Product managment can feel like trying to eating an Elephant!

Elephant carpaccio has nothing to do with cruelty to elephants, it’s the process where software people practice and learn how to break user stories into thin vertical slices. It came from Elephant carpaccio Alistair Cockburn. I want to use the concept to challenge your thinking. Should we as product managers be working with elephants? One of the many roles of product management can be described as creating elephant carpaccio; however, you’re still trying to eat an elephant, and I would argue most of us can’t realistically hope to eat an elephant… however big your business appetite. A better approach to eating elephants is to shrink it down to something more bite-sized, let’s think burger. You need to move away from managing demand, in this case the elephant, to managing supply. But to get there, you need to manage your stakeholders and reach an agreement.

At its core, the job of product management is one of balancing the needs of all the many business stakeholders’: customers, prospects, the market, sales, support, executives… the list goes on and on. Yet if we think customer first, a lot of these sometimes-conflicting needs can be addressed quite simply. What do customers want? They want good quality solutions that address their pains or jobs to be done, it’s that easy. However, it’s easy to forget this in the never-ending product release cycle that product managers live within.

What’s your target? Get, Keep or Grow?

First, if you buy into the concept that keeping and retaining customers is more valuable than getting new ones, this starts to define a set of variables you can use to determine how you prioritise. Of course, you need all of your business stakeholders to buy into this. This includes making sure your sales teams are not outselling and promising things that you’re unlikely to deliver in the short term or medium term.

It’s should be obvious, but too often this simple rule is not followed. You must sell what you have today, not what is coming tomorrow (its common sense right?) but as I have discussed in other articles, common sense is not so prevalent especially in business were strategy and goals are not well aligned. I hear a question, I thought selling technology was about selling a vision? Yes, it is. You can sell the vision and its important to do that. However, the requirements need / have to be managed by someone and that someone should be the product manager. Having the right product narrative comes in to play here – what’s the big problem you’re trying to fix (the villain)? What the vision for solving the problem (the hero) then you get to them and at this point, you sell what you have, not the future.

With this foundation, you can start to create a set of variables, a matrix and some metrics to help you prioritise all of the requirements, but you can’t hope to do this unless you have got control of the new requests coming in. So often I see businesses drowning in a sea of requirements – features requested by customers through sales without a clear understanding of the problem or the job to be done. We all understand the pressure of selling a solution however feature bloat is a real issue and has hidden costs across the business, more code to manage, more support calls, more sales complexity, more marketing… the bigger the elephant is, the harder the problem you’re trying to solve.

Line up your stakeholders

When we think about stakeholders in business, we don’t think about the kind we see in the classic vampire films but maybe we should. Departmental egos, unrealistic expectations and conflicting strategic priorities can soon make the product manager feel like they just can’t win. The best way to address this is to take stakeholders to one side and walk through the variables and the prioritisation matrix you have defined. Getting everyone at different levels within the organisation onside is critical. In smaller start-ups, this is less of an issue as everyone is focused on the single product vision, but in more significant business, this can be complex and time-consuming. To help you manage them, you need to be equipped with the facts, and you need to work across the business with all your internal and external stakeholders in order to get agreement on what matters. If you work in a business where everything matters, then it might be time to start looking for a new organisation. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different outcome. If a business is trying to do everything then they are trying to do nothing and if your strategy is not clear, or is trying to fight on too many fronts, then you can’t win. I will cover strategy in a future article but what fascinates me is that there are only a few key strategies (market expansion, diversification, market penetration, product expansion) yet business go wrong in trying to pursue too many of them at the same time and not funding them at a level that can lead to real success.

Ratios and ranges can be your friend

Ratios are good things to use to help you get a handle on the health of your products and your product management process, in the same way, ranges are a good thing to use when you’re estimating. Building software is not like building a car where you design the components and assemble them; the goal to make each car the same as it rolls off the production line. Anyone that has built software knows there are many ways of solving development problems. Should I use an Array, Dictionary, Set or roll my own collection type? Because of this, a lot of general management thinking, much of which originated with General Motors in the 1950’s, does not help you manage digital products or development teams. You need to be equipped with the facts and you need to work across the business with all your internal and external stakeholders to get agreement on what matters. So, many CEO’s and even CTO’s or CIO’s don’t understand concepts like constraints theory or the real value of time i.e. opportunity cost. So, product managers end up at the sharp end of all of the conflicting priorities.

a lot of general management thinking, much of which originated with General Motors in the 1950’s, does not help you manage digital products or development teams

If your ratio of new defects to existing is increasing, then you have a quality problem and your most likely overloading the system with too many stories per sprint. The same holds for new support incidents to existing ones. Its’ ‘working as designed’ comments, demonstrate a breakdown in the requirements management process and / or a lack of design input. Adding new customers, if existing ones are leaving in droves, is counterproductive and especially if the new customer brings with them new requirements. This can make the problems even worse. This can be a real problem when moving to new countries with new market requirements. Using the bowling alley approach highlighted in ‘Crossing the chasm’ can be useful when making these kinds of decisions and doing them at the right time.

