem exists for your customer. What gets in the way of just going about their day and avoiding this problem? Are there any alternative solutions or products that are just not viable, or is there no solution and they are creating a set of workarounds? Try not to go straight to willingness to pay for a solution as the answer, after all, people will pay a lot to solve an important problem. Instead, consider other factors that might be causing this problem. 

Remember, it’s for the particular person that you imagined in the first question (who does the problem impact?). Don’t generalize across a population to determine why the problem exists.

The answers to these six core questions paint a picture of your customer and their problem.


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?

An Outline for an Effective Customer Learning Review

Well, year end is around the corner. We just talked about strategy, but what about the nooks and crannies of strategy? What we mean is one of the most critical inputs of strategy. Customer Insight!

Many product leaders fail at providing a well rounded review of customer learning. They move straight to the actions and implications to stakeholder (e.g. UX, development, marketing, operations) without the insights that drove those proposed actions. We see product managers cherry pick the data they believe supports the decisions they’re proposing. Regardless of whether the decision is right and how true your intentions are, cherry-picking breeds skepticism and a lack of trust from those who may have other data that leads them to favor a different decision. The whole discussion gets derailed and your reputation as a customer advocate and unbiased business leader begins to tarnish.

We recommend, after every major research study, you circle back to your cross functional partners (dev, ops, marketing, etc.) to discuss your customer learning. And we have a good outline for those reviews that we offer to our clients’ product managers that works every time. What do we mean when we say it works? We mean that durable decisions can be made, teams can commit to executing against those decisions, and trust in you as an unbiased leader is maintained.

Here’s the outline we recommend for most research studies:

Customer Research Review Outline

  1. Hypotheses: What were the goals of the research? What did you want to learn and how did you intend on using the data?
  2. Profiles targeted and research logistics: Provide context for who you talked to, how you conducted this research, and why it’s relevant. How many did you talk to (for qualitative research) or survey (for quantitative research.)
  3. Resulting themes & insights: These are the big Aha’s of the research. They should represent what you learned (factual observations) and how it addresses (proves or disproves) any given hypothesis (your conclusions). These shouldn’t be one-offs or interesting tidbits. That comes next.
    • For qualitative studies with low sample sizes (we believe in scrappy research, so many of our customer learning reviews are summaries of interviews with a small sample – five to seven – of participants,) report on anything mentioned across participants more than two times.
    • For bigger samples or quantitative research, these are important, statistically valid themes in the data.
    • Include any additional important themes you uncover that might not directly address your hypotheses. Just try and focus on the goals before bringing these in.
    • Bring all this to life by using the customers’ voice. Use actual quotes, pictures, or even a video from the sessions. Hearing directly from customers amps up your presentation substantially.
  4. Interesting tidbits: You can include anything mentioned that wasn’t a theme but could be a thread to tug on later through additional research. This might be a surprise finding, or a potentially new problem or segment you might explore. Tidbits don’t have to yield a conclusion or action, but they may be worth exploring later, and therefore, you want to highlight the information.
  5. Recommended actions: This is the most common thing missed if and when product managers present research findings. Recommended actions help the team with the “So now what?” question. Do we stop the dev effort? Do we pivot our design direction? Do we add that feature? Do we have to think differently about our persona? What does all this mean in terms of what I do tomorrow? Tell your audience explicitly what you plan to do based on what you (and they) just learned. If you don’t know, throw a little design thinking exercise in there to collaborate on the next steps!

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 kickass 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 …and that drive growth.  Join us in the Product Rebels Community on Facebook.

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

And stay tuned for our new book.  Sign up for updates on our new book “Groundwork. Get Better at Making Better Products”

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.

Skills of Product Leaders Required in Unprecedented Times (Part I)

COVID-19 has changed us all in irreversible ways.  On a personal level, I don’t think any of us will ever be the same.  On a business level, if we are still lucky enough to be employed, the interrelated effects are numerous. As leaders we are trying to keep our employees and customers safe, re-orienting our day to day operations to a virtual norm, and navigating our way through the unknown to keep our businesses on solid ground, let alone driving growth.

