Live chat with Dan Olsen, Author of The Lean Product Playbook

Dan Olsen is a product management consultant and the author of The Lean Product Playbook. Two of his favorite quotes on problem vs. solution are “people don’t want a quarter inch drill, they want a quarter inch hole.” and “with great responsibility comes NO power.” We wanted to find out more about what he thinks about problem vs. solution and product management and so we unleashed our community to ask him questions about it. Here is what we got.

Live chat with Dan Olsen, Author of The Lean Product Playbook

How is product management different in enterprise apps vs. consumers apps?

I think it’s more similar than different for enterprise vs. consumer. The difference is that you have fewer customers. Maybe you have dozens instead of thousands or millions, so you need to lean on qualitative techniques more heavily. Either way, you need to talk with your customers. Reaching the customers can sometimes be more difficult for enterprise with Sales, Account Management, and others “blocking” you.

Regardless, you need to find a way to talk with your customers in person for discovery up front and to get feedback on your prototypes. I refer to qualitative techniques as the Oprah approach, and quantitative techniques as the Spock approach.

Given how many new products today utilize deep learning/machine learning, what do you think Product Managers need to know about these topics?

Machine learning/deep learning is a hot trend right now, but like any trend, you have to be mindful of where it is in the hype cycle. For example, I think “Big Data” is cooling off a bit but to answer your question, I think those topics are helpful in areas where personalization is important, e.g., recommendations and also, analytics and extracting insights.

I think it’s nice to have a high-level knowledge of those topics as it can never hurt to know basic ML. To me, it’s an extension of having basic statistics knowledge which I think is helpful for Product Managers. Coursera offers a great ML class from Stanford. I took it and enjoyed it. The bottom line is that I don’t think you need in-depth ML expertise unless you’re in one of those hardcore spaces, like Google.

What is your favorite PM book (apart from yours)?

Books that I like are Marty Cagan’s “Inspired,” Tony Ulwick’s “What Customers Want” and “Running Lean” by Ash Maurya. I also like Laura Klein’s “UX for Lean Startups,” even though the title sounds like it’s more for designers, it’s great for Product Managers as well. There’s a new book that came out recently by Tony Ulwick “Jobs to Be Done” which I haven’t read yet.

Live chat with Dan Olsen, Author of The Lean Product Playbook

I want to do Product Management, but I don’t have the experience. Any suggestions on where to begin?

A lot of people are in that boat with you. PM is hot right now. I would recommend reading the following two books on getting a job in product management: Cracking the PM Interview and Decode and Conquer.

At my Lean Product meetup, I’ve hosted in-depth panel discussions on this topic twice now. Carlos from Product School was on the panels and shared a lot of great advice. You can find the videos on my YouTube channel. My last tip is to try to get as many coffee chats or informational interviews with Product Managers as you can.

While interviewing with a company for a product role, what are some questions to pose to figure out if the company is product driven?

I think a key question is to ask them how they make product decisions. Who is involved? Who has a say on what? How do they determine their roadmap? How do they prioritize? Weak or non-existent answers to these questions are usually a yellow flag and even worse is if they say “engineering gets to decide.” I would also ask about the structure of their product management team. Who does it report to? Who are the managers? What has been this history of the team?

What things do you recommend for moving from a purely technical background to Product Management?

The muscles that the tech people typically need to build are:
1. Customer understanding, comfort talking with customers, skills in eliciting requirements and prioritization from them.
2. UX design. You don’t need to be a design expert on this, but you should know enough to have conversations with the designers.
3. Business skills. Learn about revenue and costs. What are the drivers of your business?
4. Influencing skills. Product Managers have to get a lot of people to do things, but no one reports to us.

Live Chat with Dan Olsen, Author of The Lean Product Playbook

How would you approach engaging top management on the importance of PMs?

Good question. I would start by showing them all the top, successful companies that have good PM organizations and share some good posts on what PM does for the organization. Maybe you can bring in external PM speakers. It can be tough if none of them have any PM experience or they haven’t worked with PMs before. If those efforts aren’t fruitful, it might be beneficial to go somewhere where they value PM more.

What is the best way to prioritize a product roadmap?

Prioritization is one of the most important PM skills on the roadmap: It should be customer-centric, not feature-centric and organized by problem space themes, not solution space. I recommend using my “Importance vs. Satisfaction” framework to prioritize.

What are the PM Tools/Apps on your daily basis?

Most of my clients use JIRA to manage their backlog. I live in Google Docs, especially Sheets and I use Google Slides to organize and share screenshots, e.g., competitive analysis of other products. I’m a big fan of Balsamiq for wireframing. I think PMs should have at least basic wireframing skills. And Balsamiq is very easy to use. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

How do you handle scope creep with erratic stakeholders?

That is a tough one. At the end of the day, the pie is never more than 100%, so the only way is to make sure they clearly see the trade-offs of doing that. For example, “okay, we can do X, but that means the work done to date on Y is wasted. And Z will slip three weeks.” Step 1 to do this is to ensure you have a SINGLE global backlog that everyone can see, and you need a mechanism to agree on prioritization of that.

Then when changes come up, the trade-offs can be explained more cleanly. Your job as a PM is to be the “reality messenger.” To do so, you need to make things transparent so that trade-offs can be discussed, and hopefully, no one is shooting the messenger in the organization.

Live chat with Dan Olsen, Author of The Lean Product Playbook

How does product management in a large firm (like Google or Apple) differ from product management in a startup?

It should be largely the same. In larger companies, it’s true that the scope of your role is likely smaller, more tactical and less strategic but there is still plenty of work to be done to fill in the details of the roadmap passed down from on-high to ensure it meets customer needs. At larger companies, decisions can take longer to make. You may have more stakeholders to deal with and sometimes, teams in a large successful company don’t have any real time pressure.

In startups, you typically (not always) have fewer resources to work with. For example, you may have what I call a “design gap” where no one on the team has design skills. I find that startups tend to move quicker because their survival depends on it.

What programming languages or other software, do you recommend a PM to learn?

I don’t think it’s absolutely critical for PMs to know how to code but it can be helpful and certainly can’t hurt. I’ve been coding since I was 10. In 2005, after working on my 3rd web product, I wanted to learn web programming languages. I would recommend starting with HTML & CSS then moving on to JavaScript and then to a server-side language such as Python. I would also pick up some basic SQL skills which are helpful for PMs, even if you don’t learn any of the other languages.

Learning some basic Unix can be helpful, too. The goal of all this is not to be a coder yourself but to be credible with developers and to be able to estimate the rough scope of what you’re asking for. You need to understand if the feature requires front-end work, back-end coding, DB changes, etc. so that you can collaborate with developers to identify the lowest scope solution that will solve the problem.

What are some high-level actions you take in the first 15-30 days on joining a new PM team?

Building relationships and understanding the organization & business are important first steps. Take the time to have 1-on-1s with as many people you will be working with as this will be very difficult later when your calendar is all filled up. Be a sponge. Listen and learn before being too heavy handed in your recommendations. I would dive into the backlog as soon as possible to start to understand the items in it, how the team populates it, how the team writes stories and how they prioritize. But listen first.

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