Agile · Communication · Jobs to be done · Product management

Five Key Questions

As we train some new people in our company on the role of a product manager, and as the company as a whole thinks about growing as a product development organization, I am sometimes asked how I think about this expansive role. There are a lot of places you can find good information about the key tasks or responsibilities of a product manager, including some excellent books and podcasts I will mention in a separate post. Here I’ve tried to distill some things I’ve found helpful into five key questions a product manager has to answer. Coming up with solid answers to these questions is vital for successful product development, and in general it is helpful to answer the questions in this order.

  1. What real problems or pressing aspirations do our clients or prospects face?
    • We want to make sure that we develop solutions to painful problems or true aspirations rather than offering a solution we think people ought to want. We use questions to uncover the jobs people are doing or the progress they are trying to make and what pain points they are encountering.
  2. What are they doing currently to pursue these aspirations or solve these problems?
    • If people aren’t currently expending any effort to accomplish something, then it is likely a ‘nice to have’ rather than a pressing need. We want to understand how they currently do their work so that we can envision where a new solution would fit.
  3. What would it take to get them to switch to a new solution?
    • There are forces working against change (not just budget but also inertia with how things are and anxiety about something new) as well as forces working for it (the pull of finding a better way and the push of wanting or needing to change). We want to find out how different or how much better our offering would have to be to push people over the edge.
  4. Can we develop and support a solution in a sustainable way?
    • Just because we’ve identified a problem someone would pay us to solve doesn’t mean we should do so; we need to understand the business case, the technical effort required, the competitive landscape, and the support model for this solution or client. The earlier we can identify and mitigate these risks and find the “minimum viable product” the better.
  5. How can we effectively communicate about the solution we are offering?
    • Internal communication with relevant stakeholders is crucial to make sure the roll out of the product is smooth, while external communication builds expectation from clients and the wider market. Thinking through how to communicate effectively is crucial. Too often companies ignore this final question. This can mean a great solution gets developed but folks internally (BD/CRM, Support, Implementation, Marketing) don’t know it is coming or how to sell and support it, and potential clients don’t know how it helps them.

A common mistake is to start with the fourth question, asking, “What cool solution can we build that we think clients ought to care about?” This is a great way to have fun building products but a terrible way to succeed as a product team. Instead you need to identify pervasive painful problems people will pay you to solve, and that means starting with the first question.

The product manager doesn’t answer these questions alone; these aspects of product discovery benefit greatly from having direct input from designers and developers. These folks bring insights about user experience and technical capability that can significantly inform the process of identifying problems to solve and potential solutions to develop. Answering at least the first three questions also means getting out of the office and having conversations with multiple potential users to make sure you’ve identified the right problem to solve and the right way to start solving it.

All of the many important responsibilities of a product manager can’t really be reduced to five key questions (in truth it’s not that simple) but these do provide a solid framework for understanding the core elements of this role. Focusing on finding good answers to these questions will provide a helpful base from which to grow as an effective product manager developing the right solutions for a ready market.

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