32 / Take An Objective Approach to Prioritization


A lot of times product managers take a overly narrow view of prioritization without giving full consideration to the impact of decisions we make. Whether to add another new feature to our backlog – and which one? Is there a new market segment we should explore? Do we need a new vision for our product? For the organization?

In this episode of the Product Momentum Podcast, Sean and Paul catch up with Jeff Lash – Vice President of Product Management Research at Forrester. Too often, Jeff says, stakeholders see the viability of an opportunity but not its feasibility (and vice versa). We take an overly subjective approach to prioritization and lose sight of the vision we set for the product and organization.

Listen in as Jeff describes his approach to prioritization. By applying a more objective standard – in fact, Jeff recommends establishing a prioritization framework – product teams act with confidence guided by a vision and strategy that are both clearly articulated and widely communicated across the organization.

Product managers, he believes, need to be general managers of their “commercially minded enterprise, so we need to act like the business owner, running our products like a business.”

Here’s more:

[02:51]  Why the product manager role is so misunderstood. Has anyone ever taken the time to explain, “this is what we expect of you.”?

[03:39]  Vision and strategy. Do product managers understand that this is part of their role?

[05:11]  Balancing the tactical and strategic. It’s about mindset, understanding all the responsibilities.

[07:03]  Product management in a remote environment. The more distant you are from your team, the more you need to document and communicate.

[08:40]  What’s your horizon? If your vision and strategy hold true for the long term, avoid dramatic shifts.

[10:21]  3 levels of prioritization. Sprint, Release, Organization.

[11:36]  Is there such a thing as the perfect formula?

[13:12]  Decision making in the absence of strategy and vision. Good luck.

[15:07]  Frameworks. Help the process along by making it as objective as possible.

[18:53] The definition of product management.

[20:32] Which personas need your attention most? Understand (and balance) the broad range of user personas as well as buyer personas.

[21:41] Incremental revenue vs. Retention effect. One addresses why people buy, the other why people stay.

[26:30]  Guiding principles. Does this feature help one of our guiding principles? If yes, add it to the backlog. If not,.…

[28:44] Fly your banner. Discipline in the face of initial challenges.

[29:29] Decision making is not about yes and no. It’s about understanding the impact of both.

[31:32] Hidden treasures. If you want to find those hidden treasures, the unmet needs, you have to apply different techniques.

[33:10] Citing Margaret Mead. “What people say, what people do, and what people say they will do are entirely different things.”

[35:15] Innovation. How do you take an idea and make it a reality? How do you take an idea and turn it into something that is actually in the market?

Jeff’s Recommended Reading

Blue Ocean Strategy: How To Create Uncontested Market Space And Make Competition Irrelevant, by W. Chan Kim and Rene Mauborgne.

Want more Jeff? Check out his blog, How To Be A Good Product Manager.

About Jeff

Jeff Lash is a recognized thought leader in product management, with 15+ years experience in the development of Web-based products and SaaS. His product management career includes both new product introductions and major turnarounds of existing product lines, as well as introduction of the product management role into organizations.

In his current role as VP, Group Director, Product Management Research at Forrester, Jeff and his team help product management leaders create world-class organizations and elevate the abilities and expertise of their teams to drive measurable and repeatable product success and business growth.

t l 


Sean [00:00:18] Hi, welcome to the Product Momentum podcast, a podcast about how to use technology to solve challenging technology problems for your organization.

Paul [00:00:28] Well hey Sean, how are you doing today?

Sean [00:00:30] Doing great, Paul. Super excited.

Paul [00:00:32] Yeah. This is breaking the monotony of quarantine.

Sean [00:00:35] Yes, it is, and Jeff is a brilliant mind in the product space.

Paul [00:00:39] Yeah, I latched on to a bunch of things that we talked about, but I think two of the things that I’m most excited for up-and-coming product managers to hear are the difference between the tactical tasks that you do every day versus making time for the strategy and the vision. That’s really the most important thing that gets lost often at the expense of our day-to-day grind.

Sean [00:01:00] Agreed. I’m even more excited about the talk that we had about the difference in extracting the implicit versus explicit needs of the user and also the many different ways and approaches that we take to prioritization and trying to figure out this prioritization thing, like what do you build next? What do you build first? And really, I loved his concepts around creating the structure for decisions so that the team on the ground can actually make them without creating bottlenecks. It’s going to be a great podcast.

Paul [00:01:28] Yeah. It’s not about the magic bullet framework. It’s about discipline and consistency.

Sean [00:01:32] Exactly.

Paul [00:01:33] Comes back to the basics. All right, well let’s get after it.

Sean [00:01:35] Get after it.

Paul [00:01:39] Well hello everybody. We are excited to be joined today by Jeff Lash. Jeff is a recognized thought leader in product management with 15 years of experience in the development of Web-based products and software as a service. His product management career includes both new product introductions and major turnarounds of existing product lines, as well as the introduction of the product management role into organizations. In its current role as V.P. Group Director of Product Management Research at Forrester, he and his team help product management leaders create world-class organizations and elevate the abilities and expertise of their teams to drive measurable and repeatable product success and business growth. Welcome, Jeff. So happy to have you today. Welcome aboard.

