Product Managers Are Smarter Than a Spreadsheet
March 5, 2018

Product Managers Are Smarter Than a Spreadsheet

by Brian de Haaff

Does greatness come from a spreadsheet? Probably not if you are a product manager. Yet many are attempting to do so at this very moment — using a spreadsheet to manage the building of a product. Really, those spreadsheets are nothing more than a glorified list of features and priorities. This may work for a while. But spreadsheets are not meant for roadmapping the future.

No offense to spreadsheets. But they are not that smart. And that is understandable. A spreadsheet is a general purpose tool — ideal for tracking and calculating things such as a marketing budget. But managing the complicated process of building a product?

When it comes to product management, the spreadsheet has big-time limitations. Think about it: No linking your strategy to the work. No custom roadmap views. No collaboration or sharing notes. And certainly no quick visual mockup capability.

As a product manager, you deserve a more sophisticated tool than a spreadsheet.

This is because you need to gather and share dynamic information. To build something exceptional, you need to deeply understand the customer problem and the market landscape. You need to capture those insights, set strategic goals, and link it all to the features that need to be built. And what about capturing customer feedback? Absolutely, you need that too.

Your goal is to create a product that customers love. You do this by focusing on and delivering what I call the Complete Product Experience (CPE). The CPE is an approach to building product that is both strategic and people-centric. And it is nearly impossible to accomplish in a spreadsheet. So if you are still squinting at those rows of cells, consider this a gentle alarm.

Throw out the spreadsheet. Use a tool that was designed for building products. Here is how to build product in a smarter, more strategic, and (hopefully) more enjoyable way:

Know your why You need to know why you are building in the first place. So, create a clear vision of the problem you are solving for customers and the opportunity for the business — your reason for being. You can then set your product goals and thematic initiatives for how to get there. It all starts with the “why.”

Know your customers Everyone on the team should know who the customer is — in a deep and meaningful way. To get everyone on the same page, create customer personas. Documenting the customer’s likes, dislikes, struggles, and desires. Once created, link these personas to your features so everyone on the team is clear who it is you are building for.

Know your plan To deliver what your customers need and to create the greatest business value, you need input from cross-functional teams. This means knowing the plan deeply yourself, while also making it visible and collaborative with the broader team. In other words, share the plan and share it often. Give the team insights on what is ahead and ask for input on what could be better.

Know your organization Once everyone understands the plan — the key ideas and how the features map to your thematic initiatives — you need to take steps to understand the team. Do they have what they need to execute on the plan? What tools will make it easier to share information and track status? (The answer is never “another spreadsheet.”)

Know your barriers I know it can be hard to hear criticism, but do not brush it off — whether it is from a support call or a frustrated email from a sales colleague. Listen, respond, and if the request is aligned with your goals, take action. A dedicated feedback loop like an ideas portal will help you gather these product requests on a regular basis.

Know your tool Are you using a dedicated tool to set strategy, capture ideas, prioritize features, manage releases, and report on progress to the team? If so, great — you are in good shape. But if you are trying to make a generic tool work with your very specific product job, you might be struggling to move the work forward. And you would benefit from adopting a purpose-built product management tool.

Spreadsheets have a place and a purpose. But if you rely on a spreadsheet to build product, you will find yourself boxed into a cell.

Even if you give up using spreadsheets for roadmap planning, know that they will continue to play an important role in running the business. Only now the spreadsheet will be used for what it was designed to do as a general purpose tool.

Everything you do — every feature created or idea gathered — needs to tie back to that problem you are solving. You deserve to use a purpose-built tool that helps you build product with conviction.

This is how great product managers build great products — the ones that customers love.

Are you still using spreadsheets to manage your product planning?

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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