In Search of Focus – Knowing what to build Next

Boundary Spanner

The real role of the product manager in the organization is to work with a team to create the right product that balances meeting business needs with solving user problems. To do that, they need to wear lots of different hats. An effective product manager must understand many sides of the company in order to do their job effectively. They need to understand the market and how the business works. They need to truly understand the vision and goal of the company. They also need deep empathy for the users for whom they are building products, to understand their needs.

If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there. When outcomes are not clearly defined, this tends to be the result of most product development efforts. Products fail not because the technology doesn’t work but because the product lacks customers and a viable business model. Finding value and delighting your customers requires a lot of effort and a considerable level of Focus. So as product teams how do we chart a course to understand customer needs, and ensure what we build next is right for them.

Focus from Above

Products are a true reflection of the companies that build them. A successful product can have its roots traced back to the leadership of the organization that birth it, same can be said for a product that is struggling or worse failing. The best product visions are ones that are aligned with the strong vision, mission statement and strategy of the company. Successful organizations focus on a few initiatives that bring out real change. Companies must think about the why as well as the what and have them clearly spelt out by the leadership. Effective product development starts with disciplined thinking from the top, with leaders investing their efforts to choose what’s truly important. When in doubt on where to begin, turn to your company’s mission statement. If you are still in doubt speak to your organizational leaders. 

Battle Fields

Choosing the battles to participate in is one sure way to win the war. Winning the right battles requires fighting on the right battlefields. In product development, the markets the product solutions address can be considered as the battlefields. Working off the back of a strongly aligned company vision, mission statement and strategy, the product team is able to determine the markets for which their products will solve customer problems and deliver value to customers and the organization. 

Customer Obsession.

Customer obsession is what drives companies like Amazon and from the look of things, it should drive yours too. No one really knows what a customer needs until they have done some work. Different companies have different approaches to figuring out what their customers need, from scouring through social media posts and online surveys to digging through mounts of customer data. To be customer-obsessed, one must map out and devote their efforts to understanding the customer journey. Rather than debate ideas, delve into the customer journey. Let the various personas, use case scenarios, workflows and experiences influence and inform the problems and opportunities that will determine why, what and how to build. 

Tools to Cut Steel

Figuring out what to build takes a strategic and experimental approach. The product manager should be at the helm of these experiments while continuing to identify and reveal every known unknown. At the beginning of product development, the known unknowns are usually around problem exploration and customer behaviour. As these unknowns begin to become clearer, the uncertainty then shifts to what will solve that customer problem.

As a product manager seeking ways to spend your time on features that matter, it’s important to note that a chunk of your ideas start off as opinions and not facts. Your job is to sooner rather than later figure out where you are wrong and quickly align before investing a lot of effort into the wrong ideas. Opportunity hypotheses is a widely used method focused on creating and validating opinions. Opportunity hypothesis can be determined using quantitative or qualitative tools. 

Quantitative approaches involve studying, interpreting and analyzing data to determine what to do next. Metrics are the most common sources of quantitative data as they measure different tasks users perform within your product. Setting the right metrics and drawing analysis from them reveals a great deal of information to inform what to build next. 

Qualitative reasoning, the second set of tools for opportunity hypothesis, involves looking at the overall product vision, using intuition, soliciting the views of product team members, tackling known bugs, market research, business model analysis and using knowledge from observing customer behaviour to determine the next line of action. 


Less is Always More

Going through the ideas funnel and using the opportunity hypothesis approach results in a handful of work items that truly require the attention of the product team. Product teams that are focused on a lot of work items have diluted focus and obscure progress. At the end of the day, product teams deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.

Measuring what Matters, OKRs – The simple idea that drives 10x growth; John Doerr
The Product Book – How to Become a Great Product Manager; Josh Anon, Carlos Gonzalez de Villaumbrosia
Escaping the Build Trap – How Effective Product Management Creates Real Value; Melissa Perri