Featured Article

Posted on | May 7, 2015 | Comments Off on Featured Article

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How Product Managers Lead Through Communication

by Barry Mohn – Speak and Write

“Our product managers need to be the CEOs of their products.”  This is what a senior director declared at a meeting I attended recently.  We were there to discuss leadership training for his Silicon Valley high-tech company, and the focus that day was squarely on his product managers’ ability to communicate.

As the CEOs of technical products, product managers set goals and strategies; oversee product development processes; and manage and motivate people.  Furthermore, 

2nd graphicthey must document and present to senior management the business impact of their products, as a CEO would present corporate strategy to a Board of Directors. 

Whether in email or in a meeting, communication is the underpinning of these product management activities.  How well managers communicate contributes to how well their products do.  And since there are no corporate profits without successful products, communication skills had better be good. 

The link among communication, products, and business success is born out in a study by consulting firm Towers Watson.  In a 2010 report, Towers Watson described the following:

  • “Companies with high effectiveness in change management and communication are three-and-a-half times more likely to significantly outperform their industry peers than firms that are not effective in these areas.”
  • “Companies described as highly effective communicators had 47 percent higher total returns to shareholders over the last five years compared to companies described as the least effective communicators.”   (Towers Watson. Capitalizing on Effective Communication: Communication ROI Study Report.)

 These findings from Towers Watson certainly back up the director in his motivation to enhance product manager communication.

 How do we spend our time and what makes communication effective?

With the sheer volume of emails, documentation, meetings, discussions, presentations, and phone calls, the time spent on daily communication often dwarfs the time for working alone on projects.  A 2012 McKinsey Global study found the average “knowledge worker” spends 28 percent of his or her day on email. Since employees average 260 working days per year, 73 full days are consumed by email

Furthermore, in their book How to Make Meetings Work!, Michael Doyle and David Strauss state that “middle management spends about 35 percent of their time in meetings while upper management spends upwards of 50 percent in meetings.”  

With this staggering amount of time dedicated to daily communication—whether in meetings, on the phone, or by email—it’s vital to know whether the time spent was effective.   

“Communication effectiveness” initially seems difficult to put a finger on.  Determining whether revenue grew from new products is easy, but knowing whether the communication related to a product launch was adequate or exceptional appears harder to discern.  

 It’s not.   

 To gauge a product manager’s effectiveness, communication must be broken down to the measurable and manageable aspects of the product life cycle:

  • Clarity of vision for new and existing products based on market assessments
  • Strength of product business case to senior management
  • Precision of direction given during design and development phases
  • Persuasiveness of product positioning and benefits for sales personnel
  • Consistency and quality of communication to stakeholders

For each of these, product mangers should ask themselves: Am I tailoring the message based on the audience?  Am I delivering the right content?  Am I providing too much or too little information?  Am I articulating succinctly?  Am I communicating changes quickly and clearly?  Am I proactively managing, updating, and motivating stakeholders? 

These activities and questions help move communication from a so-called soft skill to a tangible aspect of product management.   Product managers should perform a self-assessment and survey stakeholders for each of these to create a baseline of performance.  They can then use that information to establish goals and strategies for improvement.    

What are the skills to develop for communication effectiveness? 

Before doing any assessments, most managers believe they’re decent communicators while they also on occasion admit to the need for improvement.  But there’s a significant difference between being a decent communicator and an exceptional one.  Bridging that gap is what separates a manager from a leader. 

Have you ever attended a presentation during which the speaker had everyone’s rapt attention from start to finish?  Have you been in awe of someone who could3rd Graphic

 

eloquently express ideas in documents and emails?  Have you ever walked out of a meeting amazed by a person who brilliantly facilitated a difficult discussion? 

These are the leaders.  These are the people who have honed their communication skills.  These are the product managers who successfully become the CEOs of their products.

These leaders often possess four key skills, which all product managers should emulate:

1. Become an active listener.

Effective communication begins with listening.  Stephen Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People tells us, “We have such a tendency to rush in, to fix things up with good advice.  But we often fail to take the time to diagnose, to really, deeply understand the problem first.” 

Before dashing off a curt email in response to a delay in product development, seek to understand the reasons behind the delay; read the mood, dynamics, and complexity of the situation; and hear the people involved.  By doing so, your communication will be more thoughtful, appropriate, and successful in the end. 

