As a product manager, you’re under immense pressure to spearhead releases quickly. At the same time, you’re relentlessly committed to quality, collaboration, and thoughtful user research. Across industries from software to healthcare, finance — and even hardware, product leads are constantly walking tightropes between competing organizational objectives.
It’s a balancing act. Sometimes, you feel like you’re throwing darts in the dark, lacking clear direction. Is your MVP too minimal? Are you testing the right hypotheses for measuring customer behavior? And then, there’s the scariest question of all:
How do you know that you’re on the right path?
There’s no clear answer to these questions, which is why it’s so important to study the path of PMs who have been there before — to make sure that you aren’t chasing your tail and headed in the wrong direction . Here are five inspiring resources for optimizing your product development cycle:
Tip #1: Ensure that You’re Making the Right Tradeoffs
PMs are responsible for encouraging innovation, moving initiatives ahead, and pursuing meaningful revenue opportunities. They’re often facing immense risk and ambiguity — exploring convoluted, uncharted paths.
Each step, decision, and change in direction is a tradeoff — which means that it’s way too easy to get lost, build the wrong things, and waste a metric ton of money. But finding the ‘right’ solution is easier said than done. If it were that easy, 75 percent of startups wouldn’t fail, and corporations wouldn’t drop millions of dollars on wasted R&D.
As Dan Milstein, founder at software consulting firm Hut 8 Labs puts it, product development is often a function of risk, information, time, and money.
The key to forging a path forward — to making the “right” tradeoffs — is to balance what you’re choosing to work on with what has the potential to generate the most value. In other words, you need to minimize your opportunity cost. Information, Milstein says, when you’re working on a new product is worth money.
In navigating this process, however, startups and product managers never have a single decision. They face chained risks. They face a sequence of events that need to be true to generate an ROI. That’s why startups need to navigate both market and technical risks by answering the questions: (1) can we build it? and (2) will people buy it?
At any given time, one of these questions will be the ‘bigger risk’ that your organization is facing — it depends on your unique business case. The key to successful decision-making means choosing which risk to avoid.
Tip #2: Validate Your Idea Before You Build
The best engineers are builders — and are relentlessly committed to getting things done. We’re often driven to get up and running with our ideas — to start testing sooner rather than later.
At face value, this process seems like the best way to execute. The sooner you’re up and running, the sooner you can collect feedback and iterate.
Believe it or not, however, it can actually slow you down. That’s because you think like an engineer, and you approach challenges from the perspective of your development team. With this mindset, you risk building features — and products — that don’t align with your market. You risk building clunky products, putting a blemish on your business, and throwing away lines of code.
This was a lesson that Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup learned the hard way during his time at IMVU, a messaging company and online social network. After months of building a ‘perfect’ product, he realized every CTO’s worst nightmare:
People didn’t want it.
Even more painful was the fact that this misdirection could have been avoided with upfront interviews — something that Ries and his team could have done without touching a line of code.
Engineer and entrepreneur Daina Burnes Linton took this lesson to heart when building her startup, Fashion Metric — a technology company that transforms how people are fitted for clothes.
Test with customers before you build anything. Companies will often put time, resources, and energy into building products that they intuitively think customers will use. Not so much. Test from the get go, at the idea stage, so that you’re building the right solutions.
Tip #3: Venture into the Trenches
This tip is a natural extension of #2. As product leaders, we spend a lot of time at the office, behind the computer, in meetings, and on calls. Getting outside — and actually talking to people, face-to-face — is a daunting process.
But you need to do it.
That’s because humans are multifaceted. In addition to listening to what your customers and prospects are telling you, you need to know what they aren’t telling you.
It’s this mindset that inspired Nadia Shouraboura, former Technology VP of Global Supply Chain and Fulfillment at Amazon, to build a technology product that transforms retail experiences for shoppers and store associates.
Rather than jumping into her software, she started by running an actual physical storefront (for several months). She personally managed operations to uncover everyday needs and pain points. This experience empowered Shouraboura with unique insight into how to run a store.
What emerged from this approach was a seamless piece of mobile technology — a company called Hointer:
When in doubt, put yourself in your customers’ shoes. Learn what empowers them — and what makes them struggle.
It an ideal world, these three steps would be a continuous process. But each product and engineering team will be at different stages in their roadmaps. It’s never too late to take a step back re-assess your plan and kickstart your customer development process. Learn as much (and as fast) as you can.