Vidya spoke about making product decisions in crisis mode a couple weeks back which was really helpful.  I’m going to take a different look at this.  Focusing more on the skills of product leaders that are required to address some of the categories of product impact resulting from COVID-19.

Beyond the obvious impacts of COVID-19 we’re finding that the product impacts are exposing skills gaps among PM leaders and product managers alike.  Today I’m going to focus on the required skills of PM leaders in addressing the broad categories of impact COVID-19 is having on businesses. 

All businesses have been impacted in some way, but we see a few broad themes of impact to businesses that kick the product management function into a relatively higher gear.

Irrelevant ProductAirBnB, Hotels
Irrelevant Business ModelNon-essential Retail, Gyms, Theme Parks
HypergrowthZoom, Doordash

Today I’ll talk about the irrelevancy related impacts. 

Well talk about hypergrowth in a subsequent blog post. 

What does irrelevancy mean? 

  • Product irrelevancy is probably the most challenging.  The problem you were solving no longer exists. AirBnB is an example we’ll talk about later.  This could be temporary until normalcy is regained.  If you do nothing, it’s a race between your cash on hand and the return to operational and income normalcy.  
  • Business model irrelevancy is when the channels and ways you are selling your products/services aren’t relevant, even if your products/services are still desired or needed.  It’s more of an opportunity than product irrelevancy if the costs to change the ways in which you offer your product are not prohibitive.  And if you can do this quickly and can regain some of the lost revenue, it dramatically slows the race down until a new norm can be established.

Irrelevancy is a situation that we all may find ourselves in at some point in our career due to the common product lifecycle.  There is a launch period, a period of rapid growth, and established period, and decay.  Decay usually means that your product or business model is becoming irrelevant in some way.  Most tenured product leaders have gone through each of these periods at some point in their career.  With COVID-19, some of us are going from any one of the early stages into decay (or irrelevancy) within days versus what we usually see in months or even years.  This leaves some leaders exposed if they haven’t flexed those muscles in a while, if at all.   

You wouldn’t be a product leader had you not excelled in the basics.  So I’m not going to rattle off a bunch of standard leadership principles.  However, there are a few skills/practices that are critical for product leaders in these clutch moments:

  • MOVE – Driving Through the Fog
  • CREATE – Seek new ideas
  • LEARN – Continuous scrappy research

MOVE – Driving through the Fog

In crisis, we see many leaders become paralyzed.  It’s scary.  This kind of impact, at this pace, is unprecedented.  We probably don’t have the data and it’s hard being comfortable making any decision or taking action in fear of making the wrong decision.  But…in these cases, no action means decisions get delayed and usually get taken over by opinion.  Teams spin their wheels for weeks or even months.  In these times, we don’t have the luxury unnecessary delays. 

“More is lost by indecision than wrong decision. Indecision is the thief of opportunity. It will steal you blind.”  -Marcus Tullius Cicero

Driving through the fog is the ability to define a product path in the midst of cloudy or complete lack of data, overwhelming competing opinions, and numerous ideas.  It’s defining that path in spite of this and getting commitment from the rest of the organization that matters.  We, as product leaders, make a path out of what seems like no path at all. 

It’s a lot easier when we’re not under duress like now. Let’s face it, these are unprecedented times for product leaders and the time we have to act is extreme.  Moreover, optimistic estimates show that a vaccine (or when things go back to some semblance of normal) will take a minimum of 18 months.  Again, optimistic.  But this means we need a path to survive (and even thrive) in this new (albeit somewhat temporary) norm.

So how do we drive in the fog in time of crisis? 

First, breath. 

Then act … Using these principles

Use Educated Hypotheses to Start:  We will never have all the data we need as fast as we need it.  In lieu of this, set hypotheses by leveraging what you do know. Use proxy data to help triangulate on hypotheses where possible.

 Some areas where hypotheses might be helpful:

  • Product Irrelevancy:
    • How has the problem your product is solving changed? Why?
    • How has your target persona changed?  Why?
    • Are there new problems your team might be able to solve?  Why?
    • Are there new markets your team might be able to address?  Why?
  • Business Model Irrelevancy:
    • How has the problem your product is solving changed? Why?
    • What part of the business model has been affected the most?  Why?

