Focus and Product Management (Essay)



A key role of product management (PM), whether as the product-focused founder (CEO, CTO) or the PM leader, is making sure product development efforts are focused. But what does it mean to be focused? This isn’t always as clear as it could be for a team. While everyone loves focus, there’s an equal love for agility, action, and moving “forward”. Keeping the trains running is incredibly important, but just as important and often overlooked is making sure the destination is clear.

This post originally appeared on Medium.

It might sound crazy, but it is much easier than one might think for teams to move fast, get stuff done, and break things that might not be helping the overall efforts. In fact, in my experience, this challenge has become even greater in recent years with the availability of data and telemetry. With such, it becomes very easy to find work that needs to be done to improve the app or service — the data is telling you right then and there that something is tripping up customers, performing poorly, or going unused. Taking action makes it easy to feel like the right thing is happening. It feels like moving forward. Everyone loves to get stuff done. Everyone feels focused.

But is the team focused on the right work to achieve the right results?
Just a little process

Two important realities represent a constant balancing act when leading a product, applying finite resources to market needs in the march towards product-market fit or are working furiously to maintain a competitive lead, in addition to the new features there is the work that sales or customer success needs and together those greatly exceed what can be delivered by engineering.

This problem doesn’t ever go away and is at the core of the role of product leadership — getting the right stuff done with the right priority.

In every well-run company there is a strong tendency towards action and a strong dislike (tending to revulsion) of process. In practice, the absence of a process is just as much of a process, just one without clear lines between action and result. A little bit of process (aka product management) can go a long way to having real focus and getting the right things done.

With a little bit of process, everyone on the team can have:
Shared views on what success looks like
Clear understanding of success measures and metrics
Easy mechanism to decide what should be cut or pushed out when things aren’t going as planned
Visible alignment between what work will impact what elements of success and which measures
Honest accounting of resources going into what big picture initiatives
Ample opportunity to participate in deciding what gets done and when

It is very easy to overdo process and go from a helpful tool to a burden people run away from. A personal goal has always been to be as lightweight as possible and to have a way of thinking about these needs that scale from projects that last weeks, months, or even longer.

My guiding principle or golden rule of process is to never ask for something from someone that does not directly help them to get their own work done. Process is not about reports or “management”, but about making sure the work each person does is the most important work to do and the time.
Just a little framework

When most people think of coming up with a product roadmap or plan, they think of ends of a spectrum. At one end there’s commonly the one slide version labeled with months or years and a couple of bullet points at varying levels of granularity and decreasing accuracy as time goes on. There’s also the detailed and long-term strategic plan that most people can’t read through that is often the work of consultants or staff at big companies.

There’s something in between that I’ve found very helpful in terms of framing the product roadmap.

The roadmap can be represented as a hierarchy of increasing detail. It starts with a mission covering years of aspirations for the whole company. From the mission follow the goals representing the 12 months of work supported by specific metrics or measures and the various roles or disciplines in the company. Teams then come together to work on projects (or milestones in a longer term project) that take weeks and are delineated by releasing productor programs to the market. Supporting the creating of projects are the day to day tasks at the feature level representing the work of individuals.

Throughout this whole system there is ongoing telemetry that is called upon to support the company with reliable data upon which to make decisions.


Mission

Whole books have been written about mission statements or the process of developing a mission statement. Nothing makes me groan more than the idea of having a meeting to craft out a mission statement. We’ve all seen the results of these efforts that are an awkward combination of passive voice, comma splices, and breathless language. Companies exist for a reason and that’s the mission.

Missions are aspirational and guide you for years and represent the reason for being. Everything you do should aim towards your mission, and how you do that is the work of the rest of the framework. Missions boldly stating that the goal is to “disrupt” tend to be a bit backward looking or focus on the mechanism versus the outcome. Rather a mission that defines a future state of being or a new world view are often the most enduring and more positive. The most important thing about a mission is that there is just one and it endures. Mission statements are best able to be expressed on t-shirts, or something close.
Goals

Most everyone thinks they already have goals. Too often though goals are expressed as metrics or scorecards, like be the most downloaded app or number, daily users, or bookings. These are easy to express and are the lifeblood of a startup. The challenge is they change frequently. Like any good code when faced with something that changes frequently, the best bet is to add a level of indirection. A goal is the abstract view of metrics or measures.

