Musings from PDMA Conference

PDMA2017

The past week I attended the annual Product Development and Management Association (PDMA) annual conference. This year’s conference was held in Chicago at the Swissotel and was a great opportunity to meet fellow product geeks and get a taste of what’s happening in the “real world”.

With several hundred attendees from a wide variety of industries, academic institutions, and countries, the event was an excellent opportunity to engage with the global product community. I had the pleasure of presenting a seminar on creating an innovative ecosystem titled, Strategic Agility: Building an Innovative Organizational Ecosystem. This title is a mouthful, but the concept is very straightforward. To create an innovative organization that can properly adapt to the changing business environment requires four key areas of focus.

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The audience was a great mix of practitioners and academics. And from the lack of hands raised to my questions, “Who considers their organization innovative?” and “Who knows their organization’s strategic plan?” there is a lot of work (and opportunities) ahead of us. The four main concepts for an innovative organization are:

  1. Strategic agility – composed of three meta-capabilities (collective commitment, strategic sensitivity, and resource fluidity)
  2. Cognitive skills – creative thinking, critical thinking, decision making, problem solving, etc.
  3. Strategic roadmap – a clear understanding of where you are and where you plan to go
  4. Culture – encourages experimentation, accepts failure as a key aspect of learning, and most importantly has a high-level of trust between senior management and employees at every level

Too many organizations are not focused on innovation and out-maneuvering the competition. Business leaders are content with the status quo (or what worked in the past will continue to work in the future), offering consumers me-too products, and overseeing a demoralized workforce. Executives must take the lead to build an organization of capable thinkers who have a strong understanding of the market, and leverage evidence-based management to encourage data-driven decision making and problem solving. Skills, knowledge, and ongoing experimentation are vital to stay ahead of current and future competition.

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It is critical to “rub elbows” with individuals outside your industry. Understanding how a variety of individuals, organizations, and industries practice product management is vital to leveraging best practices and uncovering new methodologies to stimulate the organization. Product managers need to get out of the office and interact with practitioners from different industries. The more your network, the more you learn.

Meeting new people and learning new ways to excel at product management will help you develop innovative and interesting ways to create exciting products and allow you to position your portfolio for competitive advantages. To become a master product manager you must become a life-long learner. Reading, research, and roaming the Internet are all good ways to learn; however, it is also vital to interact with different people and groups to expand your world knowledge. A key element of creativity is connecting unrelated dots. The way to build a large supply of “dots” is traveling, meeting new people, and applying your new learnings to work.

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An innovative organizational ecosystem is critical for sustained, positive growth. The ability to continually surprise competitors and keep them off balance while wowing customers with new and exciting products and services ensures long-term success. Leaders need to stop outsourcing their basic business needs. They need to create a skilled and innovative organization for long-term success. An innovative ecosystem founded on empowered and highly skilled employees, clear and effective strategic development and execution, and a corporate culture based on trust, learning, and strategic agility, is critical within the increasingly turbulent and disruptive global business environment. Now get out there, attend some conferences, meet new people, and change the world.

Market Research – Best Practices

marketresearch  One of the most important skills for product managers, brand managers, and anyone involved in marketing is market research (MR). To wow customers and out-maneuver competitors it is critical to understand what your customers need, how they use your products, why they don’t buy competitor products, etc. In addition, you need to understand the same information about your competitor customers. To uncover these insights, you need to conduct both qualitative and quantitative MR.

Foundational MR skills can be learned from books, videos, or classes. However, like any other skill, you need to practice in the real world. You need to get out of the office and interview consumers. You need to go to retail stores and observe consumer behavior. You need to shadow experienced researchers and learn how they do it. It is also critical to practice writing questionnaires for both qualitative interviews and quantitative surveys. Writing and design questionnaires are an art form and takes a lot of practice, failure, and continuous improvement.

MR

No matter what type of MR you use, there are a several best practices you need to keep in mind. It is important to use these best practices to ensure strong response rates and keep participants engaged so they will participate in future MR studies. Treat your participants like friends and they will agree to future research requests.

The following best practices are from the recent Participant Engagement – How to improve the online survey user experience guide compiled by Global Research Business Network. You can access this excellent guide at http://grbnnews.com/special-report-improving-the-online-survey-user-experience/.

  • Keep the questions simple and short, and use every day terminology
  • Design the questionnaire so it works on mobile devices
  • Keep screeners as short as possible
  • Avoid using large tables or matrixes
  • Provide incentives that align with the participants’ effort
  • Keep surveys to a maximum of 10 minutes – if you have to go longer, be honest about how long it will take to complete

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In addition to best practices, use metrics to ensure you achieve what you want. Keep your MR goal in perspective by asking “Why and now what?”. Remind your team why are you conducting the research and once you compile the data, what are you going to do with it.