Establish some key hypotheses and build an action plan as though they were true.  In parallel, work on proving/disproving those hypotheses with scrappy research practices.  Well talk about this later.   

Build a simple plan:  Instead of building a list of product efforts, help people understand your logic, not just the actions you’re taking.  As you learn and prove/disprove your hypotheses, you will certainly update your course of action.  These updates can be confusing and disconcerting to people if they don’t understand your logic initially and what you’re learning that might be changing your course of action.  A simple plan outline that I often use:

  • Summarize what you know…Key data points and customer learnings that matter
  • Translate those data points into insights or hypotheses and what it means to the business.
  • Summarize what action and/or product path(s) should be taken as a result
  • Articulate next steps and who owns what

Pretty simple stuff, I realize.  But I often find, in a crisis. that leaders jump straight to actions without insight-driven logic beyond those actions.  Then the organizational churn begins….time, we don’t have, is wasted.

Communicate Early & Often:  Your teams need more communications, not less, during times of crisis.  And they don’t need “business as usual” or the “We will live on…” speech from the movie Independence Day.  They need confidence that their product leader has a logical plan forward (even if it might not be 100% right,) and will learn and pivot where necessary to get to the right product path.  The best product leaders (and even CEOs) I know, say things like…“We don’t have all the answers, but here’s what we do know and what we’re going to do about it.  And we’re going to learn as fast as we can along the way.”   

The other misstep I see is the lack of communicating what the team is learning and how it’s changing the original course of action.  In crisis, things can change daily as you learn more.  There is a high likelihood that you confuse people not close to the action and create unnecessary churn (there’s that word again.)  Through my own misstep here I have heard things like:

“I thought we were doing this?” 

“Why is product changing the plan again?”

“That doesn’t make sense?” 

“We should do this instead!” 

…All of which can be avoided by a regular interval of communicating what the product team is learning (Learning is progress!) and how it impacts your plan.  This provides the continuity people need and allows them to continue to see the path forward.  Remember you’re serving as the driver through this fog and your passengers need reassurance.

Tip:  Use the “simple plan” we discuss above; hopefully the one you presented at the beginning of this process.  Show what’s changed and the logic behind any change in your course of action. 

I could go on here.  There are a ton of books on crisis leadership.  But product leaders have a uniquely tough job.  Many CEOs expect us to lead the thinking on a product path in times of crisis.  We are expected to find a path quickly when there seems to be no path at all.  It’s navigating through this fog effectively that enables survival, if not success.

CREATE – Seeking New Ideas

Okay saying you need to innovate quickly is an understatement.  We usually think about innovation in terms of a multi-month, clearly-outlined processes including approvals, research studies, and experts.   That is not the innovation I’m talking about here. 

We need to facilitate extremely fast discovery and definition of big problems and the identification and testing of their solutions.  This takes some solid design thinking practices and a comfortability with speed.

Design thinking isn’t some super-secret set of rituals practiced by master designers at companies the likes of Apple or Tesla. 

I like the definition that the Interaction Design Foundation has for design thinking:

Design thinking is a non-linear, iterative process which seeks to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions to prototype and test.

Wouldn’t we all say this is part of our job as product leader?  Can I get a ‘YUP?’

There are more than 1,000 design thinking methods out there.  All have their value.  The goal for us is to leverage the necessary methods in facilitating the following:

  • Definition of the problem and who you’re solving the problem for.  This could be redefining the problem you are already solving or the target market you have been focusing on.  It could also mean discovering a new problem or target market that has arisen out of this new norm with COVID-19.   
  • Ideating ways to solve the problem
  • Rapidly prototyping & testing your way to the most viable solution…turning prototypes within days not weeks.

Let’s look at AirBnB.  They experienced up to 80% declines in reservations in Europe and over 50% in some parts of the US; all within a few weeks.  They had to offer blanket cancelations for travelers, put their founders’ salaries on hold, and slash salaries of top executives by half.  They even set up a fund to compensate hosts for up to 25% of their lost income.  While this helped with regaining goodwill with hosts and travelers, the pressure is on to solve the bigger problem.  What do they do now if travel is impacted for years, not just these weeks while we’re in quarantine?  You could argue that their product is irrelevant or close to it as the perceived risk of the virus stays high. 

