6 Ways Product Managers Avoid Product Disasters
January 22, 2016

6 Ways Product Managers Avoid Product Disasters

Is it really that bad? “80 to 90 percent of products fail.” You might hear this statistic quoted a lot, but it is not clear exactly where it comes from and is likely urban legend.

Whether it is 80 to 90 percent or even half of that, we all know that it is hard to build a successful product. Yet more companies than ever are up to the challenge and set out to prove that they will build something of value. According to Battelle, a nonprofit research organization, the tech world spent about $1.6 trillion on product research and new product development in 2014.

Battelle claims that research and innovation “contribute in the short and long term to prosperity and competitiveness, as well as to the resolution of society’s greatest challenges in areas like health, energy, and security.”

But not all of those expenditures translate into prosperity– because many resulting products and services fail in the marketplace.

If you are a product manager — or anyone responsible for product success — then I doubt that even a 40 percent failure rate is something that sits very well with you. You have your heart set on leading your product team to market success. And here is the great news: this is not an impossible goal.

Experience has taught me that if you lead product with a few specific steps, your risk of failure goes down exponentially. Here are the six keys to long-term product success:

Strategy The first key to product success is to have a strategy — both for your product and your product’s market. “Strategy” in this case is exactly what it sounds like — “a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.”

Your product strategy should consist of understanding what your target customer wants or needs to do — and how you will give them value by helping them achieve their goals. Development and product launch should proceed only after the strategy is at least drafted or completed to increase chances of success. So, always make sure that product strategy comes first.

Process Do you have a repeatable, mature, and optimized product lifecycle framework with a process? This framework covers the phases of the product’s lifecycle. A successful framework includes details about who makes what decisions; who needs to be informed/consulted; and who is driving the product.

Having all of these as part of your process increases your chance of success by reducing the culture of blame within your organization. It also helps move your product team up the maturity curve.

A product lifecycle that everyone agrees to stick with — from engineers to senior stakeholders — will enhance the chance of success and reduce duplication of effort. It has the added bonus of not rushing products to market before they are ready — a core reason why lots of products fail. A strong, clear process is your secret weapon for success.

Information To manage a product effectively, you must have information and knowledge available that allows you to track and make corrections. And here’s the most important part: that information must be actionable, relevant, and clearly communicated across all product team members and stakeholders. This might sound too obvious. But not having — or sharing — the right information about your product is one of the most common missteps I’ve noticed.

So, how can you communicate what matters? Make sure that you have all of the information necessary to combine a go-to-market strategy with the most up-to-date information about how well the marketing is working, how product sales are going, and what’s happening in all aspects of operations. This all falls under the “must-have” category; you, as the product manager, will fly blind without it.

Customers Do your product and your company help your customers “do” what they want to do? If they truly help people accomplish their goals, then your product will be wildly successful. The trick is to find out which problem your customers must solve — and use your product to provide a solution.

How can you achieve this? Start by generating your value proposition based on your innovation for what people “do.” You can use this information to drive your positioning statements — which, in turn, will drive your marketing, messaging, and media efforts.

When in doubt, remember: generating your value proposition becomes easy if you start by observing and asking what your user’s goals are. Then, find out what they wish they could do better, define how your product will achieve that goal for them, and use that solution to drive your product management efforts.

Team Who builds, markets, sells, and supports insanely great products? Insanely great product teams where each person makes unique contributions. Finding the right person for each role on your product team is a no-brainer. Gaps in talent can delay launches and impact releases.

You cannot build an amazing product by yourself. You need Engineering to build it, Marketing to explain it, Sales to advocate it, and Customer Success to support it. It is true that all major product decisions point back to you. But never forget that having the right product team will anchor your success.

Systems Can your product team support your whole product lifecycle and improve productivity? Hopefully, the answer is yes. Now, here is another question: do you have the tools and systems in place to achieve this? Or are there areas where you can improve?

I have answered “No” to this question in the past. And most of the time, it was because I did not know which systems and tools I needed — or what exactly I needed from them. This often varies between companies; a product manager at a pre-seed startup will have different needs than the product manager for a large multinational.

Still, I have found that a few product management needs are constant — and knowing what you need from the outset can save your team hours of time.

Managers of product need systems and tools that enable them to:

  • Find what they are looking for when they are looking for it

  • Enable coordination across departments

  • Offer stakeholders visibility into the status of each product within their lifecycle

  • Notify product contributors about what they need to do — and when

  • Archive product information so things that went well can be copied and irrelevant work can be discarded.

I have been blessed throughout my career. I worked as a PM during the ’80s tech boom at some of Silicon Valley’s most innovative companies.

These roles convinced me that there is a formula for product success. And if you stick to it, the impact of your products — and their brands — will be felt for decades to come.

This is a guest post by David Fradin. If you are looking to be a great product manager or owner, create brilliant strategy, and build visual product roadmaps — start a free trial of Aha!

David is a Silicon Valley veteran. He led Hewlett Packard’s first office systems products in the 80s and later managed over 500 products in the Apple /// division while Steve Jobs oversaw the Macintosh Division. David has conducted product management and product marketing management training for companies including Capital One Bank, Cisco, Infosys, and Pitney Bowes. Today, he is Principal at Spice Catalyst, where he leads online product management and marketing courses. David can also be found on Twitter @DavidFradin1

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