Create a survey people enjoy taking. Use creativity to keep participants engaged (e.g., gamification, animation, videos). Develop a MR study which participants feel their responses are valued and are being used to improve business, products, etc.

When the research is completed, create a compelling story to share insights with team members. Don’t just gather data to sell your products. Think of MR as an additional touch-point with your customers; just like advertising, customer service, packaging, social media, etc.

MR story

Too often teams make decisions based on guesses or relying on intuition or experience. It is vital to adopt a data-driven, evidence-based decision-making culture. The importance of “going to the spot” and seeing how products are used, how consumers behave in the “real world”, and struggles they encounter will provide insights for innovation.

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Staring at data can only provide a limited understanding of consumer behavior. Using qualitative MR to gather deep insights and quantitative MR to identify patterns leveraging the strength of statistics will help you create competitive advantages and separate yourself from your competitors. Learn, practice, and implement MR tools and techniques for long-term growth.

The Yellow Hat

The Six Thinking Hats (Hats), developed by Dr. Edward de Bono is a powerful tool for decision making, solving problems, or developing new product ideas. The Hats are a simple, easy-to-learn tool that ensures teams work together to develop optimal solutions. The Hats forces teams to explore subjects in parallel; everyone focuses on one hat at a time, in a short amount of time.

debono Compared to less productive tools such as brainstorming, the Hats avoid argument and confrontation. The Hats directs teams to focus on an optimal decision, not one based on ego, emotions, or personal agenda. Everyone is forced to develop pros and cons of a subject, not just a single point-of-view.

Brainstorming

The Hats require everyone to look at a topic holistically (from all points-of-view). A holistic analysis ensures all benefits and risks are identified; the goal is to develop the optimal solution for the organization, not one based on an individual’s personal agenda clouding the discussion.

sixhats-1A key element of the Hats, is the yellow hat. The yellow hat focuses on benefits and feasibilities of a topic. Often depicted as the pros (compared to the black hat, cons), the yellow hat forces team members to develop benefits and values (along with justification) of why the topic is beneficial. Even if someone is against the idea, they still have to develop benefits and reasons how the idea can provide value.

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As with all creative exercises, yellow hat analysis needs to be driven by questions. Several helpful questions when analyzing the benefits and advantages are:

  • What ideas, suggestions, or proposals are there for how to approach this problem?
  • What is the benefit of this?
  • What positives are there for this idea?
  • What could be done to make this faster?
  • What could be done to make this work better?
  • What could make this cheaper?
  • Under what conditions would this work?
  • What would it take to make this proposal acceptable?
  • What is your vision for how this could work?

Most discussions are based on arguments, I am right, you are wrong, focusing on satisfying the ego rather than developing the best options. The Hats unbundles and separates thinking, to think of multiple perspectives and develop the best options. Also, the process avoids thinking of too many things at once.

Parallel Thinking

The Hats helps you explore subjects in a disciplined way, focus on individual aspects of the subject, balance thinking, and maintain discipline (don’t jump between hats). In addition, the Hats create structure in important conversations, and allow all sides to be heard. Use the Hats the next time you want to thoroughly analyze a topic and ensure the optimal decision is made for the benefit of the organization.

Improve the Business With DMAIC

 DMAIC-Cycle

DMAIC is a data-driven, five step improvement cycle within the Six Sigma process. it is an excellent tool to identify root causes of problems and develop solutions. DMAIC stands for define, measure, analyze, improve, and control. The goal is to improve processes or products to achieve the Six Sigma level of 3.4 defects per million.

Six Sigma is a data-driven improvement process to eliminate defects. It was developed in the 1970s by Motorola Corporation. The goal of Six Sigma is to achieve 3.4 defects per million instances (sigma (σ) is the Greek letter used to measure statistical variability in a process). Defects are considered anything outside of base specifications, typically derived from customer needs or manufacturing requirements. Six Sigma leverages data and statistical measures to solve problems and improve processes.

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Define is the first step of the DMAIC process. Under this step it is necessary to clearly define the goal of the exercise (e.g., problem, process, product). You need to also define who the customer is that is experiencing the problem and determine overall objectives. In addition, it is helpful to Define the overall process where the problem occurs.

The second step is Measure. This step focuses on objectively developing baselines and understanding deviations from the norm. This data-collection step is critical to ensure the entire process is moving in the correct direction to understand “what is happening” in the environment. An effective method to gather data and understand the problem is to “go to the spot” and see the problem first-hand.

