My product management toolkit (28): testing price sensitivity

Normally when I talk to other product managers about product pricing, I get slightly frightened looks in return. “Does that mean I need to set the price!?” or “am I now responsible for the commercial side of things too!?” are just some of the questions I’ve had thrown at me in the past.

“No” is the answer. I strongly believe that as product managers we run the risk of being all things to all people — see my previous post about “Product Janitors” — and I therefore believe that product people shouldn’t set prices. However, I do believe it’s critical for product people to think about pricing right from the beginning:

  • Do people want the product?
  • Why do they want it?
  • How much are they willing pay for it?

Answers to these questions will not only affect what product is built and how it’s built, but also how it will be launched and positioned within the market. I’ve made the mistake before of not getting involved in pricing at all or too late. As a result, I felt that I was playing catchup to fully understand the product’s value proposition and customers’ appetite for it.

Fortunately, there are two tools I’ve come across which I’ve found very helpful in terms of my comprehending the value a product is looking to achieve — both from a business and customer perspective: the Van Westendorp Pricing Sensitivity Meter and the Conjoint Analysis respectively.

The Van Westendorp Pricing Sensitivity Meter has helped me to learn about the kinds of pricing-relating customers to ask (target) customers:

  • At what price would you consider the product to be so expensive that you would not consider buying it? (Too expensive)
  • At what price would you consider the product to be priced so low that you would feel the quality couldn’t be very good? (Too cheap)
  • At what price would you consider the product starting to get expensive, so that it is not out of the question, but you would have to give some thought to buying it? (Expensive/High Side)
  • At what price would you consider the product to be a bargain — a great buy for the money? (Cheap/Good Value)

The aforementioned Van Westendorp questions are a good example of a so-called “direct pricing technique”, where the pricing research is underpinned by the assumption that people have a basic understanding of what a product is worth. In essence, this line of questioning comes down to asking “how much would you pay for this (product or service)?” Whilst this isn’t necessarily the best question to ask in a customer interview, it’s a nice and direct way to learn about how customers feel about pricing.

Example customer responses to the Van Westdorp questions — Taken from: http://www.5circles.com/van-westendorp-pricing-the-price-sensitivity-meter/

The insights from applying these direct questions will help in better understanding price points. The Van Westendorp method identifies four different price definitions:

Point of marginal cheapness (‘PMC’) — At the point of marginal cheapness, more sales volume would be lost than gained due to customers perceiving the product as a bargain and doubting its quality.

Point of marginal expensiveness (‘PME’) — This is a price point above which the product is deemed too expensive for the perceived value customers get from it.

Optimum price point (‘OPP’) — The price point at which the number of potential customers who view the product as either too expensive or too cheap is at a minimum. At this point, the number of persons who would possibly consider purchasing the product is at a maximum.

Indifference price point (‘IPP’) —Point at which the same percentage of customers feel that the product is getting too expensive as those who feel it is at a bargain price. This is the point at which most customers are indifferent to the price of a product.

Range of acceptable pricing (‘RAI’) — This range sits between the aforementioned points of marginal cheapness and marginal expensiveness. In other words, consumers are considered likely to pay a price within this range.

Van Westendorp price sensitivity meter (example) — Taken from: https://www.qualtrics.com/uk/market-research/pricing-research/

In addition to the Van Westendorp Price Sensitivity Meter, I’ve also used Conjoint Analysis to understand more about pricing. Unlike the Van Westendorp approach, the conjoint analysis is an indirect pricing technique which means that price is combined with other attributes such as size or brand. Consumers’ price sensitivity is then derived from the results of the analysis.

Sample conjoint analysis question — Taken from: https://www.questionpro.com/survey-templates/conjoint-analysis-retirement-housing/
Sample conjoint analysis question — Taken from: https://www.questionpro.com/survey-templates/conjoint-analysis-retirement-housing/

When designing a conjoint analysis study, the first step is take a product and break it down into its individual parts. For example, we could take a car and create combinations of its different parts to learn about combinations that customers prefer. For example:

Which of these cars would you prefer?

Option: 1

Brand: Volvo

Seats: 5

Price: £65,000

Option: 2

Brand: SsangYyong

Seats: 5

Price: £20,000

Option: 3

Brand: Toyota

Seats: 7

Price: £45,000

This is an overly simplified and totally fictitious example, but hopefully gives you a better idea of how a conjoint analysis takes into account multiple factors and will give you insight into how much consumers are willing to pay for a certain combination of features.

Main learning point: I personally don’t expect product managers to set prices for their products or design price research. However, I do think we as product managers benefits from a better understanding of the pricing model for our products and a better understanding of what constitutes ‘value for money’ for our customers. The Van Westendorp Price Sensitivity Meter and the Conjoint Analysis are just two ways of testing price sensitivity, but are in my view to good places to get started if you wish to get a better handle on pricing.

Related links for further learning:

  1. Van Westendorp pricing (the Price Sensitivity Meter) – 5 Circles Research
  2. Conjoint analysis – Wikipedia
  3. Why You Should (Almost) Never Use the van Westendorp Pricing Model
  4. Van Westendorp’s Price Sensitivity Meter – Wikipedia
  5. Pricing research: A new take on the Van Westendorp model | Articles | Quirks.com
  6. Easy Guide: How To Run a Van Westendorp Pricing Analysis – Dimitry Apollonsky
  7. Van Westendorp Price Sensitivity Meter
  8. Conjoint Analysis – introduction and principles

 

App review: StatusToday

Artificial Intelligence (‘AI’) has rapidly become yet another buzzword in the tech space and I’m therefore always on the lookout for AI based applications which add actual customer value. StatusToday could that kind of app:

My quick summary of StatusToday before using it – I think Status Today provides software to help manage teams of employees, I suspect this product is geared towards HR people.

