Agile Development, Information Technology, Life, Product Development

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change”.  When I pondered over this popular quote of Charles Darwin, the other day, it occurred to me that ‘change’ is a profound phenomenon that impacts the way we live, work and do virtually every task. Change affects to a large extent, every human being in every phase and walk of life…young and old, rich and poor. Not only people, but organizations too have ‘change’ staring in their face and they have a greater responsibility to manage it and use it to their advantage. In this post, I will touch upon the key aspects of managing change and how organizations need to respond effectively.

The writing is on the wall

When they say that change is the only constant in this world, they meant it to the letter and spirit. Understand that everything is bound to change one day or the other in one way or the other. Don’t think that change is a negative thing and that we need to avoid it, evade it or confront it, to the least. On the contrary, change is for the benefit of all of us and take it as a positive factor that drives us in our lives and careers. Change is inevitable, be prepared for it and embrace it with all the preparation you can.

“Change, for your good
Change to take the lead
Change to be the best!”
 
Ride on the waves of change

In the context of product development and management too, change does play its role to a large extent and leaves its rather heavy imprints. Here, it does touch and signify its presence across all the strata starting from stakeholders, to customers and from partners to the development team. And to manage this change at various levels, organizations need to rely not just on their traditional abilities such as reputation, market capitalization, production capacities etc. To stay ahead in this game of managing change and lead the pack, organizations need to be nimble-footed, flexible and embrace change and act swiftly. Don’t fight change, you may not win the battle and it is not worth the effort. Instead try and ride on the waves of change and you will potentially have a joy ride.

Factoring for change – external and internal

The most important reason for success is to aspire for and be prepared for it. I like the Scouts movement started by Robert Baden Powell and the motto with which the cadets are trained. Every Scout lives by the motto “Be Prepared” and is ready to face, come what may. The Scouts go through a series of training sessions, equipped with the right tools and techniques to be prepared all the time. Similarly, organizations and especially product managers have to follow a few things to do as a precursor and warm up to the game of managing change effectively.

Identify all the potential factors that could affect your organization and products. Categorize them into external and internal factors for easy listing. Some of the external factors that are possibly candidates for change are the market forces, competition,  out-of-control factors related to demand and supply dynamics, Government policies etc. The internal factors could be the capabilities of your own development teams, their skill sets, organizational set up, company policies and politics, to name a few. Of course, these factors could vary from industry to industry and also depends on the nature, size and type of the product you are developing or managing.

To be and to do 

The most important thing is to know what you want to be and what you need to do to reach that stage.

  • Identify the strategic vision of the organization
  • Put together the long term, medium term and short terms goals for the business
  • Identify the key stakeholders who directly influence or influenced by these goals
  • Get all stakeholders aligned and seek their commitment

After you are done with listing the ‘to be’ goals, map them with the internal and external change factors that you identified earlier. The next immediate step is the creation of a ‘to do’ list which is derived from the mapping of ‘to be’ and the internal and external change factors. Often this list of action items is all you need to kick start a movement in your organization. I can’t prescribe the ‘to be’ points as they vary to a great extent based on the industry, domains, your own organization goals, products, people and processes. When you have this list by you, your product can be said to be put on the track. Once on the track, it is entirely up to you as a product manager to drive it in a way to meet the ‘to be’ goals.

Making elephants dance

What among the two items do you think makes it to breaking news- a dancing hyena or a dancing elephant? You are right, its the dancing elephant that makes it to the rolling marquee. It might be for various reasons, but sticking to the subject of the post, I wish to focus on the abilities of a dancing elephant such as its size, presence, and respect that make it a head-turner along with its newly acquired talent of dancing. The combination of agility with the abilities such as market presence, strong brand, talented workforce etc., would work wonders for your organizations and products. It is this healthy blend of the critical success factors and better change management tactics that make successful companies and products.

When I was doing my MBA, a few years ago, I read a book written by Louis Gerstner “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? – Inside IBM’s Historic Turnaround”. I loved the way that a company of the size and presence of IBM could be successful despite its size. IBM today is a 100 year-old organization which has seen itself grow from a company making ‘adding machines’ to a pure-play services company that it is today.

   

Everyone would have been surprised when IBM (I guess in 2005) announced that it was selling their PC business to Lenovo. I still remember some people questioning the decision to move out of the business which the company had grown out of as bread and butter for almost 50 years. Even Mr.Gerstner would not have imagined that IBM would rewrite its own History in such a bold way. But, IBM stood by its decision, after reading the writing on the wall, assessing their own strengths and heading up the path of action. A classic case in managing change, using the agility as the key over abilities as the key differentiation.

