The Future of Product Management and Lean UX

(This is a guest post by Rich Mironov, who coaches product executive and product management/owner teams. He wrote The Art of Product Management. You can find Rich on Twitter, LinkedIn or on his blog.)

future of product management - flux capacitor - a back to the future momentI was at a recent Lean Startup Circle talk about the future of product management. It was a “back to the future” moment for me, hearing about the need for the strong strategic product management that predates Lean and Agile. A return to first principles, but with more build-measure-learn.

Some history: for its first three or four decades, technology product management had an engineer-meets-MBA profile. Product cycles were long and computing was mostly for businesses, so deep upfront analysis was critical. Every product plan started with market sizing data, competitive analysis and speculation about next-gen technology. Before we spent $50M building something that our customers would pay $100k each for, we really needed to prove out the economics. Portfolio analysis, adoption cycles and business models ruled. Design expectations were low and UI was about screen-level layout. UX was a mostly foreign concept.

The inevitable failure modes were products that were late, didn’t address serious needs or were badly designed. And product managers had an inflated sense of our importance.

We routinely called ourselves the 'CEOs of our products.' Click To Tweet

Great products need a mix of

  1. economic market insights,
  2. working technical architecture,
  3. user-centered design, and
  4. organizational leadership to keep the rest of the company aligned.

Classic waterfall product management delivers 1 and 4 with sprinklings of 2.

In my first product roles at Tandem and Sybase, I was stuck between architect-led development plans (“here’s what our smart customers will need next year”) and enterprise-sales-driven interrupts (“we can close a $10M deal if we can commit to teleportation in our next release.”) For me, validation was a dozen personal interviews with forward-thinking customers.

We’re a decade into Agile, which has tilted this model toward Engineering. In practice, agile product owners focus almost entirely on the mechanics of getting products defined and shipped, with almost no cycles left for higher-level business goals, broad customer validation or the organizational challenges of marketing/sales/support. Terrific books from Roman Pichler and Greg Cohen teach us how to perform the inward-facing functions of agile product owners — but assume that someone else owns product strategy, portfolio planning, segmentation, pricing, competition, customer commitments and turning technology into money. Product owners typically write individual user stories and accept work, but don’t drive strategic whole product decisions. Product owners also look to some all-powerful executive sponsor who fights off daily attempts to steal resources or shift goals.

We product managers have let ourselves be put into smaller product owner boxes. Click To Tweet

future of product management - trapped in a boxWe’ve been focused on inward process efficiency when the biggest risks are about markets, viable solutions, and organizing complex sets of employees/partners/suppliers.

User experience professionals and designers were mostly left out of command-and-control product management and early agile. Design was a nice-to-have, a late-stage addition alongside documentation. Button placement, not needs analysis.

I’m a cheerleader for Lean UX, which brings problem validation and deep customer understanding to the fore: ethnography, value propositions and mapping the user’s journey – then quick-turn prototyping and a wide range of real user testing.

I’m also a cheerleader for Lean UX’s mixed-team-of-experts model.

Rather than depending on an imperial product manager, we want to assemble a multi-talented team. Click To Tweet

A UX lead who brings experience with generative research and behavioral models; a seasoned product manager with financial and go-to-market chops; a technologist who understands workable solution architectures.

More X-Men (and –Women), less Superman. Click To Tweet

The future demands strong product management as well as deep design expertise as well as brilliant technology.

Let’s get collaborating.

Discussion (10 comments)

  1. Sébastien says:

    Great post from Rich.

    I believe there is a new way to explore that I call Lean Product Management, where what Rich refers to as “Lean UX” is called Product Discovery. Lean Product Management is about focusing on the user benefit first, trying as much as possible to reduce the the time between the need and the feature delivery. Focusing on what the user needs, and not what the company is good at.

    In a nutshell, that would be applying Lean principles to Product Management.

    1. Tristan says:

      I think Janice is actually nearly finished writing a book on this subject.

  2. Abhay says:

    Talking in reference to B2C, how important is to have revenue model in thought process as product managers work on UX ? if yes, any critical insights on this would be really helpful.

    or do I understand that a lean UX or the product owner can effort to ignore the business sense while working on UX?

    1. Rich Mironov says:

      Good product managers – and others exploring new concepts for products that are intended to generate revenue – should IMHO always be thinking about business models. It’s insufficient to build new products (just) because users ask for them.

      Balanced teams may approach this differently, though. A UX-led team may start by uncovering a dozen different problems, then sift those for business rationale and technical feasibility.
      MBA-style market analysis has us look first at desirable segments (e.g. Big Pharma is growing while in-store retail is shrinking) and search for problems worth solving in attractive areas.
      Technical architects often uncover technical problems/solutions first.
      Regardless of where we start, strong commercial products need to solve real problems for customers AND have a viable business model AND make technical/architectural sense. I’m not a fan of “build it and we’ll figure out the business model later.”
      At the feature/function level, it usually makes sense to improve UX/UI without needing a specific financial payback. Having your users love your product better, get more value, and refer it to their peers is a good rationale for facelifts and workflow improvements. Don’t over-invest in declining segments, though.

  3. Harri Pendolin says:

    I think Rich nicely summarized how product management has evolved during the last 10-20 years. Unfortunately Agile became so sexy that “the development process” was suddenly more important than business itself.

    I am afraid today we still mostly struggle with the same problem. Lean development, including finding new business models and creating incrementally better UX, is still the sexiest task in product management. But in reality most of the pm’s are executing proven business models and optimizing product profits, which then allows them to go and build some more. This “some more” may be a new product, but in many cases it is only a new version or release (in a best case something they do daily).

    What I am trying to say here is that business (no VC’s) pays the development, no matter how you do it. Product managers shall be the ones to understand which one of Rich’s mix of needs for a good product is missing and fix that. User-centered design is not an answer if market insight or leadership is missing, no matter how sexy the process currently is.

    @Sébastien: I would rather define lean (and strategic) product management like this: Focusing on what your evolving customer needs are, and understanding what the company is good at. (the basis for your product strategy)!

    1. Tristan says:

      When I hear you state it like that it just makes me think that regardless of the roles, responsibilities, and titles of the team members, someone has to be outside of the silos to consider the business model as a whole.

      1. Kenny Nguyen says:

        Wouldn’t that be the CEO in many cases? At least for the business model of the business.

        1. Tristan says:

          In many, but not all cases!

          1. rich Mironov says:

            In a company of 10 or 20 people, the CEO typically owns the entire business model (and makes most of the complex product decisions).

            In my experience, at companies of even 50-75 people the CEO provides general guidance and dispute resolution, but someone else (e.g. a product manager) sweats the daily numbers and subtle technical trade-offs and experiments that keep revenue flowing.

            And at larger organizations (with product lines, business units, bundled offerings…), it’s folly to expect the CEO to know everything and drive thoughtfully detailed decisions. Startups aren’t just small enterprises, and enterprises are much more than scaled startups.

      2. Harri Pendolin says:

        I think that someone should be same entity who is responsible of the (company, product, product line, portfolio…) strategy. I have been working with product managers that can’t even describe their current model with business model canvas and I am sure the percentage is much higher among product owners and keeps growing the deeper we go into development.

        I would say that there is and will be demand for those “someone’s” who can see the big picture outside the silos in every company from start-ups to corporations.

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