Rich Mironov is a product person through and through. As a product manager and leader for three decades and counting (“turns out that if you stick with it for 30 years, you can be an overnight success!”), he believes in clearly defining product vision and strategy, getting to the bottom of big user problems, and actually talking to users before building anything.
“I think of good product management like raising children. My 1-year-old and 2-year-old have no plans to go to university. They don’t have an opinion about eating good food. I have to be the conscience of my children — and my products — to get them through those next 18 releases.”
These days, Rich spends his days as a product consultant and product leadership coach for B2B companies. After six startups and 120 consulting clients, you can say that he’s seen it all.
In this exclusive article, Rich shares solutions to the common challenges that product organizations face. He also dives into the product management best practices that lead to excellent products — products that create sustainable value for businesses, and that customers use and love.
To build excellent products, talk to your users
Over the years, Rich has seen startup after startup rush into building products before they identify a clear audience or solution-focus. “A lot of organizations skip user research, testing, and validation and get right into solutions and what they want to build. The result is a struggle to find a meaningful market that will use and pay for the product.”
“A lot of organizations skip user research, testing, and validation and get right into solutions and what they want to build. The result is a struggle to find a meaningful market that will use and pay for the product.”
The fix to this problem, according to Rich, is going back to a core tenet of product management — talking to a lot of users and understanding their underlying problems before building a solution. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done.
“Many investor-funded startups are under pressure to release a product, and to release it fast.” Taking the time to talk to a wide range of users often takes a backseat in this high-pressure environment.
On top of that, many organizations succumb to personal bias when it comes to product decision-making. After all, the teams that influence product (and humans in general, really) tend to assume that their own needs represent objective, universal problems. “Engineers assume the world is much more technical than it is. For Sales, every deal that comes through the door needs special work, special features, special onboarding, or something custom. Executives tend to rely on selective recall or recollections from their own days as subject matter experts” Sadly, this results in products that don’t reflect the needs of a company’s overall customer base.
For a product — and especially a B2B product — to succeed, you must do your due diligence, despite these challenges. “If your product won’t solve a painful problem, save money for your customers, or contribute to their top-line revenue, nobody will buy it.”
“You’ve got to invest time into figuring out who your product is for, what job it will do, and why users will pay you for it. This means actually talking to people who use your product, those who have churned off, and anyone in-between. It means testing and validating different product hypotheses before building anything. Sometimes this can take months, but it’s the only way you can understand the needs and motivations of your users and make smart, informed product decisions.”
“You’ve got to figure out who your product is for, what job it will do, and why users will pay you for it…Sometimes this can take months, but it’s the only way you can understand the needs and motivations of your users and make smart, informed product decisions.”
Getting to the bottom of what users really need
Jobs-to-be-done, one of several frameworks Rich uses, is all about getting to the heart of customer needs by reframing their relationship to their problems — a skill that is trickier than it sounds.
“We talk about customer feedback as if it’s well-formatted and thought out, and that’s just not my experience. Everybody tells us what improvement they want us to make, what features they want us to build, what changes we should make to the product. Problem is, they probably aren’t a system architect, and their recommendations are often incorrect or don’t go deep enough.”
“We talk about customer feedback as if it’s well-formatted and thought out, and that’s just not my experience.”
It’s the responsibility of product managers to get past the “noise” of these suggestions to actual customer problems and what they are trying to accomplish.
“It’s our job to look at the feedback, tease out patterns, then go back to the people behind high-demand requests and find out why it’s important and what problem we’re going to solve — not about what they want us to do.”
Extensive user research is another way product managers can get to the bottom of customer needs. But, according to Rich, some strategies and tactics work better than others.
“After 30 years of experience, I fully expect that half or more of my concepts are wrong, every time. That’s why I’m diligent about conducting humble, needs-based, ‘tell-me-what-your-problem-is’ interviews with real, relevant people. This is in place of pitching, in place of selling, and before showing any prototypes or sketches.”
Closing people on early designs is something Rich dislikes about the lean startup model. “A lot of people want to please you during interviews and won’t tell you if something is a dumb idea. I try to deeply understand a user’s context before I distract them with my point-of-view.”
“I try to deeply understand a user’s context before I distract them with my point-of-view.”