Goals are strategic concepts such as retention, ease of use, acquisition, manageability, scale, success, and more. Through evolving telemetry you develop metrics to support the goals.

By using these abstractions you might come realize you have more goals than engineers (or marketers, success partners, etc.) or that you end up with every person working on too many goals. This is part of the process of being focused about goals. For any one product there can only be 3–5 goals and those fit on one “slide”, which includes the full spectrum of engineering, sales, and customer outcomes. This is a deliberate attempt to put in place some constraints up front.

Goals are then measured in specific ways over time. Metrics are then the lifeblood of goals. Your goal might be acquisition, but the metric might be a specific mechanism of retention for a period of time; or your goal might be to improve scalability of the service but the measure might be compute usage for some time and then storage usage for another.

When thinking about goals, they almost always fall to a specific function (or role) on the team such as marketing, sales, or engineering. Having a full accounting of the goals and the associated metrics allows you to understand what will change as the team’s work progresses — what is measured will be what changes.
Projects

Projects are easy to understand — they are the releases or programs customers and the marketplace use and hear about. A project might be, for example, a full update to the service, the app, a new entry to the market, a launch, a campaign, or a major infrastructure change. Early on it is trivial to name the projects for a company. Very quickly, however, the number of projects can balloon and become increasingly difficult to track (and potentially to justify). There are SDKs, enterprise tools, segment campaigns, apps for different platforms or support for different browsers, and more.

The key reason to maintain a clear list of active projects is because momentum in continuing some project, failing to re-allocate resources, can often be the biggest constraint in getting the important work done. It common to find yourself in the situation of maintaining a project that no longer fits with the immediate needs but there’s inertia that makes it hard to change. The most important task for product management is to make sure everyone is aware of the projects being undertaken. The more the company scales the more critical it is to know what projects are active and what commitments the team is making to those. Even in the biggest companies, there are just dozens of meaningful projects.

A project has an ending date or deadline date  — not a month or a quarter (those are 30 or 90 dates) but a single date — and everyone knows when the project releases or is complete.
Tasks

When you work from mission to goals to projects, the most concrete expression of work on the team is the task. A task is the actual code to be deployed, whitepaper to be written, SEO tools that will be employed, launch event to hold, features that will be designed, and so on. While a few people might care deeply or contribute to the mission, and executives generally focus on goals, and managers live whole projects, everyone is invested in tasks.

Tasks are defined by those that will do the work and those same people (or person) will decide how long it takes. Every person contributing to a project might have dozens of tasks. Tasks should be from 1/2 to 2 days — less and the accounting is too painful and more and it is likely the work is not understood enough to reliably schedule.

There are two main benefits from spending the time to create a list of work items. First, the project overall becomes increasingly predictable which is important because of dependencies (such as front end and back end, or marketing activities). Second, when things aren’t going as well as planned there is a clear view of just how far off things are along with a pre-computed list of potential savings to be had by cutting different tasks. Whether it is Asana, Trello, Sheets, Jira or more the key is just having a system that goes beyond post-its around a monitor.

What is often overlooked is how much more effective everyone is when they know the why behind the what. Everyone will do better work if the worklist flows from specific projects which have goals that are measured in a particular way. Much of the work of this framework will prove to be making the connection from task all the way to mission.
Telemetry

One additional element that permeates all of your efforts is telemetry.

The most successful organizations are also fully instrumented organizations. Everything about code, customers, and overall engagement has telemetry.

Keeping an open mind and open eye to a whole variety of measures is super important. Just that as a matter of scale and operation, you cannot hold everyone accountable or change what is being done in response to every measure. If you’re learning something that concerns you then dig in. Maybe you’ll change your plans. But when you do need to change your plans you can do so in the context of an overall framework, not just single data points.

The combination of a framework and telemetry makes it possible to more globally maximize your return on investment. Telemetry alone risks a more local optimization. A framework by itself is just guessing.

