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Bruce McCarthy is Founder and Chief Product Person at UpUp Labs, where he and his team are at work on Reqqs - the smart roadmap tool for product people.



How to Win with Superior Decisions

Have you ever worked at a company where the CEO or some other executive changes the priorities every week? Where no one can get anything done because they are constantly switching gears?

Or maybe you’ve been stuck on a project that seems like it will never end because there are always “just a few more things” needed for it to really take off.

I certainly have and I’ll bet most of you have as well.

Why do seemingly smart people make (and repeat) bad decisions that waste time and money, suck the energy and enthusiasm out of their people, and ruin good ideas with poor execution? According to Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath and Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, all of us are vulnerable to a series of very human decision-making mistakes. Fortunately, there is some good data on ways to counteract these weaknesses and make the kind of gutsy, brilliant decisions that drive success.

I listened to both of these books recently on Audible (a great way to make use of otherwise wasted time in the car) and they’ve both resonated with and clarified my thinking about effective ways of making product management decisions. I recommend reading (or listening to) both books, but I find the WRAP decision-making framework from Decisive a very accessible way to remind myself of the right ways to make decisions when faced with them.

Here's how WRAP works:

W - Widen Your Options

According to the authors of Decisive, “Teenagers and executives often make ‘whether or not’ decisions,” overlooking a host of possibly superior alternatives. Should we acquire this company or not? Should we approve this project or not? Should we hire this person or not? The right question is more like: What is the best use of our available funds?

'Whether or not' decisions ignore opportunity cost. You can only do so many things, given limited finances and time. So step back, think about your overall goals and what things will get you there quickest. That one thing you were trying to decide on will be a much easier decision when compared with a lot of other things that will help you more or less with getting where you want to go. Try my prioritization methodology if you are stuck on a 'whether or not' decision.

R - Reality-test Your Assumptions

Testing your way to success is the heart of the Lean Startup movement. It works because it forces us to expose our assumptions to the disinfecting effects of real-world data. Many of us are guilty of doing some interviews where friendly people tell us what we want to hear and calling it “market research.” This phenomenon is called “confirmation bias” because we all have a tendency to pay more attention to information that confirms what we already think we know.

I became a much better product person overnight, years ago, when the survey data that suggested people were interested in my product in significant numbers turned into a response rate of less than 0.1% on launch. I vowed then and there never to believe customer or prospect intentions until they put some skin in the game.

Testing your ideas with small experiments is called “ooching” your way to a decision in Decisive, which is a more succinct (and more fun) term than “testing and iteration,” as the Lean-ophiles say. But the notion is the same. “Why predict when you can know?”

A - Attain Distance before Deciding

We all tend to make decisions with our heart and then look for reasons to justify our gut feelings. And sometimes we’re right, but in business, being wrong can be very costly. The prioritization methodology mentioned above helps you and your stakeholders look at decisions from the perspective of shared goals, but there was one story in Decisive that made me think about it differently.

One Navy ship captain created a “stop doing” list as a way to identify things that took a lot of time but added little value to their mission. On the list was repainting the hull when the bolts holding the ship together stained the surface with rust. Rather than repainting every month or two, he had the crew invest time (and money) in replacing every bolt with a stainless steel equivalent that would never rust. This allowed them to put off repainting for orders of magnitude more time, freeing up crew time to focus on things that contributed directly to their mission.

What was interesting for me about this story was that they decided to invest in the things product managers tend not to approve. Replacing parts that are still doing their job is very much like addressing technical debt, or re-platforming, or test automation. The initial investment does nothing to advance your goals, but the payoff is increased development velocity. Maybe that should be one of everyone’s core business goals.

P - Prepare to Be Wrong

Because we all (especially entrepreneurs, engineers and product people) tend to be overconfident in our decisions, we need help preparing for bad outcomes — or sometimes even acknowledging them. If you read Decisive, you’ll learn why David Lee Roth’s legendary meltdowns over brown M&Ms were actually a shrewd way of setting a “tripwire” to alert him to a potentially bad situation with the complicated wiring scheme required by their elaborate stage show.

As a product person and entrepreneur, I found the idea of tripwires intriguing as a way to avoid over-commitment. It’s easy to keep working at something “just a little longer” to see if it finally succeeds. Creating explicit success criteria — including milestones — can help you assess realistically if you are on track or spending good time and money after bad.

Good decisions are a key product power and we all need the right tools in our utility belt here. What are your favorite examples of really bad decisions (yours or others) that could have been avoided by employing one or more of these ideas?


2014 BPMA Gala Online Discussion

Some of you may know that I've taken on a role as Vice President and Chief Evangelist for the Boston Product Management Association. The BPMA is the second-largest professional association for product managers and product marketers, after the SVPMA, and I am honored to be involved.

My job is chiefly to acquaint you, product people, with the benefits of joining the association and becoming involved as a volunteer. My pitch is no more complicated than pointing out that involvement with your profession will help you to be a better product person, to make the great products people really get value from. And if you're reading this blog, I presume you are interested in that.

