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InfoQ Homepage Articles Q&A on the Book "Lean Product Management"

Q&A on the Book "Lean Product Management"

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Key Takeaways

  • Cost is no longer the constraint on Product Management; execution is.
  • The Impact Driven Product is the most that we can build and deliver (under the existing constraints) that will help us learn fast and create the highest impact for both our customers and for our business.
  • Key Business Outcomes help define what to build, who we are building for, and why.
  • Minimum Viable Product is not a proof of concept, nor is it a full-fledged product. It was meant to be the smallest thing we can put together to answer a set of relevant questions.
  • The valuable outcome of an estimation session is the set of conversations and interactions that happen around story details. It’s the second c of a user story, the “conversation”.

The book “Lean Product Management” by Mangalam Nandakumar is about finding the smartest way to build an Impact Driven Product that can deliver value to customers and meet business outcomes when operating under internal and external constraints.

A sample chapter on Key Business Outcomes is available for InfoQ readers.

InfoQ interviewed the author on the current challenges of Product Management, how an Impact Driven Product can help overcome at least some of them and how Key Business Outcomes can help you validate that you’re building the right thing, while the Minimum Viable Product approach may not be what you need to succeed; all of this under the minimum wasting conditions.

InfoQ: Why did you decide to write the book?

Mangalam Nandakumar: We’re witnessing a shift in how we build digital products. Technology innovations, markets dynamics and consumer behaviours are influencing product trends. We’re seeing new products that are disrupting old businesses in fascinating ways. But in product management, we still lean back on the traditional mindset bound purely by managing scope and meeting timelines.

It was about three years ago when I was running my startup that I first noticed how startups were struggling to take a product idea to market. All of these startups followed processes by the book, but failed to create any real business impact. What I mean is that they were building the wrong stuff, the right way. Business owners today understand the need to be Lean. Yet product managers are unsure about how to demonstrate product success. This is why I wanted to share my experiences and ideas. I hope that my book can influence a shift in perspective for product management. I hope it can be a guide for product teams to think in terms of impact and value creation.

InfoQ: For whom did you write the book?

Nandakumar: The book is ideal for product managers, and for anyone embarking on building a new product.

When starting on a new product, it can be quite hard to determine which product idea to pursue. Product managers need a clear process to identifying business value - especially when there are few or no users, unclear market conditions and fuzzy business goals. This book promises a systematic approach to solving this problem. So, startups founders, entrepreneurs, and intrapreneurs can benefit from this too.

InfoQ: Product Management is facing new challenges today. For instance, you said that “cost is no longer the constraint—execution is.”. Would you mind elaborate on that?

Nandakumar: Think about this. You’ve found a great solution to a pressing need in the market. You have the right technology to productize it. You may even have an early mover advantage. But you’re also at the risk of being outmaneuvered by competition or changing market scenarios. When you know you have a product that can create new channels of value that didn’t exist before, then you’re willing to place higher bets, and raise investments. Entrepreneurs realize that the value creation pie is not limited. It’s not a zero-sum game, where one person’s gain is another’s loss. However, what will hold you back is your ability to execute on that vision of value creation. If you can’t deliver on the promise of value, then you’re bound to fail as a business. This is why, I feel that product managers need to own value creation, and not just follow a plan. We’re no more bound by budgets. We’re only bound by our vision to create the most impact. How we execute on that vision is what will define us. 

InfoQ: You mention that the book is about finding the smartest way to build an Impact Driven Product. Can you detail on that?

Nandakumar: I’ve noticed too often that people are obsessed with following processes to the tee. Or by their technology preferences. So much that they miss the forest for the trees. Technology leaders may sometimes get too caught up in “doing things the way they think it should be done” (which is not necessarily the right way). They seem reluctant to step out of their comfort zones. What happens because of this, is that teams spend considerable time, effort, money and resources building features that are not adding to the product’s impact. This is far from being smart, don’t you think?

When I say we need to find the smartest way to build products, I mean that we need to critically evaluate our implementation decisions in the light of how much impact we can create vs. what it will cost us. For instance, if there is a tool that will get us to 70% of our needs, at 10% of our costs (vs. if we build it in-house), why not buy?  Yes, there will be trade-offs in the longer run, but it can help us validate the value proposition quickly. So, if we decide to throw away the feature because it had no takers, then we’ve done it at a really low cost. But if the feature turns out to be a hit, then we can invest in building it further. Pivot or persevere decisions aren’t limited to business models. Small pivots in product strategy must be factored into our plan. Smartness lies in how we let business outcomes and customer impact guide our strategy, and not the other way around.

InfoQ: Focusing on outcomes instead of outputs is quite a common line of thought in the Product Development discipline. What questions do you have in mind when it comes to discovering Key Business Outcomes?

Nandakumar: Customers really don’t care about how hard we worked. They don’t care whether we followed all our processes well. Or even if we followed any processes at all. They don’t care whether we had a consistent velocity every sprint. They don’t want to look at our burn-up/ burn-down charts. All they care about is how well our product meets their needs and aspirations. They’re always evaluating if the money/ time or mind-space they’re investing into our product is worth it. When they determine it’s not worth it, they will drop our product and move on.  When we look at it this way, we realize that our operations, processes, and even culture should be channelized only towards creating impact. Don’t follow something because we’ve always done it this way. It goes back to what I said earlier about building the wrong things the right way.   If our processes get in the way of delivering impact, we should mercilessly drop them.