Jeff [00:02:18] Thank you very much. Nice to be here. I appreciate you inviting me and I’m looking forward to the conversation.

Paul [00:02:23] Yeah. You know, we were talking a bit on the preproduction roll about how products come to be and sort of what this concept of vision is and I just wanted to jump into it and see, you know, what are you thinking, about as you’re looking out at the product management practices across the industry, what is it that you think product managers can do to improve their game when it comes to the art and science of vision within their product backlogs?

Jeff [00:02:51] So, you know, I think fundamentally, in many cases, it comes back to the fact that product managers often don’t understand what the role of product management is. I mean, we can talk about the specific activities and tactics, but I spend most of my day, every day, on the phone or in person, when I can be in person, with product management leaders and their teams. And one thing we hear over and over again is, you know, just that product managers aren’t doing the things that we want them to be doing. They’re not spending enough time doing that sort of stuff, or they’re too tactical and not strategic enough and things like that. And I, in many cases, really can’t blame the product managers because no one’s ever sat them down and said, “this is what we expect of you,” and, you know, “this is what the role of product management is and this is what it means to be a good product manager.”

Jeff [00:03:39] So, you know, I think the classic example is, you take folks who are, you know, engineering or technical people by background, who know the products well and know how the products are built, that understand the technology behind it, and you put them in charge of product management and you say, “all right, you’re a product manager now.” So, you know, you’ve never explained to them what it’s like to be a product manager and that they should be focused on vision and strategy, and then you get upset if they’re not doing that stuff and I really can’t blame them. So there are certainly good product managers out there. There are a lot of people that are doing the right thing. But fundamentally, I think the first thing is, do they recognize that that’s part of their role, that they’re expected to have a vision for the product and a strategy for the product, or if they think that their role is just to collect enhancement requests and put them in the backlog, then that’s what they’re going to do. I don’t think actually doing vision is necessary that difficult once you understand that that’s something that you’re supposed to be doing.

Paul [00:04:29] Exactly. Now, I view my voice on this podcast as what are the up and coming product managers supposed to be thinking about and how can they improve their practice? And one of the things that I run into in my client and product conversations is exactly that. We get very, very good at the tactical. We get very good at product backlog prioritization and user story writing. And it’s very difficult to come up into those longer time horizons of the actual business-level strategy sessions that happen once or twice a year as opposed to once or twice a month. And those kinds of things are hard to separate out from the day-to-day if you don’t make time deliberately.

Jeff [00:05:11] Mm-hmm. Yeah. So I think a lot of it is a mindset, kind of an understanding of the responsibilities. I think part of it is, let’s assume that they know it, then it’s a question of, well, do they want to be doing it, quite frankly. I think a lot of people gravitate towards the tactical because they like that. That’s the way their minds work, or that’s what they thought the job was and that’s why they took it. And I think there’s also folks that really want to be doing the vision and the strategy and the big picture stuff but the rest of the organization doesn’t understand the role. It doesn’t respect that. So I talk to folks all the time that you know, are getting pulled into, you know, “I can’t go out and do customer interviews because the development team expects me to be there 40 hours a week,” or, “I’d love to spend more time doing customer research, but I’m spending four hours a day triaging sales requests.” So, you know, there certainly are product managers that want to be doing the right thing and try to do the right thing, it’s just the organization, the way it’s structured, or the other folks they’re working with make it very difficult for them to do that.

Sean [00:06:06] You know, in this context and in the context of our current crisis as well, you posted an article on the Forrester blog about things product managers can do in the crisis that I thought was pretty cool. If you dissect that article, what you’re talking about is a lot of the responsibilities that product owners or product leaders should have, right. Things like, I’m going to pull right from your blog here, increasing the level of documentation now, it might be a good time to do that. You know, in the context of, you know, when there’s a storm outside the best fishermen, they don’t go to sea, they mend nets. So let’s take advantage of the time to mend our nets and kind of take care of the product and all the things that are going on under the surface, right. Reconsider your launch dates. You have things in there like monitoring product engagement, like we should always be doing that, but now’s maybe a time to pay a little closer attention to how people are using our products in the crisis, right. And then you also mentioned pricing and packaging. So what other thoughts do you have about that?

Jeff [00:07:03] So, I mean, the first point actually, it’s interesting, because when I wrote that, we talk about increasing documentation, that was really written from the perspective of, well, if I’m working with a team that’s now remote, how do I manage it? And I think a lot of people are used to it, but I still see a lot of questions. And I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve seen about, you know, how to work remotely. But there was not a lot about what does it mean to be a product manager in a remote environment. And the basic rule I’ve always followed and advise people on is, the farther away you are from your development team, the more you have to document. Right. If I’m in the same room with the engineering team day in, day out, I can probably get away with Post-it notes and some scribbles and things like that. But if I’m working with a team that’s halfway around the world, twelve hours difference in time zones, I’ve got to document a lot more because I don’t have those opportunities.

