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The 3 biggest problems in Product Management today – Part 2 – Process

by Saeed Khan

innovation funnelIn part 1– I listed the following problems as the biggest ones I see facing high-tech product management.

  • poor definition of roles and responsibilities
  • significant gaps in repeatable product processes
  • problems in intra- and extra-company communication and alignment

I discussed the first one – Roles – in my previous post.

This time I’ll look at problems in repeatable processes.

Gaps in repeatable product processes

I’ve worked in several startups as well as a couple of public companies. Regardless of size, most of them had pretty good engineering processes. i.e. once they decided what to build, the engineering teams could usually build, test and release pretty good quality code. But what most did not have was a clear set of repeatable processes to identify new market opportunities and products, and then once built, release them with a clear and effective go-to-market strategy.

What should we build (next)?

On the front end, companies have problems answering the question, “What should we build next?”  This is not the same as “What can we build next?” It’s easy to simply build something. It’s difficult to build something that will be successful in the market. Many companies don’t understand what made their first product successful and thus have no idea how to repeat that success. Or, what they did (or the market conditions that existed) to make their first product successful cannot be repeated.

I once interviewed a product manager who was working at a company known for a VERY successful first product and several also ran products. He’d worked there for many years, and we discussed the new product process (if it could be called that) at his company. During the conversation, he mentioned that during his time there, the company had launched over 50 products that subsequently failed. The reasons varied, but mostly the failures were due to a CEO who “decided” what would be built next, with little real understanding of what people actually needed.

Some help is available

The Lean Startup movement aims to address the front-end problem with their constant learning, MVP (Minimum Viable Product)  and Pivot concepts. But in reality, they are far from a panacea. MVP is probably one of most misunderstood (and poorly named) concepts in any new product development methodology.

First, let’s cover the poor naming issue. There is no “product” necessary when dealing with Minimum Viable Product. The MVP could be anything that helps you learn more about the needs of users and customers: a demo, a prototype, a teaser page etc. While MVP does push the idea of learning and making decisions to the forefront of new product development, there is no set way to know what you need to find out, or how to find it out. You don’t know what you don’t know.

And in terms of misunderstanding,  I’ve heard people talk about a shipping product as “not yet MVP”. i.e. they were saying that the shipping product still does not provide enough value to compete successfully in the market.  This is hugely problematic. First, they clearly don’t understand what MVP means, but more importantly, they’ve decided to release a product to market that doesn’t meet minimum user needs.  Who benefits from that? Not the company and definitely not their users.

Although Lean Startup has a lot of notoriety these days, the principles it espouses are nothing new. Small experiments and making decisions as you learn what you need to move forward have been a successful innovation process for many years. Ever see the original Dyson vacuum commercial — the key line “…and a few thousand prototypes later…” is a telling statement.  How much did James Dyson learn from each of those prototypes.

How to go-to-market

But, let’s assume the product does meet minimum user needs. i.e. it sufficiently addresses specific use cases.  It still doesn’t guarantee success. Does the company know how to communicate the value externally? Can they position it and differentiate it from competitive offerings? Can the company identify initial prospects and customers. In short, can the company execute a successful go-to-market (GTM) strategy. In many cases, sadly, the answer to this question is “No”.

A go-to-market plan for a new product needs to be laser focused on a specific target market and one or two specific use cases. It should be clearly differentiated against existing competitors or alternative solutions. I’ve seen far too many companies come to market and position their new, unproven product as a head-to-head competitor against an established incumbent.

An example of a good GTM strategy is that of VMware. One of the first use cases for VMware’s virtualization technology was for Lab Management — the ability to easily configure, patch and manage server environments for development and QA. This was a very popular use case and addressed customer needs years before server virtualization in production environments — the most common use case today — was ready to adopt the technology.

On the flip side — remember the search engine Cuil? Probably not. Back in 2008, a bunch of ex-Googlers decided they were going to create a search engine to displace Google. As for the launch? I wrote about it here.  In short, significant problems that could have been avoided. The end result? 2 years and $33 million dollars later the site was shutdown in 2010. There are MANY examples of companies and products that were epic failures:

  • Coors Spring Water
  • Colgate Kitchen Entrees
  • New Coke
  • Bic Underwear
  • WebVan
  • Wii U
  • Microsoft Zune
  • Segway
  • Neflix Kwikster
  • Iridium phones
  • etc. etc. etc.

The list goes on and on, in every single product category you can think of. A philosopher might say that without failed products, there can be no successful ones.  But as a Product Manager, I say, that the sheer number of failed products shows companies have yet to learn the basics of repeatable product success.

So, what can be done to change this situation? What do you do in your company to address these problems?


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Saeed Khan is a founder and Managing Editor of On Product Management, and has worked for the last 20 years in high-technology companies building and managing market leading products. He also speaks regularly at events on the topic of product management and product leadership. You can contact him via Twitter @saeedwkhan or via the Contact Us page on this blog.