Create a Real MVP

I hate weasel words. So many words get bastardized and misrepresented, especially in business, but it happens in politics, science, and other fields too. They become trendy. They become buzzwords. Companies feel they need to use these words or else they look like dummies. Guess what, most of the time when you use the terms incorrectly, you look like a complete dumbass.

Some of my favorites from the software / startup world…

“Platform” – your website is not a platform. It’s a website. Or maybe it’s an app. Unless other people can independently build whatever they want on top of your software, you are NOT a platform. Stop it.

“Disruptive” – everyone thinks they are disrupting things nowadays. Really? Giving people a new filter to put over their picture of dinner is not fucking disruptive. Poor Clay Christensen. I’m sure he had the best of intentions, but the jackals hijacked his concept. Now it’s meaningless.

The one I’m going to deep dive on today is “MVP.”

Thanks to Eric Ries and Steve Blank, everyone’s talking about MVP nowadays. However, in my observations, people are using it as an excuse to put crappy shit out there. MVP doesn’t mean it’s OK to be crappy. Your product still needs to be good. Most of all, it still needs to be valuable and meet whatever goal your user is trying to achieve. Otherwise, all you have done is spent money to “test” and make someone’s day worse. They’ll never get that time back from trying your sloppy product. Don’t do that to them. There is enough anguish in the world.

A better term would have been Minimal VALUABLE Product. I think that re-frames the context in the right way. What is the simplest, most straightforward way to create value for your user? Reframing the question in that way puts it all in perspective.

The team at Spotify has nailed this. Below is from a presentation given by XX that illustrates what an MVP really is.

spotify-mvp
Image credit: blog.crisp.se

It’s simple, but powerful. If your user’s goal is to go somewhere more quickly, you should maniacally focus on that. Even if you are the next Steve Jobs and can dream up the most badass sports car to serve that need, you have to start somewhere. You’re a lunatic if you think it’s best to spend 5 years building the dream of that sports car. Then you’re in waterfall hell with no shot at actually delivering the car on time, let alone managing the risk that what you dreamt up might not be what your user in 5 years may want.

Instead focus on the goal. Get somewhere more quickly. How would you do that. You wouldn’t start by giving them a tire. They can’t do anything with a tire, even if it might be a part of the end product.  Reframing leads you to think about the most straightforward way to get your user somewhere more quickly. So you build them a simple skateboard.

BOOM. You deliver value immediately and your user is delighted. They can get somewhere faster. Then you talk to the user and ask him what’s challenging him now. Oh, you hare a hard time balancing? Why don’t we add a little steering column. More value. Build, Test, Gather Feedback, Hypothesize, Repeat.

In five years you end up with a sports car. But now you have a user who is a huge advocate because they’ve been benefitting from your awesomeness for five whole years. Isn’t that awesome? I think so.

So, take off your black turtleneck and stop building sports cars. Reframe your problem around your user’s goals. Then think really hard about how you can meet that goal in the simplest, most straightforward way.

Other great articles on this topic can be found here, here and here 

The Line of Chaos

The “Line of Chaos” is a concept that good product managers will not just understand, but will embrace with vigor.

First, let’s start with what it is. It is an imaginary line that serves to illustrate the interface between business and technology. Why does that interface matter? It matters because business people and engineers are fundamentally different.

Recall the post by Paul Graham about Makers vs. Managers. Business people, especially sales people, thrive on selling, meetings, making clients happy, reacting to the client or market, the (not so) occasional fire-drill, and often just raw activity. They are interrupt-driven. How many times have you heard someone say, “I’m so busy! Look at all the meetings I have on my calendar.” They frequently switch context. They lie in the now. It is often fluid, reactive, and, well, chaotic.

Engineers (I’d include designers in this too) thrive on long blocks of deep thinking to solve problems. Output should be the measure of productivity for engineers, not the activity or the lines of code. In fact, time to think, not code, may result in the best output (a scalable design or elegant feature, for instance).

None of this is controversial. The thing that isn’t mentioned in the PG article is how those two different worlds can work together to great effect. This is where product managers step in. They are responsible for defending the engineers from the chaos. In some ways, they are responsible for saving the business people from their own chaos (even if they might not know it at the time). PMs are the keepers of the Line. Good PMs will fight to the death to ensure that the Line does not penetrate the engineering team.