Jeff [00:07:45] But Sean, you know, when you were saying that, I actually thought about, well, there’s probably also risk mitigation factor to that, too, right? Like, you know, you always joke the like, “well, what if someone gets hit by a bus,” you know? But I’m thinking, well, in this current environment, someone might get sick, or unfortunately, worse might happen to them. So documentation for consistency within the development organization as well as, you know, within the organization more broadly is pretty important. So, you know, I’ve been spending a lot of time since early March when things really started to go south talking with product manager leaders and, you know, “what are you doing differently, what do you not doing differently,” answering their questions? I’m not hearing of dramatic shifts from most people. There are certainly some clients. We have some companies I’ve talked to where, you know, the bottom completely fell out of their market, right. If you’re serving, you know, the travel industry or something like that, right, there’s a dramatic shift. There’s some folks we talked to that it’s been the opposite, right. There’s a huge increase in demand for their products or different use cases they’re serving.

Jeff [00:08:40] But the majority of folks I’ve talked to, it’s, “hey, our roadmaps are shifting a little bit, something that we were going to do in the fall we’re now going to earlier.” Or, you know, “we have five products and three of them, you know, there’s a lot of interest for and two of them there’s less interest for, so we’re going to shift development resources from the products where there’s less interest to those with new interest.” So there aren’t dramatic shifts, which I think is kind of what I would have expected to see. But I think that’s also good. If people were doing knee jerk reactions to everything that happens every day, I’d be a little worried, right, so this, back to Paul, your earlier question kind of vision and strategy. If you have a good vision and strategy and you look at the current market environment and say, “you know, that vision strategy still holds true for the long term,” then I don’t think you should be making dramatic shifts. If you are thinking very short term and tactical and don’t have that vision and strategy and are just you making those reactions, that might be the right thing to do in some cases, but I think in a lot of cases, may be a bit too short-sighted and then might end up having problems down the road.

Sean [00:09:37] Sure. One of the other things that we talked about in the pre-call for this is one of my favorite subjects to talk about, which is prioritization. It comes up a lot. It’s often a bane in our sides. I think most of us have gotten good, in the product space, at managing our short term backlogs, the things that are pretty well defined, and built out. But in the broader scheme of things, for the longer scope, at the strategic level, like how do you prioritize? And I have a belief that I don’t think it’s possible to completely objectively prioritize. And you had thought about challenging that. I’d like to hear your thoughts about that.

Jeff [00:10:11] Maybe to your chagrin, I’m not going to disagree with you as completely as you thought I would. I would say you can never completely objectively prioritize, but you have to make an attempt to.

Sean [00:10:20] Yeah, of course.

Jeff [00:10:21] Yeah. When we think about prioritization, I kind of think about it almost in three levels, maybe four. But yeah, three. So let’s start with the most granular like you said. What feature am I going to work on next or what specific functionality? Right. In an agile environment, that’s your sprint planning, that’s your backlog, right, you know, which story am I going to work on? And our view on that is that if you’re thinking about prioritizing from sprint to sprint, it really doesn’t matter too much. What matters is the release, right. You know, if I’m doing five sprints and then releasing, it really doesn’t matter whether I get something done in sprint one or sprint five as long as it’s in the release, because ultimately it’s about, you know, what’s most important to customers. If you’re releasing every sprint, it’s different. But, you know, if I get this specific story done this sprint versus next sprint is oftentimes more of an engineering or resource question than a product management question.

Jeff [00:11:35] So then we take a step back and say, “OK, let’s talk about the release level.” And so, prioritizing at the release level, that’s where we think of this as like enhancement prioritization, so those broader capabilities. Our view there is that, yeah, there’s going to be some subjectivity to it, but you want to try to make it as objective a process as possible. And we have a series of decisions, a product enhancement prioritization framework we’ve built. In my prior career as a practitioner, I built these frameworks. Most product managers have built one at some point.

Sean [00:11:35] Right.

Jeff [00:11:36] You can always argue about which framework is right, does it have the right criteria and the right weighting and things like that, and I don’t think there’s one perfect formula. I mean, the one we built that we use with clients, we like it a lot. We think it’s good. But at the same time, we also tell our clients, look, you know, “if you need to adjust this, adjust this.” The more important thing is that you have a framework you agree on and everyone agrees on how you’re prioritizing. Because if you’re in a B2B environment and the sales leader thinks that you should prioritize stuff that will close the next deal and the development leader thinks you should focus on stuff that will improve the stability of the platform and the marketing leader thinks you should prioritize stuff that’s going to support the campaign they’re doing, and the customer success leader thinks you should focus on stuff that’ll improve retention, right, you’ve got a problem. So having a consistent approach to prioritizing enhancements is important to get that cross-functional alignment and also to make sure that you’re doing things consistently over time so you’re not just randomly reacting to the news of the day.