Measure

Talk to people experiencing the problem or do the process yourself and understand what causes the problem to occur. In addition to gathering qualitative data, gather quantitative data to identify any patterns that can be statistically analyzed to identify patterns. Gathering data is critical for effective analysis using statistical tools.

Go to the spot

The goal of step three is to Analyze the data you gathered and determine the root cause of the problem. During this step the team needs to understand what is causing the problem, when the problem occurs, where it occurs, etc. This step requires strong critical thinking and patience to ensure a careful review of the data leads to the identification of the root cause.

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Step five is to Improve; develop, implement, and test a solution for the problem. This step focuses on developing creative solutions to eliminate the root cause of the problem. Teams should use tools such as the Six Thinking Hats or Random Word to develop creative ideas. The team can leverage the plan, do, check, act (PDCA) cycle to test new ideas and determine which ideas result in improvements and eventual elimination of the problem. Within this step, the team develops new ideas, tests, then implements.

Improve

The final DMAIC step is Control. The purpose of this step is to ensure improvements are sustained. It is critical to monitor the improvement steps and measure any deviations from the norm. This step is extremely important to ensure the root cause of the problem you identified eliminates the problem from reoccurring. If the problem reoccurs it is time to analyze what is occurring and develop a new solution.

Control

Let’s look at a real-world example. A large chemical company sells a two-stage adhesive that bonds plastic pipes; the company sells business-to-business (B2B). The company has received a product complaint from a customer. The customer bought the two-stage adhesive to join plastic pipes and it is not working; the adhesive is gelling before the two components are mixed.

Chemical Plant --- Image by © Keith Wood/Corbis

It is imperative to solve the problem and get the customer new product that is not defective. Most importantly, the customer needed a replacement, non-defective product ASAP. They have their own customers that need the product for several large projects. There is a lot of pressure to get this figured out quickly.

The team has Defined the problem and outlined the entire process from obtaining raw materials to shipping finished goods. In addition, the team has outlined three goals of the exercise.

    • Determine root-cause of gelling
    • Implement actions to verify if root-cause is issue
    • Develop procedures to reduce issue to zero defects

The team then gathers data to Measure the current situation. The team interviewed workers in the engineering lab, the quality lab, production areas, and the warehouses. In addition, the team called customers to understand details of the problem (when it occurred, where, etc.).

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Through phone interviews it was determined there was large amounts of inventory in customer stock. In addition, the team identified that all gelling was only in batches produced from Nov 2016 to January 2017. In addition, the team then measured production levels from the past 18 months. Customer order data was gathered to understand which customers received the faulty product. The team also identified that 164 complaints of defective product was noted from five U.S. states.

Phone interviews

The Analysis determined that the batches used a new formula of the adhesive (the only batches to use this new formula). It was also determined that 39,899 total items were produced. As the team gathered a large amount of data, and took the time to properly analyze the data, they identified several potential root causes. A fishbone diagram was developed to graphically represent possible causes and narrow-down the most likely issues.

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Within this step the team also identified that a supplier of one of the key components of the adhesive had to cease operation due to hurricane damage to their manufacturing facility. The purchasing department identified a new vendor of the same raw material to ensure production was not affected. The new raw material was quickly added to the production process to ensure all deadlines were met. Unfortunately, the raw material from the new vendor was not properly tested by the QA group before being introduced into production. The team narrowed in on the raw material as being the root cause of the gelling problem.

Bags of material

After analyzing all the possible causes, it was time to Improve the process and ensure the problem does not reoccur. A list of possible recommendations was developed; the focus was to eliminate the problem and ensure the customers were satisfied. The cross-functional team (engineering, quality, manufacturing, marketing, procurement) developed recommendations to avoid the problem and improve the overall process to ensure this problem is not repeated.

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To ensure the problem was Controlled and the solution was effective, the team developed a new process. Each step of the process (which was noted in the Define step) had a new monitoring step added to ensure every batch produced meets specifications. And most importantly, ensure customers do not get defective products.

Flow-Chart

A quality control (QC) chart was produced and hung in the engineering lab, the quality lab, and within the production area to ensure everyone reviews and understands the new process. The goal was to ensure that any time a new material is introduced; it must be reviewed by engineering and tested by QA before using in production. This visual communication device was an excellent reminder for everyone to follow the process.

The team and senior leaders knew everyone was trying to do the right thing by making sure production was not delayed and product shipped to customers on time. This was a good example of how important it is to ensure testing is not skipped. Everyone understands that quality is the most important aspect of the business.