When in face-to-face discussions or meetings, become an active listener by providing your full attention to the speaker.  Avoid interrupting—truly listening is different from waiting your turn to jump in.  Show interest in what the person is saying, recap main points, and probe for more information.  This is what makes people feel heard and develops trust between you and them.

2. Match the content to the audience.

Not all information is created equally nor is it all valuable.  People often feel the need to convey everything they know simply because they know it.  I once heard a Chief Technology Officer respond to this information overload with, “Don’t tell me what you want to tell me; tell me what I need to know.”

Effective communicators don’t spray content with a fire hose when a glass will do. 

Avoid “data dumps.”  Pare down and deliver only the information necessary for the recipient to understand the main point, make a decision, or take action.  One occasion might call for an executive summary while another might require intricate details.  On a dime, be able to modulate your message, style, and tone based on the audience.

Moreover, adopting a deductive approach to communication is usually most effective.  Begin with a high-level overview of your ideas to orient your listeners before jumping into the supporting details.  

3. Tap into the power of storytelling.

Stories illustrate ideas and engage listeners.  In politics, for example, grasping the financial ramifications of unemployment can be abstract until hearing a politician tell the story of someone who’s lost a job.   Politicians don’t tell stories by accident; they tell them to humanize an issue and create a compelling case for change.

In the Harvard Business Review article “The Irresistible Power of Storytelling as a Strategic Business Tool,” author Harrison Monarth explains how “storytelling evokes a strong neurological response.” To prove this, he summarizes Neuroeconomist Paul Zak‘s research:

Our brains produce the stress hormone cortisol during the tense moments in a story, which allows us to focus…  Other neurological research tells us that a happy ending to a story triggers the limbic system, our brain’s reward center, to release dopamine, which makes us feel more hopeful and optimistic.

Becoming an effective storyteller is a skill that has to be developed like any other.  Practice builds confidence in the ability to apply stories to business situations.  To develop stories, draw on previous experiences.  Include well-developed themes, plots, and characters; drama or conflict; and vivid, descriptive words.  Don’t lose your audience by overdoing the background or details.  Keep stories focused and tight.

4. Use common language.

Aristotle once said, “Think as wise men do, but speak as the common people do.”  Too often in business, people use inflated vocabulary and drawn-out sentences in the false sense that they come off as more intellectual or professional.  Or, they bandy around business jargon because they sound as if they’re “in the know.” 

The goal of business communication is clarity of thought and speed of understanding.  The longer the words and sentences, the harder the idea is to easily understand.   Business jargon is so overused that it actually prevents creative or original thought.

Use short, simple words to convey ideas.  A central adage for writing is this: Write to express, not to impress.  There’s no reason to write “gain financial traction” when we can more clearly use “grow revenue.”  In The Elements of Style, E.B. White summed it up this way: “Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.”

All moments of communication—whatever the medium—can be capitalized on or squandered.  Poorly developed presentations don’t contribute to communication but instead sabotage it.  Unclear emails prevent stakeholders from understanding direction and taking specific action.  Mind-numbing meetings leave participants confused and uninspired. 

On the other hand, implementing the four skills described above provide product managers a step up and help them seize each communication opportunity with vigor.  Since communication ability is a yardstick for performance, and because people judge one another on the way they communicate, showing command of communication skills is crucial to a product manager’s job, products, and company.  If successful, product managers can indeed become the CEOs of their products.

Barry Mohn, President of Speak and Write, trains workshops on clear, compelling, and concise communication to corporate employees around the world.  Visit www.speakandwrite.com or contact him at 775-762-8322 for information on his workshops.

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April 2015 Event

Posted on | April 10, 2015 | Comments Off on April 2015 Event

“Innovate or Die – Technology, Innovation, and Product Management: A Discussion and Case Study” with Nivedita Ojha, Sr. Director Product Management at Citrix

By Dan Galatin

Nivedita Ojha, Senior Director of Product Management at Citrix, presented at the April 1st meeting of the SVPMA.  Nivedita discussed the whys and hows of innovation both inside and outside the technology industry, both in the U.S. and worldwide.

Nivedita acknowledged that simply getting a product to market, especially at a large company like BT, is a significant success.  Innovation is sometimes stuck in a silo, such as a separate lab, but it’s the job of product managers to examine the roadmap and determine whether to build, buy or partner.