Sean [00:12:35] So I think we’re more aligned than we sounded like we were in the pre-call. But I think, you know, having that structure so that you allow the team, the feet that are on the ground, that are actually making those day to day prioritization decisions, having the structure allows them to do that without having the entire leadership present. And I think that’s the key, and that’s the point. Like, we can’t have the prioritization process get in the way of progress. That’s the key, right? We got to get stuff out the door. Definition done.

Jeff [00:13:04] Yeah, and I’ve definitely seen clients and colleagues I’ve worked with over the years, right, you know, get so wrapped up in the process, right?

Sean [00:13:11] Oh yeah.

Jeff [00:13:12] I mean, it’s, you know, focusing on the process and not the end result. At the end of the day, we got to just agree on what we’re going to do and do it. So, yes it’s important that you prioritize the right things, but, you know, if you’re spending hours and hours and hours fine-tuning the spreadsheet and hours and hours and hours debating, and to your point, if you’re not ever actually making decisions and delivering on anything, that’s, to me, a bigger problem. But I think, you know, you brought up an interesting point, right. So, you know, we tend to be better at those more granular decisions and not as good at the bigger strategic ones. What I see a lot, we see at serious decisions a lot is, you know, going back to Paul, your first question, when there isn’t that vision and strategy, it makes that really difficult. Because fundamentally, when we’re talking about those big picture decisions, like which needs should we focus on or which products should we invest in, having that strategic anchor to align to is really important. If I’m considering five different products to invest in and I’m just looking at ROI, I’m going to probably make a bad decision. Because, A, ROI is a guess, right, we’re guessing at what we think the financials will be.

Sean [00:14:13] Until we put it in the market we have no idea what the ROI will be.

Jeff [00:14:15] Exactly, yes. What I like to say is, our projections are going to be wrong. It’s like flipping a coin and having that coin land on its side. Well, it’s technically possible. It’s really never going to happen. Right, like, your projections will either be high or low. I can guarantee one of those. So you know, financial impact is important. But also, you know, there are things that might appear slightly better than another thing from a financial perspective but don’t align with the company’s strategy or don’t align with the target markets we want to focus on or don’t align with the buyer persona. So maybe there’s a great opportunity, you know, let’s imagine we sell into the I.T. department and we’ve got a great new idea for a new product but that product would be bought by the marketing department and maybe there’s a huge market opportunity there and maybe, yeah, you know, the market size is huge and there’s no competition, but we have no brand recognition within marketing and we don’t have a sales force that’s comfortable selling to marketing. We don’t have a database of potential prospects, right.

Jeff [00:15:07] So all these considerations are important. And I think a lot of time product folks take a very myopic view of, you know, oh, let’s prioritize based on, we think there’s a total addressable market we can go after. I like to think about it, they think about the opportunity and not the feasibility. They think about, well, “there’s this big pie and if we can just get one percent of that pie, one slice of the pie, we can all retire tomorrow.” My question is always, “well, how are you going to get that one slice of the pie,” right, “and is that the right pie to be going after?” So I think, you know, when we talk about prioritization there, again, it is going to be a subjective exercise. But we’ve got some frameworks we’ve built and what we generally guide people on is, you want to try to make it as objective as possible. So like, for example, market sizes are always estimates. So saying that you know, business case A is better than business case B because business case A has a market size of 70 million and business case B has a market size of sixty-five million. Like, we could be off, right. Those numbers could be switched. But saying, look, those things are kind of similar compared to a market size of five hundred million, right, like we can probably say that those are comparatively different. So when we guide people through this, we always do it relative. Right. It’s not about getting the number exactly right. But, you know, this new idea relative to another idea, how does it compare? Which one better aligns with strategy? Are there noticeable differences in market size? Is there a noticeable price premium that we could get or major differences in how competitive the markets are? And I think that’s when I talk about taking the subjective and trying to make it objective. I think that’s what we generally guide people on.

Paul [00:16:40] So I think what we’re talking about is sort of this catch 22 in that product managers do also need to be general managers in a sense. We are sort of a commercially minded business owner within the business, right. We are running our products like a business. We don’t often talk about it in that language, but I think when we do peel back the onion a bit, we are looking at each decision that we make from a commercial mindset, from a platform of, you know, we do have to incorporate the marketing, the sales, the new feature release and the new roadmap that we want to get out the door. But we do need to take into account ROI and the estimates that we need to think about. And I think that product managers who have that ability to keep the voice of the customer, the empathy, the vision, the strategy in a box, as well as the PNL side of the house, and keep these two things in sort of a dynamic tension are the product managers that are able to make the best decisions.

Sean [00:17:32] Yeah. And there’s also that concept of cost, right we know how important… And all the models have that. All the models I’ve ever seen also include some aspect of how is going to take us to get this feature built and how much is it going to cost to actually deploy this thing, because there’s a tradeoff between, how fast can I get an ROI on that, how much is it going to take to build it? And that’s another whole dimension to prioritization that we all know is never right. Right? So it’s an art form to figure out how do you prioritize well, and I think that’s part of the art of product leadership, in my opinion.

