Lead on Purpose

Promoting Leadership Principles in Product Management

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Top five posts of 2008

The Lead on Purpose blog had its first birthday/anniversary earlier this month. During 2008 the blog’s readership has grown substantially through a combination posts about leadership and product management. The following five posts were rated the most popular by readers of Lead on Purpose:

  1. Product manager responsibilities: This post discusses the difference between product owner vs. product manager. It also discusses the responsibility for product managers to create internal productroadmaps.
  2. Five factors of leadership: Product managers have the responsibility to get products out the door on time, with high quality and under budget. However, the people they rely on to get the job done do not report to them. This post identifies five factors that, if understood and applied, will improve the leadership role of product managers.
  3. Ten principles of effective leadership: This post discusses ten principles of effective leadership that will build desired results, relationships and quality of life.
  4. Five stages of problem solving: Well-written problem statements help product managers communicate both the difficulty faced in the market and the potential reward for solving problems. Market problems create opportunities for people and companies who can find ways to solve them. This post gives five steps to help you indentify problem statements clearly and help identify solutions.
  5. Three reasons to visit customers: Professionals working in any industry want to understand the markets to which they sell and the people who are buying their products and services. This post identifies three key reasons why customer visits are not only good but also vital to a company’s success.

The Product Management Perspective: Product managers have a great opportunity to become key leaders in their organizations. The Lead on Purpose blog is dedicated to promoting leadership through the discipline of product management. Thank you for making 2008 a great year!


Solving problems – creating opportunities

Think about someone for whom you have a tremendous amount of respect. What are the characteristics that draw you to that person? Most likely he or she has the ability to plow through difficult circumstances and come out on top; to learn from mistakes and create successful outputs. Successful people solve problems and create opportunities.

When times get tough, and problems seem to abound, remember these cogent words of Thomas Edison: “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

The Product Management Perspective: A central component to solving problems is problem statements. Well-thought-out problem statements have the potential to create new and exciting opportunities for your products. The interesting thing about problem statements — as compared with inputs (Enhancement Requests, Call Reports, Market Research, etc.) and outputs (Requirements, MRD/PRDs, etc.) — is that product managers are left to do these on their own. They do not have pressure from sales people as they might with capturing some of the inputs. They do not get feedback from the development and QA teams as they do with requirements and MRD/PRDs.

Problem statements might be the only output from product management that is truly their own. Product managers who understand their markets well, filter the inputs effectively and create compelling problem statements will increase their success at producing great products.

Disclosure: The ideas for this post came from an invigorating conversation this morning with my friend and colleague Stewart Rogers.


The power of written words

Much has been said over time about the power of writing things down. People write goals, most often at the beginning of a new year.  They write mission statements to define the purpose of their organization, and writing personal mission statements is becoming increasingly more common.

Dan McCarthy wrote an interesting post about the power of an individual development plan (IDP). Dan says that an IDP help you identify what you want to get better at and how and when you’re going to do it. He cites a study conducted on students in the 1979Harvard MBA program. The students were asked if they had written goals for the future and made plans to accomplish them. Only three percent of the graduates had written goals; 13 percent had goals, but they were not in writing; 84 percent had no specific goals at all. The results were quite surprising:

Ten years later, the members of the class were interviewed again, and the findings, while somewhat predictable, were nonetheless astonishing. The 13 percent of the class who had goals were earning, on average, twice as much as the 84 percent who had no goals at all. And what about the three percent who had clear, written goals? They were earning, on average, ten times as much as the other 97 percent put together.

While writing down goals offers no guarantee of success, it increases the likelihood significantly. There’s something about putting things down in writing that triggers the mind to make whatever was written be fulfilled. Take time this week to identify a few things you want to accomplish and write them down.

The Product Management Perspective: One of the keys to effective product management is writing problem statements. Most product managers I’ve met agree that problem statements help them gather, refine and assign market data to help them filter out true market opportunities. However, despite understanding the importance of writing problems statements, many product managers do not write them regularly. The most common reason I hear is something like “I know they [problem statements] would help me to organize better, but I don’t have time; I spend most of my time writing requirements.” Requirements definition will take all the time it’s given, but in the long run, takes much less time if the appropriate problem statements are written as a basis for the requirements. To a large extent, problem statements make up the product manager’s goals for the market.

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Fundamentals of leadership

Companies and individuals often go to extremes in their search for success. They look for the most sophisticated processes hoping they will get a leg up on their competitors. In all their efforts to make their organizations more complex — thinking that will make them more successful — they forget the fundamentals.

Art Petty has some great lessons for leaders in his latest post. He gives four current examples of leaders who overlooked the fundamentals, then says: “How does this happen in a world filled with balanced scorecards and legions of certified quality professionals constantly measuring, monitoring and striving to improve performance?  I suspect that my own answer is that while we have ample tools available for our use in building, the one tool that we haven’t yet mastered is staring back at us in the mirror.”

One of the fundamentals missed by many organizations is people management. Art continues: “Fewer organizations than you might think are doing anything to engender employee satisfaction…which is ironic given the mountains of data that indicate that employee satisfaction flows through to customer satisfaction and strong financial performance.” The people in all parts of the organization need to be “on board” and believe in the purpose of the organization. That’s just one of the fundamentals of leadership.

The Product Management Perspective: Product managers must focus on the fundamentals: market inputs, problem statements, features, requirements, etc. As they focus on getting these things in order, product managers will gain the trust of their teams. When the teams know they are working on the right things for the right reason, they will do amazing things.


Five stages of problem solving

I’ve been thinking about the importance of problem statements lately. Well-written problem statements help product managers communicate both the difficulty faced in the market and the potential reward for solving the problems. If you stop and think about it you’ll see that problems are actually opportunities. New features, new products and even new industries spring up from people who see problems and find ways to solve them. The key to successfully solving problems is understanding them. The following steps will help you express problems clearly and help you identify solutions:

  1. Define the problem: Understand the nature of the problem and articulate it clearly so you understand its effects on the people you are trying to help.
  2. Produce ideas: Make a list of things you can do right away to solve the problem. Be aggressive in finding the right solution.
  3. Test the ideas: Discuss the best ideas with your team and test them with customers. Find out which ones resonate.
  4. Choose among ideas: Choose the idea that will best solve the problem.
  5. Plan for action: Write a plan to solve the problem. This plan will most often come in the form of clear product requirements that will guide the development, QA, marketing and other teams to successfully implement a product (or new product features) that solves the problem.

Well-written problem statements are an important communication tool for product managers. Adopting the five stages of problem solving to the writing clear problem statements — and requirements that solve them — will increase the success of your products and give you a repeatable process.

Note: I’ve adapted the five stages of problem solving to product management based on what I read in the book “A More Excellent Way” by the late Neal A. Maxwell, a great educator and religious leader.