As 2019 gets underway, I’ve been enjoying taking stock of what we saw at Mind the Product Training over 2018. As a product manager I’m always looking for signals and patterns, and evaluating what early trends could mean for my products, and now for product practice. Noticing early indications of patterns of behavior can help product managers to plan ahead and work specific questions into their learning roadmaps. For my part, helpful questions to consider about any changes for any products are:
What impact will they have on my current products, if any?
What new opportunities could present themselves?
Will the rise of these changes cause challenges or friction that has to be accounted for?
Recognizing Product Intuition
New for this year from Mind the Product Training is a Product Metrics workshop, and a particularly nuanced part of the program is the balance between your innate intuition and the data you collect. Great product managers often get “hunches” about aspects of their products or customers, but these hunches must be confirmed with data. The role of intuition is an ephemeral one, and difficult to quantify. At last year’s #mtpcon London in October, I was thrilled to hear Google’s Head of Hardware, Ivy Ross, talk about the role of intuition in her practice. She said: “Intuition is 35 years of extremely nuanced data, stored in the hard drive of your brain.”
This crystallized for me why intuition for product managers is not to be discounted. We immerse ourselves in our products and customers, constantly exposing ourselves to and collecting data points. Those of us with finely honed emotional intelligence and empathy skills notice small details and store them up. A hunch isn’t just a shot in the dark, it’s the coalescing of these data points into an idea. I think this year, we are going to hear a lot more about the importance of intuition and its place in product practice.
Understanding Systems Thinking
A big theme for Mind the Product Training over 2018 was stakeholder management and organizational alignment. As we worked with corporate clients, and met hundreds of product managers in our public workshops, we realized that, with product eco-systems expanding, and services connecting hardware, real-life interactions and software tools, organizations need to come together and collaborate more.
Systems thinking is the culmination of stakeholder management, and organizational alignment. It’s the acknowledgement that every department in any organization must be willing and able to collaborate with others, to recognize that information must be shared with the whole if new opportunities are to be uncovered, and reacted to if risk is going to be recognized. As product managers, we can no longer just stay in our lanes or keep our heads down. Our first order of business is to understand the ecosystems of our customers, organizations, and products, and how they all affect each other.
I began my journey into systems thinking as a grad student studying public policy at NYU and I’ve been on the look-out for interesting thinkers in the space ever since. Over the past few months, I’ve been lining up the pieces for the fourth full-day workshop to be offered by Mind the Product Training, entitled “Mapping for Product Managers”. The theory of systems thinking is easy enough, recognizing how pieces of complex systems impact each other, but applying the concept and extracting continual value is an entirely different story. One thinker who has grabbed my attention is Simon Wardley, whose work with mapping methodologies is exceptional. He takes the concepts and turns them around in every possible way, showing how mapping can be used to evaluate countless different scenarios. I have a hunch that we’ll be hearing from Wardley a lot in the coming year.
We’ve been doing market research for Mapping for Product Managers and it quickly emerged that mapping exercises, whether they are user journey maps, service blueprints, technical audits, or a combination therein, are among the most difficult practices in Product. How do you convey the value, align and collaborate across product teams, involve the needed resources, understand goals and intention of the maps, and keep them relevant without it being a time-suck? In spite of all those challenges, the overwhelming message from our research was “I need to do them!” Why? Because now more than ever, Product needs to understand and work towards the bigger picture.
The end of Jargon
Perhaps jargon always has been and always will be, but in the past few years I’ve seen a lot of people start calling time on silly ways to convey ideas that are actually pretty simple. In the past, product/tech teams established vocabulary to help create a shorthand that would increase understanding, but what evolved was an isolation of the teams, and subsequently the work. Check on the terms and acronyms used in your current teams: are they plain English, or do they exclude people who aren’t close to the work? Plain English, the wave of the future.
Terms that have been swirling around tech have become caricatures of themselves, and folks are getting pretty tired of having to decipher the meaning of something that should be straightforward. Instead of “We are Agile”, say “We are always learning”. Instead of “Lean Testing”, say “Let’s show that to a few customers”. Instead of “Sense Check”, say “Does this make sense to you?”. A lot of people in tech use these terms because they’re trying to obfuscate an issue or exclude people from understanding or collaboration. Don’t misunderstand me, I love a good new word, but as we think about systems thinking and necessary collaboration, our language must and should invite people in, not keep them out.