Jeff [00:18:02] Yeah. If we’re going to prioritize based on ROI, that means we need to have two things right that are both highly variable. We need to be fairly accurate with our revenue expectations and fairly accurate with our cost expectations. And if we have bad track records on both of those, then we have a very, very low level of confidence in terms of, do we have the numbers right?

Paul [00:18:22] Yeah.
Sean [00:18:23] And we all also know that in the software space you have to start with the user. There’s this deep balance that we have to strike between what the user wants and cares about, what the business needs, and how much it’s going to cost.

Paul [00:18:35] I’m thinking of a product management meme that was released recently with a bunch of bananas that was sold all in the same ripeness versus one that’s packaged with successive degrees of ripeness from green to yellow so that the user will have a perfectly ripe banana on every day of the week.

Sean [00:18:52] Brilliant.

Jeff [00:18:53] Yeah, its packaging and pricing, right. So, Sean, you mentioned something really interesting, and maybe this is my opportunity to disagree with you more than we were expecting. So I agree that the users are important, but where I quite frankly find a lot of product managers getting in trouble is they only think about the user. So, Paul, this gets back to your comment. Our definition of product management is that product management is responsible for the overall commercial success, right. So, you know, call it a general manager, call it the CEO, whatever, you know. We use the metaphor of an orchestra conductor. Right. You’re kind of trying to get all these different musicians, all these different people who have different specialties to play together in harmony and make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. But the idea that product managers are not responsible for figuring out the right features or making sure the features get delivered, but they’re responsible for the overall commercial success.

Jeff [00:19:38] And I’ll just give you one example of a typical sort of problem we see. So, yes, focusing on the users is great and we want to make sure users are happy and users are engaged. But users don’t buy in many cases. Now in many cases, they do, but in many cases, they don’t buy. So let’s imagine, you know, a typical scenario we see is you’re selling it to small businesses. And, you know, it’s an e-commerce sale. And so we create a product that users love and therefore users put it on their credit card or they sign up for a free trial and they love it and they use it. And then you say, “great, we’ve got small businesses, now we want to go after enterprises.” Well in enterprises, right, it’s changing a bit, but still in many cases, if you want to get the enterprise to buy, it’s not just the users. Right. You’ve got a C-level executive. You’ve got someone in finance. You’ve got someone in procurement. You’ve got someone in I.T. security, right. So features that are not important to users, like security or the ability to pay through an invoice, or, you know, one hundred eighty, twenty-eight-bit encryption, blah blah blah, right.

Jeff [00:20:32] There are other personas besides the user whose needs you need to meet. Right. So procurement will never use the product, but if you can’t get their sign off, you’re not going to sell it. And this is something I hear a lot from product management leaders is that the product managers only focus on the users. Or, on the flip side, they only focus on the decision-makers and don’t think about the users. But really understanding the broad range of user personas as well as buyer personas that are involved and making sure that, you know, their needs are understood and that we can meet their needs through the buying process, which is usually more what marketing is focused on, and then also making sure that the product has the capabilities to address those needs as well.

Sean [00:21:10] Awesome. I think if you don’t find the right balance, you’re doomed. And what you’ve introduced is this concept of other personas that you also have to balance in your prioritization process.

Jeff [00:21:10] Yeah.

Sean [00:21:21] The best products have found the right balance between the people that they solve problems for and the problems that they solve. The intersection of those two things, the people you solve problems for, and the problems that you solve, is what makes your product strategically unique in the market. That is the definition of vision, which is at the core of all strategy, in my opinion.

Jeff [00:21:41] And I think there’s ways to factor that into a prioritization approach, right. So like with our enhancement prioritization framework, we have a bunch of different financial factors that we recommend including. And just a most basic level, it’s, you know, there are things that will get you incremental revenue and there’s things that will have retention impact. So incremental revenue is, you know, if we add this feature, someone who wouldn’t have otherwise bought will buy, or if we add this feature, we can charge more for it and therefore make more money. And then there is retention effect, which is, you know, if we don’t do this, someone’s going to leave us that we don’t wanna lose. Right, so when we think about that, we tie that back to the personas, right. In many cases, retention is going to be more about users, keeping users happy. Not always, but in many cases, it’s more about, you know, if we can get users engaged and they’re using it and they see value, then, you know, that often leads to a retention improvement. Whereas incremental revenue is often focusing on, well, what are the things that are preventing people from buying? So as I think about prioritization, I’ve talked with a company and their renewal rates were horrible. Like really really horrible. So, you know, in their prioritization framework, they should probably really overweight retention in that, right. “Why are the reasons that people are leaving us?” Obviously, you’ve done a good job selling them because they’re buying the product. But then, once they start using it, for whatever reason, they don’t like it. So you got to figure out what’s wrong and focus there. Versus, if your retention rates are already high but you have a pretty small market share, then it’s about, well, “how do we broaden our market share and are there other market segments, other personas to go after?”