A town hall meeting was conducted to share the problem and solution with the entire company. The goal was to continue the development of a root-cause analysis mindset to encourage ongoing continuous improvement throughout the organization. Most importantly, the team worked together to properly go through the DMAIC process and identify the problem and develop solutions quickly, without blame. The goal was to fix the problem and ensure the customer was satisfied.

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The customers were extremely impressed with the thoroughness of the analysis and the quick response from the team. In addition, the customer’s confidence was renewed to ensure the relationship continues. In addition, several members of the team visited key customers to explain what was learned, why the problem occurred, and what the company was doing to ensure this does not happen again.

Customer meeting

DMAIC is an excellent process to improve existing products, processes, or services. It helps create a continuous improvement mindset throughout the organization to continually focus on eliminating defects. Using qualitative and quantitative data to drive analysis ensures a data-driven methodology is used to make critical decisions. DMAIC is easy to learn and use. If you do not have a formal root-cause analysis process, DMAIC is a great tool to use, even if the organization does not use Six Sigma.

    1. Observe some important aspect of the marketplace or your business
    2. Develop a tentative explanation, or hypothesis, consistent with your observations
    3. Based on your hypothesis, make predictions
    4. Test your predictions by conducting experiments or making further careful observations. Record your observations. Modify your hypothesis based on the new facts. If variation exists, use statistical tools to help you separate signal from noise.
    5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until there are no discrepancies between the hypothesis and the results from experiments and observations.

So stop guessing. Use a formal process that leverages data to make decisions. Discipline and systematic processes ensures a higher probability of success that knee-jerk reactions or a scatter-gun approach to solving problems.

A Whack on the Side of the Head

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I love dusting off old, classic books and getting inspired by great authors. Roger von Oech wrote a classic book on creativity in 1983, A Whack on the Side of the Head. Whack is a great read that provides a fun, simple overview of the creativity process.

I hadn’t read this book in several years but it is one of my favorites. I typically give this book as a gift to help motivate people to embrace creativity and improve their lives and business. The author explains 10 mental blocks, and the four roles in the creative process.

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There are ten “mental locks” to creativity and von Oech provides guidance how to overcome them. These mental locks are myths of creativity that often hinder our creativity. Anyone can improve their creative thinking skills; it just takes motivation and learning a few tools. The ten myths von Oech notes follows:

  1. The Right Answer
  2. That’s Not Logical
  3. Follow the Rules
  4. Be Practical
  5. Play is Frivolous
  6. That’s Not My Area
  7. Don’t Be Foolish
  8. Avoid Ambiguity
  9. To Err Is Wrong
  10. I’m Not Creative

Von Oech also outlines four roles within the creative process, explorer, artist, judge, and warrior. Each role oversees the four steps of creativity. The need to shift between different thinking methods is critical as we move between each role.

Roles

The explorer searches for new information and resources. The artist creates new ideas. The judge evaluates the benefits of each idea and decides which offer the highest probability of success. And, the warrior puts the idea into use. Creativity requires the flexibility to move seamlessly between each role.

Anyone can improve his or her creative thinking skills. Like any other skill (e.g., playing the piano, skiing, shooting free throws), creativity requires using the proper tools and practice. Most importantly it takes commitment to become a creative individual. The information within this book will help you overcome barriers to creativity and allow you to navigate the creative process by adopting each role.

Roger failure

As the global business environment becomes increasingly competitive, technology rapidly iterates, socio-economic issues influence behavior, and ongoing political and environmental challenges all industries, every person within an organization needs to develop creative thinking skills. The need for continuous improvement and the development of new business and product concepts is critical to stay ahead of fast-moving competitors. Complacency and acceptance of the status quo is a recipe for disaster.

A Whack on the Side of the Head should be a part of everyone’s library. Along with classic creative thinking authors such as Dr. Edward de Bono, Michael Michalko, Doug Hall, and many others – von Oech provides a great foundation to improve your creativity skills. I also recommend his other book A Kick in the Seat of the Pants as well as his deck of cards, Innovative Whack Pack.

A kick in the pants

Teams need to use deliberate and systematic methods to drive creative thinking. A structured method of creativity ensures effective and efficient creativity sessions. Having mental flexibility along with the foundational creative thinking skills allow anyone to develop new ideas to change the business and delight customers. The more everyone in the organization challenges themselves, stretch their thinking, and use creative thinking daily, the higher probabilities of business and product success.

Whack Pack

Changing the World is the Only Fit Work for a Grown Man

   Gossage book

The stars of the “Mad Men” advertising era were David Ogilvy and Rosser Reeves (among others). Another advertising legend, though less well-known was Howard Luck Gossage. Gossage was the driving force behind the success of the advertising agency Weiner & Gossage (W&G) and he challenged the established norms and status quo of the advertising industry. Gossage was referred to as “The Socrates of San Francisco”.

