Establishing a market-led culture with a Product Management framework

Catherine Connor

SnapComms is a medium-sized New Zealand software company who wanted to evolve its sales-led culture into a market-led culture. After hearing Rich Mironov talk about the slippery slope of sales-led companies, they decided to learn about Product Management.

Understanding that Product Management is not a one person job, SnapComms CEO Chris Leonard and 11 employees, who hailed from customer service, engineering, marketing and sales, attended the Brainmates’ Essentials of Product Management course to start the company Product Management journey together.

Immediately after the course, the company invested in six months of organisational Product coaching with myself, Brainmates’ New Zealand Product Coach, to help embed the new Product mindset.

Facilitating a market-driven way of thinking

SnapComms solves internal communications challenges by improving the way businesses communicate with their employees when critical events impact their staff. With more than 2 million users who are employed by medium and large organisations in more than 75 countries, nonetheless, SnapComms recognised that their existing sales-led approach wouldn’t meet their global growth goals.

SnapComms adopted Brainmates’ Product Management framework to facilitate a market-driven way of thinking company-wide, and to equip their Product Team with a repeatable process to take the most valuable ideas to market fast. The framework acted as a guide for good Product Management practice, and brought structure to the activities and deliverables of developing and maintaining Products.

Within months, the mindset began moving from “do what sales ask to close deals” towards “what would contribute to generating more customer value and business benefits for our company”.

While SnapComms could have followed the steps of many organisations new to Product Management and attend courses on individual Product Management topics, they valued starting with a framework that connects all the Product Management activities and deliverables holistically to intentionally decide where to focus their efforts.

The Brainmates framework clarified the two operational modes of Product Management:

Product Development: how to take the most valuable ideas to market following three connected phases:

  • The Innovate phase to build the discipline to drive innovation. Discarding ideas with low customer or business value when it is the cheapest to do so, in order to focus on the ideas with the highest in-market viability and for the business.
  • The Design phase to identify the best solution for validated ideas by engaging both users and the solution team (i.e. customer service, engineering, marketing and sales, etc).
  • The Implement phase to build the designed solution and takes it to market

Product Strategy and Lifecycle Management: how to monitor and increase the return on investment after launch, including:

  • Product performance: to monitor leading indicators to ensure the business gets benefits from the customer experience with the Product
  • Product strategy and roadmap: to intentionally plan what to do next to maintain Product-market fit and extend the Product life.

The 10 steps we followed to embed the Product Management framework

How do you adopt Product Management when you’ve never done it? Where do you start? What matters most? What roles should you establish? So many questions…

To avoid getting overwhelmed, we aimed at adopting the framework in small chunks while keeping the end in mind: establish an effective Product Management practice to sustain SnapComms’s growth goals.

Step 1: What’s next after training?

Immediately after the training, while everyone was still inspired, we ran an exercise to brainstorm actions we could take straight away to achieve some quick wins.

With coaching guidance, the ideas that received the most votes were:

  1. Creating scripts to interview existing and recently lost customers (Product Performance)
  2. Understanding extraneous post-sales support activities (Product Performance)
  3. Documenting actually supported environments (Product Performance)
  4. Introducing Brainmates’ Idea Pad to the business (Innovate)
  5. Iterate on business, market and Product strategies (Product Strategy).

Our goal was to identify what most resonated and to select an achievable number of actions that people were most passionate about, to gain traction.

Step 2: Make room for Product Management

Before we could get started on any of the items above, we had to make “mental room” for the lead Product Manager. As a sales-led operation, the “Product team” was primarily supporting sales to close deals by adding requested features, which meant the lead Product Manager was inundated with customer requests. We needed to “stop the bleeding” to give the Product Manager time to start practicing Product Management.

We documented where the lead Product Manager’s time was currently spent, de-prioritised things that wouldn’t be detrimental to stop, and identified activities to delegate to others.

To further clear the lead Product Manager’s plate, we had to address the frequent interruptions she received from customer-facing groups, including account managers, sales engineers, the support team, who were constantly approaching her with delivery timeframe inquiries. To do this, we equipped them to become self-sufficient at handling customer requests.

We crafted empathetic yet strong customer communication to openly share the “customer problems” the Product team was currently focused on addressing. We trained the customer-facing groups in using the framework Idea Pad and the “5 Whys” technique to capture the customer environment, and their goal in requesting features, and we encouraged them to keep a record of deeper conversations with customers.