They mobilized and innovated quickly.  Within weeks they’ve been able to release two new product ideas.

Frontline Stays:  This is a program offering pandemic frontline healthcare workers a place to stay.  As the pandemic worsens healthcare workers are traveling to hotspots and need a place to stay.  Their continuous exposure is also presenting high risk to their families at home.  So AirBnB quickly moved to leverage the large base of unused inventory to solve the problem.  And while initially they offered the stays free, many healthcare organizations and government agencies are supporting the effort.  New big problem solved for a new market segment.

Online Experiences:  Debuting in mid April, 2020, AirBnB began offering Online Experiences.  Their travel Experiences offering was halted with the pandemic but they quickly identified another new problem to be solved; Recovering hosts’ income. They’re doing this by offering a platform for hosts to offer intimate, online cultural experiences through AirBnb. Online “tourists” can enjoy everything from discovering the rhythms of Puerto Rico to Cooking with a Moroccan Family.  These experiences range in price from a few dollars per person for an hour experience to $40 per person. 

Will these be successful?  Jury is still out.  That’s not the point.  The point is not that AirBnB has nailed the winning product decision, the point is that they are testing and learning quickly.  They launched both of these within weeks of the announcement of a pandemic.  It’s this continuous, rapid innovation that enables quicker recovery in times of crisis. 

LEARN – Continuous scrappy research

We tend to go heads down into problem solving mode immediately.  Action is good.  The goal is to take informed action wherever possible and as fast as possible.  That’s why we talk a lot of about scrappy research.  How do we define scrappy research?

A small number of structured customer or stakeholder interactions to test your most pressing hypotheses within 5 working days.

Vidya talked about scrappy research briefly a couple weeks ago in one of our blog posts. It’s one of the foundations we teach at Product Rebels.  Instead of going into all the tactics of scrappy research, let’s focus on one of the biggest challenges product leaders are facing in operationalizing scrappy research in this particular crisis.  They are not having the same access to customers and stakeholders as they once had and are struggling to get timely feedback as they are trying to move quickly.

And to add salt to this wound, many feel like they have to reach sample sizes of 50+ to be able to make decisions.  That’s a daunting task in the best of situations.

What we need to focus on here is enough to educate your hypotheses so that you can move forward.  Don’t worry, you’ll continue to test those hypotheses; this isn’t one and done.

Experts, like Nielson Norman Group, say that 5-7 interviews are enough to develop rough actionable themes.  Yes, only 5-7 interviews!!  After that you start to hear repetition.      

Feeling like scrappy research is more doable now?    

Here are some ideas on getting access to participants for your scrappy research:

  • Proxies:  There are two types of proxies.
    •  Internal:  Your sales teams, implementation teams, customer service teams and any other frontline employees can be great resources
    • External:  Many of us have partners and vendors that may have easier access to our customers.  VARs, distributors, eCommerce partners, etc.  Even if they were hit by this crisis, they hold different perspectives and potentially rich insights about your customer.  They may have an easier way to connect and may be open to partnering in gathering additional insights if it can help them as well.
  • Webinars:  There are a lot of companies turning to webinars and other online mediums to offer content and stay relevant.  It’s also a great way to learn.  Work with your marketing team in creating ways during those webinars for your customers to offer feedback and insights.  There are some great tools out there for polling, questionnaires, etc. during presentations.  Don’t miss this touchpoint to learn.
  • Virtual “Focus Groups”: Okay, not a fan of focus groups, but we gotta do what we gotta do in these times.  Similar to webinars that you might already be doing, can you test less-formal ways to get your targeted customers on a virtual call to gather feedback?  Is there value in bringing customers together to share challenges and best practices in dealing with the crisis?  What are ways you can bring people together and learn online while adding value?
  • Social Media & Other Digital Gathering Points: Most companies have social media or other digital channels where customers will post issues, questions, bugs, etc.  Can you use polls, questionnaires, or just posts to gather feedback?  Again, can you partner with your marketing team and other operational teams to field questions in the current touchpoints or channels you are already in?
  • Surveys:  Let’s be clear, surveys are great for quant views at the market but not totally actionable beyond sizing or high-level trends.  That’s because we don’t get the “why” behind any given answer.  The “Why” is where we can define the problem and take action from a product perspective.  But in times like these, surveys may be all we got.  Using open-ended questions may get you to some educated starter hypotheses where no other data exists.  Surveys are also great for finding people that are open to chat more.  Asking the question “Would you be willing to spend a few minutes with us so we can learn more about your answers?” helps you quickly identify folks you can talk to.
  • Recruiter: Recruiters are expensive, no doubt.  An average cost for finding one recruit is $135+ and higher for the more niche profiles.  But a lot of recruiters are fully digital using phone and survey methods to recruit.  If you have the budget, recruiters can be a saving grace. 