In today’s world of online communities, viral news stories, and the blurring of real and fake news, the story of Howard Luck Gossage shows that everything new is really old. An advertising legend from the 1950s and 1960s Gossage changed the way the advertising industry operated. He was decades ahead of his peers in terms of building communities and spreading viral messages.

Gossage ad

In Steven Harrison’s excellent book Changing the World is the Only Fit Work for a Grown Man, Harrison provides a great deep-dive into the life of Gossage. Harrison follows Gossage from his beginnings to becoming one of the advertising industry stars. The book outlines the creative and innovative ways Gossage “zigged” when everyone else “zagged”.

Gossage was extremely demanding of his self. He changed the advertising landscape with his excellent marketing skills, along with being one of the top copy writers of his time. He wrote all the copy and headlines himself, and was not open to ideas or recommendations. He was headstrong, arrogant, and a master of public relations (PR); he set out to change the advertising industry. The goal of his work was to create an “event” that would generate ongoing publicity through various media.

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He focused on creating stunts or spectacles that would be shared through multiple media. The objective of his advertising was to create successful propaganda. He wanted the original advertising message amplified. Unlike the larger agencies at the time, he avoided expensive mass-media and focused on creating a focused message to a targeted audience.

Pink Air

Gossage felt headlines must generate headlines of its own. His conversationalist writing style pulled readers in and allowed them to feel as part of a family or community. The style was based on creating information loops; keep the conversation going – send out information, receive feedback, and repeat.

Gossage quote

He felt an advertisement must have a big idea to catch someone’s attention. It needed to be simple, yet be impactful for other media to amplify the message. Mainstream press and broadcast media had to be seen as an integrated part of any communication plan.

W&G focused on being different not just in how it created advertisements, but how the agency operated as well. It was focused on being a large agency, it was about working on impactful projects to continuously create and innovate new ideas. Rather than bill clients based on the amount of media purchased, W&G charged based on work and ideas (upsetting many of the large agencies). Also, W&G avoided the trend to push advertising through a massive mainstream media buy.

Firehouse

Most agencies focused on buying large amounts of mass media for an attrition-type advertising campaign. W&G focused on developing an impactful advertisement that pulled people in, created a conversation, and developed a community of like-minded people. The goal was to find the targeted group of people who were interested in the content. The majority of the successful campaigns was low-budget but centered on great headlines, copy, and design.

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Unlike the larger, mainly white male agencies, W&G was small, only about 15-20 people. Located in a refurbished firehouse in San Francisco, W&G was racially diverse – women, Asians, blacks, etc. They focused on creating a learning environment and encouraged employees to continue their education and engage with diverse groups of people. The agency culture mirrored the changing times of the 1960s and the atmosphere within San Francisco. Celebrities, politicians, and business leaders frequented the firehouse.

The agency was the center of the changing culture and social environment of the 1960s. The firehouse became the nucleus for the exchange of new and radical ideas to challenge the status quo. W&G would sponsor speaking events creating a center for radical ideas and creating awareness of important events and people. For example, Gossage promoted Marshall McLuhan, creating a mainstream celebrity. The goal was not financial gain for Gossage (he did the work pro-bono), but getting McLuhan’s message and research to the mainstream.

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Later in life Gossage focused on social and environmental issues. He applied his skills to radical causes, partnering with the Sierra Club and helping to create Friends of the Earth. Being in the center of the counter-culture of San Francisco in the 1960s, Gossage developed campaigns to save the Grand Canyon and Redwood Forests, and worked on creating a revolution in the small Caribbean island of Anguilla. Gossage felt advertising should be used for the greater good; large, important causes. He wanted to change the world.

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He was a marketing genius who wrote amazing advertisements. He always focused on creating something new and exciting. He changed the way advertising agencies operated. A famous Gossage quote, “If you’re stuck with a lemon, make lemonade” epitomizes his mindset and spirit, to work incredibly hard to create change.

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Further Reading

Reality in Advertising by Rosser Reeves

The Book of Advertising Tests; A Group of Articles that Actually Say Something About Advertising by Lord & Thomas

Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy

Creative Alternatives

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A great method to drive innovation throughout the organization is to constantly search for alternative ways of doing business. A key part of the de Bono Thinking Systems is the use of alternatives. Creativity is about finding alternatives, different ways of doing things. Too often we are satisfied with the current state and avoid any effort for improvement. Before we realize it, our sales are declining and customers are moving to our competitors. We should always be looking for new ways to improve a product, process, or business operation. Not just when problems occur or during special situations, but always, every day!