This simple step turned out to be highly effective at giving the lead Product Manager room to engage more intentionally with customers.

Step 3: Get to really know your customers

With more time to proactively engage with customers, we carefully developed interview scripts to assess the state of our Product-market fit. These scripts went beyond “what do you like about our Product?” and far deeper into customers’ roles, responsibilities, what kept them up at night, and the specific internal communications challenges they faced.

Scripts in hand, and listening mode turned on, we ran over 70 interviews with existing and recently lost customers. Most interviews were recorded with customers’ permission for other employees to benefit.

Interview responses were tallied and objectively reviewed to validate and invalidate our assumptions and to identify patterns to drive ideas in the Innovate phase.

Step 4: Educate everyone on Product Management

We were fortunate that the CEO recognised the need to send a wide range of people to the Brainmates training. Few companies understand that Product Management needs to be adopted systematically to be effective, and that wide exposure is crucial to becoming a market-led company.

Melissa Perri describes this so well in her recent Escaping The Build Trap book, where she mentioned the low impact of training great Product Managers incentivised with the wrong metrics. If Product Managers can’t be effective, they are not able to create the customer value necessary to generate revenues and measurable business benefits. The link between Product management and company revenues is so simple yet so often forgotten.

To further embed Product Management, we selected various Product Management videos weekly for company leaders to watch and discuss how they could apply to SnapComms. Those led to aha moments that kept the momentum going for the Product Management journey.

Step 5: The Innovate phase and the Idea Pad

To practice taking ideas to market in a disciplined way, a handful of ideas already on SnapComms’ wish list were put through the Idea Pads to be further developed.

We collaborated on a set of ranking criteria and practiced running a ranking session with lots of people so as to experience how to decide which ideas to move forward in the future. Creating transparency in the ideation process was key to ensuring the whole company understood why the Product Team would say “not now!” more often and focus on a few ideas at a time.

We made it clear that all ideas were welcomed, we wanted to hear many of them, including from people who wouldn’t typically speak up, and that we only had the capacity to act on a few of them, so we collectively needed to be sure we selected the most viable ones to spend money and energy to move along.

Switching from “Yes to customer requests to close deals” to “Should we be building this?” was hard, so we made a visual summary of the framework Innovate phase to remind everyone of the critical steps that had to be met before an idea could be moved towards execution.should we build this?

Step 6: Good user stories in the Design phase

To practice the Design phase, we went back to customers with deeper questions about the one idea that rose to the top in the earlier ranking exercise. We purposely refrained from discussing solutions too early and kept an eye on the smallest solution we could design that would be valuable to most of our customers.

To stay anchored in customer problems, we reviewed good user stories and acceptance criteria practices with the engineering teams. The QA folks were encouraged to actively contribute in crafting user story acceptance criteria to ensure that we were building testable Product requirements for the teams.

We created clear definitions of “ready” and “done” so that the agile teams would only began work on what they could finish in a sprint and have a clear understanding of what implementation ”done” meant to truly be releasable to the market.

Step 7: Introducing the rule of three in the Implement phase

As with most software organisations, there was lots of work in-flight in the engineering teams which created a bottleneck to delivering features to customers.

In the spirit of stop starting and start finishing, we introduced the framework guideline of “no-more-than-three at a time” by selecting three currently in-flight features to complete and intentionally placing all others on hold until we released those three features. Since we had not yet tackled the Product strategy aspect of the framework, we elected to “clean up the rough edges” of one highly-used feature (as Des Traynor says, “if you have time to lean, you have time to clean”), and to finish two differentiating features that were already well underway. Those two features are now on their way to being launched to the market.

Step 8: Provide a public visual reminder

Adopting a framework can be overwhelming. We used SnapComms office’s substantial wall space as “information radiator”, posting a visual of the entire Brainmates framework on one big wall.

Some of the deliverables – business strategy and market strategy – were initially empty, but these empty spaces acted as a constant reminder that we needed to provide something tangible for the Product team to align their work to the company goals.

The framework visual increased awareness of the Product Management journey, with plenty of people who didn’t attend the training querying about the information on the wall. As sales reverted to old patterns of “we need this feature to close my deal”, the wall enabled conversations on why we weren’t starting new work without proper market and business justification.