How does StatusToday explain itself in the first minute – “Understand your employees” is the strapline that catches my eye. Whilst not being entirely clear on the tangible benefits Status Today delivers on, I do get that it offers employee data. I presume that customers will have access to a data portal and can generate reports.

What does StatusToday do (1)? – StatusToday analyses human behaviour and generates a digital fingerprint for individual employees. The company originally started out with a sole focus on using AI for cyber security, applying designated algorithms to analyse internal online comms, detecting behavioural patterns in comms activity and quickly spotting any abnormal activity or negligence. For example, ‘abnormal file exploration’ and ‘access from unusual locations’ are two behaviours that StatusToday will be tracking for its clients.

What does StatusToday do (2)? -StatusToday has since started offering more generic employee insights services. By plugging into a various online tools companies may use, Google and Microsoft for example, StatusToday will start collecting employee activity data. This will help companies in getting better visibility of employee behaviour as well as making the processes around data access and usage more efficient.

It makes me wonder to what extent there’s a “big brother is watching you element” to StatusToday’s products and services. For example, will the data accessible through StatusToday’s “Live Dashboard” (eventually) make it easier for companies to punish employees if they’re spending too much time on Facebook!?

Main learning point: I can see how StatusToday takes the (manual) pain out of monitoring suspicious online activity and helps companies to preempt data breaches and other ‘anomalies’.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://techcrunch.com/2018/02/20/statustoday/
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KhIkx8ZvA-Q
  3. https://techcrunch.com/2015/09/09/ef4/
  4. https://blog.statustoday.com/1nature-is-not-your-friend-but-ai-is-d94aaa13fd2e
  5. https://blog.statustoday.com/1your-small-business-could-be-in-big-trouble-7a34574ab42c

App review: Warby Parker

I recently listened to a podcast which was all about Warby Parker and its makings. After listening to the podcast, I was keen to have a closer look at Warby Parker’s website:

My quick summary of Warby Parker before using it – Warby Parker is disrupting the way in which consumers discover and buy glasses. I expect a product which removes the need for physical opticians.

How does Warby Parker explain itself in the first minute? – Accessing https://www.warbyparker.com/ on desktop, I see a nice horizontal layout, dominated by two hero images. There are two main calls to action. Firstly, “Try frames at home – for free”, which then offers me to either “get started” or “browse frames”. Secondly, “Shop online” which lets me shop for eyeglasses and sunglasses.

Getting started, what’s the process like? – After clicking on “Get started”, I can choose between styles for men and women.

Having selected “Men’s styles”, I’m pleased that there’s an option for me to skip the “What’s your fit?” screen as I’m unsure about the width of my face 🙂

Selecting a shape of frames feels somewhat easier, but it’s good that I can select all three shapes if I wish. Instead, I go for “rectangular”.

The same applies for the next screen, where I can pick colours and I select “Neutral” and “Black” simply because I find it easier to visualise what the frames will look like in these colours.

I decide the skip the step involving different materials to choose from. The icons on this screen do help but I personally would have benefited from seeing some real samples of materials such as acetate and titanium, just to get a better idea.

It’s good that I’m then being asked about my last eye exam. Wondering if and when I’ll be asked for the results from my last eye test in order to determine the strength of the glasses I need.

The next holding screen is useful since up to this point I hadn’t been sure about how Warby Parker’s service works. The explanations are clear and simple, encouraging me to click on the “Cool! Show me my results.” call to action at the bottom of the screen. I now understand that I can upload my prescription at checkout, but I wonder if I need to go to an eye doctor or an optician first in order to get a recent (and more reliable) prescription …

I’m then presented with 15 frames to choose from. From these 15 frames, Warby Parker lets me pick 5 frames to try on at home. I like how I can view the frames in the different colours that I selected as part of step 4 (see above). If I don’t like the frames suggested to me, I can always click “Browse all Home Try-on frames” or “Retake the quiz”.

I like the look of the “Chamberlain” so I select this pair of frames and click on “Try at home for free”.

As soon as I’ve clicked on the “Try at home for free” button a small tile appears which confirms that I’ve added 1 out of 5 frames which I can try at home. I can either decide to find another frame or view my cart.

When I click on “Find another frame” I expected to be taken back to my previous quiz results. Instead, I can now see a larger number of frames, but there’s the option to go back to my original quiz results and matches with my results have been highlighted.

I really like how the signup / login stage has been positioned right at the very end of my journey – i.e. at the checkout stage -and that I can just continue as a new customer.

My Warby Parker experience sadly ends when I realise that Warby Parker doesn’t ship frames to the United Kingdom. No matter how I hard I try, I can only enter a US address and zip code 😦

 

Did Warby Parker deliver on my expectations? – Yes and no. I felt Warby Parker’s site was great with respect to discovery and customisation, but I do think there’s opportunity to include some explanatory bits about Warby Parker’s  process.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/national-public-radio/how-i-built-this/e/48640659
  2. https://www.recode.net/2018/3/14/17115230/warby-parker-75-million-funding-t-rowe-price-ipo
  3. https://www.fastcompany.com/3041334/warby-parker-sees-the-future-of-retail

My product management toolkit (27): checklists

If you’d know me personally, you’d know that I love a good list. Making lists helps me to outline my thoughts, see connections and help prioritise. Three years ago, I wrote about “The Checklist Manifesto” by Atuwal Gawande, which is a great book about the importance of checklists and the ingredients of good checklist (see Fig. 1 below).