The keeping of the Line of Chaos takes many forms for a PM. Prioritization. Stakeholder management. Feature benefit analysis. MVPs. Product strategy. At the end of the day, these and other common principles of product management are just tools to fight back the Line of Chaos.

This is not to say that the Chaos does not serve a purpose. It does. Great ideas often emerge from the chaos. But, even then, the idea is going to need some help to get presented to the engineers in a way that puts them in a position to be successful.

Great product managers are hard to find. There aren’t a lot of people who can both operate in the chaos, while simultaneously fighting it.

Declare Bankruptcy

Sometimes you have to just declare bankruptcy.

No! Not financially, but productivity-wise. People have a tendency to hoard things. Emails are the worst, but there are other things people hoard – especially in professional settings. Files. Old presentations. Spreadsheets. Ideas.

Admit it. You probably have some crazy folder structure that is maybe half relevant to what you do, but was based on some idea you had a couple years ago. Now you don’t even remember what’s eight layers deep in that hierarchy. So you just use omni search on your Mac to find what you’re looking for (if you don’t do that already, you should start).

I see this a lot with tickets, user stories, bugs, and a bunch of other things. People place irrational value in having all of those sorts of things ‘tracked.’ The reality is that they probably have not looked at any of those items in months, if not years. But, there’s a huge list of things. It’s intimidating to look at that list because it seems like you are just totally swamped and will never get out from under it. It clutters your thoughts when you need clarity.

But you can. And when you do, you will feel liberated.

The only thing you can do is declare bankruptcy and delete it all.

Yes, that’s right.

Delete.
It.
All.

You may black-out when you hit the button from the anxiety, but a funny thing happens once you make the leap and black back in — nothing.

Nothing happens.

The sky is still blue. The world is still there. There is still important work to do. If you’re too scared to delete, you can always just archive. Storage is cheap nowadays and search is pretty good with most stuff.

Now, the only difference from before is that you have now de-cluttered. You have freed yourself from the tyranny of all those things you were never going to do anyways. Now focus on the important stuff that matters.

As a product manager, you should NOT be in the business of tracking what everyone in the company thinks we should maybe do one day. You should be laser-focused on what is in front of your business in the next 90 days max. That’s six two-week sprints. That is so much time.

In fact, by keeping it somewhere a stakeholder can see it, you are setting an implicit message that it will get done at some point, regardless if it ever will. It validates the idea. You’ve now set yourself up for conflict down the road. That is bad and will waste your time.

It’s just not logical (a nice way of saying crazy) to think that if something isn’t important today that it will miraculously become a priority if it stays on some random list for long enough. Or maybe the thought is that you’ll do all that other important work first and then have some time to do unimportant stuff – again crazy. What’s more, if those things you deleted are important, it will come up again. I promise. You won’t be able to ignore it.

It feels great. It does.

I discovered this when we moved from an old ticket system to Trello (highly recommended). We just moved systems and started fresh. No import, not translation. Nothing. Just a fresh Trello board and the path forward. It felt amazing. I now do it with email, my to-do list, and a few other things I do to manage my productivity.

Fight the clutter, declare bankruptcy, make the leap, and delete it!

Then the hard work of keeping things de-cluttered so you don’t need to declare bankruptcy again any time soon.

Kill your email

Communication is the lifeblood of a business. Without it, there is confusion, misalignment, wasted effort, missed opportunities, poor performance, and failure. Email revolutionized communications. Email reduced the time to communicate AND increased information density at the same time. The ROI on those simultaneous improvements to communication was incomparable. Rapid adoption ensued and everyone became glued to their email.

As with most technologies, and the innovations that disrupt them, email reached (a long time ago) a mature state. We are now entering a post-email age. New forms of communication are emerging that push the boundaries to an even more efficient frontier.

Email suffers from some significant shortcomings that are no longer justified in the face of new solutions. There are now solutions, from Trello to Slack to Basecamp, that better optimize both variables of the ROI.

What does this mean for you?

Try to move all your communications off of email. That might sound crazy, but just try it. Especially if you are a PM.