Agility is the key 

Think of something that could work. Try it for sometime and check if it  is working or not. Adapt it to suit your goals and continue the process. This is the only way to manage the ever-changing landscape of products market. To be able to manage change on a continuous basis, it is not enough if you do the above things once and leave them there.

Here are my tips for making agility as your all-weather friend!

  • Take a few tasks and stick to them religiously. Discipline is paramount for success
  • Be always on the lookout – learn, apply and share the learning
  • Look, observe, listen and understand what is happening around you
  • Revisit your change factors, to be and to do items continually
  • Assess where you are, where you need to go and re-plan how you can reach there
  • Restructure your teams to suit the ever changing demands
  • Try new and different ways of doing things
  • Don’t be too rigid with products, processes and people

Hope you have some useful takeaways from this post. Try the tips I gave here and see if it works for you. Let me know your views and ideas. Till the next post, ciao!

Business Analysis, Innovation, Life, Product Development, User Analysis, User Experience, User-centered Design

You might be slightly intrigued by the title of this post. Yes, you are correct in that the focus of any innovation almost always happens to be on customers and end-users. It ends up delivering value to users in some way or the other and that the most significant benefactor in the process of innovation is the user. No denying that truth, however, in this post I wish to look at innovation being driven by users and their needs. Let us look at a few instances which triggered the users to innovate and what it takes to nurture this user-centered innovation.

Defining innovation

From whatever I have learnt from my experience, I would define innovation as an approach to deliver value to customers and users, using the existing resources and working under the constraints. It could be a powerful combination of bringing in some simple ideas, adding some imagination and creating value.

This value-creation process can span across multiple industries, verticals, domains and market segments. Innovation is not restricted to products alone. Innovation can happen in the way you deliver services to your customers or even in the way you improve the internal processes within your organization.

Whose problem is it anyway

Innovation starts with identifying the right problems and can be said to be successful when the ‘right solution’ is created. What is a right solution? It is that which works for customers and users! But whose problems are you trying to solve? Its the users’ problem and if its their problem, who is best equipped to find a way out? Well, the people who have the problem did find the solutions too in some cases and in this post we shall touch upon a few of them.

   

 

Quality and process improvement initiatives such as Kaizen, TQM (Total Quality Management) and Quality Circles have been evolved in the later part of the 20th century. These initiatives came out after finding that the people who are close to the problems are the people are working on the shop floor and are working on the assembly lines. Many companies in the automobile industry have successfully leveraged Quality Circles to identify the problems and also soliciting solutions from the people who are working on the shop floors.

Improvisation vs. innovation

Innovation need not always be ground-breaking and involving rapid changes to the existing ways. It is not about big or small, high or low, but it is about the ability to deliver value in the first place. As the saying goes ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, it is necessity and not needs alone that drives people to innovate and invent. Note that the user is the person who has the problem or the need and he/she has the best ability to determine the scale of impact or outcome from the process.

A case in point is the video clip that you can view by clicking on the link below. I came across this small video clip being shared in the social media. I am really fascinated by the way the gentleman in the video found out a way to satisfy his need to look better in the eyes of the onlookers, when driving his car. Sometimes, its the urge to look better that makes us think for better way of doing things leading to innovation. This proves that innovation or the ability to make things better need not always be on a large scale nor involve massive machinery.

Manual Power windows_innovation demo_Video Clip

Innovation is not expensive

User-centered innovation need not be a huge investment involving millions of dollars. It need not be even be seen as an investment in some cases. It is more a process of improving the things or merely doing the same things in a different way to bring about the value.

I am reminded of the story during the cold war space programmes by USA and the USSR. NASA invested millions of dollars to invent a pen which writes in zero-gravity space conditions. They invented this space pen ( also called as Fisher’s space pen) after a lot of effort, time and cost of research. The Russian Cosmonauts on the other hand, used a cheaper and smarter way…they used ‘pencil’! My friends in India might recollect the famous scene by actor Amir Khan in the popular movie ‘3Idiots’.

    

I saw this Fisher space pen (also called as Bullet Pen) when I visited the Smithsonian’s NASM (National Air & Space Museum) in Washington D.C. Of course, the above is just a story and not completely factual, as the NASA did not develop the space pen but acquired it from the company that manufactured it and later the Russians too started using the space pen. However, the moral of the story is that innovation need not be expensive all the time.

