In recognizing that a few, excitable executives were intent on charging ahead with plans to build an "answer" to a competitor's product, I stepped in to introduce some rational thought.
I love exploring new product ideas, and that's especially true if those ideas and products are likely to help my company grow while delighting my customers. Brainstorming with other groups in the organization is healthy and I relish deep dive opportunities to learn more about their own struggles. Indeed, we have made some fantastic product breakthroughs over the past few years by collaborating across departments, thinking creatively and rationally about how to improve the business.
This was not lining up to be one of those situations.
As our organization was looking to head up market and seek out larger customer deals, we inevitably began to run into a new set of established vendors. One of these vendors seemed to be getting good traction in the sales process with a distinct feature that was noticeably absent in our own offering. And we quickly became fixated on that feature gap. And by "we" of course, I mean "Sales".
What drove this decision
Our Sales team was anxious about a particular competitor and quickly became convinced that we had been losing deals - and would continue to lose deals because we lacked a comparable feature in our offering.
What was really missing was actual data to back up these arguments. It is fascinating to watch how quickly a Sales team can work themselves into a frenzy and then how other internal decision makers can get caught up in the hype culminating in an escalating product emergency.
At first, I thought I could just let the frenzy flame out on its own. For surely, if there really was strong customer demand, then I would begin to see more and more frantic sales people banging on my office door. Unfortunately, neither scenario came to pass and so, with not even a little reluctance, I was forced to contain (and ultimately smother) the flames by helping the Sales leaders more formally assess the actual opportunity.
The decision: Get the Exec team to back off their urgent new product ploy
To be clear, I try to never dismiss a product proposal outright and indeed, this particular suggestion seemed to have real merit. What I refuse to do is barrel down a "new product" path without having first made the solid case that the investment has a good chance of producing returns.
At this point, I have to give a big nod to Marty Cagan who in my opinion, best summarized the technique for validating product opportunities in his book Inspired: How to Build Products Customer's Love. I feel so strongly about Cagan's Opportunity Assessment approach that I spent 6 months building a tool that helps Product Managers (and others) both develop and pitch Assessments to stakeholders.
My plan here was to use a simplified version of the Opportunity Assessment to push back on this most recent mania while at the same time, improve the way our management team approaches product decisions.
Plan of attack
My original idea of simply waiting it out and hoping the idea would die on its own, was failing. This became very clear when one of the execs unexpectedly called for a meeting where in just a few hours, we could "hash it out, create some wireframes/mockups that we could then outsource to an external development team". He made it sound so simple but what really concerned me was that no one seemed ready to question the approach. Inaction wasn't working - I needed a new approach.
A PM always has a few tricks up the sleeve to shut down a discussion like this. For example, you could go with "we don't have enough people", or "there are missing dependencies", or "the technology is not ready", etc. But these are short-term tactics. I had to make sure this type of request wouldn't pop up again in some whack-a-mole-style product game.
So, in the spirit of cooperation, I suggested that the assembled team be prepared to start that "hash it out" meeting with the responses to these points.
First make sure we understand the Pain
It all starts with a problem. You have to identify a particular pain you are trying to address and zero in on it. The pain can't be "our competitors have a feature we don't have" - it has to be customer-focused. We are in the business of identifying problems that customers have and will pay us to solve for them.
Let me start by saying this is harder than it appears. To do this well, you need to be able to separate particular actors from the problem. So instead of saying "Customers want to use their phones to check the status of their transaction", you downplay the user to better highlight the problem: "it is difficult to verify the status of a funds transfer when away from a computer."
Then make sure we understand who has the pain
Note in most cases, you will address the first two points at the same time. I have found it more useful to keep these separate so that you can independently verify that you understand the problem and that you can find the users that struggle with it.
After you've identified the problem, you then nail down exactly who has that problem. Is it college students? Is it college students between the ages of 18 & 20 that live on campus and whose parents deposit money once a month...before the weekend?
The closer you get to identifying a specific persona, the better off you'll be. It will not benefit your team's opportunity assessment if you define your target customer in terms that are too broad, as you will see in the next section.
Is there a real market for a product that solves this
If I could get the team to first agree on the problem(s) and then, who we believe has that particular problem or problems, then it's all downhill from there. Well, sorta. But we certainly can start to size the available market based on that persona. Sometimes it is easy to back off of an idea early on if you can determine that there really are not enough people to sell the product to. Or that you'll have a very hard time reaching them. Or that the customer's buying process is incompatible with your own sales cycle. And so on.
Really what I'm hoping to discover of course is whether or not there would be a positive revenue impact as a result of pursuing this product or enhancement. After all, we are asking the company to make a product investment. And smart business leaders should know better than to make investment decisions without some level of due diligence.
In this particular situation, I was certain that the answers to these (and any remaining) questions would lead to the conclusion that the new product idea was ill-founded. Indeed, we shut down the discussion in short order and went back to more productive work. But the bigger win for me and the Product team was that we had introduced a new tool that would ideally lead to better decision making, at least when it came to new products.
There are more questions to answer in the Opportunity Assessment (10 questions in Cagan's version) and certainly more than one sequence through the questions. I like starting with the plan outlined above because it is an efficient way to filter out premature and unfeasible product ideas early on.
But is can be used at any time in a product's lifecycle. In taking on the the "Head of Products" role, I inherited a product portfolio that I felt was too much for a company our size to manage. I have since begun the arduous process of reviewing each of our existing products and using the Assessment framework to defend or defeat each one.