It might seem like doing all this is just too much busy-work. There is an investment to be made. Most of the effort, however, will involve “editing” or “culling” from a list that was already too long or contained a lot of things not getting done. The most time intensive work is in creating the task list and is often the most disliked or difficult to make concrete. Everyone seems to have a feeling for what work needs to be done but resistance to putting it out there. The essence of an accountable organization is taking the team through this framework and making it part of every day work.
Just a small tool

There’s a payoff to all of this that is incredibly important. If you stop here all you’ve really done is document things going on. What is really important is that you assemble information so you can have a system in place to deal with change  — unexpected failures in the market place, gain or loss of people on the team, new opportunity in the marketplace, or demands from a customer. Maintaining this information in a simple tool provides the product manager with that.

There’s always too much to do, so by definition we know we are not doing everything we can to be successful. Do we know if everything we are doing is essential to the success we hope to achieve?

Seems like a simple question. In practice this is an exceedingly difficult question to answer at any given time and even more difficult question to answer over time as conditions change. In fact, I might argue it is close to impossible and that the best measure of success is to view the efforts overall as a portfolio. Just like a portfolio, however, you need to spend time digging in to understand at a more granular level where you can do better. Failing to do so too often prevents us from ongoing evaluation of work to make sure it is really helping — if there is more work than can be done, the easy path is to just assume everything going on is helping. That’s not true though!

What is suggested below might be simplistic or you might believe you’re already doing all this and more. I’ve found that most projects, especially before product-market fit, can benefit from a more systematic view connecting work to projects and goals supporting the company mission.

My own experience is that this can be accomplished in a surprisingly straight-forward manner. Doing so illuminates the work of the team and provides a great tool for the shared and ongoing management of the team.

Let’s just assume we’re working with a spreadsheet, simply because we’re going to do some math with the data. Feel free of course to use any structured tool that supports features such as collaborative editing, group-by reports/pivot tables, filters, and some basic math. The specific tool isn’t important and should not be the source of the first debate on the team!

We tend to think of the task list as a literally listing of tasks such as Implement OAUTH, Add new chart type, Create sign-up response mail, etc. Simply getting all of these done can often be helpful enough. Most tasks lists will have a name associated with the work and I’d always encourage a single name, or said differently define the task so it is the work of one person. In addition, include a column for the amount of time the task will take (0.5–2 days). For good measure I would suggest also including the date to start/finish as that allows you to use the spreadsheet to understand the relative schedule.

Then take the extra step of making sure the Project is clear. Is it for the iOS App? Does it support the SEO campaign? Is this the Beta program? Adding this label should be some simple accounting as projects are by definition distinct and represent a single release or customer/market visible effort.

The next step is key which is to add one more column which is what goal the work supports. Is this task about something like retention or scalability, for example? Avoid the temptation to think something applies to many goals or rather force yourself to commit the work to supporting a single goal. Keep in mind you already know the goals so all you are doing here is picking from the 3–5 established goals, which in turn are associated with metrics.

With that in hand you have something that looks like the hypothetical below. You can see a connection between tasks, projects, and goals.



Keep this sheet up to date and you’re able to be ahead of the project. As simple as this seems it is just as often either overlooked or buried in too much detail to be broadly useful.

What can you do with this? There are several key sorts/filters that are enormously useful:
Any given person can look at their own work and know where they are and where it fits in
At any time, one can see how much of the time (resource) overall is going to support a given project or goal
Know which tasks are too far out, too big
Know which resources are over-constrained

And so on. This tool is the right level of complexity for projects from 10 to 5000 people in my experience. While many would love more such as dependency analysis or a task hierarchy, my experience is that is where the tool begins to overwhelm. When the tool overwhelms it isn’t used and so it doesn’t matter. (Quick note, when I first came to manage Microsoft Project I learned that the bulk of usage of the tool was not to track projects but to input a bunch of data at the start of a project just to come up with a nice-looking poster-sized Gantt chart printed out once at the project start.)

Managing projects is very difficult. While the bank account is draining and there’s a strong desire to keep moving is galactically more difficult. The fear of slowing everyone down with tools and processes is real and often justified. With so much riding on being efficient, effective, and focused it is worth investing a small amount in managing the work so as to make better decisions about what work to do and what happens when you get new information from the market.

Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi) Special thanks to @ProductHunt’s Ryan Hoover who took my suggested framework of Vision, Mission, Strategy, Tactics and made it much more approachable terminology.
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