Measuring innovation

A true measure of innovation is the value delivered to the users. But I would not measure the value as high, medium or low. I would not even quantify the value delivered because that would defeat the purpose of innovation as a continual or should I say continuous process of making things better.

Native intelligence and improvisation

Innovation does not require high end technology nor using huge number of resources. Some times , as they say at grass roots level, this can be witnessed through using native intelligence and improvising in a small way. A small example to prove this is the case of mobile vendors of vegetables who went innovative in the rural areas of Vijayawada in India. I witnessed one such instance in a remote area, Gollapudi in the outskirts of Vijayawada. This area has a few colonies which came up recently but they are too inside the town to be closer to any everyday things such as vegetables and groceries.

  

Their application of native intelligence and innovation starts right from the vehicle they use for moving from one house to another. The local vegetable vendors hired a truck, took a few select vegetables in bulk and went about advertising the arrival of their truck. The truck is customized to suit the needs of the vendors. They announce that they have come onto the roads using a microphone. The lady who uses this microphone seems to be more comfortable with a telephone, than a microphone. Also, considering the comfort factor too, the mike was remodeled into a telephone receiver using which interactive and sensible announcements are made by the vendors. Now, that’s what I call user-centered innovation. :-)

Hope you find this post informative. We will touch base in the next post, till then ciao!

Agile Development, Business Analysis, Business Case, Information Technology, Product Development, Requirements Development

When I visited the National Gallery of Arts in Washington D.C., one thing that struck me among all others, was a fridge-magnet in the display. It bears a popular saying of the great artist, Romare Bearden, that reads…”what you don’t need is as important as what you do need”. This caption has relevance to everybody in today’s world, and especially I would like to draw its benefit to the product managers.  I give below a snapshot of the magnet for your reference and I think it could be a powerful mantra for the product managers among us.

Get your priorities right

Getting your priorities right will not only help you to be successful at creating a great product, but also in continually delivering superior experiences to your stakeholders, customers and users. As a product manager, you need to not just prioritize the product’s features, but also plan your product releases, expedite the time-to-market, and help in marketing activities such as product launch campaigns. In this post, I wish to touch upon the challenges that constrain the proper scoping of a product, and how you can leverage the right tools and techniques to help prioritize in the constantly changing world.

Prioritizing is not easy

Today, more than ever, we are witnessing flux everywhere and little wonder then that whatever we are exposed to has been undergoing a rapid change. Change and chaos are posing the biggest challenge to all of us today, but in them also lie huge opportunities and avenues for achievement, cheer and success. The key to success lies in making note of the changes that happened and also in sensing the impending changes to come through in the areas of your interest.

What drives your prioritization

To come to grips with the changes and chaos, you really need to look at the various factors that are either directly or indirectly responsible for your product. Let us try and basket them into two categories- internal and external, for simplicity’s sake.  To be able to prioritize better, you need to consider the internal factors such as the resources available say people, schedule, cost, organizational goals and business vision. I would also like to add to this list the often unseen or unspoken aspects such as internal politics, power dynamics and the relationships among the various management and team members.

Vendors, partners and third party service providers

Also you need to pay heed to external factors such as stakeholders i.e., vendors and partners’ expectations, needs and demands of customers and users. While its true that customers and users’s needs take the attention of product management team, its also imperative that the capabilities, constraints and commitments of your vendors and partners need to be considered while planning and prioritizing your product.

A case in point is Apple’s inability to fulfill its iPad2 delivery requirements in some countries. This was due to the shortage of material at Apple’s suppliers in China which resulted in the delay in shipment of the final products. One might argue that this is a good problem to have because the demand is more than the supply and you can keep your customers wait for your product. On the other hand, there might be a worst case scenario where the supply exceeds the demand and then you will be in trouble with the excess stock. In both cases though, the lesson for you is to consider your vendors’ and partners’  constraints, capabilities and commitments while prioritizing and planning your product release.

Beware of (pressure due to) competition

Perhaps the one biggest factor that could play with your prioritization game is competition. Often times, as product managers, you get undue pressure to look out at the competing products in the market and re-adjust your priorities as per your competitors’ new releases.

For instance, just because your closest competitor announced (not even launched) a new product in the market, you will get tremendous pressure for ‘doing something about it’ from the senior management, peers, media and worst of all, your own team. While most often, all of this could be genuine and help in the cause of better product development, other times, it could be a knee-jerk reaction without knowing the ground reality. This is something you must be really wary of and ensure that you don’t succumb to the pressures beyond the capability of your organization and team.