Step 9: Collect Product usage data

As soon as he returned from the Brainmates training, CEO Chris Leonard was keen on finding better ways to drive Product decisions from facts. SnapComms invested in to track in-market Product performance with data analytics and improve customer experience. They now collect data on feature usage, number of internal communications sent per customer, frequency of internal communications, and specific devices (desktop, mobile) receiving these communications.

The FOG acronym (Facts, Opinions, Guesses) learnt in the Brainmates training was a favourite, enabling the new company mindset to expect facts before making decisions.

Step 10: Establish clear Product roles

While a Product Management framework helps contextualise why we do what we do, it also makes it clear that Product Management is rarely a one person job!

In the words of CEO Chris Leonard: “The main benefit is adopting a more robust structure. Possibly more important is knowing the composition of the people we need in our organisation to fulfill some of the functions that span the Product Management discipline.”

Prior to taking the Brainmates training, SnapComms was not aware of the Product Marketing function. Once they understood the value, they invested in further Brainmates Product Marketing course to adopt best practices. They hired an experienced Product Marketer to drive the market and business validation steps of the Innovate phase and to create market messages and Product positioning for launches.

They also hired two Product Owners to actively participate in customer immersion and subsequently drive the framework Design and Implement activities. The Product Owners ensure the agile teams implement validated stories, and nourishing a curiosity for “who should we do this for” and “what problem will that solve”.

Why this 10-step process worked

Establishing a Product Management practice is no easy feat. Looking back, there were key factors that made SnapComms’ journey a successful endeavor:

  1. The CEO actively embracing the framework
  2. Investment in Brainmates training beyond just those in Product roles
  3. Educating the whole company on the market-driven mindset
  4. Large walls to put visuals of the framework in the office
  5. Provide ongoing coaching and mentoring to the Product team

Impact of Adopting a Product Management Framework

Six months after their first Brainmates Product Management training, SnapComms reports tangible results from their framework adoption:

  • Increased sales confidence by clearly articulating specific problems the Product solves and key differentiators over alternatives
  • Save sales time by quickly discarding Product inquiries outside of system requirements
  • Saved time avoiding engineering work disruption on ideas not validated
  • Constructively deflecting customer requests while learning about customer problems
  • Creating focus by limiting work-in-progress to three items in each of the framework phases: validating ideas, designing solutions, implementing solutions
  • Acquisition of customer insights from carefully structured interview scripts
  • Progress delivering an incremental solution towards a very differentiating feature
  • Appreciation for Product marketing’s role as the guardian of the market piece of Product-market fit.

By immersing the company in the Brainmates Product Management framework, with some attending the full training, others learning as the framework was implemented, we were able to create a market-led way of thinking throughout the organisation and rationalise why following a sales-led approach would not meet our growth goals.

With 15 years’ experience in Product Management, I wish I’d come across the Brainmates’ Product Management framework earlier. These are the main reasons I recommend it to start a Product Management journey:

  • Simplified Product Management – it conveys the complexity of Product Management in a simple and intuitive way.
  • Product Management thinking over templates – while templates can be helpful, it’s the thinking that goes into these that makes them valuable
  • Emphasis on customer problems – successful Products solve real-world problems. The framework keeps us in the problem space long enough to prevent us from building “cool Products” that don’t solve any customer problems.
  • Pragmatic business cases – it equips us with an iterative process to building lightweight business cases that prioritise market opportunities over business opportunities. Too often business cases are biased towards whether the business could do this, with not enough emphasis on should it even be doing this?
  • Financial reminder – it keeps front and centre the Product Management responsibility to bring financial returns to their organisation, reminding us that most Product Management costs occur in Product Development (where we tend to overfocus) and Product Lifecycle Management, while often neglected, is really the revenue-making side of Product Management.

Brainmates’ Essentials of Product Management course is our flagship training, with more than 2000 participants who’ve been through it. Join us at upcoming Essentials of Product Management courses in Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland!

Catherine Connor

Catherine Connor | Author

Catherine is a Brainmates course trainer and a product management coach in New Zealand and the US. She has worked in Product since 2005 as Product Owner, Product Manager, and Product Marketing Manager for B2B companies.

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