Build a Community and Grow your Confidence

Are you a product manager who’s experienced conflict, confusion, or even a lack of confidence that you’re going in the right direction? Do you have the title, but you’re not sure what a product manager does (and everyone at your company wants to badge you with a different job description)? These are not uncommon problems. As we’ve been continuing our “repatriation” to the east coast, we’ve made some discoveries in our growing network. One of these is watching how the confidence of individual players grows, as they build their community or ecosystem. It’s like they are learning their habitat, trying what works, and finding out whose ideas and input they can, and should, trust. We’ve seen tremendous momentum in the east coast startup movement, and if these startups are going to become stayups, we need to continue the community-building at the next level.

Our work has always been about helping people or organizations to get a better understanding of customers, and how those customers interact with their products. This means that product managers are often our clients, and just as frequently, our friends. Depending on the location, the product management community may be very well developed and interconnected, or it may barely exist. But our observation is that once the community begins to take shape, product managers become a lot more confident. They reach a point where:

  • They’re ready to take a stand for what their definition of product management is
  • They know where to find other product managers whose learning and solutions are relevant to their context
  • The solutions they recommend are well-grounded in evidence, from a customer-centric perspective
  • Their skills at customer discovery, user experience management, and advocacy on behalf of the client are continuously improving.

Atlantic Canada is full of bright young (and young-at-heart) product managers (whether that’s by title, or by function) who want to change the landscape for the products they’re building and the customers they serve. If you’re interested in growing your community and building your product management toolkit, join us at ProductCamp Atlantic October 25th. 

Look forward to seeing you there,

Megann and Steve

Megann and Steve Willson Medium

Stop Pushing your Customer Around!

Push marketing is such hard work. The problem is, many entrepreneurs start off as inventors. They want to create something, and they’re convinced that if they create the right something, the world will beat a path to their door. But more often than not, when we work with our clients to try out inventions that have been developed in a workshop or a lab, with little customer consultation, customers just aren’t interested.

“Explain it to them!” say the inventors. But in the wise words of a former colleague, sometimes, “Someone’s gotta tell them the baby’s ugly.” We’re very much in favour of inventors getting up close and personal with prospective customers from the very start of the process. Leading entrepreneurship thinkers like Steve Blank have shown repeatedly that this is the most reliable way to come up with a product or solution that is both needed, and wanted. So what’s our role? Shouldn’t the inventors just “get out of the building” (Blank’s words) and talk to these prospective customers?

The truth is, this works very well for some entrepreneurs or inventors. It’s the most direct, useful method for individuals or teams who are open to hearing both positive and negative feedback about their ideas. In our experience, there are two places where the process usually breaks down. The first is that the inventors need someone to help them hear the bad news because it is such a game-changer that it seems their idea won’t work at all. This is a tough yet defining moment. They can give up, or they can find another idea that is more creative or interesting. At this point, having a facilitator, thought-leader, or ideation mentor can help them come up with options that avoid the pitfalls of the original invention. The second break-point is that they receive the message about what part of their idea doesn’t work, but just can’t seem to figure out how to get there. In that case, taking a new approach from traditional brainstorming, such as using an Innovation Game to answer their question, can help them get back on track and re-energize their commitment to their invention. Because really, who doesn’t like to throw a little fun in with their work?

So stop pushing your customer around, and look for ways to give them what they want. It might not be easy, but it is most definitely easier than making them take something they never really wanted in the first place.

Creatively yours,

Megann and Steve

Start it now!

Do you have a project you’ve been hoping to implement – a new initiative or some sort of change in process or procedure, but you just can’t seem to get it going in the summertime? It’s easy to let things slide in the summer, when offices frequently take on a slower pace. You deserve a rest, right? Besides, half the people you need to get that project off the ground are away on holiday! So why not just let it go until after Labour Day?

Here’s why: when those team members return after the holiday, they’ll have loads of catching up to do. They may not be interested in taking on something new. Despite the perception that a “back-to-school” mentality exists in September, the reality is that many of your co-workers may feel like they need a vacation to recover from their vacation backlog.

In fact here are three reasons why it may be better to simply start that project now:

  1. It will give other colleagues a chance to stretch themselves by taking on unfamiliar tasks.
  2. Fresh eyes often result in more creative solutions, rather than status quo.
  3. Those who step up in summer may be more committed to the project than those who do it just because it’s another obligation.

We have a host of new initiatives on the go right now, and it’s invigorating! By September we hope to be reaping the fruits of our labours.

Rolling up our sleeves,

Megann and Steve

Clear out the Clutter!

Our year-end is the end of July, so as we always do at this time of year, we’ve been de-cluttering. (Some might say Uncluttering). It’s amazing how much stuff we keep because we’re going to get around to dealing with it someday. Or because it seems wrong to just throw it out. We beseech you, do it. Get rid of those articles you have been meaning to read. Throw away those journals that are six months old and you are sure must contain something important. It’s a very freeing feeling to get things that have been simply weighing you down off your desk.

While you’re at it, mid-calendar year is a great time to re-look at your goals and objectives. (Remember those great ideas you came back to work with in January?) What’s working? What’s not? Now that you’ve thrown or repurposed all the stuff that has been holding you back, you can look at your tactics with fresh eyes – and make some real progress.