Scope, de-scope and re-scope

The single biggest contribution from a product manager, if you ask me, is the ability to prioritize the features and plan the releases for the product. This is the area where team really looks up to the product manager or product owner in the context of agile software development. Prioritization, as per my experience, comprises three simple tasks of scoping, de-scoping and re-scoping. As I keep telling people, sometimes it is more important to specify what is not in scope, than to say what is in the scope.

In a traditional sense, you might be maintaining a ‘product roadmap’ which spells out all the things your product will be and do, in the times to come. In agile development, product owners need to maintain a ‘product backlog’ which is a configurable document that lives across the life-cycle of the product. For some people, the term ‘backlog’ might connote a negative intent of not being able to complete some stipulated work. But now the artifact as well as this term has become an industry-standard accepted by many. Remember, though that this product backlog is for the product and not, as many people mistake it, for the project.

Important vs. Urgent

Another key dimension in prioritizing is being able to specify either tasks or things on the scales of importance and urgency. Note that all things that are important need not be urgent and vice versa. You need to clearly delineate among things and tasks that are important, urgent or both.

I usually map all the items across four quadrants classified into the following four categories across the two axes of importance and urgency:

  1. [important, urgent]
  2. [important, not urgent]
  3. [not important, not urgent]
  4. [not important, urgent]

Use the right tools and techniques

Most of you are familiar with the prioritization techniques such as ABC or 1-2-3. You can also try the MoSCoW (Must, Should, Could and Won’t) technique which is helpful in further shortlisting the features. I use index cards and post-it notes to do a quick sorting from within the shortlisted features to get to the most important ones. At times, to simplify you might just mark the items ‘Need to have’ and ‘Nice-to-have’. You can use any, all or some of these techniques based on your preference to arrive at the prioritized list of features in your product.

We can talk about more such tools and techniques in my next blog posts. Hope you could have some takeaways from this post to help make your product, a success. Till the next post, ciao!

 

 

Business Case, Information Technology, Innovation, Product Development, User Analysis, User Experience, User Studies

Caller:             “Hello, is this Tech Support?”

Tech Rep:      “Yes. it is. How may I help you?”

Caller:             “The cup holder on my PC is broken and I am within my warranty period. How do I go about getting that fixed?”

Tech Rep:      “I am sorry, but did you say a cup holder?”

Caller:             “Yes, it’s attached to the front of my computer

Tech Rep:      “Please excuse me if I seem a bit stumped, it’s because I am. Did you receive this as part of a promotional, at a trade show? How did you get this cup holder? Does it have any trademark on it? ”

Caller:             “It came with my computer, I don’t know anything about a promotional. It just has ‘8x‘  on it.”

The caller had been using the load drawer of the CD-ROM drive as a cup holder and snapped it off the drive.

[This story was attributed to George Wagner,  Greenberg,1971]

You might have read this earlier and laughed it off. I started this post with this very naive-sounding, but true conversation that happened between a PC user and a customer service representative.  Today, I wish to touch upon  the widening gap that prevails between the management and stakeholders of product companies and the needs and conceptual models of end-users. As a product manager, its all the more important to understand the existence of this divide between the creators & consumers and try to plug this ever widening distance!

First, identify the people involved

First things first, define the roles of the people involved in the process of product creation and consumption. To keep it simple, we can classify them into three different categories – stakeholders, customers and users. These can be people, groups of people, entities or even organizations. They can be separated physically and logically into different classes, but sometimes there could be an overlap or common areas amongst a few of them. For instance, in a product company such as an automotive manufacturing, sometimes the stakeholders and customers could be the same as the company might be manufacturing the components which are consumed by the same company in building a car.

What do you want to be and want to do

Stakeholders are those people who have a direct or indirect influence on and who get benefited from the product, solution or service  under development. One might argue that customers and users are very much part of the stakeholders. Yes, they are, but since they hold bigger stake of your product, you can classify them under a separate category. For simplicity’s sake, include in this category of stakeholders…management, product development team, client, vendors, partners, venture capitalists, and all those involved in the process of product creation.

You need to identify the key stakeholders in the form of individual persons from within the groups. Have one-to-one interactions with each of the identified stakeholders. During these interactions, extract the various perspectives depending on their roles and profiles. For example, from a CEO, get a business perspective, whereas from a CTO understand the technical perspective and from a Business Development Director, get the views on customers and competing companies.