Sean [00:23:07] Yeah.

Jeff [00:23:08] And you know, what are the barriers to getting us incremental revenue there and how do we prioritize those things about removing those barriers?

Paul [00:23:16] Yeah, I don’t know if we intended to map it so precisely, but this is exactly the Kano model, right? You have the curve of the table stakes, you have the curve of retention, and then those things that delight. People weren’t expecting it, but now all of a sudden they’re engaged and now you have their attention because you’ve delighted them in a way that they weren’t planning on being delighted. It’s a product-market fit conversation, right, in the sense of the term where product-market fit is you have an experiment in the wild. The product is alive and being used. But now you need to get that input from the users, from however you’re getting it, user research, analytics, metrics, and say, what are people finding useful? Where are they finding the most engagement and what are the things that they’re not finding or having a hard time with and that you can improve on? I think it’s interesting how long that model has been around and how universally applicable it seems to be, popping back up all over the place.

Jeff [00:24:07] Yeah, I think they’re similar. I think in some respects that there’s some more dimensions that the Kano model doesn’t necessarily reflect. But I think, fundamentally, it’s the right idea. It reminds me of a product that worked on years ago. I took over a product that was struggling and I looked at the things that were on the roadmap and there were all these, you know, kind of more those surprise and delight type things, which is great. But there were some really just basic fundamental tables to fix. And I’m like, “why have we not worked on this?” And it’s like, “oh, well, because it’s really difficult and the developers don’t like working on it and it’s going to take a long time and our technology back end doesn’t support it.” And it’s like, “then do it, like we’re not gonna have a business around if we don’t do it.” So I think that happens a lot where there’s some basic fundamental things that people either don’t want to do or don’t understand what those fundamentals are or that they’re kind of constantly playing catch up, right. So if you have a lot of technical debt, if you have a lot of table stakes stuff that does not exist in your product and you can’t ever catch up to the point where you can work on that stuff, then you’re always in this game of trying to plug the holes so more water doesn’t come into the boat.

Sean [00:25:09] Right. I want to pull on something you said earlier. You introduced a whole nother dimension, like for the user, versus what the business needs now. And I think it’s this dimension of long term versus short term thinking. And, you know, it kind of applies to the Kano model as well. Like, there’s all of those things in the Kano model now and there’s all those things in the Kano model over a longer time horizon and you have to balance those things as well in any sort of real product that has any longevity in the world, right?

Jeff [00:25:36] Yeah, and I think this gets back to kind of having a strategy for dealing with that. I can’t say, like, oh my gosh, there’s one right way of doing this, but I can say there’s probably some wrong ways of doing it. Right. The wrong ways are, you know, changing your mind and your approach every day or every week or every month. So where I’ve seen product teams kind of get this right is having a strategy. So one example is we say, “look, we’re going to focus a certain percent of our resources on certain buckets, right. So 10 percent is on keeping the lights on, 20 percent is kind of supporting the core. And then 70 percent is new stuff. Or you know, devoting a certain percent to sales requests. So specific things that are requests from sales that really are only to address one customer’s needs or a small set of customers need. We allocate a certain set of resources for that and we kind of block that off so that way they don’t take up 100 percent of our resources and we can work on some of those longer-term things.

Jeff [00:26:30] One technique that I’ve personally found really helpful is just to head back to those themes and strategies. So I worked on a major product relaunch years ago where we kind of boiled it down to, “OK, we’re going to relaunch this product and there’s five key things we’re focused on.” And not like five features, but kind of five guiding principles, kind of five areas of focus. And I got agreement from sales and marketing and development and executive leadership and everything that these are the five areas to focus on. And that was really helpful, because then whenever a new request would come in, we could kind of bounce it off those ideas and say, “look, does this help us support one of these five ideas or objectives?” And if the answer was yes, we say, “great, let’s put in the backlog, we’ll consider it.” If the answer was no, we say, “well, interesting idea, but we’re not going to even focus on it for now.” And just that level of kind of screening really saved us a lot of time and frustration. And it also signaled to the rest of the organization what our priorities were. So we, quite frankly, weren’t getting a lot of requests that didn’t fit in those five categories. And that kind of general approach of, you know, some people call it like a theme-based roadmap. Some people call it kind of strategic priorities. But I mean, Sean, to your point, right, you could say, “look, you know, for the next six months, we’re focused on responding to challenges that our customers are having in this current market crisis,” right. Like, “we are willing to devote all resources for that, so we’re going to focus on that.” Or, you know, “we don’t want to focus all our resources on that. We want to make sure that 80 percent of our resources are focused on these other strategic priorities,” and agreeing on what that balance should be.

Sean [00:27:53] Sure.