Encourage face to face interactions when there is a need for synchronous information exchanges. Face to face will always will be the best form of communication. Use new tools when there is a need for asynchronous information exchanges.

We are currently experimenting with some new processes where email is not allowed. The early results are positive. Stakeholders are more active participants. They are providing better information, faster. They have more clarity of thought.

But, why is that?

My hypothesis is that email has become a crutch. Response time often comes at the expense of a thoughtful response. By changing the medium, it forces people to take a bit more time and organize their thoughts. The end result is that the communication is more information rich and actionable. The information is more dense, but the amount of time it took to communicate (using the new tools) is equal to that of email. Thus, the ROI is better on that new form of communication, when compared to email.

Plus, no longer being a slave to your inbox is amazing. At first, you are anxious because you don’t have a ton of email – but then you realize – that’s the point. You and your team will be more productive. Stakeholders are better equipped with the info they need. And you can finally start doing all that work that has piled up because you had been spending so much time responding to emails!

What do you think? Give it a shot and let me know how it goes.

Product Owner Skills

We are now about five months into our transition to Scrum. Embarking on the experience as a Product Owner has been awesome. I recently came across a useful graphic that outlines the skills (and there are many) that make a good product owner.

Credit to http://williamgill.de/2012/10/01/the-product-owner-the-poster/

This is a good summary. I would add Authority to the chart (but that messes up the layout of the poster, so I’m sure the creator had to make some hard decisions).  Authority is a more nuanced form of leadership, in my opinion, but it is important to call it out on its own. Authority comes from your domain expertise, and the way you carry yourself with the dev team and the rest of the organization. You earn this, you don’t just ‘have it.’ It’s a hard thing to master, but it is instrumental to your success as a PO.

 

It’s Complicated

It is very complicated.

It can be anything. It can be a program, a script, a process, an integration or any other situation, problem or context you may confront in your day.

Do not let someone trick you.  Do not confuse complicated with complex.  Things can be complex without being complicated.  When people try to complicate things, they are masking their root motivations.

Complicate – make something more difficult or confusing by causing it to be more complex

Complex – consisting of many different and connected parts

As a product manager, if you hear these words, or some variation of them, alarm bells should go off and you should proceed with caution.   Complexity is a weasel word that, in my experience, is too often used to put up blockers, protect one’s “turf,” or undermine collaboration.

At the most basic level, when you hear this, the person who is telling you all about how complex the issue is, is really just trying to prevent you from understanding what’s going on. There can be many reasons for not wanting you to understand what’s going on, but none of them are ultimately acceptable. The inability to understand is crippling to a PM. After hearing this, and since you’re the ultimate, truth-seeking PM, you need to roll up your sleeves and get to the bottom of the situation. The reality is that it’s going to be messy, but probably not for the reasons you are being told that “it’s complicated.”

Continue reading “It’s Complicated”

Needs, Features and Benefits – Uber

Uber is a new-ish app that has consumers falling in love with it and regulators hating it to the core. As a basic primer, Uber is a mobile app that allows a consumer to hail a hired car (towncar, SUV, or taxi) on-demand in a matter of minutes. Not only that, but it allows the consumer to track the car as it approaches, with estimates of how long it will take to arrive. Then, once a consumer is in the car, all payments are handled automatically, with an email receipt sent immediately after the trip is completed. No hassle with credit cards or digging in your pockets with cash.

When I first heard about Uber, I’ll admit that I was quite skeptical about the whole concept. After all, what was so difficult about calling the cab company and asking them for a cab, waiting for the cab and then paying like you always did once you were in the car. I’m skeptical about the “convenience” of mobile payments when the consumer has to pull something out of their pocket and process a payment; whether that is a credit card or a mobile phone, there’s really no difference.

However, since my initial skepticism, I’ve become a believer. Some of it probably has to do with my first experience with the app. My girlfriend and I were stranded in San Francisco after a wedding reception, fighting for a cab on the street corner with a bunch of other bar-goers and watching cab after cab pass us by. I remembered that this new service was available in San Francisco, so I whipped out my phone, downloaded the app, signed up and within literally two minutes, a nice black sedan pulled up, the driver got out and greeted me by name. We were back at our hotel within 10 minutes and we even to a nice bottle of water to enjoy on the ride home.