Herding Elephants

It’s just common sense, but if sales have been tasked with selling, then you can understand how these conflicts emerge. It’s also where looking at ratios of departments within a business can be useful, what’s the ratio of Development staff to the ratio of sales? The traditional business needed large sales teams but in modern platform business, these ratios are changing. With improved customer experience comes self-service, onboarding, social support and a range of cost-effective ways of serving customer needs. Much of which can be supported by product and product managers, but you need to make space for them in the backlog. Also, the company needs to have a focus on improved customer experience at a fundamental level, not just lip service, or it just one more thing to be prioritised with everything else i.e. a bigger elephant.

How to prioritise will have to wait for another time, the different mathematical approaches to prioritising have real value: MoSCoW, Class of service, Weighted look-ahead approach, Incremental funding model, Cost-benefit analysis, HiPPO decisions, Equity, Weighted shortest job first or CD3. Don’t get me wrong these all have a place, and I have used many different types in my past. However, the maths you use to prioritise does not get around the human aspects of managing expectations. It can’t magically make your development teams 50% more productive or increase your development budget by 100%. So, they will help you make smarter prioritisation calls, but they can’t fix management bad practice and unrealistic expectations. For those, you need to win over the hearts and minds of your colleges, and for that, you need to be able to explain why you have prioritised in the way you have and told them: what they will get, what they won’t, when they would get it and why. Get your people to start thinking burgers, not elephants.

Meanings and Feelings

Winning Hearts and Minds

Firstly, I want to thank everyone that reached out to me over the holiday period after my first Curious Cognition blog article. It struck a chord with many of you and so instead of focusing this article purely on product management, which was my original plan, I am going to go a little deeper on why storytelling works and what it means in a B2B contest. I am also going to talk about the importance of persona for product management and messaging as part of the article.

I have recently had many colleagues and friends telling me to, “drop the whole storytelling thing” now. They have told me to focus on my product management skills as they are what organisations will want and will pay top dollar for. Which is why our focus for curious cognition is product management related. Having said that, authentic storytelling as a skill is so compelling and useful to different roles inducing product managers, that I feel it deserves at least a little more attention in this article. We are all familiar with the concepts of winning people’s hearts and minds, but do we win the heart or the mind first? Does it even matter if B2B is only organisations talking to other organisations?

Where is the P in B2B?

Is there such a thing as Business 2 Business? Or is it Business 2 Person 2 Business in reality – (B2P2B)? I hope we all know the answer to this – people are still the interfaces to business, not exclusively of course, as API’s and the handoffs between them play an increasingly essential role in digital business; in true platform business they play a vital role. However, I want this article to focus on people. We will leave API’s for another article, people in sales, in marketing, in product management, in finance, in purchasing… You name it, these people are everywhere and to make it worse they are different colours, have different attitudes and backgrounds and depending on the day, they may be in a good or bad mood. Yet in traditional B2B business marketing, you would think people don’t exist. Yes, there are pictures of people everywhere in B2B marketing and yes, they are different colours, sexes and backgrounds as you would expect.

A lot of the time however, the content that’s communicated in B2B sounds like a business talking to business:

“I am a leader in my field; therefore, you obviously want to buy from me”

“We have more of X and more of Y, and therefore you want to buy from me”

Does this sound familiar? If you don’t believe me, go and look on the web now, I just found half a dozen examples. I don’t want to make myself unpopular, so I am not going to share them! My point is many businesses sound arrogant pompous and insincere.

In some cases, more progressive messaging teams are building messages that speak to the users or the buyers, however often the two personas get confused. I have seen this problem first hand in my career and it’s a problem not just for sales and marketing, it’s a challenge for product managers as well. If you don’t have a clear view of who the customer is, how can you prioritise the requirements for your backlog? How do you prevent bloatware and all the additional costs it drives? (build time, quality assurance, support, training, sales enablement, etc.) In my personal experience, I have seen products that did not know who the target audience were, this kind of mistake is value destroying and it is not as uncommon as it might sound.