Paul [00:27:54] Yeah. It might be just as simple as to call it having a mantra, having a banner that your team is flying under so that, you know, all teams might have a different vector that they’re coming from. You know, the product enhancement from the sales might have a different entry point. The team that’s coming from the keeping the lights on, but they’re all pointed at the same goal in the long run. I think that that’s a great summary. I think that consistency is sort of the elephant in the room. There are tons of frameworks that you can use, tons of variations of scrum, agile pretty much everybody is has adopted in some way, shape, or form. But as you mentioned, if you’re changing your approach on a sprint by sprint basis, then you’re never going to have that proactive, over the horizon thinking that you need to apply this strategically. The consistency is the winner, not the magical framework.

Jeff [00:28:44] Yeah, it’s having that discipline in the face of the initial challenges, right. So, for example, right, that the classic scrum thing is, you know, we’re not going to change scope during this sprint. Right. Once we agree to what we’re going to focus on, we’re not going to change our priorities. And that works great until the salesperson or the CEO runs down the hall and says, “Hey, we’ve got this big customer that’s willing to give us a ton of money. We just need to work on this right away. Can you add it to the sprint?” Right. There’s an important inflection point where you can say, “all right, are we gonna do this or not?” Right. And if you say, “well, we’ll just do it this one time for this one customer,” right, then you’re kind of lost. Right. Then you’ve lost that discipline. And it’s really tough. And I hear this from product folks all the time. They’re under pressure by executives or by salespeople or by major customers, whatever, to do that. But hopefully, people see the impact of that.

Jeff [00:29:29] And what I always kind of guide people on is, all right, you know, you have a decision to make. It’s not just saying yes or no. It’s saying, “OK, if we do this, if we change course and add this feature, what’s the impact of this?” Right. So, yeah, we can do this one feature for this one customer, but then that means these five other things that we agreed on that we were going to do, they aren’t going to get done. It also means that we’ve lost the confidence of the engineering team that the next time this comes up, we’re not going to change course again. Are we OK with that? Right, like, the CEO can make that decision, right, they’re in charge, but we want to make sure that they’re making an informed decision or the sales leader is making an informed decision when they ask that thing. And I think, really, that’s what it comes down to. It’s about having that discipline and being upfront when those discussions come up, right. When we are doing prioritization, we are trying to change course in midstream if we need to, not just doing it because someone asked, but, you know, kind of recognizing, “OK, if we do this, what’s the impact going to be and are we all OK with that impact? And if we’re not, then we shouldn’t do it.”.

Sean [00:30:27] Cool. Along the same lines here, but off track a little bit. You know, as product owners, product leaders, we’re always on this quest to find the next undiscovered or unspoken customer need that we can solve. And you’ve been talking about this lately. I’ve seen it in your Twitter feed, like using qualitative insights, what you guys are calling product intelligence. I just wanna hear what your thoughts are, like have you come up with any magical formulas that can maybe help us figure out where those unmet, undiscovered, unspoken customer needs are hiding?

Jeff [00:30:58] For more background, yeah, I mean, we like to think about different types of customer needs. And so there are what we call explicit needs, which are needs that customers will tell you about. And there are implicit needs, which customers won’t tell you about. And they won’t tell you about those needs because they never think of telling you about them or they don’t even know that they have them. Right. So that the things that they never think about telling you are like, you know, you’ve probably been to a hotel or restaurant and had a bad experience, but never left a comment in the comment card or never gone on TripAdvisor and provided your feedback, right? So that’s a need that you have a need or a problem, but you’re just not sharing.

Jeff [00:31:32] But then there’s also problems people don’t even know they have. And uncovering those is really, I think, what you’re getting at. And quite frankly, what we find is that the major obstacle to finding those, what we call those hidden treasures, those implicit needs, is that people are using the wrong techniques. So what I find is that people say, “oh, we want to find those unmet needs, so let’s run a survey.” Like you’re probably not going to find unmet needs through a survey. Or, “oh, well, let’s go talk to our salespeople,” or, “let’s go talk to our support people and find out what they’re hearing.” Like you’re hearing what people are telling you, right? Salespeople are not researchers. They are, you know, hearing what customers are asking for and listening for what’s preventing a sale or what’s going to harm a renewal and they’re documenting that and sending it to you in an email. So what we’ve found through our research is that the majority of techniques that are used most frequently by product managers, and marketers to some extent as well, are techniques that are going to help you find those explicit needs, what we call those in plain sight needs. So, fundamentally, if you want to find those unmet needs, you have to use different techniques. So that’s where observational research comes in. That’s where data mining comes in. That’s where some of these product intelligence type tools can come in to help you uncover, you know, what are needs or problems or behaviors that people have that they’re not going to tell you about? There’s no magic silver bullet to do that, but I think you have a much, much better chance of finding that stuff if you’re using the right techniques. And so fundamentally, that’s our guidance, and a lot of times I’m spending time with product teams kind of coaching them on, well, you know, what’s the right technique to use and how do you do that to maximize your chance of finding those unmet needs?

Sean [00:33:10] Brilliant. There’s the plug for Forrester, which is good, no, that’s part of why you’re here, right. It reminds me of a quote from Margaret Mead, the famous anthropologist. You know, what people say, what people do, and what people say they will do are entirely different things. So if it was that easy to go out and survey our customers, everybody would be doing the same thing.