Don’t know where to start? Here are four great ways to get going:

  1. Start with the obvious – Pick one area that is very visible to you (hint: it might be your desk – but it could be your desktop or your inbox). Give yourself a time limit (an hour) or a number limit (100 items). Work until that limit has elapsed. You’ll be able to see real progress.
  2. Clean the slate – remove all items from an area you want to sort, and only put back what you is either useful, necessary, or beautiful. Let the rest go.
  3. Take 10 – 10 minutes at the end of each workday to put things in order so you have a clean slate the next morning.
  4. One in, one out – Don’t add anything else to the clutter without throwing something away, giving to charity, or repurposing.

Cleaning up our act,

Megann and Steve

Brainstorming Gone Wild!

Recently we’ve been observing a company we know, trying to find a solution to a problem. They have been looking in every direction, but the end doesn’t seem to be in sight. They’ve come up with several possibilities, and tried different approaches, but nothing seems to be working. They’ve put their heads together. So what’s going wrong?

What our friends are experiencing is brainstorming gone wild. We often hear criticism of brainstorming – and it generally takes the form of “We looked at every possible option, but we still didn’t come up with an answer. Brainstorming just doesn’t work.” However what usually doesn’t work is that the team involved has tried to shortcut or short-circuit the process.

Effective problem solving requires a two-phased approach. First, discovery. Getting all the ideas on the table. Exploring every possible avenue. Then, assessment and development. What do the solutions have in common? What are the best elements? Can they be combined? What isn’t implementable or affordable? Most brainstorming failures we have seen have occurred when ideas are rejected, adapted, or assessed during the discovery phase, or when the brainstormers have satisficed – settling for the first, obvious solution. There’s a fine line between stopping too soon, and keeping on looking long after the solution has been revealed, in the hope of eliminating all possible risk.

How can this be avoided? Seek help from an unbiased source – a professional facilitator, or even a successful colleague from a completely different domain. Someone who can hold up the magnifying glass for you, and help you know when it’s time to cross the line.

Throwing ideas at the wall…and helping you choose one that works,

Megann and Steve

I’ll Have Another Running a Different Race?

This week’s race at Belmont was a disappointment for a host of people on the I’ll Have Another team – including owner Paul Reddam, trainer Doug O’Neill, and jockey Mario Gutierrez. But there’s a solid business strategy lesson to be had in the retirement of the winner of two jewels in the Triple Crown – the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.

Sure, it’s possible Reddam’s team could have raced I’ll Have Another on Saturday. They might even have won. It’s easy to say on paper, that you should sacrifice the opportunity for a huge tactical win, in favour of your company’s long-term strategy. But in the modern economy, where the long-term planning horizon grows increasingly shorter, this can be incredibly difficult to achieve. Will you as a manager forfeit a huge, immediate payoff in favour of a long-term goal that may not be achieved until you’re no longer even with the company? Suddenly it doesn’t seem so simple.

The folks backing I’ll Have Another got it right. They decided it wasn’t worth causing undue pain and suffering to the horse. But there’s more. Clearly they thought about the opportunity cost as well. Had they risked running the race, they might not only have lost, but may have injured I’ll Have Another sufficiently to ruin his career as a valuable stud. So maybe I’ll Have Another was just running a different race.

Next time you’re tempted to over-reach your risk tolerance in favour of a potential short-term gain, make sure you’re not just betting on the right horse, but on the right race.

Improving the odds on your business,

Megann & Steve

Will you Get Engaged in 2012?

Many of our projects involve having discussions with our clients’ customers. Occasionally, we interview those customers more quantitatively – like a survey. But the projects that really seem to add the most value are those where our clients actually engage with their customers. While it’s true that some investigations are best-served by a little professional distance, it takes courage to actually roll up your sleeves and get in a room with your customers. There’s nowhere to hide. You can’t laugh at their responses. If they don’t like their product, you can’t talk behind their backs and agree with your colleagues that they’re just “stupid”. (Yes, we’ve heard that).

Customer advisory boards are a great way to really get engaged in the customer conversation. They can work with the people who buy your products, but they can also work with internal team, like your salesforce. Here are some success tips we’ve learned and developed for a successful engagement:

  1. Know what questions you’re trying to answer, before you start. Otherwise your discussion may be aimless (or worse, pointless).
  2. Go into the discussion with a plan – and don’t consider the conversation finished until you have one. That doesn’t mean you have to make commitments to customers without adequate thought. Make sure your roadmap allows time for synthesis and action planning, so all your work will be worth it.
  3. Some engagements are better with a matchmaker. A trained facilitator can help you step aside and see each other’s best qualities. Observers who are not active participants in the discussion can make connections that may not be obvious within the group.
  4. Set some ground rules, like this one: ifs and ands are okay…but no “buts”. The word “but” is a real conversation stopper. It means, “I’m not listening, I’m just waiting for you to stop so I can re-state my position until you give in.”
  5. Think carefully about who needs to be in the room. It’s easier to understand the impact of your decisions if you include the implementers in the discussion from the get-go.

Here’s hoping 2012 will bring a happy engagement for you and your team,

Megann and Steve