The Key Business Outcomes depend on what aspects of growth, sustainability or impact we want to create. Identify metrics that tell us if we’re meeting those outcomes. Ask questions that help us evaluate if our proposed product value is higher than the customer expectations. The questions themselves depend on the specific context of our business and product.

InfoQ: How can they contribute to the success of a Product?

Nandakumar: Key Business Outcomes (KBO) is one of four aspects that influence the success of a product, along with customer value, execution plan and internal & external constraints. KBOs reflect the business intent, and the underlying value systems. They represent the DNA of our business, which influences what trade-offs we’re willing to make. They also tell us what aspects of growth, sustainability or impact we want to pursue. KBOs therefore directly or indirectly define the success metrics of the overall product, and its features.

InfoQ: Regarding tricks to finding the best solution, do you have some recipes to share?

Nandakumar: For this, we need to understand the relationship between technology and the business. Is technology an enabler to business or is technology the business itself?  It is important to internalize the difference between these two roles that technology plays in our business. Once we have established that technology is a core differentiator or an enabler, only then can we explore the possible options available to us. Buy off the shelf tools, build in-house, or outsource are possible options. If our feature is an enabler and if our success metrics can be achieved by an off-the-shelf tool, then we should just proceed with finding the optimal tool. But the prerequisite to this is defining what success means to the product. If we’re unclear on what impact we hope to create, or what our hypothesis is even, then it’s difficult to evaluate our options.

InfoQ: What in your opinion is the importance of planning for a successful Product?

Nandakumar: Most of us have our own, fuzzy idea about the product’s success. But rarely do we get specific about what that success means. We end up with a plan that means different things to different people. Even more importantly, we don’t really plan for success. End-to-end product experience depends on how different departments/ functions work well together. Sales, marketing, technology, and customer support must align towards creating a delightful end-to-end experience for the customer. When we don’t share the same idea of success, and when we don’t plan for that success, then it manifests as broken product experiences for the customer.

InfoQ: Minimum Viable Product is often suggested as an approach to start small and fail fast. What are the missing parts that you’ve identified there?

Nandakumar: Minimum Viable Product is the smallest thing that can validate the riskiest proposition, without running out of resources. But, a lot of us forget this intent of the MVP and focus on the terminologies. “Minimum” is a very relative term. But in our heads, we equate it to the smallest thing that we’re capable of building. It may not be market ready. MVP comes with a lot of context. It makes a lot of sense when we are experimenting with a new business model, testing the viability of a product idea / need, or establishing the viability of a technology. Now, if we’re launching a product in a saturated market where there are other players, we cannot afford to build the smallest possible thing and hope for it to succeed. Instead why don’t we try to maximize our chances for success or at least maximize our chances of learning? So, if we flip the MVP connotation to maximum valuable product, what would we build? That’s the basis for what I describe as the Impact Driven Product. At any given point, we should try to build the most that we can (under given constraints) that will help us to learn fast and create the highest impact for both our customers and for our business.

InfoQ: How would you include the end-user feedback to validate that you’re actually building the right product? Are the common end-users prepared to see an imperfect and under-construction product?

Nandakumar: End-users come in all shapes and sizes! Early adopters may be willing to pay for an imperfect product (with defects, bad user experience, feature poor etc.) if it still offers them a great solution to a pressing problem. But, in a market with rich competition, this may not work. Customers switch loyalties too quickly. Also, how we anticipated our customers to use/ value the product may not be how they actually use/ value it. So, if we don’t have our ears to the ground, we’re surely bound to miss the signals from the market. We may continue to invest in features that are more than perfect, but not really increasing the value proposition for our customers. Or we’re losing customers by not paying attention to the features that they value most. Or sometimes it’s pricing or messaging or other related aspects that’s costing us our customer base. How do we fix a problem that we don’t know exists? This is why end user feedback is critical. In my book, I have included a number of ways you can capture qualitative and quantitative end-user feedback. Tracking these against the desired KBOs over time will tell us if we’re building the right product.

InfoQ: Part three of the book is mostly about waste elimination. Can you describe the most typical sources of waste that you’d throw away whenever possible, and replace by other approaches?

Nandakumar: The essential aspect of Lean production is how to avoid waste while ensuring quality. When we apply the same construct to product management, it boils down to how we take product decisions and actions. Are we basing them on data or are we relying on opinions? Do we go with what we know today and commit to learning fast, or do we endlessly wait to gather evidence where there is none? Trying to be perfect with our estimations is another aspect of waste that I address in my book. Process waste happen when we choose perfection, efficiency and throughput over outcomes, collaboration and speed to market.

About the Book Author

Mangalam Nandakumar has over 17 years of experience in product management and software delivery. She is an entrepreneur and has founded two startups. She has worked at Citigroup, Ocwen Financial Solutions, ThoughtWorks Technologies and RangDe.Org. She brings a vibrant perspective on product management due to her diverse experience having worked with startups, enterprises, non-profits, both in product companies and software consultancy organizations. She has a strong foundation in Agile and Lean methodologies. She has coached teams on their Agile transformation journeys.

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