In an attempt to summarize our collective accomplishments over the past 12 months, I decided to create a simple, 1-page chart that communicates the product advancements and highlights remaining product opportunities.
Many people look to the end of the calendar year as a good opportunity for reflection and this is as true in the professional world as it is in the personal one. Twelve consecutive months would seem to provide a sufficient review period for attempting to understand the overall impact of the team's more significant product decisions.
I have previously written here about why I feel the Product Manager has a more pronounced need to establish credibility than most other roles in the organization. It is easy to make grand, sweeping promises but ultimately, a PM and his/her team will be measured (continuously!) by the results they achieve. And even those small victories can be short-lived as the team is pushed to address the next round of challenges.
So, it seems fitting that I take a little time during the last week of the year to revisit those promises I had made and to fairly tally up the "scores".
What drove this decision
In the spirit of transparency, I wanted to conduct an honest assessment of how we did or did not advance the product portfolio and then share that with the entire company. I had established clear objectives at the beginning of the year and now felt an obligation to compare our actual results with those original goals.
I was also hoping to create a new artifact that might even help motivate the teams. Something that said, "Look how far we've come!" If it turned out the way I thought it would, it could become a new collateral piece that gets the Sales all fired up, sending a clear message to them about how much easier it had become to tell and sell our story to customers.
Above all, I wanted to use this progress report as a reminder to the entire company that we have made great strides together along the very roadmap themes I laid out at the beginning of the year. It turned out that it was also useful for pointing out, even foreshadowing, where we'd likely be spending our time next year.
The decision: Use the familiar customer process as a backdrop for reporting finer-grained enhancements across the entire product suite.
For the past few years, the Product team has been refining our understanding of our customers' core business process. We ultimately captured the process model in a single, clear diagram which we have been promoting and reinforcing with each major release so that, by now, everyone in the company was familiar with it.
This representation of the business process had been especially helpful in orienting the product team's efforts and now seemed to offer the ideal structure for lining up the various product initiatives from the past year. So I thought I would use it as the underlying structure for my progress report.
Plan of attack
Being a fan of 1-page artifacts, I set out to build a single chart that I could use to tell the story of the past year, one that would clearly illustrate our highs and our lows, our triumphs and defeats, our victories -- you get the picture.
Collapse the business process to create a familiar backdrop
I was confident that the process model we had been using for our own internal discussions - and which had been repeatedly validated by prospects and customers alike - would provide the right context for my new chart.
The original process diagram had filled the entire page. I tried to retain the familiar shape of the process but compressed it to fit in a much smaller vertical space. I removed the actor icons but kept the text labels for each step, moving them to the bottom of the new diagram to maintain the various transitions in the process.
Create a simple scale for relative comparisons
Next, I needed to create a way to compare the various product initiatives in a way that my audience could see the respective value of each project as it related to the customer's business process.
Ultimately I created a 3-point scale with the intentionally provocative labels "Poor", "Par", and "Premier." If I was going to use this chart to provide an honest report on how well we did over the past 12 months, I wanted to have a way to communicate where we had done well, where we had fallen flat, and where we were still struggling with mediocrity.
Plot trajectories for each product initiative
With these structural elements in place, I was now ready to add my data to the chart.
Instead of representing each initiative as single points on the graph, I chose to roll up the initiatives under more familiar customer-facing features and plot them as parallel vertical lines. Each feature had a bullet point to show where the feature would have been scored at the beginning of the year. I then extended an arrow from the bullet and the length of each line was meant to show how much we had improved the feature over the course of the past 12 months.
For some features, I stacked more than one arrow if we had taken several passes at it. Some features had no arrows which were meant to show a complete lack of improvement - even more meaningful when they appeared lower on the scale. It was absolutely my intention to highlight these features as ones that would require attention in the months ahead.
I had no prior experience creating a chart like this or even using a progress report to roll up the results of a year's worth of product roadmap initiatives. I will admit it that it was validating for me to see the results of our collective efforts captured in a single place though I recognize some obvious shortcomings with my approach:
- My chart only has upward pointing arrows - One might get the wrong impression that none of the work we did actually made things worse for our customers - ha!
- My chart ignores all the non-feature work - Anyone that did not work close with the Product or Tech teams might get the impression that this is all we accomplished when the truth is that so much more was done to support our growing customer base.
- My chart only exists because the story is mostly positive - I'm not sure I would have pursued this task if I thought it would have shown us in a bad light.
I'd like to think I'm not purposefully avoiding reporting on any negative outcomes but I knew that I would inevitably focus on those areas that made us look good. In the end, I think this is a fair report and have received similar confirmations from others in the company. I certainly achieved my goal of painting a clear picture for the company and my stakeholders around the improvements we've made from a year's worth of product investments.