Jeff [00:33:31] Yeah.

Sean [00:33:31] So you need help, basically.

Jeff [00:33:33] I’ll just say, the flip side of it is that I hear this less frequently now, but I used to hear a lot and I still do hear sometimes, people say, “oh, well, since customers don’t know what they need, then we should just build what we think they want because they’re not going to know, right. You know, the Henry Ford quote, “if I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for,” uh…

Sean [00:33:51] Faster horses.

Jeff [00:33:52] Which, if I remember, I don’t think was actually a quote. I remember doing some research in trying to figure out whether this was actually a Henry Ford quote or not. But let’s assume it’s true for the time being. Right? I think people use that then to justify, “oh, well, since people don’t know what they want, then we don’t have to do research,” which I think, again, gets back to we’re not asking them, “do they want a car?” We’re asking them what their goals are and what their needs are, right. The need is not, “I need a car” or “I need software.” The need is, you know, “I want to get to work faster, I want a way to take my kids to school,” right, “I want to be safe,” right. It’s about understanding what those fundamental needs are. And so that’s really the focus. And again, another pitfall I see a lot of times with product managers is, when they do research, they ask about, you know, “what do you like about our product? What can we improve about our product?” Which is, you know, OK, if you’re trying to get product enhancements. But if you’re really trying to uncover those unmet needs, those unspoken needs, right, you have to really get deeper.

Paul [00:34:45] Yeah. So we got two last quick questions for you. Just close out our time together today, and the first one actually ties into one of your top four product management leadership priorities for 2020. And that is improving the product innovation and management process. So because that word is so often used and so seldom defined, how would you define product innovation, or innovation specifically?

Jeff [00:35:07] So in the context of that, at least, I think we think of it in terms of, you know, how do you take an idea and make it a reality? Right.

Paul [00:35:14] I like that.

Jeff [00:35:15] Innovation and invention, whatever you want to call it, right, there’s usually a spark, right. So there’s an idea that comes from customer research or there’s an idea that comes from a specific salesperson or an idea that comes from an executive, right. The idea germinates somewhere and then it’s about, all right, well then how do we take that idea and then assess it and validate it and form it and shape it? And usually, the idea that you start with is very different than the idea that you end up, you know, kind of bringing to market. But when we talk about the innovation and lifecycle process, or you know, we’re kind of now starting to call it like the commercialization process as well. It’s really about how do you take an idea and turn it into something that is actually in the market, whether it’s a new product or new service or whether it’s improvements to an existing offering.

Paul [00:35:55] Great answer.

Sean [00:35:56] All right. Cool. So last question, any books you’re currently reading, or you currently read that you’re recommending another product leaders, product people?

Jeff [00:36:04] I’m way behind. I’ve got three kids, so any books I’m reading are books that they’re enjoying. I’m sure there’s some product management lessons in the Babysitters Club books that my nine-year-old daughter is currently reading, but I haven’t found them yet. So I’ll give you a throwback to one of the books that had the biggest impact on me, a book called Blue Ocean Strategy.

Sean [00:36:22] Yeah.
Jeff [00:36:22] So it was an HBR article, then became a book. Quite frankly, I think you can get a lot of it just by reading the HBR article. But in terms of one of the books that I read that I think really helped me think a lot about strategy, a lot about competitive differentiation, a lot about kind of assessing a market. I’ve read a lot of books over the years, but that’s one that’s really stuck with me.

Sean [00:36:41] All right. How old are your kids?

Jeff [00:36:43] I’ve got eleven, nine, and eight. So Babysitters Club for the nine-year-old. My eight-year-old son is super into anything Star Wars, so any like Star Wars fan fiction.

Sean [00:36:53] The Chronicles of Narnia were my books for my kids at that age.

Jeff [00:36:58] Yeah. And my oldest one is a big Harry Potter fan, so…

Paul [00:37:01] Can’t go wrong.

Jeff [00:37:02] You know, I, unfortunately, don’t have as much time. I feel like I spend all day talking and thinking and writing about product management. So I feel like I get a pass if I’m a little behind in my product management book reading.

Paul [00:37:13] Well, granted I think you’ve more than shared enough wisdom for a book just in the minutes that we’ve spent together. We really appreciate the time you’ve carved out from your busy quarantine to spend with us and we’ve really got some great pearls of wisdom here. I’m really thankful for the time you got.

Sean [00:37:30] Yeah, I agree. We’re deeply honored that you joined us. Thank you, Jeff.

Jeff [00:37:33] Thank you guys for having me. I enjoyed it and thanks for having me on.

Paul [00:37:39] Well, that’s it for today. In line with our goals of transparency and listening, we really want to hear from you. Sean and I are committed to reading every piece of feedback that we get. So please leave a comment or a rating wherever you’re listening to this podcast. Not only does it help us continue to improve, but it also helps the show climb up the rankings so that we can help other listeners move, touch and inspire the world, just like you’re doing. Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next episode.