Serious Creativity

It is critical to consider alternative ways to solve problems, define problems, and understand ways to create competitive advantages and differentiation. Being satisfied with the status quo allows competitors to pass us by and customers to grow tired of the same offerings. As the global business environment becomes increasingly competitive, disruptive, and ambiguous, we need to apply creativity to every aspect of the business; not just product development or marketing.

alternativeAnalysis

Even when there is no problem, we should be looking at new ways to improve (e.g., reduce costs, simplify). We must adopt a continuous improvement mindset to improve ourselves, the organization, and customer experiences. If something is working well, let’s think of new ways to make it more effective. If customers love our service, how can we ramp it up and blow them away. We must push beyond the initial new ideas. If we only stop at the first alternative, we will never know if there was something better. Keep pushing yourself and your team to develop more alternatives; it only takes a few extra minutes.

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What if something is working fine, should we just leave it alone? Let’s see the following example. Every year product managers conduct new product training for field sales. The training consists of PowerPoint presentations and hands-on product demonstrations. Feedback is overwhelmingly positive. So, should the product managers keep doing the same training year after year if everyone is happy? Or should they develop new ways to educate and engage?

It is these types of situations that require a proactive desire to focus on a process that is operating satisfactory. Don’t just change something for change sake, but develop a new and improved way to conduct various business operations. A key part of creativity and finding alternatives is asking questions. Asking questions allows us to identify and develop alternatives. We can use questions like the following.

  • How can we find a better way to do this?
  • What other ways can we solve this problem?
  • How else can we define the problem?
  • How do other people do this?

Constantly focusing on alternatives allows us to look beyond current ideas and business practices. The combination of motivation and skills can produce amazing creativity. It only takes a few minutes to do some Green Hat thinking. In a few minutes you can develop multiple alternative ideas for improvement. It just takes motivation and the desire to find ideas that might be better than the current idea.

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We should continuously look how to improve and simplify the world around us. Taking a few extra minutes allows us to analyze a situation in more depth and possibly develop better ways to conduct business. In addition, finding alternative ways to improve is a great way to keep employees engaged and create a learning organization. As we develop the habit of continuously seeking alternative ways to improve the business, we will create an agile organization that keeps competitors reacting and customers excited. Never be satisfied!

 

Reference

Serious Creativity by Dr. Edward de Bono

The Fundamentals of Product Management

Product Management final

I am excited to announce my new eBook.

The Fundamentals of Product Management
by Dr. Dave Oventhal

The Ultimate Guide, to the Ultimate Career

In this concise, easy-to-understand book, I cover the methods and concepts needed to excel as a product manager:

  • Roles – Market Researcher, Politician, Problem Solver
  • Mindsets – Curiosity, Empathy, Simplicity
  • Tools & Techniques – Product Strategy Sheets, SCAMPER, PDCA
  • Resources – A comprehensive recommended reading list for lifelong learning

Readers will even discover a comprehensive roadmap to the self-improvement journey of product management!

Becoming a great product manager takes dedication, patience, and the application of diverse skills. The Fundamentals of Product Management provides the foundational elements for beginning and experienced product professionals to build a fulfilling and lucrative career.

  • Master the foundational elements of product management
  • Adopt actionable tools & techniques to develop and market your products
  • Build and grow professional skills for a long-term, high-income career
  • Develop a powerful product team for competitive advantages

Click on the link below to access this limited time promotion.

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Be sure to list the eBook in your Amazon Reading List and leave a positive review.

Let me know how I can improve the book or how I can help you develop your product manager skills! Message me or send an email (dave@oventhal.com).

Product Managers as Business Interpreters

      Translation

Product managers need to interact with multiple departments and work with cross-functional teams. We are required to understand a multitude of skills, tools, and techniques to successfully perform day-to-day job requirements. Our skill-set balances marketing, engineering, information technology (IT), and manufacturing. We move from understanding nuances of customer insights to ensuring products are equipped with features that deliver high-valued benefits. Then, our winning features and benefits need to be clearly communicated to customers.

Working between such diverse groups requires a key skill – business interpreter. Business interpreters help to bridge the gap between diverse groups within an organization. So, what is a business interpreter? A typical language interpreter converts concepts from a source language to a target language. For example, Lucy is helping a Spanish-speaking customer explain problems she is having with a new product. Lucy interprets what the customer is saying into English for the non-Spanish speaking to Steve, the customer service representative.

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A business interpreter is an individual that is able to seamlessly work between multiple departments through a strong understanding of all aspects of the business; theoretical, practical, and most importantly simplistically. The product manager communicates from one department to another through the diverse “languages” each group “speaks”. This is a critical skill for product managers as we work between and with technical and non-technical groups.