The point here is to help your teams get creative in getting access to customer insights as quickly as possible and in sustainable ways.  If you have other ideas on ways to do this, please share with your fellow product people below! 

In summary, product leaders are under some serious stress right now.  The buck stops here when it comes to defining the product path to get through these unprecedented times, especially in rapid, even if somewhat temporary, irrelevancy situations.  It takes a few very special skills to get through this.  It’s the ability to find and communicate a logical path where no path seems to exist, the ability to practice extremely rapid innovation, and have your entire team continuously learning and informing that innovation that will enable the best chance for company survival when your product or business model has abruptly become irrelevant.

Are you a product leader Interested in talking about this more?  Our next Product Rebels forum on May 8 at 10:00am PST we will discuss these skills and answer any questions or challenges you are having.  Get the deets by Joining our Product Rebels Community on Facebook

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 …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

And stay tuned for our new book.  Sign up for updates on our new book “Groundwork. Get Better at Making Better Products”

4 Lesser Known Traits of Successful PM’s

During this pandemic, I’m reading a lot about the tough situations people are in in terms of losing their job. Many have decide to move into PM from other functions like dev, UX, customer support, and business analyst roles and are asking for advice on what they can do to make themselves and their resumes more marketable in the PM space.

I felt compelled to offer up some thoughts on what it takes to be a successful product manager. These aren’t just for those transitioning to PM…they’re skills and behaviors that are critical whether you are new to the function or polishing up your skills during the downtime this pandemic has forced upon us.

Much of the advice I see in the communities I’m engaged in center around the ability to gather requirements, ability to understand technology, domain expertise, strategic thinking, analytics, communication skills, and time management. All good skills to have in most functions within a company, don’t you think? I mean, I should be strategic, analytical, manage my time, know my business space, etc. as a development leader or an ops leader.

The point is, I see a lot of very high level, generic skills being thrown out there for product managers. And yes, they are all good skills to have. But I like to focus on the skills that a lot of PM training and books don’t cover.

Below are 4 behaviors/traits that you probably don’t hear as much about that are just as critical, if not more, to your success, long term. I’ve also added tips on what you can do today to begin building muscle in each one of these.


Merriam-Webster defines empathy as:

“the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner”

You probably have heard of this one. If you’re a seasoned PM, this should be a NO DUH and practiced in all forms; listening to your developers; your leaders; your customers; your team mates. The best product managers I know demonstrate the ability to listen and understand what is being said in a way that focused action can be taken. It’s not just about listening, it’s listening for understanding vs. listening until you can respond.

Empathy doesn’t come naturally for everyone.

Ask yourself. Do you often have a rebuttal to what someone is saying before they are finished saying it? Are you working to form a solution to what you think is their problem before they finish explaining it so you can look intelligent? Do you ever need to be the first to speak? If you answered yes to any of these, you might want to step back and reflect.

There are a ton of books on this topic that can help. We have a quick way to begin practicing this now and building some muscle if it doesn’t come naturally to you.