I have this feeling

As people, we are all share many of the same feelings. Recent research shows there are at least seven universal facial expressions that cross-cultural barriers. These are: happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, anger, contempt and surprise. We can all recognise them, we are pre-programmed from shortly after birth to do so. A message that resonates with us that triggers a feeling, is far more powerful than one that “bounces off”. A lot of B2B marketing in my view bounces off customers. It fails to recognise that we are emotional beings with feelings of hope and aspirations. I think, we are seeing more businesses that would have traditionally sold directly to the business, increasingly sell to the individuals within a business. The first company that did this was Salesforce.com who launched with an inspired marketing campaign build around No Software. They were one of the first Software as a service (SaaS) business models that are becoming increasingly standard today – it’s all about subscriptions. They use the cognitive bias known as ‘Anchoring’ – this is the human tendency to frame subsequent assessments around an initial piece of information. By claiming the solution was No Software, they made it easier for the sale people who they targeted directly to work around the IT departments. It was the beginning of the end for the IT department as the sole owner of the software solution. Today we see more and more businesses targeting the end user directly. Project management tools like Monday.com and AirTable are good examples of this with Monday.com adverts proudly boasting “what it feels like to use Monday”. Their YouTube videos also talk about emotional things such as “Your girlfriend leaves you” hardly what we see from the traditional B2B marketing efforts.

So feelings do have a place in B2B marketing?

If feeling has a place, then emotions must have a place also. After all, feeling and emotions are effectively the same. The definition of a feeling is an emotional state or reaction. I think they do have a place and for me, this underlines why storytelling works. When we hear a good story, it triggers an emotional response. A ghost story where the hairs on the back of our neck stand up, or a story about overcoming adversity where we feel proud for the company we work for. If we want to trigger emotional responses, we need to consider the words we use carefully and with meaning when we build messaging frameworks in marketing and how we make marketecture’s in product management.  This link demonstrates how all these words matter and if we want to trigger an emotional response, we need to use adjectives, as this helps express the tone, feelings, and emotions of our words by accentuating the point. Picking the right adjectives for your product, narrative, purpose, values, vision or strategy matter… no, they REALLY matter.

Most of us are familiar with the research that shows how quickly interviewers make decisions. Much of this is based on feeling, heuristics and cognitive biases. Examples include halo/horn bias, affective bias, confirmation bias, anchoring bias (which I mentioned above) and nonverbal bias are some of the most significant used in interviews

So, if feelings matter, then the meanings of the words we use must also matter for all the communication we do – whether you’re writing product user stories, marketing copy, creating investment pitches, sales pitches, compiling an earnings announcement or announcing a new strategy or change in strategic direction. So often, getting everyone on the same page fails because we don’t consider just how much the messages matter and whether they contradict or support each other – they often contradict, especially in bigger business.

I have worked with organisations where the ‘strategy’ felt like a lottery of keywords and phrases, each selected by a different senior leader, all delivered as a smorgasbord of strategic options and generic statements. “Win in sales” – FFS! Who doesn’t want to win in sales?! I have also worked with organisations with a coherent, focused strategic narrative that inspired, focused and constrained the options before us and explained how we were going to achieve something. Getting everyone pointing in the same direction, committed to the cause, drinking the cool aid, motivated, excited, aligned… I could go on, but you get the idea. This can be so powerful and yet it’s far from universal, in part because everyone is using a different set of words to describe what they want to achieve. There is a general lack of alignment between intent and action, often because of the quality of communication – with many businesses favouring the number of communications over the over quality. The way messaging is built and managed also contributes to this challenge.

A physical feeling

All words have meanings, but some trigger feelings some of which can be visceral – a physical feeling brought about though emotions. I am guessing as I conclude, some of you will feel uneasy with all this talk of emotions in a B2B context. However, as we have established, even in B2B there are people – people with cognitive biases can’t help themselves. You can’t hope to win people over with logic alone, and many studies have shown this.  One pricing example: Two groups, equal groups, were offered two different offers a 35% discount or a staff discount at 30%. Logically you would expect the 35% to have performed better, but the staff discount with a compelling story performed better. Maybe because of the story that went around the pricing and because we expect staff to get the best discounts.

Next month I promise to leave the squishy feeling stuff alone. I am going to deep dive on a product topic that’s been described as ‘Elephant Carpaccio’ and often manifests its self as ‘How do you prioritise a backlog when it’s too big, and your senior leadership keep adding more to it.’

If your curious about the power of authentic storytelling in a business environment this is the event for you. You will hear from Jason Nash the founder of Curious Cognition, and about his work building a company narrative for Travelport supporting its repositioning effort form B2B Global Distribution System to B2B4C Travel Commerce & Retailing Platform. He will also share some storytelling tricks and tips.  You will find this interesting if you’re a B2B Brand Manager, Marketing Managers, Sales Managers and Product Managers.