 

Fig. 1 – Key learnings from “The Checklist Manifesto” – Taken from: https://marcabraham.com/2015/07/01/book-review-the-checklist-manifesto/, 1 July 2015:

  1. Why checklists? – As individuals, the volume and complexity of the know-how that we carry around in our heads or (personal) systems is increasingly becoming unmanageable. Gawande points out that it’s becoming very hard for individuals to deliver the benefits of their know-how correctly. We therefore need a strategy for overcoming (human) failure. One the one hand this strategy needs to build on people’s experience and take advantage of their knowledge. On the other hand, however, this strategy needs to take into account human inadequacies. Checklists act as a very useful as part of this strategy.
  2. What makes a good checklist? – Gawande stresses that the checklist can’t be lengthy. A rule of thumb that some people use is to have between 5 to 9 items on a checklist in order to keep things manageable. The book contain some good real-life examples of how people go about starting their checklists. For example, looking at lessons learned from previous projects or the errors known to occur at any point.
  3. How to use a checklist – I believe that the key thing to bear in mind when using checklists is that they aren’t supposed to tell you what to do. As the book explains, a checklist isn’t a magic formula. Instead, having a checklist helps you at every step of the way, making sure you’ve got all the crucial info or data required at each step. Also, a checklist is a critical communication tool, as it outlines who you need to talk to (and why, what about) at each step of the way. Gawande also highlights the value of the ‘discipline’ that comes with having a checklist, the routine that’s involved in having a checklist. I’d add to this that a checklist can be a great way of identifying and mitigating risk upfront.

 

I’ve since read Leander Kahney’s biography of Jonny Ive, Apple’s design honcho. The book contains a quote about Apple’s New Product Process (‘ANPP’):

“In the world according to Steve Jobs, the ANPP would rapidly evolve into a well-defined process for bringing new products to market by laying out in extreme detail every stage of product development.

Embodied in a program that runs on the company’s internal network, the ANPP resembled a giant checklist. It detailed exactly what everyone was to do at every stage for every product, with instructions for every department ranging from hardware to software, and on to operations, finance, marketing, even the support teams that troubleshoot and repair the product after it goes to market.”

I perked up when I read how the ANPP resembles “a giant checklist”, detailing what needs to happen at each stage of the product development process. Apple’s process entails all stages, from concept to market launch. The ANPP is understandably very secretive, but I believe that we don’t need to know the ins and outs of Apple’s product development process to look at the use of checklists when developing and managing products:

Checklists aren’t the same as Gantt Charts! – It’s easy to confuse a short checklist with a Gantt Chart. Over the years, I’ve observed how people can derive a lot of certainty from creating and viewing detailed Gantt Charts or roadmaps (see my previous thoughts on this topic here). In my view, a super detailed checklist defeats the object. Instead, I encourage you to have short checklists that highlight both basic and critical steps to go through when developing / launching / managing products.

Checklists are evolving – Checklists are evolving in a sense that they’re likely to be different per product / team / project / etc. I find, for example, that each time I work with a new team of people or on new product, the checklist reflects the specific steps that need be checked, tailored to the team’s way of working or the specific product at hand.

Checklists are a collective effort – I’m currently onboarding a new UX designer into my team, and he’s keen for us to look at the ‘design checklist’ together, as he’s got some suggestions on how to make it work better. This might mean that the existing design checklist (see Fig. 2 below), underpinned by my preferred dual track approach, might be binned or adapted accordingly. Both are fine, as I expects checklists to be formed by those people who are responsible for checking the different list items. I’ve seen people treat their individually developed checklists as a decree … which others had to following blindly. My simple reaction to that kind of approach: no, no, no, no.

 

Fig. 2 – Sample ”design checklist”:

Democratise the sign-off process (1) – Often, quality assurance people come up and drive the best checklists. However, the risk I’ve observed, is that these QAs or the product managers become the single sign-off point for the checklist in question. I go into companies and look at their SCRUM and Kanban boards which have cards stating “Pet sign-off” or “Jackie sign-off”. I recently spoke to product managers at a company where the CEO wanted to sign off each feature.

Democratise the sign-off process (2) -Whilst nothing seems wrong with this approach at the face of it, there are two reasons why I feel uncomfortable with this ‘single sign-off’ approach. Firstly, to me, a hallmark of a truly self-organising and empowered team is that everyone feels empowered to ‘sign off’ on the end result (and its individual components). Secondly, I’m also worried about what happens if the designated sign-off person isn’t available. What happens if Pete and Christina are off ill or in never ending meetings? What if the CEO isn’t available for sign-off? Does the feature or product not get released to market? In short, I’m worried about creating another bottleneck or ‘single point of failure’ or forfeiting speed to market.

Don’t forget the basic steps – How often have you’ve been in a situation where you’ve just launched a new product or feature and realised that you forgot to test the styling of the images, content and calls to action? Sense checking things like these sounds like a basic step, but it’s one that’s easily forgotten in the excitement (and haste) to launch. Having basic steps like ‘check content’ included in your ‘pre-launch checklist’ will make sure that things don’t get overlooked (see Fig. 3 below).