Define the ‘Identity’ –  Inner view

The sum total of the vision, challenges, constraints, expectations, views about competitions, products, business, technology etc. from each of the key stakeholders provides the composite identity of the organization or the product under discussion. You might notice that within the same organization, and on the same area or point, there might be conflicting views and expectations from different stakeholders. However, this should not be a stumbling block, but instead try and understand why these differences are cropping up and resolve them with the involvement of stakeholders.

I am reminded of the marketing assignment which I did during my MBA summer-project. It was with a company which is into biscuits,cookies and dairy products. They just re-positioned their brand and brought out a whole range of products aligned to their new identity. The company’s stakeholders thought that the brand and the products they create not only support the health and well-being of the consumers but also enhance their thinking and intellectual capabilities. So, they started massive campaigns all around the country brandishing those perceived values, strengths and greatness of the brand and product. Read through the next few paragraphs to know the outcome of my studies.

Customers and users may not be the same

In the case of services, mostly customers and users could be the same, but in the context of products and that too for enterprise and B2B products and services, these two groups invariably differ, to a large extent. In fact, even within the same group say customers, you have different variations such as decision makers who hold the purse strings, and purchasers who execute the deal.

No ‘Average Joe’ in users

The ‘law of averages’ might work in almost all the places but not in product innovation and user experience management. Bear in mind that there is no average user or stereotypical user, for whom if you design and develop your product, it works across all the potential users.  Similarly within the users, there may be many different sub-groups based on tasks, work profile, experience, education, and other demographics. You just cannot assume that all the users are same and have the same needs, wants and challenges.

Understand the ‘Image’ – External view

Another critical component is to understand the external perspective, that of the customers and users about your product. This is what I refer to as image of the organization or the product. Often times, this image is formed in the minds of the users through various ways. Some of these could be the interactions that users have with  your company or product, experiences formed through usage of this or similar products earlier, advertising and promotions, interactions with friends, peers and family about the product etc.

Sometimes the image formed about the product need not be real at all and instead was formed from incorrect perceptions and misconceptions. Again this could be due to various reasons such as users themselves( demographics such as education and experience), your product (promotion, design of the product, and its promotions) or both.

Referring to the biscuit company case of my assignment, I did a lot of user research talking to users, understanding their mental models, conducting some market research to know their perceptions, preferences etc. All these studies led me to a very strange set of results. The consumers of this specific brand and products, don’t really see anything healthy in the products, nor do they associate it with their thinking well or intelligence. They had a completely different sense of what these products stand for and do

Gap = Identity ~ image

You defined the identity for your product from stakeholders’ view and also understood its image among your customers and users. By now, you would have realized that they are not exactly matching and that there is a difference between the identify and the image. Often times the success or failure of the product is decided by the extent of this gap. The focus now shifts to measure the extent of this gap, both qualitatively and quantitatively. Then the next steps are to understand the root causes for the gap and taking corrective and preventive actions.

Going back to my project work on the biscuits company, I analyzed the results and found that there was a huge gap between the company’s vision and consumers’ view of the products. After further analysis, I could get to the bottom of the case and understood the real reasons to be lack of customer awareness, increasing focus on competition, new management oblivious to the ground realities of the industry and the market needs etc.

Here is how to plug the gap

To ensure that your product works well for the key primary users, follow the guidelines I give below. These are based on industry standard best practices and also from my experience from the past success stories. Note that each of the steps can be explained and expanded into a separate blog post or even a separate chapter in a book. I am just giving them in a list so that we can focus on the specific topic of this post.

  • Create user profiles
  • Select no more than 3 user profiles as your primary target user groups
  • Create personas
  • Understand the conceptual models of users
  • Identify the key needs, challenges, pain areas of the users
  • Understand the key tasks that they do
  • Define the breakdown scenarios, and workarounds used in doing these tasks
  • Use the personas extensively throughout your product development
  • Scope the features and functionality of your product, around the personas
  • Design and develop your product around the needs
  • Keep stakeholders, customers and users involved throughout product development
  • Go back to these people on a continual basis with whatever you have developed
  • Try and identify the gaps, problems, and areas of improvement

I hope this post would help you form a vision for your product, reach out to your users, understand and bridge the gap between the two. And by doing all of these, you are increasing the chances of developing a successful product. Till next post, ciao!