Let’s look at a typical scenario a product manager might encounter. Consumers are rating the headlights on our new minivan very important but below expectations during usage (high importance, low satisfaction). Dealership owners are complaining sales are slowing due to internet chatter that families do not feel safe while driving. We need to understand what is happening in the marketplace and communicate the situation back to executives with recommendations.

headlight

We visit dealerships and customers of our product and competitors. We drive our minivan and competitor products in a variety of situations. After weeks studying the situation, we compile all our data and start building our story for executives. Our first meeting with executives goes well, but they request more data to ensure this is a real problem.

Minivan family

One of our first stops is with the information technology (IT) department. We need help gathering various sales and warranty data, as well as segment sales information to help executives understand the situation better. We work with several data analysts by providing crucial direction for data aggregation (from multiple sources) to provide impactful insights and direction for executives. The goal is to help executives make an effective business decision. We need to communicate what executives ant to review to ensure analysts gather the correct data.

data-analyst

The analysts joke that it is nice working with someone that understands data and knows exactly what they want. Typically executives make requests that are not logical and the analysts waste lots of time going back and forth with executives until the executive finally gets what he wants, which is often completely different from the initial request. Our understanding of data helps the analysts quickly gather the correct information and compile it in a way that executives will understand. The new data clarifies the story, and executives approve the recommendation for a new headlight design.

The product manager now needs to communicate the field findings to engineering teams to develop an updated headlight design. Quantifying qualitative findings allows engineers a deeper understanding of the customer needs. If headlights need to be brighter, the product manager cannot just say “make us brighter headlights”. This does not provide much direction for engineering teams (and often causes a lot of frustration). A more impactful discussion would focus on the technical aspects that would meet customer needs while providing product differentiation. For example, lumens, watts, headlight shape, bulb life, etc. are more concrete and provide a better foundation for engineers to begin development.

manufacturing

An effective tool to communicate market needs into technical details would be a House of Quality (HOQ). The HOQ translates qualitative customer needs into quantitative directions to ensure engineers understand what is needed and provide direction on how to achieve it. The HOQ provides measureable directions for product development. It provides a direct, visual relationship between how engineering characteristics affect the customer needs.

HOQ

Similarly to the data analysts, the engineers joke they are glad they did not have to deal with the VP of sales. He always asks for what competitors already have, but for a lower price. He doesn’t understand the product development process or what customers actually want; he never supports his requests with data. They appreciate working with someone who has a grasp of engineering and uses evidence-based decision making for requests.

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In addition, the product manager needs to understand how manufacturing teams are developing and assembling the new headlights. This “factory story” can then be communicated to marketing teams for additional feature and benefit “golden nuggets”. She is able to explain to manufacturing engineers what unique production techniques or processes are helpful to marketing and customers. As the product manager leverages her technical knowledge of the lights and is familiar with the production process, she is able to uncover additional insights to provide ongoing stories for press introductions, dealership training, customer ride-and-drives, and develop advertising and promotions to targeted customers.

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After the new headlights are added to the updated minivan, the product manager needs to prepare sales and marketing teams for product launch. The product manager needs to explain how the headlights exceed customer expectations and provide a clear competitive advantage over competitor minivans. The product manager needs to explain what the engineers did and how to properly communicate to dealers and customers.

Meeting

For example, along with technical specifications and explanations, the product manager needs to communicate how the lights will be appreciated by customers

  • Able to see farther down dark, country roads avoiding growing populations of deer.
  • Help keep the children in the backseat safe – piece-of-mind for parents.
  • Brighter lights ensure oncoming cars see them but do not blind the oncoming drivers, avoiding possible accidents.
  • And most importantly, demonstrate how these new headlights exceed competitive products and result in a safer, more confident and comfortable driving experience.
  • The headlights are developed with a new plastic designed by NASA that incorporates a special manufacturing process for longer life

The product manager needs a multitude of skills; strategy, marketing communications, sales, finance, engineering, quality control, data analysis, design, statistics, etc., to perform her job properly. Product managers need to be the center of the product environment – seamlessly moving back-and-forth between technical and non-technical teams. Ensuring clear and simple communication between cross-functional teams is vital for effective and efficient operations.

Well used old tools and red tool box

Taking on the role of a business interpreter allows product managers to ensure all teams have clear understandings and move in the same direction. As the role of a business interpreter becomes increasingly clear, product managers become a vital element for successful development and launch of products. Elite product managers are highly skilled in strategic marketing and data analysis, along with strong technical understanding of the product. Grasping a holistic understanding of key business operations enables a successful career and long-term growth for the organization.