Tip: Pressure test for your own understanding

Next time you have a conversation with someone and they are communicating an experience or challenge they are having…Listen to what they are saying, then ask…

  • “Let me see if I translated what you said correctly……is that what you meant?”
  • “Correct me if I misunderstood, but this is what I heard…Is that right?”
  • “You feel X, because of Y? Is that right?”

….Find whatever words that feel natural and that politely validate you understand.

This does 2 things:

  1. It forces you to listen with the goal of understanding vs. the goal of responding.
  2. It helps the person feel heard

I will never hire a product manager unless they have demonstrated an ability to listen and empathize. If you’re breaking into PM, your resume better have a project or two that demonstrates your ability to listen to others, understand what they have communicated, and translate what you understood into some sort of action. This can be internal projects, team process improvement, a community project, etc.

I look for the same in the interview. Are they listening to me and do they understand the question/case I’m communicating instead of being poised to respond before I finish?


This one can be considered a follow on to empathy, but I call it out here because I’ve seen product managers give lip service to empathy and immediately assume they have the solution to what they heard…without truly understanding the problem. Curiosity is what inspires us to ask “why.” It’s what helps us to discover the root-cause of a problem. It’s where innovation “rubber hits the road.” Building a solution to solve for a symptom is okay, but solving the root cause of a problem is where transformation occurs.

TIP: Practice the “5-Why’s”

Next time you are in a customer interview or in a meeting with a leader or a cross-functional partner, try practicing the “5-Why’s” technique. Much content is written about the 5-Whys, but essentially it’s asking “why” 5 times in response to the first answer someone gives you to a question. It’s a technique developed by Sakichi Toyoda, a Japanese inventor who’s son went on to establish Toyota Motor Corp. The technique was used within Toyota as a way to get to root cause of production issues within manufacturing.

For the best product managers, curiosity comes naturally. It’s part of their passion for solving problems and much of why they entered into the field of product management in the first place. They are naturally inquisitive when they hear a pain point or challenge from a customer, a leader, or a team mate.

Does that mean you can’t learn this behavior? Absolutely not. But it takes practice and refraining from assumptions before taking action. So take the time to ask why before jumping to an answer or solution.


This is hugely valuable in smaller firms. Larger enterprises usually have very clearly scoped roles and rarely reward going outside the lines. But because 99% of companies in this country have 50 or less employees, I’m going to talk about athleticism here.

I define athleticism :

The courage to step up and go beyond the traditional product management lines and support the team and business anywhere that’s necessary. Learning quickly along the way and being resourceful where resources may not be available.

As a product leader in multiple start-ups, after my career in big corp, I realized, really quickly, that there is a huge hurdle product managers face if they grew up in big corporate and are transitioning to a much smaller firm. They find themselves paralyzed when asked to do something outside their comfort zone because they don’t have data, cross-functional “coverage,” or a known process for getting from point A to point B. In smaller companies, especially startups, we have no choice but to wear multiple hats. This is where athleticism kicks in. You identify what needs to be done, volunteer to get it done, then learn how or be creative on how to get it done…in spite of a lack in skill, process, or resources. It could mean covering things like financial modeling, writing a moderator script, designing part of the product, developing a product demo, researching and recommending a particular technology, creating a marketing plan, etc.

Every product organization is different. Some of those things may already be included in your role. Others may not. The point is not being afraid to step up and learn outside your comfort zone and demonstrate resourcefulness. The smaller the company, the more I look for indications of athleticism in potential PM hires’ resumes. And I grill hard for indication of paralysis in certain situations where they might asked to do a task they’ve never done before.

For those of you wanting to try your hand at a startup or forced to make a career move, be ready and open to discovering your new talents and getting creative on solving problems without big data, big teams or big process.

TIP: Take on at least 1 “Stretch project” per year.

When was the last time you branched out? Talk to your leader and ask to take on an impactful challenge you see in the org. Identify a project that will stretch your skills and make an impact on the customer, your team mates, or the organization as a whole. The point is to get our of your comfort zone where you are forced to learning something quickly and improvise with minimal resources.

Getting Commitment.

I saved the best for last.

