Welcome to my notebook. I have done a wide variety of work over the years, have built and run digital creative departments, started my own companies, consulted to agencies & brands as a strategist and creative and even recently taught the immersive product management and strategy at General Assembly.
This notebook is my place to write about some of my experiences and thoughts about how to create and run teams that do innovation focused work as well as my thoughts as a maker, doer and creator.
I hope you enjoy. Feel free to reach out if you have any questions or are interested in working with me.
One of the things I have been asked recently as someone who taught at product management (and by extension strategy) at General Assembly and as someone who has been on both the product side and marketing side is, what does product a owner do and what makes them good at their job?
I would republish some of my thoughts here of the things we think about as we prepared students and things I personally think about everyday when consulting to clients, teams and agencies.
At General Assembly as we set out to plan each 10 week session, my partner and I would always start by asking ourselves "what are the things that we feel our students need to demonstrate when they leave"? You can't teach everything but you can give people a base set of knowledge that will give them a solid starting place.
There are a lot of competing priorities and demands put on people who are in leadership roles. Besides the vast array of knowledge we have to acquire about many aspects of the job from design to technology to business we also must be great detectives, negotiators, presenters, mentors, guides and yes, sometimes even task masters.
We must be both strategic & logical as well as creative & artful. The craft of creating products is part art and part science, which makes us craftspeople as well.
All the great leaders I have been exposed to have always a force for inspiration and motivation, keeping teams energized and excited about the work they do. As a Product Owner (manager, strategist etc), this is especially true.
There are essentially 3 things product owners concern themselves with in terms of making a product:
How we make it - the process of how we actually make these things and adhere to our vision -- The execution & process
I like to use the word make, because while we need to be strategists, we are also makers & doers and need to also be able to execute on the strategies we create - in other words "pitch in" and also pitch out.
I consider a product owner to essentially be both a business strategist and a creative problem solver. I think of product owners as part (creative) strategist, part inventor and yes, even part storyteller. . They sit at the intersection of business (brand), design (in all it's forms) and technology and have to know enough of each in order to be effective. As someone who has done all of it, it's a lot to ask.
A product owner is an opportunist who starts by looking at the world and asks themselves "what's missing"? The product strategist concerns themselves much of the time with potential and demand. Why it's important, to whom and how much. Demand is something we emphasized quite a bit.
There are four things related to demand that Product Managers have to keep in their minds as they create products:
They do this through:
Along the way product owners operate at various elevations from 100,000 feet to 100 feet as both leader and vision setter and collaborator and doer. I consider a product person to be one of the most elusive roles but one that is crucial and demands an immense amount of knowledge and expertise across a dizzying array of disciplines and subjects.
The best product owners are inventors and opportunists at heart. They are curious, audacious, bold and (mostly) fearless. They must constantly juggle the competing priorities of what's possible vs. what's necessary while negotiating with teams, clients and the market. A Product owners' ultimate goal is to create products that are valuable, meaningful and different while at the same time being practical and realistic in creating those products and achieving theirs and their teams' goals.
During my time teaching the immersive product course at General Assembly we designed and wrote briefs for many types of projects. Each 10 week course involved students completing 5 projects which ranged from creating new product ideas to adding new features to existing products to even improving products for clients. At the end of the last class in order to better connect the dots for students and help them transition to the working world, I designed a new framework for something called a Product Dash.
The idea behind the Product Dash was to create enough guidelines and constraints so students could complete the projects but give them the room to decide how they would do it. In other words to let them begin to develop their own process for how they created products.
The Product Dash spanned approximately 3 1/2 days and followed an "Understand, Define, Design" approach - one that is a part of an approach I use myself. At the end of the 3 1/2 days the teams were to present customer research & insights, problem, solution, a basic roadmap and plan as well as propose validation experiments / MVPs they would run if given the go ahead.
I decided I would post the brief here so people could see how this was done. The most important thing was to give the team a solid process and make sure they could quickly begin to develop hypotheses they could then go validate through customer research.
In our class we would begin with creating "how might we..." statements using a madlibs template I developed. This served as the prompt for areas within which teams would explore product ideas and define the problem space. You'll notice this sort of hints at a user story structure.
Here's an example of this template:
Example: How might we help (college) roommates better split the house bills so they can know who's paying for what?
The other way to develop a how might we prompt is to think about the "job to be done". For example you might follow a similar approach to how Intercom re-imagined their product offerings under "Aquire, Engage, Learn, Support" .
Example: "How might we help the marketing team more effectively acquire and retain customers by..." - this approach takes the mindset of thinking about the job the customer is hiring your product to do so you can more quickly build empathy for what your customers are trying to accomplish by using your product. It's ideal if you can have a specific person in mind who performs that role (how can we help Jim).
From here you might do a product teardown using a lean canvas, run design studio exercises, create concept sketches, do post-ups, and then go interview customers so they could begin to define and design solutions. I recommend students take an empathy map with them in order to actually have an idea of the things they will want to find out through the interview process along with the interview framework.
At the end of the 3 1/2 days students presented back out to the team (including General Assembly's product team) their findings. It was to me incredibly successful in that it allowed students to connect the dots and give them practice in getting to something very quickly without overthinking things.
Here's some screenshots of students in action (day 1). They all did storyboarding (which I am a huge fan of), personas, post-ups, concept sketching, lean canvas (including assumptions), sketches - everything on a whiteboard. After teaching I think using massive whiteboards is the way to go.
You'll notice we also had students plan their Trello boards with post-its first. I highly recommend this approach before diving into the software. Trello is great but it can do a lot - this method allows students to focus on the planning vs. the software itself. The plan on the upper left was created in under 20 minutes.
Time constraints is also hugely important. Especially in the beginning things should happen in chunks of minutes rather than hours. Avoid the "hey let's take the next hour or two to storyboard". It should be 15 or 20 minute increments. Even an initial lean canvas should take no more than 25 minutes.
If you want to see what the brief looks like here are screenshots (3 pages):
At General Assembly we spent a good deal of time focusing on customer development (both research and insights development as well as cultivating an initial customer base). One of the things we put together was a simple one page framework to begin to shape the types of information students would want to find out and serve as a guide to writing effective interview questions.
I really liked having this on one page and would hang it on the wall as a reminder of our strategic goals for customer research. Slightly re-worked here it is. I may eventually make a poster of this...