I'll give you two ways you can act on that interest right now.

First, you can sign up for an upcoming BPMA event. These monthly happening occur in the evening at a variety of locations around Boston. They include networking as well as professional development workshops and interactive presentations.

Second, you can read about the 2014 Gala that took place earlier this month at the Museum of Science Boston. The summary, slides, and videos are all available on the BPMA website at the link above. Then join in the dialog with Jeff Bussgang -- Boston area VC and our keynote speaker -- about the rapid evolution of the product management profession.

We've set up a LinkedIn discussion about the topic and anyone is welcome to sign up and weigh in with questions or opinions. 

What are you waiting for? Take this opportunity to amp up your product powers!


Chromecast Wins Fame, iOS7 Wins Shame

Make my life easier and I will tell my friends. Make my life harder and I will tell everyone. That’s my take-away from this year's raft of nominations for the 2013 Product Powers Hall of Fame & Shame.

Hall of Fame

Chromecast, Pocket, FitBit Force and a dozen other products were nominated for Fame, most because they do a great job making things easier for us.

Pocket makes it very easy to capture web content to read later, solving the problem elegantly with a plug-in that works well in all popular browsers and allows you to access it offline any time.

“It does what it's supposed to do and nothing more, nothing less. Very simple and polished interface,” says Daniel.

FitBit Force made an impression as well. I’ll let Scott tell you about it:

“This wearable personal health tracker (wristwatch) tracks most everything you need: activity time, steps, distance, calories and elevation. It also provides data on sleep quality, and the app allows you to track the food (calories) you are eating. Bonus - looks pretty cool doing it!”

Mak adds that “the simplicity and reliability is what gets my vote.”

Google’s Chromecast got the most mentions, though, and is this year’s Hall of Fame winner. Justin summarized it well when he said,

“It's beautiful in that it reduces the complexity of a common task - how do I play content from my device on my television?”

Alexis makes the value proposition clear, saying that,

“At $35, this little gem is a great solution for those not needing all the built-in apps on $99+ products like Apple TV and Roku.”

Special Mentions

Coin gets special mention thanks to Alexis and to several other posters on Twitter who are looking forward to it in 2014. Alexis says:

“If you haven't already heard about it, it's a credit card sized electronic device that allows users to load credit cards, debit cards, gift cards and membership cards on it for use. From what I can tell, security is well thought out, it's super easy to use (and equally not easy to mess up during a transaction), and it really solves a lot of problems for me personally. I'm notorious for losing my cards and also overloading my wallet to an uncomfortable degree. I can't wait until it arrives.”

I can’t wait either!

A shout out also to Steve Johnson who nominated 10 items in one Christmas-themed blog post.

Hall of Shame

iOS7, the Comcast DVR, Windows 8 (last year’s Shame winner), and the confusing controls on my KitchenAid stove were all nominated for Shame because they made things more difficult than they should be. Not a few of them did so by making us change tried and true habits for no apparent benefit.

Lars gave props to Comcast for adding new bugs to their generally reviled DVR interface. He says:

“The latest is that when I press "skip 30 seconds" several times and then press "back 15 seconds" too quickly, it skips back 5 minutes.”

Windows 8’s multiple personality disorder continues to confound users, a year after it won Shame in 2012. Joe says,

“The schizophrenic OS desperately implores people to use its Metro experience, but doesn't have the will power to dump the Desktop experience. Bottom line: It’s confusing and inefficient.”

Apple's iOS7 wins this year’s Hall of Shame award, though, for changing things merely for change’s sake. Controls were moved around, type made harder to read, and familiar gestures modified — and no one I have spoken to can find user benefit in these changes. Daniel says:

“They changed many navigation paradigms that didn't seem to be broken and now are confusing (i.e. the calendar app).”

Another example is the swipe to delete an email. It used to be left to right. Now it’s right to left. Why? Changing it seems completely arbitrary and creates something for upgraders to trip over.

Special Mention

Unfortunately, I also need to mention that Squarespace, the hosting service for ProductPowers, received several complaints from posters whose submissions vanished into the ether or who had a confusing experience, not knowing whether their posts had been captured or how to submit another.

So there you have it. Google -- not known for their usability prowess -- wins by inspiring Justin to say: "Thinking through the jobs-to-be-done in this level of detail is brilliant!" Apple -- known primarily for great design -- loses by confusing and annoying us with an extended design gaffe. 

In other news, GM makes some cool cars while Japanese auto makers lose ground in reliability. The only constant is change.


Thanks to everyone who posted nominations in the comments, on LinkedIn, on Twitter, and via email. Thanks especially to Jim Cook, who was the first to nominate Chromecast and who wins a Product Powers t-shirt. And thanks also to Daniel Elizalde who also wins a t-shirt by first mentioning iOS7. Thanks also to Scott Parlee, Lars Jensen, Joe Baz, Mak Joshi, Justin Williams, and Alexis Schuette whose nominations or quotes were mentioned above. They'll each receive a Product Powers coffee mug.


2013 Product Powers Hall of Fame & Shame

We're now accepting 10-second nominations for the 2013 Product Powers Hall of Fame and Shame.