 

Fig. 3 – Sample ”hygiene checklist”:

 

Include critical steps, lessons learned – I’ve found checklist to be a good way to incorporate key lessons learned on a continuous basis. The risks with post-mortem sessions or retrospectives is that lessons learned don’t get action and tend to be forgotten. Including a learning into a checklist is a simple but effective of way of ensuring that a learning sticks. For example, “training the customer support team” (on a new product, user flow or feature) was a critical step that I used to forget consistently. By including this item in a ‘go-to-market checklist’ helped me and my team in making sure this step wouldn’t be forgotten about anymore.

Put your checklist on a wall – Finally, I’d recommend making your checklist as visible and shareable as possible. You can stick your checklist on an office wall or, if the team aren’t all working in the same space, in collaboration software products like Confluence and Trello (see Fig. 4 – 5 below).

 

Fig. 4 – Put your checklist on a wall – Taken from: https://www.superestudio.co.uk/wall-checklist

 

 

Fig. 5 – Add your checklist in Trello – Taken from: https://www.addictivetips.com/internet-tips/trello-an-online-pinboard-for-task-organization-collaboration/

 

 

Main learning point: As long as you don’t confuse them with highly detailed project plans or roadmaps, checklists can be a valuable tool in making sure you and your team don’t overlook key steps when developing products!

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/apple-s-product-development-process-inside-the-world-s-greatest-design-organization
  2. https://qz.com/183861/any-company-can-copy-the-keystone-of-apples-design-process/
  3. http://www.theequitykicker.com/2014/03/06/apples-new-product-process-long-checklist/
  4. https://www.quora.com/What-is-Apple-s-product-development-process
  5. https://blog.toggl.com/gantt-chart/
  6. http://datainsightsideas.com/post/18502350035
  7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Single_point_of_failure

My product management toolkit (25): understanding the “unit economics” of your product

As a product manager it’s important to understand the unit economics of your product, irrespective of whether you’re managing a physical or a digital product. Unit economics are the direct revenues and costs related to a specific business model expressed on a per unit basis. These revenues and costs are the levers that impact the overall financial success of a product. In my view there are a number of reasons why I feel it’s important for product managers to have a good grasp of the unit economics of your product:

  • Helps quantify the value of what we do – Ultimately, product success can be measured in hard metrics such as revenue and profit. Even in cases where our products don’t directly attribute to revenue, they will at least have an impact on operational cost.
  • Customer Value = Business Value – In an ideal world, there’s a perfect equilibrium between customer value and business value. If the customer is happy with your product, buys and uses it, this should result in tangible business value.
  • P&L accountability for product people (1) – Perhaps it’s to do with the fact that product management still is a relatively young discipline, but I’m nevertheless surprised by the limited number of pr0duct people I know who’ve got full P&L responsibility. I believe that having ownership over the profit & loss account helps product decision making and and accountability, not just for product managers but for the product teams that we’re part of.
  • P&L accountability for product people (2) – Understandably, this can be a scary prospect and might impact the ways in which we manage products. However, owning the P&L will (1) make product managers fully accountable for product performance (2) provide clarity and accountability for product decisions, (3) help investments in the product and product marketing and (4) steep product management in data, moving to a more data informed approach to product management.
  • Assessing opportunities based on economics – Let’s move away from assessing new business or product opportunities purely based on “gut feel”. I appreciate that at some point we have to take a leap, especially with new products or problems that haven’t been solved before. At the same time, I do believe it’s critical to use data to help inform your opportunity assessments. Tools like Ash Maurya’s Lean Canvas help to think through and communicate the economics of certain opportunities (see Fig. 1 below). In the “cost structure” part of the lean canvas, for example, you can outline the expected acquisition or distribution cost of a new product.
  • Speaking the same language – It definitely helps the collaboration with stakeholders, the board and investors if you can speak about the unit economics of your product. I know from experience that being able to talk sensibly about unit economics and gross profit, really helps the conversation.

Now that we’ve established the importance of understanding unit economics, let’s look at some of the key components of unit economics  in more detail:

Profit margin per unit = (sales price) – (cost of goods sold + manufacture cost + packaging cost + postage cost + sales cost)

Naturally the exact cost per unit will be dependent on things such as (1) product type (2) point of sale (3) delivery fees and (4) any other ‘cost inputs’.

In a digital context, the user is often the unit. For example, the Lifetime Value (‘LTV’) and Customer Acquisition Cost (‘CAC’) are core metrics for most direct to consumer (B2C) digital products and services. I learned from David Skok and Dave Kellogg about the importance of the ‘CAC to LTV’ ratio.

Granted, Skok and Kellogg apply this ratio to SaaS, but I believe customer acquisition cost (‘CAC’) and customer lifetime value (‘LTV’) are core metrics when you treat the user as a unit; you’ve got a sustainable business model if LTV (significantly) exceeds CAC. In an ideal world, for every £1 it costs to acquire a customer you want to get £3 back in terms of customer lifetime value. Consequently, the LTV:CAC ratio = 3:1.

I’ve seen companies start with high CAC in order to build scale and then lower the CAC as the business matures and relies more on word of mouth as well as higher LTV. Also, companies like Salesforce are well known for carefully designing additions (“editions”) to increase customer lifetime value (see Fig. 2 below). 

Netflix are another good example in this respect, with their long term LTV view of their customers. Netflix take into account the Netflix subscription model and a viable replacement for another subscription model in cable. The average LTV of Netflix customers is 25 months. As a result, Netflix are happy to initially ‘lose’ money on acquiring customers, through a 1-month free trial, as these costs costs will be recouped very soon after acquiring the customer.

Main learning point: You don’t need to be a financial expert to understand the unit economics of your products. Just knowing what the ‘levers’ are that impact your product, will put you in good stead when it comes to making product decisions and collaborating with stakeholders.