Innovation starts with understanding the customer’s needs, and you always need to consider the return on investment in innovation.  There is a distinction between “innovation thinking” and “business thinking.”  Innovators like Google, Facebook and WhatsApp are focused on changing the way business is done.  Less innovative businesses, by contrast, are focused on meeting the numbers.  Product managers who wish to innovate need a champion such as a CEO or CTO, but PMs are a “key spoke” in the innovation process.

A lot of innovation is happening in the rest of the world, not just in Silicon Valley.  Nivedita described how Starbucks innovated starting in 2008, during the economic downturn.  They noticed that their same store revenues were declining at the same time that their typical customers were younger and more technology-savvy than before.  Customers wanted to become more engaged, and so Starbucks started developing apps that transformed customer experiences, as well as bringing WiFi service into stores and partnering with Square for mobile payments.  By 2013, Starbucks was perceived as a leader in adopting new technology and making full use of their real estate.  These efforts caused their net income to increase by $100 million per quarter.

At the end of the day, the object of implementing innovation is to improve customer satisfaction and to increase profits.  Innovation continues in a number of sectors, including near-field communications, biometrics, wearable computing, and mobile loyalty programs.  The rollout of high-speed mobile networks has enabled innovations from different regions of the world.  Nivedita cited major new innovations at Citrix in the field of virtualization that are being developed in Hyderabad, India.

It is also instructive to compare the U.S mobile market to the mobile market worldwide.  There are still hundreds of millions of users on feature phones, and innovation continues on services for those devices.  Although the majority of mobile users in the U.S. are on contracts, most users worldwide are on pre-paid plans.  Everything is moving from desktop to mobile, and that has changed where companies are innovating.  Nivedita contended that there is still room for Windows Phone to have a significant impact, especially in the enterprise.  Google is rolling out a new platform for less expensive smartphones for developing markets.  Nivedita described how she was able to conduct a focus group study for a new gaming service in Taiwan more cheaply than in the U.S., since consumers in Taiwan were similar to target users in the U.S. and Japan.  This is yet another example of how innovation can be accomplished worldwide.

It is also important to understand the relative popularity of social platforms in different markets, in order to successfully launch products.  For example, QQ and Tencent are helpful for promoting products in China.  WhatsApp is popular in India.  Likewise, different ecommerce retailers are popular in different regions. 

Nivedita concluded by urging the audience to remember that innovation is not only about building products yourself.  Partnerships can help bring innovative products to the market.  To quote Heraclitus, the best think about innovation is that “the only thing contant is change.”

Dan Galatin has over 20 years of combined experience in product management and software engineering.  He is Co-Director of Communications for the SVPMA and can be contacted at dgalatin@yahoo.com.

December 2014 Event

Posted on | December 15, 2014 | Comments Off on December 2014 Event

“Shifting to an Experimental Mindset: The Dos and Don’ts of Hypothesis Testing” with Teresa Torres, Product Consultant & Coach, former CEO

By Lisa Rathjens

“Wisdom is the balance between knowledge and doubt.” It’s not often that product managers are encouraged to actively question their confidence in their own product ideas. But doubt is exactly what product managers need more of, according to Teresa Torres.

Teresa is a product coach who helps teams adopt user-centered, hypothesis-driven product development practices. On Wednesday, Dec 3rd, she challenged a packed room at the Oshman Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto, CA, to make doubt the center of their product management practice. Reminding the audience that pure confidence in a idea does not make it a successful one, she encouraged everyone to get uncomfortable, to step out of their “coherent stories”, and to challenge core assumptions.

Torres believes hypothesis testing is critical to the success of any product. As product managers, we need to keep the following truths at the center of our decision-making as we experiment to test and validate assumptions:

  • We cannot predict the future.
  • We will be wrong.
  • We do not know what to build next.
  • We do not know when we can deliver it.

Once you’ve acknowledged these truths, it follows that you’ll need to change your methods to be able to deliver great products. Instead of writing ~50-page PRDs, shift to building products iteratively (agile helps here). This allows you to learn and adjust, based on customer feedback and hypothesis testing. For instance, instead of building 10 features only to discover in the end that just 3 work, it’s better to run 10 experiments and then only build the 3 that work. This saves time, resources, and money. So, you see that it’s necessary to experiment at the feature level as well as the value-proposition level.