Continue reading “Needs, Features and Benefits – Uber”

A Matter of Time

There’s been a lot of consternation lately about the cost of higher education, skyrocketing student loans and the unfortunate masses of recent grads who only seem to be finding unemployment and financial dependency.  The complexity of the entire situation is sufficient to have me writing non-stop for years to come.  Everyone has their own opinion and only a small subset have bothered to try and provide a solution.  A recent article on Inside Higher Ed, normally a good source of opinion in the higher ed space, caught my attention.  It was written by the President of Drake University, David Maxwell.

The basic premise of the article is that college administrators need to play a good offensive attack in order to defend themselves against the negative onslaught brought upon them by the media with respect to college affordability, student outcomes and the true value of a college, specifically, liberal arts, degree.  Administrators need to re-shape the argument about college being excessively expensive and “making an increasingly broad sector of the public suspicious of our relevance, quality and integrity.”

Maxwell then calls for his colleagues to “find ways to collectively guide the national discourse back to a position of truth — of fact-based information that is relevant to the needs and aspirations of prospective students and their families — and then ensure that our institutions communicate our individual values, strengths and demonstrable outcomes in the context of an accurate and nuanced narrative.”

YES! FINALLY!  Someone wants to bring fact-based information to the table to help the families and students find the best, most effective schools that enable the best outcomes.  I can’t believe a school administrator has said something like this.  In print, no less.  For people to see!  No hiding from it now, Mr. Maxwell.

Continue reading “A Matter of Time”

Productivity Hack

I came across a very interesting article yesterday about a cool productivity hack, from none other than Jerry Seinfeld. The basic principle is to visualize your progress. No tech, no complex system. All you have to do is take a big calendar that contains all of the days of the year. When you complete your stated goal (i.e. study a language, complete a coding excercise, stop smoking, etc), you make a big red “X” on that day.

As with all attempts to reinforce good behavior or get away from bad ones, the first week is critical. In that first week, your goal is to have a big red “X” in each day. After that, all you have to do is keep the chain going. See how long you can do it and before you know it, you’ll be on your way to the behavior you want.

Seinfeld used it for writing. He believed that the only way to be a good comic was to keep developing better jokes. Writing was his way to do that and he wanted to write every day.

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Theories Applied

It has now officially been two months since I started work.  I have no idea where the time has gone, but it has gone faster than I ever expected.  As I reflected on the first two months this past weekend, I thought a lot about the things that I have learned since I started.

Coming from the world of theory, frameworks and supposition (business school), I have found the transition equal parts exciting and frustrating.  Most of the frustration stems from the fact that the real world never quite plays out the way the theories suggest they will.  This is a pretty obvious statement, but it is still something I took for granted coming back to the real world of a startup and being responsible for developing, marketing and launching a new product in just two months.  In that light, a few key takeaways so far…

1. Don’t assume people understand, but build it so they can — Communicating with users, even if they are early beta testers (often friends), requires crisp communication.  People are so inundated with new things, particularly on the web, with new products and services, that it is critical to refine how you articulate the product and its benefits in as clear and concise a manner as possible.  Don’t assume people will “get it,” but then do everything you can to make the product simple, intuitive and of clear value to the user.

2. Minimally Viable Products (MVPs) doesn’t mean it’s easy — A lot of chatter is out there about lean startup methodology (@LsmFatso) and Eric Ries (@ericries) is doing great work in creating a movement around capitally efficient, user-focused companies.  A crucial part of the theory is the idea of the MVP.  The name is a bit of a misnomer and can lull first time entrepreneurs into a sense of comfort.  Just because it is minimally viable does not mean it is easy!  In fact, building a product that is engaging and useful for users is still really, really hard and it is important to put a great product out at the start.  A product is not an MVP based on how much work or effort you put into getting it ready for launch to users.  It is Minimally Viable because once you launch, you MUST continue to iterate and improve based on user feedback and rigorous analytical testing, so by default the first product should be the worst version (i.e. least viable) that you ever have.  Don’t get tricked by the name! Continue reading “Theories Applied”