Earning buy-in for product decisions when everyone wants something different
A notoriously difficult aspect of being a product manager is earning buy-in for your product decisions. Each part of the organization has different incentives and wants different outcomes. If left to their own devices, each function would want 100% of efforts focused on departmental needs.
This makes prioritizing the product roadmap a tricky endeavor. To kick off the process, Rich first assesses the resources at hand. “Before we decide on individual features to send into development, what’s the state of the business and the product? How much money do we have to spend? How much can the dev team fit on their plate? We need to understand what we are capable of achieving before diving into what everybody wants.”
After reaching this understanding, Rich considers the diverse needs of teams across the organization. “Engineering wants to devote most of its time to retiring technical debt, fixing bugs, and improving product architecture. Sales advocates only for the features that will close deals. Support wants the biggest generators of support requests to be the focal point of development. And all of these expectations must be balanced with the understanding that success for software companies comes from consistently growing the user base and customers renewing year after year. This requires a steady stream of product improvements and enhancements.”
Once Rich takes all these factors into account, he communicates a clear strategy to all relevant stakeholders and sets realistic expectations. “No matter what everybody wishes for, we live in a world where we only get to do five things, not a world where we can add unlimited new things. Once we make that clear, we can be hard-nosed about which new features or capabilities we put into production and how we make those tradeoffs.”
The roadmap as a communication vehicle rather than a decision vehicle
“A lot of folks say their goal is to have a roadmap. And I say no — our goal is to have a good product strategy where we make hard choices and prioritize the right things. The roadmap is simply a reflection of this.”
For Rich, what ultimately gets built — the products and features that are prioritized after extensive discussions with cross-functional teams, assessing size-of-budget, and determining the capabilities of the development team — must be transparently shared with the organization. That’s where the product roadmap comes in.
“I think of roadmaps as communications vehicles rather than decision vehicles. A lot of folks say their goal is to have a roadmap. And I say no, our goal is to have a good product strategy where we make hard choices and prioritize the right things. The roadmap is simply a reflection of this.”
“I think of roadmaps as communications vehicles rather than decision vehicles.”
Rich often sees a contradiction when it comes to expectations around the roadmap. On the one hand, everyone wants a fully committed roadmap with hard dates. On the other, they champion agile principles and wish to change or add additional items as they become necessary.
Instead of aiming for either extreme, Rich thinks about roadmaps in time phases that vary from quarter to quarter. From his enterprise B2B perspective, he expects to know 90 percent of what to build in the current quarter. Next quarter, he aims for 70 percent certainty. “We have a plan, we have a concept, we have a theory. But we know the world is going to move under us.”
In the following two quarters, Rich only aims to have themes or high-level goals nailed down because “honestly, we don’t know. Or even if we do know, we’re wrong.”
“If we use roadmaps as truth for more than a quarter out, we’re lying to ourselves.”
At the end of the day, it’s about solving big user problems
Rich’s main goal as a product leader is to help companies build a sustainable business through excellent products. He does this by evangelizing a clear product vision, showing product organizations how to get to the bottom of user insights, and strategically prioritizing major product decisions.
However, he also sees it as his responsibility (and the responsibility of product managers in general) to inspire teams across the company to do their best work. This is because product managers — more than anyone — have the ability to act as the true voice of the user.
“What motivates teams more than anything else is to feel an emotional connection with the people who use the products they build. And in order to do that, we as product folk have to spend time communicating customer context. This means sharing interviews, surveys, and more that help everyone better understand customer pain-points and joy.”
“What motivates teams more than anything else is to feel an emotional connection with the people who use the products they build.”
Because at the end of the day, great products come from the ability to understand and solve big user problems, and a deep desire to do so. Only when empowered with this knowledge can teams effectively identify and iterate on a solution. Call it the secret sauce to Product Excellence.
Rich Mironov is a 35-year veteran of Silicon Valley product management including 6 B2B startups. He is a smokejumper product executive – parachuting into software companies to run product teams on an interim basis – and has coached scores of product leaders. He founded Product Camp, has been blogging about software product management since 2002 and his “Art of Product Management” was one of the first books on the subject. He writes at www.mironov.com.
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