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Takeaways from “Escaping the Build Trap” by Melissa Perri

If you’re serious about building an outcome-focused organization, Escaping the Build Trap by Melissa Perri is a great read. In this post, we share a few key takeaways from the book. We’ll share common product management practices and deliverables we’ve observed as examples of the “build trap”. And we’ll show how a great portfolio tool like Dragonboat enables product leaders, from Chief Product Officers (CPOs) to their teams, effectively run an outcome-focused product organization.

“A product led organization is characterized by a culture that organizes outcomes over outputs, including a company cadence that revolves around evaluating strategies in accordance with meeting outcomes.”

The Strategic Framework

The context of a strategic framework is more functional than theoretical.

The terminology of the strategic framework Melissa uses is “Vision, Strategic Intent, Product Initiatives, and Options.”

In some companies, terms like Vision/ Mission, Strategic Intent/ Bets/ Big Rocks, Product Initiatives/ Programs are interchangeable. Check out the “Rock, Pebble, Sand product management” piece covering a similar concept.

An outcome-focused product leader does not mandate initiatives but instead provides strategic intents. The strategic intent points to the outcome the business wants the team to achieve.

One example of output-based product management is the product roadmap. A product roadmap is not the best way to describe the strategy and direction of the product team, as it is often output-based with a list of features and associated dates. On the other hand, you can construct a multidimensional board based on the outcome.

Brainstorm, align, and prioritize product features by Goals

The 3 Horizon Strategic Deployment

Similar to what we observed in high-performing product organizations, leaders at the right level make the right sized decision, which provides the guidepost for the subsequent level.

  • “Different levels of strategies are stories at different time scales… Executives may be thinking of 5-year strategies, middle management is thinking of smaller strategies like yearly or quarterly strategies, bounding their teams to make decisions on a monthly or weekly basis.”
  • “When teams are not sufficiently constrained, they feel stuck because there are too many options.”

The interconnection between the 3 levels of an organization is critical to the success of a product-led organization. Here, the middle management could be product managers or directors. They play a critical role in connecting strategies and execution.

The Dragonboat product module supports Bets, Initiatives, and Features, each representing the long-term, mid-term, and near-term focus at the 3 levels of the organization, connecting the context throughout the levels of the organization.

3 horizon strategy and execution

The Communication Strategy

Having a strategic framework and carrying it through all levels of an organization is an important foundation of a product-led organization. To keep it alive, the organization also needs to ensure consistent communication of the progress in the format of outcomes, across various cadences. Here are the 3 review cadences, according to Melissa.

  • Quarterly business reviews “progress towards strategic intents and outcomes in financial nature. CPOs and product VPs will explain how product initiatives have furthered the strategic intent.. and new strategic intents may be introduced in this format.”
  • Product initiative reviews – also quarterly – ‘staggered from the quarterly business review… focus on the product development part of the house with CTO, VP engineering, design, and product managers to discuss how options towards product initiatives have progressed and adjusted strategies accordingly. New product initiatives may be introduced during this cadence with buy-ins from the development lead.”
  • Release reviews – “often monthly, for teams to show off the hard work they’ve done and to talk about success metrics. Also, a forum to share the product with marketing, sales teams on what’s about to be released.”

In our observation, both Chief Product Officers and their teams need to communicate up and down and across the organization. Most CPOs and their team rely on meetings, spreadsheets, decks, and emails to connect the long-term strategy with team actions. However, the context will often end up lost and along the way, a list of deliverables takes place. Furthermore, an organization can easily slip back from outcome-focused to output-focused during the shuffle between different cadences and meetings.

Dragonboat is a perfect platform both for quarterly product reviews and release reviews, taking into account inputs (strategic intents, goals) from business reviews and passing them down to the team for execution.

