Products Are Conversations


We’ve lost our way in Product Management. When the biggest problem Product Managers face is setting roadmap priorities based on market feedback, it’s symptomatic of the underlying practices and tools.

Simply put, Products are Conversations. How you orchestrate conversations with customers and cross-functionally in your organization is what makes great products. To set the right strategy, align the team, and execute to the delight and fulfillment of customers.

Agile was supposed to bring product creation closer to the customer. But there is too much distance, data, organizational complexity.

Great products are made of conversations. With customers. With leadership and PM direct reports. And with stakeholders. The conversations that form the strategy. The conversations that align the strategy. The conversations drive and iterate execution.

Here’s 3 reasons we’ve lost our way in Product Management.

Reason #1: The Path to PM

  • Tech Product Managers who develop their skills as Engineering Leaders. This path to PM is all about the How, and many have good people skills to relate requests to the How.
  • A second path to PM is people who develop their skills as Project Managers. This is again about the How, but with less CS education and typically from marketing. And in marketing they found great success in the quantitative practices of lead generation and growth hacking.
  • There’s a third path to PM, rising in reflection of what has made great products in more competitive markets, which comes from Design. Less about the How, more about the Why, with deeply rooted user empathy.

Problem #2: Data-driven

Using data to drive product decisions is particularly great for finding things that don’t work. But usage data is just one factor for decision making, and because in PM meetings it’s something you can point to as evidence to support an argument, it’s often overweight (particularly when the presenter has good persuasion skills).

The Lean Startup movement put particular emphasis on throwing out hypothesis to test with data. Thank goodness Steve Blank evolved it with Customer Development. Which involved actually taking that hypothesis out in the world talking directly to customers about problems and solutions. And there’s wisdom in talking to customers as a non-scalable activity, and focusing on a few that can love you. So more startups are ramping up the sales learning curve. But too many tech founders prefer to cast out artifacts and measure reactions at a distance.

Reason #3: Alignment is Hard

Even in a well-oiled machine with clear strategic direction, awesome talent and culture, aligning PM stakeholders is hard.

The PM as the CEO of Product is dysfunctional myth. The PM may have the decision rights for product, but her stakeholders have decision rights for organizational functions, and their goals, objectives and resources may run counter. Some product leads like Matthew Mahoney have found greater success sharing control to create value. By sharing decision rights with your CTO you may find yourself making plans based on more realistic effort estimates and a collaborative vision set with both the Why and How.

This isn’t to say that the CPO shouldn’t be the Directly Responsible Individual for product decisions, but don’t mythologize Steve Jobs for either vision unbound from users (the first version of the iPhone was visionary, but sucked, and iteration with user and market feedback made it a success under his stewardship) or might that’s right.

Consider decoupling information rights from decision rights. Sharing access to information does not have to mean sharing control. The challenge is that information needs to be provided in-context so it is not misconstrued.

The PM function has more stakeholders than any other in today’s organization. Customers, Leadership, direct reports, design, development, QA, DevOps, Support, Customer Success, Sales, Marketing, BizDev and Backoffice. And I’m probably missing some. Because stakeholders enable the product, and the product enables stakeholders. How you gain customer and market insight, plan your strategy and roadmap and execute all depends upon alignment.

Products are Conversations

The clueful will recall that Markets are Conversations. Customers are empowered and authentic voice cuts through all the noise in today’s marketplace. Your customers want to talk with you, the PM. They want to be heard and want you to understand their needs. It’s your job to enable these conversations, and figure out how to have them at scale.

The right customers for you will understand your tradeoffs, validate and support your decisions, and align. They will value the experience you are creating for them, and progress in a longer term relationship, not a transaction.

Rather than see the Head of Product as the CEO of Product, the PM is put as close to the customer as possible to make decisions on their behalf, and plays the role of Information Hub to align stakeholders through effective conversations. Your stakeholders want to have these conversations, and it’s your job to make sure they happen.

George Bernard Shaw

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. “

In today’s product companies, the team is more connected and engaged through Slack and other group messaging apps. Conversations are happening, but it takes additional practices and tools for them to be effective. Across the company you need practices for what should be read and replied to, how decisions are documented, knowledge is captured and tasks are tracked.

And for Product Management, how to:

  • Turn conversations into insight
  • Turn conversations into plans
  • Turn conversations into actions
  • Turn conversations into continuous improvement

Product Managers, if you takeaway one thing from this post — get out of your spreadsheet and make time for more customer conversations, and think through the cadence of conversations with your stakeholders.

Update: I’m humbled…

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