 

 Fig. 1 – Lean Canvas template by Ash Maurya – Taken from: https://blog.leanstack.com/

 

Fig. 2 – Pricing and functionality overview for Salesforce’s New Sales Cloud Lightning Editions:

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://soundcloud.com/saastr/saastr-142-why-cac-ltv-is-the
  2. https://inpdcenter.com/blog/understanding-product-economics-improve-product-development-success/
  3. https://people.kth.se/~msmith/ii2300_pdf/product_realization_7_2016.pdf
  4. https://www.quora.com/What-are-unit-economics
  5. https://youtu.be/RG_eyn0fRXs
  6. https://medium.com/@markroberge
  7. https://www.slideshare.net/RaviLakkundi/product-management-pricing-31102059
  8. https://www.inc.com/guides/price-your-products.html
  9. http://accountingexplained.com/managerial/cvp-analysis/cost-plus-pricing
  10. https://www.quora.com/What-are-unit-economics
  11. http://www.forentrepreneurs.com/saas-metrics-2-definitions-2/
  12. http://www.problemio.com/business/business_economics.php
  13. https://www.slideshare.net/austinneudecker/startup-unit-economics-and-financial-model
  14. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/understanding-saas-business-model-unit-economics-ben-cotton/
  15. https://thepathforward.io/how-to-estimate-your-unit-economics-before-you-have-any-customers/
  16. https://thepathforward.io/unit-economics-by-sam-altman/
  17. http://launchingtechventures.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/e-commerce-metrics.html
  18. https://medium.com/@parthgohil/understanding-unit-economics-of-e-commerce-9c77042a2874
  19. https://yourstory.com/2017/02/unit-economics-flipkart/
  20. https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/283878
  21. https://hbr.org/2016/08/a-quick-guide-to-value-based-pricing
  22. https://unicornomy.com/netflix-business-strategy-netflix-unit-economics/
  23. https://hbr.org/2017/04/what-most-companies-miss-about-customer-lifetime-value

Book review: “Good Strategy. Bad Strategy”

I came across a senior executive a few months ago, let’s call him “Bob”, who talked me through his startup’s strategy. In short, Bob showed me three ‘strategic pillars’ for the business. Each pillar contained a load of specific products and initiatives. When I asked Bob about the strategic challenges that his business was looking to tackle, I got a blank stare in return. My explaining the need for having clear business and product strategies unfortunately didn’t seem to resonate much with Bob …

This experience prompted me to read “Good Strategy. Bad Strategy” which was first published by Richard Rumelt in 2011. Two main questions drove me to pick up a copy of “Good Strategy. Bad Strategy”:

  • Is this going to be yet another strategy book, with lots of buzz words but little tangible content!?
  • How can I clearly articulate what constitutes a good strategy and what makes a bad one?

Ultimately, I want to improve the way in which I take people like Bob on a ‘strategic journey’, helping them to convert their goals into proper strategies. “Good Strategy. Bad Strategy” definitely delivered on this objective. Firstly, it paints a good picture of the problem space surrounding strategy. The first part of the book is all about common misconceptions about strategy and explaining ‘why’ there’s so much bad strategy around. Secondly, the book then outlines what is needed to create good strategies, explaining what goes into the “kernel” of good strategy.

Bad strategy

“Good Strategy. Bad Strategy” starts off listing some of the hallmarks of bad strategy:

  • Fluff – Fluff is a form of gibberish masquerading as strategic concepts or arguments. For example, I believe that terms like “seamless” or multi-channel have become so overused that they have lost a lot of meaning.
  • Failure to face the challenge – Bad strategy fails to recognise or define the challenge that a company is facing. Bob’s strategy was a good example in this regard. His strategy provided a number of solutions without the underlying strategic problems or challenges they were intended to resolve.
  • Mistaking goals for strategy – Many bad strategies are just statements of desires rather than plans for overcoming obstacles. For example, phrases such as “entering new markets” or “becoming the leading [fill in any sector of your choice here]” leave me wondering “why?”. These high level goals fail to highlighting specific strategic obstacles or opportunities a business is facing.
  • Bad strategic objectives – A strategic objective is set by a leader as a means to an end. As  Rumelt explains, “strategic objectives are “bad” when they fail to address critical issues or when they are impracticable.” For example, if the strategic objective is “to become a world leading furniture maker”, I’d argue that this is a vision statement and not a strategy. A related strategy would describe some of the key challenges to overcome in order to achieve the vision. Rumelt goes one step further by arguing that Google’s “vision mission strategy” template often misses the mark, as he feels it doesn’t cover true analysis of the challenges and opportunities ahead.

In short, in “Good Strategy. Bad Strategy” Rumelt makes the point that most strategies fail to acknowledge the key obstacles or problems companies need to overcome. I see an analogy with  the need to engage in a constant obstacle race, and businesses competing to overcome certain hurdles first.

Fig. 1 – Strategy as an ongoing obstacle race – Taken from: https://www.pledgesports.org/2017/02/down-dirty-the-rise-of-the-obstacle-course-racing-industry/

So why is “bad” strategy such a common theme across so many businesses!?

The primary reason, as Rumelt highlights, is that bad strategy trumps analysis, logic and choice, with people hoping that they can avoid these often gnarly fundamentals and any issues in overcoming them. Rumelt stresses that “good strategy is very hard work”. I agree with this sentiment completely, as I’ve seen first hand that it can feel easier – in the short term at least – to ignore what’s happening or what could happen. Similarly, making strategic choices and deciding on tradeoffs is often very tricky and painful.

