Product Planning

There have been a number of great posts lately on the importance of creating an excellent user experience with your product. While a detailed look at a product planning cycle would be a full article I thought touching on the main points may be helpful.
Peter over at Tech Capital Partners in KW has a good post on the topic where he articulates thoughts on “The experience IS the product” and the importance of establishing and maintaining a superior user interface.
Mark MacLeod over at StartUpCFO does a great job at nailing the importance of staying focussed on the product at ALL stages of a startup (early-late) and how it is a critical component of company growth.
As your company grows and the footprint of your product becomes larger and larger it is critical that you have a process in place (Product Planning Process) that allows you to:
  1. Capture all the required data to build a plan.
  2. Ensure that you are considering your architecture in lock step with the plans for the product. (A lesson Twitter has been learning)
  3. Validate with Market and document requirements.
  4. Plan timelines and resources required to complete

Capture all the required data to build a plan

There are many inputs into what the next shiny thing is for your product or what the next new product should be and it is important to collect data from various different sources so you have perspective and as close to full information as you can get. Any decision related to your product must come with input from customers and prospects. Get the good the bad the ugly. Don’t wait for this info to pour in, go out and get it. User groups, web 2.0 tools, hosted onsite sessions, webex’s, basically any way you can make it easy for the customer to provide their thoughts, suggestions and feedback…..just make sure you get it. In addition to customers talk to your sales people, your technical support group, your call centre, your development group. Get as much data as possible. Lastly make sure you are looking at what your competition is doing and what new entrants to the market that may be on the periphery of your product are doing.

All of this data collection is not event based. This is a continuous process that must be working every day in your organization. Make it part of everyone’s job to collect this info and have a formal central repository where it is easy for people to dump their info as it is collected.

Ensure your underlying architecture will continue to support your plans

This seems to go without saying but it doesn’t. Time and time again I see companies whose product evolves to a point they never imagined it would and it creates significant problems if the platform is not supportive of the type and pace of new product releases you want and need to do. Validating this regularly will allow you to not get too far down the path before having to make a possible switch. No one wants to have to switch something significant midstream but the reality is that with the best forethought and planning things can change in the marketplace so fast that you may eventually have no choice.

Validate with the Market and Document Requirements

Once you have defined a roadmap for the product validate it with the group you collect data from. When building the roadmap and communicating back to your group it is best if you can lay out for them your thoughts (based on what you know today) for the next 2-4 releases and where you see the product going, with the caveat that there may be a fair amount of change given the time horizon you are presenting is long.

Plan the Timeline and Resources

Now the execution. Build the plan to deliver what has been scoped, look at resource gaps and ensure you have a plan to secure the help required and that timelines are built for delivery to customer that are reasonable with a fair amount of buffer in them for….well…you know.

Summary

Everyone agrees that customer experience and the continued velocity of product development is critical for early startups and for more established companies with a start up culture. To successfully manage this it is important that you build a process to inform you and allow you to plan your way through to improving the experience. the above contains a brief example of the major requirements and this process will be very different depending on the size and scope of your company and product. the important message is HAVE a process that is part of your company’s daily pulse and you will stay in tune with your customers, the market and success.

Gazelle’s-Mastering the Rockefeller Habits

Our executive team at Ivara just completed going through a 2 day course that was put on by a Company called Gazelles. We had a great facilitator by the name of Les Rubenovitch who described us as an executive team with diverse positions on things and a healthy (I think he was being nice) appetite for debate. I think this was his polite way of telling us that we labour on points for way too long instead of getting to the heart of the issue, making a decision and actioning it. Spending a couple of days as a team in this way has several benefits:
1. I thought the course and materials presented in the Two Day session was very useful. Some of the topics that we discussed that we as an organization will attempt to implement over the next 90 days include:
-daily huddles (which are daily team meetings that never exceed 15 minutes and have a standard agenda that includes “What’s Up”, a “Daily Metric” and “Where are you Stuck”
-employee performance measurement (the details of this require a separate post but understand where your real talent is in the organization is and filtering out the “C” players is a must for high performing companies…Topgrading is a great read I would recommend.
-business dashboard (we came up with the metrics we feel are critical for our success and now will be implementing a dashboard system-not software based yet-to assist us with leading indicators alerting us when we are going off line)
2. The second benefit was actually getting some feedback from a strong facilitator of what they view as some of the strengths and weaknesses and general health of our exec. We all have areas where, as a team, we could work better but having a facilitator work with the group for two days really exposes the goods and bads of the group dynamics and presents opportunities for improvement. One of our takeaways from the session was to read The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni and we have blocked off an hour as an Exec to go through what we need to do after reading the book to become more effective.
3. Getting away with the Exec team for a couple days always leaves me feeling energized , refocused and part of something. All our days are busy and tied up with the tactical details of running a business. Stepping back and refocusing on what the overarching strategy is, what is changing, realigning priorities is really key in a small business. Getting lost in the details and to-do’s is important but sticking your head up once a quarter to make sure that you are still driving in the right direction is really important. I hate to pick on them (again) but Twitter appears to be a prime example of this from the outside looking in. Clearly while they were busy running the business a funny thing happened to them. Their user community grew beyond their (at least preliminary) plans and used the product in ways and at a rate that they did not anticipate and before they knew it the architecture no longer was aligned with the needs of the users and now you have a major problem.
For a lot of reasons the two day session was great for us as a group but my call to action for you is to STOP.
-stop the day to day (I honestly do understand the difficulty this poses) at least once a quarter
-get out of the office
-get a really STRONG facilitator and try to keep the same one
-review and revise your strategy
-re prioritize your top 3 priorities for the next quarter
-assign timelines, responsibilities and accountability’s
-START executing
-STOP in a quarter and repeat
If you want more details or want to discuss further please feel free to contact me directly.
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