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How product managers can understand and solve their customers’ problems
This podcast is getting a new name to better align with its purpose of helping product managers become product masters. That new name is Product Masters Now.
You don’t need to do anything to keep listening, but I want you to know the name change is coming in a few weeks, and it will show in your podcast player not as The Everyday Innovator™ but as Product Masters Now.
Today is a discussion with a listener who contacted me after hearing episode 304. I sent an email to listeners who are subscribed to receive the show notes in their email box that said, “If you thought your job as a product manager was building products right, think again. In this discussion, Ken Sandy shares why the job of a product manager is not building products right but building the right products.”
I admit, I did phrase that to be intentionally thought-provoking. A Chief Product Officer of a global company responded to that message and we began discussing the responsibilities of building the right product and building it right. It’s such an important topic, which is why I invited the CPO to this episode. His name is Narasimha Krishnakumar, and he is the Global CPO for Wind River, a cloud-based IoT company, and he is also an advisor and a product consultant to startups and new ventures.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[3:16] What are your responsibilities as a Global CPO?
At Wind River, we focus on software and tech for edge devices. I oversee product planning, product roadmap, vision, and strategy for our products. We look at the landscape of devices in the market and create innovative solutions for our customers.
[4:42] Where do your ideas come from?
We look at technology that has already been developed to know what our capabilities are. Ideas come from looking at our customers’ problems and finding ways to solve problems that we aren’t already solving. We consider how market dynamics and changing technology are relevant to our products and the problems we’re solving. We look at what our competitors are doing and understand what our value is and why customers like or don’t like us. It’s also important to think about how solving a problem will affect the business—how will we scale and grow through the products we’ve introduced?
[6:56] In the many product management roles you’ve had, what is one of the most important lessons you’ve learned about product management?
Product management is all about reducing the number of variables when you’re building a product. Product management begins with the customer problem—Who is the customer? What are you trying to accomplish for them? Why will it benefit them? After you’ve answered these questions, you must figure out how you will build the products. As you make decisions about building the product, make sure that your variables are easy to manage so you can meet the time to market requirements for the product.
I was in a situation where we picked brand-new technologies for building a product, and we ended up facing an extreme delay because the technology was not mature. When we drive a product idea through execution, we have to make the right bets about technology choices. Product leaders must assess the risk and make the number of variables manageable.
[10:20] What should our focus be—building the right product and/or building products right?
We need both—building the right product and building products right.
Building the right product starts with looking at your customer problem, market opportunity, and competitive dynamics, and using that information to create a product definition that has a fair chance of successfully solving the customers’ problem.
Building the product right means making decisions to solve the customers’ problem. It also includes building a high quality product. While building the product, you will have to make tradeoff decisions. Work collaboratively with engineering teams, quality teams, your DevOps organization, etc., to make sure your product is meeting your customers’ requirements and is high quality.
Product managers tend to focus on the market problems and customer problems—the who, the what, and the why. But product managers can also influence the how—determining the best way to build the product. Building the product tends to be an engineering activity, but product managers still have an important role to play. They should get active in the execution process and understand how the product is built. Product managers can also influence how the product is built by setting Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and quality standards. Effective product managers focus on the who, the what, the why, and the how. They’re curious and have a customer-first attitude.
[19:48] Sometimes engineering creates a long-term architecture well beyond what the product is ready for now. What should product managers do in that situation?
Product managers should take small chunks of the big problem and make incremental progress. You can have an architecture that includes a three- or five-year plan, but you need to know which components of the architecture can fit the time to market that you’re expecting. You don’t have to solve all the customers’ problems on day one. Focus on the top problem first, and work with engineering to solve it within your expected time to market. You can’t boil the ocean, so boil one glass at a time, and make sure that the glass you’re boiling is meaningful for the customer and the business.
[24:05] How can product managers build the right product and build the product right when working with new products and existing products?
When the company is introducing a new product, there’s often no clear problem definition. To build the right product, understand the customer requirements—do one-on-one interviews with customers to learn about their problems and what solutions they would value. Ideas can come from anywhere—have an open mind to listen to ideas and validate then with your customers.
Other times, product managers step into situations where the product has already been built, and they need to take it to the next level. This situation can be challenging for product managers because the product may not be right for a new market you’re trying to approach. Again, dig deep to understand the problem you’re solving for the new market segment. Then capture the requirements for that segment and consider how the product needs to change. You’ll need to make trade-off decisions about your architecture, so it’s very important for product managers to carefully outline the requirements of the new segment to the engineering team. At the back of your mind, always ask yourself how you can build the product right for both the new and old segments.
[29:34] How can product managers effectively work with engineering to give valuable insights but not dictate how to build the product?
It’s always good for product managers to have technical curiosity and understand how the product is built, what the architecture is, and how it impacts the customer. Don’t question engineering’s build process, but always take a customer-first approach. Ask how the architecture solves the customers’ problem. Take the customers’ perspective and weigh-in on how every decision impacts the customer. As a product manager, you know what your customers’ objective is; work with engineering to determine how to best achieve that objective using the technology available. Have a very good understanding of what your customer wants and what the architectural implications are. Ask the right questions and engage with both customers and engineers.
Action Guide: Put the information Krishna shared into action now. Click here to download the Action guide.
- Connect with Krishna on LinkedIn
“Vision without execution is hallucination.” – Unknown
Thank you for being an Everyday Innovator and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it using the social media buttons you see below.