Good strategy

Rumelt describes the structure that underlies a good strategy as a “kernel” (see Fig. 2 below). The kernel of a strategy contains three elements:

  • A diagnosis that defines or explains the nature of the challenge. A good diagnosis simplifies the often overwhelming complexity of reality by identifying certain aspects of the situation as critical.
  • A guiding policy for dealing with the challenge. This is an overall approach chosen to cope with or overcome the obstacles identified in the diagnosis.
  • A set of coherent actions that are designed to carry out the guiding policy. These are steps that are coordinated with one another to work together in accomplishing the guiding policy.

In essence, the kernel forms the bare bones skeleton of a strategy. Aspects such as visions, hierarchies of goals and objectives or timeframes are typically left out of the kernel. These aspects are treated as support layers instead.

The diagnosis

Coming to a diagnosis is about, putting it simply, understanding what’s going on. For example, as soon as Bob and I started exploring the situation that his business was in, we came to the conclusion that it was operating in a market close to reaching saturation point. As Rumelt points out, “an explicit diagnosis permits one to evaluate the rest of the strategy.” In addition, by turning the diagnosis into critical part of the strategy, the rest of the strategy can be revisited as and when circumstances change.

The guiding policy

The guiding policy outlines an overall approach for overcoming the obstacles highlighted by the diagnosis. The guiding policy doesn’t commit to a specific set of actions. Instead, it rules out a number of actions and suggests an overarching method to deal with the situation as described in the diagnosis. For example, one’s guiding policy could be to focus on improving the lifetime value of existing customers as opposed to acquiring more new customers that conduct one-off transactions.

Coherent action 

Rumelt points out a common mistake people often tend to make by calling the guiding policy a “strategy” and subsequently stop there. Strategy is all about taking action to overcome obstacles or seize opportunities. This doesn’t mean that you need to outline every single proposed action in its finest detail, but at least provide sufficient clarity to help make certain concepts more realistic and tangible.

Fig. 2 – Maz Iqbal, Kernel of Strategy – Taken from: https://thecustomerblog.co.uk/2012/10/08/what-is-the-kernel-of-strategy-part-iv-coherent-action/

I felt that thinking about the kernel of strategy makes it easier to then figure out some of the strategy’s support layers:

  • Taking a strong position and creating options – Rumelt disagrees with strategic thinkers that feel that in uncertain and dynamic environments, companies do well to plan ahead as much as possible. In contrast, Rumelt argues, the more dynamic and uncertain the situation the more proximate a strategic objective should be. He cites President Kennedy announcing the US’ ambition to land a person on the moon by the end of the 1960s as a good example of a proximate goal. Despite not knowing exactly how or when the US could land a person on the moon, the US had done enough research and testing for President Kennedy to feel confident about taking a strong position (i.e. committing to the first moon landing) and to exploring various options to get there.
  • Hierarchies of objectives – In organisations of any size, high-level proximate objectives create goals for lower-level units, which, in turn, create their own proximate objectives, and so on and so forth. I really like Rumelt’s related point about proximate objectives cascading and adjusting over time, as it does justice to the uncertain and dynamic nature of most of today’s market environments.

Main learning point: “Good Strategy. Bad Strategy” is a great book for anyone slightly at loss where to begin when it comes to creating or evaluating a strategy. In the “kernel of strategy”, the book offers a very useful structure to underpin every (good) strategy.

Related links for further learning:

  1. http://www.stephenbungay.com/Strategy.ink
  2. http://panmore.com/google-vision-statement-mission-statement
  3. http://goodbadstrategy.com/
  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UZrTl16hZdk
  5. https://gbr.pepperdine.edu/2010/08/whats-the-problem/

My product management toolkit (22): how to create a product culture?

What can you do when you’ve joined a company that hasn’t (yet) got a proper product culture? Making it harder for you to do your job or get people’s buy-in. Unfortunately, this tends be harsh reality for a lot of product managers, who then become increasingly frustrated with a lack of progress or an unchanged mindset.

However, there’s no need to despair, as there are a number of techniques and tools to start instilling a product mindset and creating a product culture. In this piece, we’ll first define what product culture means and then explore ways in which you as a product manager can contribute to the creation of a product culture.

What is product culture?

Fig. 1 – Martin Eriksson, “What Is A Product Manager?” – Taken from: http://www.mindtheproduct.com/2011/10/what-exactly-is-a-product-manager/

If you look at the famous product management venn diagram by my friend Martin Eriksson it quickly becomes apparent how the three components of Martin’s diagram feed into my components of a strong product culture:

  • Customer understanding – We all know how easy it can be to pay lip service to ‘customer empathy’ or ‘understanding user needs’! However, a strong product culture begins and ends with your customers. In organisations with a strong product culture, all staff members interact with customers or are at least fully aware of their customer needs. Companies like Zappos and Amazon are well known for their focus on customer centricity factors (see Fig. 2 below). In my experience, signs of  non customer centric companies are those where only a small part of the business ‘owns’ the customer relationship or where the customer has become this imaginary persona for most staff members. Also, I encourage you to pose a healthy challenge to those people in the organisation who claim to “know what the customer wants” based on their experience.
  • Everything is geared towards creating great products – Throughout the company with a strong product culture one can find a strong sense of innovation, a desire to experiment in order to create great products. Etsy is a good example of a company that develops new products and services iteratively, constantly testing and improving on previous product releases. One of the telltale signs of a strong product culture is when employees possess what Marty Cagan refers to as a product mindset (see Fig. 3 below).
  • Value proposition and business model – A shared understanding of your business’ value proposition and business model is a clear sign of a good product culture. Alignment around the value you’re aiming to provide to your customers – combined with an awareness of who those customers are – is a critical part of a strong product culture, as it underpins the products and services that you put out there.
  • Curiosity and experimentation – You know that things could get challenging if you, as a product manager, turn out to be one of the few people in an organisation to ask ‘why’ and be curious. These are traits that can be learned and adopted, and the more innovative and customer centric businesses are those that aren’t afraid to be curious, learn and ‘fail well’. I heard a colleague of mine phrasing it quite well the other day when he spoke about “taking calculated risks”. In other words, taking risks in such way that you learn a lot – quickly and cheaply – about your riskiest assumptions, whilst any negative ramifications are limited or non-existent.