But how do you effectively test a product idea? According to Teresa, there are five components to a good hypothesis. In order to support (or refute) your idea by experimentation, your hypothesis must contain these attributes:

  1. What is the change that you are testing? Be very specific about what your expectations are and what you want to learn from the change.
  2. What impact do you expect the change to have? The expected impact should clearly define what you expect to see as a result of making the change. Be clear ahead of time with what measures you will use to gauge success.
  3. On whom do you expect it to have the most impact?  Only test your hypothesis on those that you want and expect to impact.
  4. How much of an impact is needed to be successful? For instance, if you need a 25% conversion rate and your tests show you’ll only reach 19% conversion, then you cannot claim success.
  5. How long is the testing window? Your testing window cannot be arbitrary, or you might be fooled by false positives. Specify your test duration before you begin your testing and stick to it.

 Then, when you set up your tests, be sure you can answer these questions:

  • Is your expected impact specific and measurable?
  • Can you clearly explain why the change will drive the expected impact?
  • Are you testing with the right population?
  • Did you estimate your targets based on something specific?
  • Did you use a duration calculator?

These are the first steps toward successful hypothesis experiments, and ultimately toward more successful products.

Lisa Rathjens focuses on designing and building products and services that encourage and enable developers to build experiences that people love to use. She can be reached at lrathjens@yahoo.com and http://www.linkedin.com/in/lrathjens

November 2014 Event

Posted on | November 18, 2014 | Comments Off on November 2014 Event

“The Usual Suspects: Solutions Beneath the Surface of Organizational Chaos” with Dr. Gary Katzenstein, Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley

By Pushpa Chandrashekaraiah

Dr. Gary Katzenstein from the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley discussed his framework of The Usual Suspects by going over a case study about the United States Mint.  (For details of the case study, please see this written summary or this podcast.)

It is crucial to solve organizational problems simply and quickly.  Usually, organization leaders try to analyze processes in place, approve bigger budgets, and try to implement technology to solve issues.  However, these three approaches may not actually help solve the problems in the long run. Read more

September 2014 Event

Posted on | September 15, 2014 | Comments Off on September 2014 Event

“Getting Products out from under the MIDDLE of the Bell Curve and Exceeding Expectations” with Preston Smalley, Executive Director, Product Management, Comcast

 By Dan Galatin

Preston opened by discussing specific techniques and practices for producing excellent products rather than mediocre ones. He began by describing his experience helping to create the first app for Read more

June 2014 Event

Posted on | June 22, 2014 | Comments Off on June 2014 Event

“Extending Agile Practices to Large Distributed Teams” with Luke Hohmann, Founder and CEO, Conteneo

By Dan Galatin

Luke Hohmann, Founder and CEO of Conteneo, presented at the June 4th meeting of the SVPMA.  Mr. Hohmann discussed powerful techniques Read more

May 2014 Event

Posted on | May 27, 2014 | Comments Off on May 2014 Event

Walmart’s Agile Journey: How we scaled from 1 to 135 Agile Teams with Kamal Manglani, Sr. Mgr. & Agile Lead and Dawn Marshall, Sr. Product leader Health and Wellness, Walmart Labs GeC

by Lisa Rathjens

When most of us think of Agile engineering processes, we think of software development, Scrum, Kanban, and software sprints. But at Walmart Labs, Agile is far more than a software development methodology. It is a mindset, a cultural value of cross-functional teamwork, and a new way for an entire business to approach its day-to-day work. Read more

April 2014 Event

Posted on | April 23, 2014 | Comments Off on April 2014 Event

“3 Tools to Increase Your Productivity Immediately” with Senia Maymin, Ph.D, Profit from the Positive, LLC

By Tej Ravindra

April’s SVPMA speaker was author and executive coach Senia Maymin. Senia outlined and taught three tools that we can apply right away to increase productivity in both our professional and personal lives.

The key points that she addressed were: How can we influence better, How to better align everyone in the same direction, and How to spend more time in Strategy. Read more

March 2014 Event

Posted on | March 17, 2014 | Comments Off on March 2014 Event

“Elevating from Consumer to Mission Critical Value” with Brian Cox, Senior Director of Marketing for Enterprise Solutions, SanDisk

By Clara Kuo

High tech companies – just like people – are often are trying to reinvent themselves, and often the change is seen as necessary to stay relevant in the marketplace.

Read more

Featured Article

Posted on | February 3, 2014 | Comments Off on Featured Article

“The Most Commonly Cited Reasons for a Failed Product Launch”

By Greg Geracie, President, Actuation Consulting 

Since 2012 we have been investigating the various aspects that enable product teams to achieve high performance. Each year product launch is consistently cited as a problem area. There are several reasons why this area is so problematic Read more