A product person’s job is to lead AND execute.  It’s a unique skill mix that only a few functions within a business are required to master.  As a product person you must influence and gain commitment across multiple functions and leaders; and usually, none of them report directly to you.  It’s partly what makes our job so fun! (and exhausting at times.) So I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the practice of gaining commitment as one of the most critical skills.  Whether you are a CPO or new product manager, this practice is critical to your success.

Getting commitment is what’s required as the first step in implementing any strategy or product decision; big or small.  Without commitment, agreement is moot. Commitment is something that many people in life, and in business, don’t understand and are caught off guard when they realize they never had it.  How many of you have recently had a decision overturned or delayed significantly? Did you diagnose what happened?

Most of the time we find one of two things happened:

  1. A stakeholder had different data and believed the decision should have been something different than the one you proposed.
  2. A stakeholder didn’t have the necessary resources (time, money, people, etc.) to execute against the decision and decided to push back after the decision was made.

As product managers we need to build a skill in getting commitment…not just facilitating decision making.

Our definition of getting commitment:

A state in which the decision maker(s) and critical stakeholders intend on and follow through on making the necessary accommodations to implement the decision made while holding themselves accountable for their part in the success of the project regardless if they agree with the decision or not.

What do I mean by critical stakeholders?  These are the folks that will be significantly impacted by the decision. These could be operational partners, your development team, your manufacturing partners, your support team, etc.  

What do I mean by necessary accommodations?  This could be anything required to execute; be it funding, human resourcing, operational or technical trade-offs, etc. 

That last part is important.  We want to be in a situation where people may not agree with the decision, but they are committed to it as they understand how the decision was made and why. 

Tip 1: Make sure everyone has the same data

Don’t cherry pick the data people! I realize it’s easy to do. There are 2-3 key data points that support your decision and that’s all you present. Commitment doesn’t work that way. Everyone has a different perspective and many are working with different sets of data. It’s up to you to level the playing field. Ninety-nine percent of the time, when people are presented with the same set of data, they usually come to the same conclusion. They may not like the decision, but because they see the data and the logic behind the decision…AND can’t provide different data that would lead to different conclusions…they will commit.

So democratize the data. Show ALL RELEVANT data to the decision and the logic that led you to your proposed decision. It may take a couple extra slide, but it’s worth it.

Tip 2: Always know what your key stakeholders need and how they will react to a particular decision BEFORE you present it.

Always ask these questions:

  1. “How are you feeling about this proposed decision?” –> I ask my most influential potential naysayers and my biggest stakeholders because I want to make sure I’m not missing anything. I also want to identify things that I might be able to address early so that they are already committed before THE decision meeting.
  2. “What would inhibit you from executing against this decision?” –> Most successful PM’s learn the impact of a decision by asking this early in the process.
  3. “What do you need to be successful?” –> Like the last question, I ask this as early as possible.
  4. “How can I help?” –> I ask this any chance I get. If I’m asking a lot of a particular stakeholder, I want them to know that I’m not throwing crap over the fence in the hopes they can suck it up. (oh yeah, that’s where the empathy skill comes in!)
  5. “When can your team have this done?” –> This is where we put stakes in the ground to drive accountability. Let’s face it. Stuff happens. So dates are still a bit soft and you aren’t nailing someone’s feet to the floor here, but you are setting the stage for accountability discussions going forward. Date’s will move, but holding folks accountable ensures progress.

These feel like common sense, I realize. But many product managers I see, present a decision without understanding the impact a decision has or who the decision impacts. They end up leaving THE decision meeting with a bunch of frustrated people rolling their eyes, delaying the decision, and backtracking with multiple people to do the homework they should have done in the first place. The secondary effect of all this could be career altering; looking tone deaf and lacking the business or organizational savvy necessary to be an effective product management leader.

So if you’re faced with the unfortunate situation of looking for a new job or just wanting to polish your product management skills during this quarantine period, be aware of the lesser talked about, but also critical skills of successful product managers.

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 …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

And stay tuned for our new book.  Sign up for updates on our new book “Groundwork. Get Better at Making Better Products”

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

And stay tuned for our new book.  Sign up for updates on our new book “Groundwork. Get Better at Making Better Products”