 

Fig. 2 – Steven MacDonald, How to Create a Customer Centric Strategy for your Business – Taken from: http://www.superoffice.com/blog/how-to-create-a-customer-centric-strategy/

 

Fig. 3 – Marty Cagan, Product Mindset vs IT Mindset – Taken from: http://svpg.com/product-vs-it-mindset/

  1. Purpose.  In an IT mindset organisation, the staff exists to service the perceived technology needs of “the business.”  In a technology-enabled product organisation, the staff exists to service the needs of your customers, within the constraints of the business.
  2. Passion.  In an IT mindset organisation, product and technology are mercenaries.  There is little to no product passion.  They are there to build whatever.  In a product organisation, product and tech are missionaries.  They have joined the organisation because they care about the mission and helping customers solve real problems.
  3. Requirements.  In an IT mindset organisation, requirements are “gathered” from stakeholders, prioritised in the form of roadmaps, and implemented.  In a product organisation, we must discover the necessary problem to solve or product to be built.
  4. Staffing.  The IT mindset shows up very visibly in the staff and the roles.  The lack of true product managers (especially strong product managers), the lack of true interaction designers, the prevalence of old-style project management, engineers unfamiliar with the demands of scale and performance, the existence of old-style business analysts, and heavy use of outsourcing, are all clear examples of this.  I would argue the most telling manifestation of the IT mindset problem is that the product managers in IT mindset companies are typically very weak, and at true product companies they are necessarily very strong.
  5. Funding.  In IT mindset companies you find them still funding projects (output) rather than product teams measured by business results (outcome).   There are many serious problems with this antiquated model, and it generates all kinds of bad behaviour in the organisation as they try to work around the constraints of this system, but most importantly, it results in very poor ROI for the company because of the very high cost of finding out which ideas work and which don’t.
  6. Process.  In IT mindset companies, you usually find very slow, heavy, Waterfall processes, even when the engineers consider themselves Agile.  The only part that would be considered Agile would be at the tail end of build, test and release.  Much of this stems from the Funding issue above, but deciding what areas to invest in, staffing a team, defining and designing the solution, and release planning are all typically very Waterfall.  Technology-enabled product organisations simply must move much faster, and work differently, in order to deliver the necessary solutions for our customers and our business.
  7. Silos.  In IT mindset companies, people align by function, creating silos between the different areas of the business, product, user experience design, engineering, QA and site operations.  In contrast, in a product organisation, we depend on true collaboration between product, user experience design, technology and the business units.  In a product organisation we optimise for product teams, not for the individual functions.
  8. Organisation.  In IT mindset companies, engineering is often under a CIO, and “product” (if it exists at all) is often under marketing or absorbed directly in the business units themselves.  In product organisations, there’s a big difference between the engineers that support “true IT” and those that work on the commercial products,  The True IT engineers usually report to the CIO, and the commercial product engineers report to a CTO.  Similarly, product is not a sub-function of marketing.  It is a top-level activity on par with marketing and technology.  It is not so much the org chart that matters here, as much as a recognition that the way we manage True IT work is very different than how we manage commercial product efforts.
  9. Accountability.  In IT mindset companies, accountability frankly is a farce.  The people actually working on a project typically have no real say in what they are building, and sometimes even in how it’s built, and even when it’s due.  In theory, the leadership team could try to hold the requesting stakeholders accountable for the results, but if they do they immediately hear complaints that they didn’t get what they actually wanted, and because of delays and costs, critical things had to get cut, and so it’s certainly not their fault.  So management writes it off as yet another failed technology initiative.  In contrast, in a product organisation, we are measured by results.
  10. Leadership.  As with so many things, much of this boils down to leadership.  In IT mindset companies, the technology is viewed as a necessary evil.  It is a source of fear more than a source of inspiration.  Leadership in IT mindset companies is always looking for a silver bullet when it comes to technology.  Maybe they should outsource the whole mess?  Or maybe they can acquire someone else that hopefully has a better track record than they do.   In contrast, in a product company, technology enables and powers the business.  It is embraced and valued.  The people that create the technology are respected as the key contributors they are.  Leadership in a commercial product company understands that it’s their job to create the culture and environment necessary to nurture continuous innovation.

Where to start?

