Blame Your Product Manager
December 5, 2013

Blame Your Product Manager

by Brian de Haaff

Can you define your startup and its product strategy in a sentence? If not, it is probably not your fault — blame the product manager. Building great software is hard, but it should not be excruciating. There is a formula to success and it is a lot like what it takes to be terrific at just about anything. You need a lightweight vision, a set of measurable goals, key to-dos, and the willingness to tweak them all. It is not all that difficult to think “goal first” and no matter your team size or skills, you can do it if you follow this simple recipe.

The idea that a startup or any new product success is just a matter of luck is simply not true.

Focusing on “goal first” is important in every business but fundamental in software companies. This is because the software that is produced by the team is the product that customers buy and thus the product is the company. Build the wrong product and you kill the company. Build the right product, define a market, and be loved.

We built Aha! with this goal in mind — we wanted to create a new way for product managers to create brilliant product strategy and visual roadmaps. Aha! is purpose-built with the needs of the product manager and a growing software company at its core.

While behemoth group-think processes, bureaucratic gating, and trickle-down-development destroy innovation and make it hard to define any product goals, blind obsession with agile methods of development carry their own risks. I have seen failures in both waterfall and agile development organizations. It is no secret that agile development emphasizes a heads-down, incremental approach, where major decisions are delayed. The methodology focuses on “sprinting” and “burning down” features to eliminate risk and increase predictability. No matter what development framework you prefer, a clear strategy for product success must come first.

We view product roadmapping as the process of setting a product roadmap. And a product roadmap is nothing more than a plan for how the product is going to meet a set of business objectives. A great roadmap starts with a clear product vision and a canvas that explains the customer and market forces that will shape the product’s direction. In Aha!, we call this plan a strategy, and a strategy has three key parts that are related:

Vision Great products have a soul. The soul is your vision for the product and it should explain how the customer will be thrilled and the world a better place when you realize your dreams. The vision is the place to define your outlook for the product and where it is headed. A good vision is supported by details of who the customers are, what customers need, and your go-to-market plan. It captures the essence of what you want to achieve – the critical information your team must understand to develop and maintain a winning product.

- EXAMPLE: global leader in market x

Goals Your product goals must have a measurable end result that can be achieved within a fixed timeframe. Your objectives should represent the critical accomplishments that are required to make your vision a reality. They highlight what you hope to accomplish and are often stepping stones to accelerating business growth and laying out bolder goals. They should also be reasonably easy to track, so you know how you and the team are doing against them. Because if you cannot measure it — you cannot improve it.

- EXAMPLE: grow sales in Europe by 2x

Initiatives Initiatives allow you to specify key work that needs to be completed to achieve your goals. Think of the efforts as projects that should be accomplished within a specified period of time — even if that is over months. Initiatives tend to cross multiple sprints and include many stories or requirements.

- EXAMPLE: translate product into French

As a great product builder, you must establish a “goal first” approach and a true north for your product based on the best information you have. Reaffirm your strategy and tweak it as necessary, but stay grounded in what you are trying to achieve.

Explain to the company and product team where they are headed and the value new releases and features will deliver to customers and the business. If you do, your company and team will follow. Lose your direction or whip-saw the team back-and-forth and the complaints will smack you down until the lack of progress kills you.

Starting with a “goal first” mindset separates great product managers and companies from their competitors and can lead to disruptive innovation. Leveraging a product roadmapping tool like Aha! can provide a framework and make it easy to set and share the product strategy.

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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