What is that, you ask? As before, the goal is to assemble the "top product triumphs and gaffes of the past year as nominated by you." So here's what to do in the next 20 seconds:

Take 10 seconds right now and think of the one thing (product, service, website, software, gadget, retailer, whatever) that really works for you, that's so elegant in its design and operation it must be the result of a good feedback loop between the product designers and their intended market. Submit your first thought as a comment below.

Next take 10 more seconds and think of the one thing that really irks you every time you have to use it because the product people clearly did not take the time to think about who would use it, how it would really be used, or try it out on a real-life person before getting it to market.

Even if your loved/loathed product or service isn't new this past year, if you discovered it, fell in love with it, or developed a mutual enmity in 2013, nominate it here.

As in past years, I'll be awarding something fun to whoever who first nominates the winning two products, based on number of nominations (and my own completely arbitrary opinion) -- so don't be slow!

Deadline for submission is Dec 31. Your 10 seconds start now!


How to Sidestep "Competitive Necessity" (And Win)

I’ve seen a lot of roadmaps where the reason for many items was given as “competitive necessity.” I don’t deny that this is sometimes a reality, but it always makes me wary. When I see a lot of “me too” features driven by requests from Sales, I wonder if the product is positioned correctly or if it is really trapped in a perpetual game of catch-up that it will never win.

I wrote a piece on competitive analysis  back in 2008 where I asked:

“Would you rather have a conversation with a prospect about whether your feature list is longer than the competition's or about the benefits the prospect will derive from your product? Which of those conversations would allow you to charge more?”

My thought was that if you're concentrating on market needs rather than competitive checklists, you have a chance at that second, more profitable conversation. And I still agree with that thinking, but in this sixth post in the Dirty Dozen Roadmap Roadblocks series, I have a few additional thoughts to share that involve paying at least some attention to the competition, but not to duplicate or one-up them.

Do Your Win/Loss Analysis

Win/loss analysis is like flossing. Everyone knows they should do it, but few do it regularly enough. It is a critical part of your competitive analysis, though, and a great way to defend against what I would call “catch-up syndrome.”

Don’t take salespeople’s word for what lost them the sale. They are not objective here. I find that interviewing prospects that did not convert more often uncovers problems with the marketing and sales process than feature gaps. I also find that interviewing newly-converted customers more often highlights great positioning and consultative selling than it does competitive differentiation.

This is very instructive when you come to consider the priority of features intended to fill perceived competitive gaps. Does it matter if you don’t have every item on the competitive RFP if few of those are really part of the decision?

Be a Category of One

Seth Godin says, “When you define the category, when the category is you and you alone, your marketing issues tend to disappear.”

If you are solving a problem no one else is solving (or in a way no one else is doing that provides unique benefits) then there is no way to compare you directly to competitors and the pressure to duplicate every one of their features is lessened, perhaps to zero.

We all struggle with fixed development capacity, so we need to prioritize down to the few things that will have the greatest effect on business results. If you are weighing down your roadmap with catch-up items, you are slowing progress toward your ultimate destination.

When you ask yourself, “How can I become a category of one?” you are essentially asking how you can make all of those competitive-response features irrelevant in the eyes of your customer and focusing instead on what will make you indispensable.

Scare Yourself

An approach I like to use is to ask myself, “What is the scariest thing my competitor could come out with?” The answer to that question is probably the thing that should be at the top of your development priority list.

This approach can be a very hard sell in an established business, though. The natural reaction to a fearful situation is avoidance, and if your “scariness” exercise is perceived as purely hypothetical, then executives will “take it under advisement” and do nothing.

Instead, fight fear with fear. Convince them that if you were the product manager of your number one competitor’s product, this is exactly what you would be planning. Show them that technological trends make it inevitable that someone will do this thing in the near future and that, if it isn’t you, the consequences will be devastating.

I saw a vivid demonstration of this at a Board meeting once. Our president showed screenshots of a new competitor that was steadily duplicating our desktop software’s capabilities on the web. Where we had a subscription fee, they charged only on usage. Where we thought we had the most favorable terms with our suppliers, they had somehow gotten even better terms. Where we could only update the data in our product quarterly, they theoretically had the capability to update every day.

The temperature in the room dropped palpably during this presentation. Investors were seeing the value of their investments drop to near zero in just a few slides. The final slide was the kicker. It turned out this new competitor was … us.

We had developed a new brand and an online capability that no one else had. We had even gotten a break from our largest supplier for internet sales. Our investors intuitively knew this would be disruptive and when faced with the reality of it; and they were enormously relieved (there was actually cheering) to discover we were our own disruptors. The rest is history as our desktop version was phased out over time and the web took over.

Struggling To Differentiate?

If your organization’s roadmap is bogged down with "catch-up" features that are holding you back, pick a 30-minute slot to chat with me. I’m happy to help.

You may also be interested my popular roadmapping presentation from ProductCamp Boston, or in Reqqs, the smart roadmap tool for product people.

Use your product powers for good.