As daunting it may sound, starting to create a product culture doesn’t have to be overly complicated or onerous. As always, my advice is to smart small. Kick things off with some simple but targeted initiatives:

  • A visioning workshop to create a shared product vision – A product culture starts with a shared vision of what the product is (not), and what we’re trying to achieve with it for our customers and our business. Lack of a shared vision usually manifests itself in a product that wants to be too many things to too many people. As a product manager you can drive both the creation and the shared understanding of a product vision, starting with the facilitation of a visioning workshop.
  • Agree on a mission statement (and make sure it’s omnipresent) – Whereas a product vision is typically more aspirational and future oriented, a mission statement is all about the problems your business is aiming to solve right now (see Fig. 4-5 below).
  • Live and breathe clear values that underpin your (product) culture – Naturally, every organisation will have its own unique values – both explicit and implicit. However, there are a number of values that I believe underpin most product cultures: curious (see above under “what is product culture?”), courageous, innovative, open, trying and learning. Formulating and agreeing on such values is the easy part; truly embodying them on a daily basis tends to be much harder. For example, within my current product team, we’ve got a ‘team manifesto’ which encapsulates our core values and principles, and we use this as a living reference point, asking ourselves regularly whether we’re actually living up to our principles.
  • 5 simple ways to become more customer centric – Especially if you find yourself in a business with an IT mindset (see Fig. 3), bringing the customer into the picture can be difficult. However, I’ve discovered and applied five simple techniques that have helped me in making organisations and colleagues to think more about the customer and their needs (see Fig. 6).
  • Hire and fire for the right behaviours and values – A successful product culture depends heavily on the people within the organisation. This means that when you’re hiring product people, you’ll be looking for some of the key values that underpin your product culture. For instance, when I recruit new product people, I always try to filter out any ‘product janitors’ as quickly as I can, simply because it doesn’t fit with the values that I’m trying to instil into my product teams. Equally, this also implies that you sometimes need to make tough decisions and fire those employees who might be great people but don’t form a good fit with your product culture and its underlying values (see above).
  • Clear goals, celebrate success and failure – Outcomes over outputs. I understand people’s obsession with certain features or ideas, but I believe that businesses benefit from a continuous focus on goals and problems instead of of fretting over features. I’ve found a goal-oriented roadmap to be a great tool in terms of driving an understanding of common goals.
  • Continuous learning – In my experience, the ‘learning’ aspect comes from continuously exploring different ways to tackle a problem, celebrating success as well as reflecting on the ‘failures’. The more you can share these learnings with the wider organisation, the better. This helps in creating a culture where there’s full transparency with regard to both achieved results as well as those things that didn’t go according to plan. In turn, this breeds a culture of experimentation, taking calculated risks, experimenting and being open about the outcomes, whatever they are.

 

Fig. 4 – Elements of a mission statement:

For (target customer)

Who (statement of the need or opportunity)

The (product name) is (product category)

That (key benefit, compelling reason to buy)

Unlike (primary competitive alternative)

Our product (statement of primary differentiation)

 

Fig. 5 – Mission statement examples from Patagonia and Cradles to Crayons – Taken from: https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/inspiring-company-mission-statements

 

Fig. 6 – How do we become more customer centric – Five simple ways to get there:

  1. 5 customers every fortnight – User research and usability testing don’t have to part of massive projects, getting input from thousands of customers. In contrast, engaging with 5 (target) customers every two weeks goes a long way in my experience. It gives you an opportunity to learn continuously, in tandem with your development work and product / feature releases.
  2. Team based user research – I learned from UX expert Erika Hall about the importance of collaborative or team based research. The key point here is that user research isn’t a one person job. People across the business will benefit from learning from and about their customers.
  3. Exposure hours – Similar to team based user research, the idea behind so-called exposure hours is to share customer learnings directly with team members and stakeholders, by them sitting in on a user interview for example and being directly exposed to customers.
  4. Feeling what users feel – In my previous company, Notonthehighstreet, we had a programme called “In Your Shoes” which meant that all employees had to spend one day at a customer and be part of their businesses and lives for a day. It was a great to experience first hand the problems and needs customers have, and understand their contexts better.
  5. Product retrospectives – Finally, I’ve found product retrospectives to be a great way of instilling a more customer focused mindset. Regular product retrospectives are a great opportunity for a team and the wider business to reflect on its products or services. How are our products performing? What did we release last month and how is that release doing? What are our customers saying, thinking and feeling? Product retrospectives are explicitly not about the team or process improvements. Instead it’s all about the product and its users.

Main learning point: Creating a product culture is by no means easy but as a product manager there are number of tools and techniques one can use to instil a product mindset and a more customer-centric approach.

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.slideshare.net/abrahammarc1/how-to-create-a-product-culture
  2. http://svpg.com/establishing-a-true-product-culture/
  3. https://www.slideshare.net/reed2001/culture-1798664
  4. https://medium.com/we-are-yammer/onboarding-as-a-product-manager-cc7ad1d618c9
  5. https://www.quora.com/What-companies-have-a-strong-product-management-culture-and-how-do-they-achieve-it
  6. http://www.walkingthetalk.com/zappos-customer-centric-culture/
  7. http://www.superoffice.com/blog/how-to-create-a-customer-centric-strategy/
  8. https://leanstartup.co/heres-how-5-companies-create-remarkably-innovative-cultures/
  9. https://apptimize.com/blog/2014/01/etsy-continuous-innovation-ab-testing/
  10. http://www.svpg.com/the-product-manager-contribution/
  11. https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/inspiring-company-mission-statements
  12. https://articles.uie.com/user_exposure_hours/
  13. http://www.tommyandlottie.com/in-your-shoes
  14. https://hbr.org/2012/11/its-not-just-semantics-managing-outcomes
  15. https://www.playbookhq.co/blog/lean-product-development-positive-economics-of-failing-fast
  16. http://www.cleverpm.com/2015/08/25/fail-fast-fail-cheap-and-fail-often/
  17. https://techcrunch.com/gallery/internet-trends-2017/