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Groundhog Day

autopilot-button    Is your organization on auto-pilot? Does your company do the same thing year after year? You’re your company announce new products at the same time, attend the same trade shows, use the same marketing tactics, engage with customers the same way you did in 1998, or use the same software that you bought from the 1990s? If your answer is yes to these questions, you need to wake up!

The world is changing – yes, it has always been changing, but it is moving a hell of a lot faster than previously. New competitors, changing demographics, advancing technologies, and socio-economic issues are creating a world of volatility, uncertainty, chaos, and ambiguity. If this sounds frightening, relax, this should excite you at all the possible opportunities you can take advantage of.

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If you are living in a groundhog day, doing the same thing day after day, your business performance is probably doing the same thing. If you are lucky, business performance is flat. Worse, it is slowly shrinking. What it is probably not doing is growing. Is this acceptable? Are you happy?

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If your competitors are operating the same way, then there is no need to change, right? Wrong! Why should you be worried? Well, someone is probably watching your industry. Someone with the resources, energy, and creativity to come in and disrupt your nice, quiet, uneventful life. Where will this threat come from? Anywhere. It could be from Asia, South America, or some small country no one has heard of. Or across the street. It could be right in front of you, but you are blind.

Too many organizations (and individuals) are complacent and stick with the status quo. If something worked 5 years ago, then just keep doing it. If your margins are 5%, why should you work hard to get 7%? If your customers keep buying your products, why should you be worried? Well, business should excite you and your teams. You should come to work every day energized to do new things. You should get pumped-up thinking about how you can try a new marketing tactic to increase sales.

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Worse case, if you cannot get excited about work; then get paranoid. Get paranoid that someone is going to put you out of business, or take your job. Get paranoid that your Baby Boomer customers are quickly aging and Gen Y could care less about your products (I am talking to you, U.S. motorcycle industry). How about being excited and paranoid?

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Business should be an exciting, challenging and fun “game”. You typically spend more time at work than with your family. If you are spending all this time doing the same old thing, you are wasting your life. And yes, cliché time, you only live once and it is damn short. You might as well have fun and do cool things. Sure, not everyone has this mindset, but your organization needs to build a “team” of proactive, creative, disrupters. And yes, those “bumps on a log” that have done the same thing for 25 years, can be changed. People like to contribute. Even these people can be engaged to help change the business.

How about every day working to win? How about enjoying the challenge of beating your competitors? How about the fun of your competitors fearing you? How about your competitors constantly reacting and playing catch-up? How about your customers excited about every new product announcement? Now that is fun. That is a fulfilling life. That is how you grow your business.

Think of business as a game that you want to win, not survive. Come into work every day with new ideas, work with team members to create something new, or develop a new way to outsmart your competition. Listen, most business is about competing and winning. If you are not playing to win, then why get on the field? Why waste your time doing the same thing? How about enjoying your work by constantly figuring out a way to improve what you do (or offer) and improve your customer’s experience.

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Too many people are defeated from hearing “no” or “but” that they finally gave up. Too many people use excuses. If this is you, change. If your leaders are stuck in the past, have fun. Keep developing new things to drive them crazy. Push their buttons. Conduct experiments and tests to prove new ideas produce increased value. Demonstrate how your new idea can position the organization ahead of the competition and how your customers will love it.

These mindsets and actions are not just for sales and marketing. Any department can improve. If you are in accounting, how can you improve your processes to make employee and supplier lives’ easier? Are there forms that are a nightmare to complete? Well, change them. Is the expense reporting procedures archaic? Change them. Talk to employees who interact with your department and use your processes. Understand what they like and hate. Then, change it and see their reactions? Then, show your boss and co-workers. Start a movement within your group for continuous improvement.

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An organization that focuses on continuous improvements will keep growing and be a great place to work. Engaged employees who are excited and creative are contagious. New ideas and experimentation will lead to long-term growth through developing new products, processes, and gaining new customers.

This does not have to cost a lot, it just takes work and time – think of all the time you waste and how it can be put to good use. If leaders won’t do it or champion the change, then employees need to take charge. Don’t wait around for a leader who is stuck in the past or just counting his days. Everyone within an organization has the right to push for change and improve the business.

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What can be more fun than driving people crazy (those stuck in the past) as you develop new, creative ways to improve the business and your skill set? Now get up, start learning from your “customers”, build your skill set, and change the world. It is not that hard. You just need to stay positive and keep moving forward.

It is time to win! It is time to think and act. In the words of the Lean Startup clique, it’s time to build, learn, and measure. So stop watching the clock, waiting for the weekend, or accepting a boring existence. Remember, every one of us has the power to change the world, even if your world is not very big.