The Dialect of Product Managers

Product, Business and Engineering team members keep hearing many different terms every day as they go about their business of building Solutions and Products. Some of the more common ones are Product Strategy, Product Vision, Product Mindset, OKRs, Agile Mindset, Experimentation, Data Strategy etc etc. After a while they all start to blur together, and stop being meaningful. I thought of writing a small essay going back to these basics, discuss what they mean to me, and hopefully tie them all together.

It all starts with the Customer Problem. Easy enough. But there may be many problems to solve. Which one do you pick? You pick the one that gives your customer the most value, that you can solve in a timely and cost efficient manner, with the end goal of ensuring that the customer will adopt your solution. This deserves its own essay, but assuming you pick the right problem to solve, next is articulating the Product Vision.

The Product Vision articulates the final evolved stage of your proposed solution. If you do this right, it will be sufficiently futuristic, that will motivate and energize both your customer, and your team. If it is too ambitious, or not ambitious enough, or unrealistic beyond a point, it might have the opposite effect. Articulating this vision clearly is critical for multiple reasons, but the main one is that it brings the customer and the product and engineering teams together in pursuit of something meaningful. For e.g. The vision of this product is to enable mankind to go to Mars.OR, Our Vision is to sanitize water within 30 seconds for those that dont have access to clean water. OR, Our Vision is enable Time Travel. Ok. The last one is an example of a vision that might be too ambitious, but hopefully you are tracking so far. For those of us in the retail industry, an example of a vision might be to Enable our merchandisers to determine accurate, localized assortment for every category in every department in every store and geography, to maximize customer satisfaction and profitability. Great. I love the vision, but now what? This takes us to the next step.

The Product Strategy should break down your Vision into realizable chunks, that show How, exactly are we going about realizing our Product Vision. What are the intermediate problems to solve? How are we going to reach our customers? What is the path to the vision, in a reasonable timeframe. This strategy will evolve, as new learnings emerge. As a result, it is good to have medium term strategies, as we cannot be forward looking beyond a point. To follow up on our retail industry vision above, the product strategy could identify the need for clean data to make good merchandising decisions, and one rung of your strategy could be to focus on building a robust data pipeline. But, how do know if you are making progress on your strategy? The strategy has to be measurable, to tell us if are moving in the right direction. This then brings us to our next piece of Jargon.

OKRs. How do you know your strategy is working? Through metrics you set, which are also called Objectives and Key Results. You have an objective — say to build a data pipeline, to enable better decisions, and you need to measure whether you are building it right or not, and whether it is effective in helping us move closer to the product vision. One measure could be coverage of the categories and departments that have clean data — and how many merchandisers are using this data. Lack of adoption tells you this was not a good Objective, or your data platform is not being built well. Either way, without good OKRs, you will be flying blind towards your Product Vision.

These are the main ones — if product managers do these three, and do them well, they will be reasonably successful in this industry. For our more enthusiastically jargon minded friends, below are a few more:

Having a Product Mindset basically means we should focus on Outcomes, not on dates, or project plans etc. A successful project delivered on time, could be a failed product if customers dont adopt it. This is easy to understand, but in a corporate world driven by budgets, and timelines, infinitely harder to implement. Corporate leaders that talk about the Product Mindset frequently fall back to looking at schedules and whether something is “On Track” or not , instead of focusing on Outcomes. This is unavoidable, and therefore Product Managers cannot lose sight of timelines. However, it falls on the Product Manager to be equally focused on Outcomes, and value. As an example, are you building the right data pipeline for your customers, that they will use and find useful, in the right timeframe?

Experimentation and collecting data — if you are doing the OKRs right, you should have this covered. Keep in mind, many times, you might have to collect data even during the problem articulation stage to ensure you are working on the right problem to begin with for the right customer. For e.g., I love that you are focused on building a great merchandising tool, but my real problem is that the search functionality on my Website is horrible, which is preventing my customers from finding the great merchandise I already have. Build me a great search tool instead, and then see if the problem is really my merchandise.

Product Management is a career choice that spans a wide spectrum of responsibilities, but some terms are consistent and do not change. This back to basics article hopefully simplifies some of the jargon, and connects the dots together!

Product Director @ Lowes. Prior similar roles at Walmart Labs, Broadcom(CA), and IBM