Stakeholder updates Exec Summary

Budgeting and Portfolio Allocation

Budgeting and allocation are a key part of product operations. Here Melissa shared a few best practices

  • “Product-led organizations budget for and allocate to work based on their distribution and the stage of their work.”
  • “Invest in known knowns, and also set aside money for discovering new opportunities to propel the business model forward. And add more and more funds to grow the opportunities as they become validated.”

Traditional product organizations allocate budgets and headcounts on an annual basis with lists of predetermined initiatives. This does not allow responsiveness to the changing business environment. Outcome-based organizations continuously assess outcomes against goals and adjust where allocation to product should be applied. This is the genesis of Responsive PPM.

Dragonboat enables multi-dimensional, multi-level product allocation in real-time during planning.

Responsive Portfolio Allocation

Key Learnings as a PM – from Escaping the Build Trap

PM – PMs are not idea generators, but bad idea terminators
Senior PM – the strategic framework makes or breaks a company
Consultant – the understanding of getting buy-in and what motivates people

Are You in a Product-Led Organization?

Here are the 6 questions Melissa leaves to you in Escaping the Build Trap:

  1. Who came up with the last feature you built?
  2. What was the last product you decided to kill?
  3. When was the last time you talked to your customers?
  4. What is your goal?
  5. What are you currently working on? (hint: the problem first, before solutions)
  6. What are your project managers like? (hint: are product managers treated as project managers with a delivery/ output focus?)

Product managers are the most collaborative role in an organization. They need to focus on both solving customer problems and achieving business outcomes. The success of product management is largely dependent on the process and culture of the company. But don’t be discouraged – every company wants to be product-led and outcome-focused. Visibility and context help to build trust in product management.

A source of truth system connecting the moving pieces from the executive level to the feature level, tying work with goals and outcomes, may help with this.

Buy Escaping the Build Trap.

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How to Provide Product Roadmap Status Updates

“How do you provide effective product roadmap status updates for your diverse stakeholders?”

A PM recently came to me on the verge of burnout from too many status meetings and never-ending decks for her globally distributed teams in different functions. 

As someone leading program and product management for companies big and small with teams in over 100 countries, I have also had my fair shares of status updates and meetings.

Here are a few tips to make it easier:

  1. Know your audience’s unique needs 
  2. Build a communication cadence with the right frequency and format
  3. Invest in a source of truth system 
  4. Automate multi-dimensional, multi-horizon, multi-channel updates

Let’s look at them in more detail.

First, it’s important to recognize that knowing where we are now and where we are going is essential for any organization. Ensuring the right type of product roadmap information for the right audience not only enables success for your organization, it actually elevates your role. 

How? The right information in the right format enables your audience to achieve their goals, which makes you invaluable to their success. 

1. Know Your Audience’s Unique Needs

Above all, we must understand the purpose of roadmap visibility. Everyone involved in suggesting, prioritizing, designing, building, shipping, selling, and supporting products needs to know the state of roadmap. They need to know what product teams are (and are not) building, when features will be available (at least from a technical perspective), how the product should be used and communicated, and so forth. So your stakeholders can make effective, outcome-driven adjustments to their work.

A product and engineering organization typically has various information needs from the following stakeholders:

what to communicate in a product roadmap status update to different stakeholders chart

2. Build a Communication Cadence with the Right Frequency and Format

Instead of having a default weekly or bi-weekly roadmap status update meeting,  set a meeting cadence more appropriate to the velocity of your product roadmaps – that is, do you have major features and marketing updates on a weekly, monthly or maybe even quarterly basis? This should help determine the frequency of stakeholder updates in a meeting format. 

What about between meetings? People can’t be in the dark for 2 week or even 2 months, right? 

That’s where a source of truth self-serviced format applies to your diverse stakeholders. 

3. Adopt a Source of Truth System

Product managers are often the connectors of both sides, but they can also quickly turn into bottlenecks. 

Single source of truth” is an information systems concept that ensures everyone in an organization uses the same data when making business decisions. Using it for roadmap visibility allows two things:

  1. Asynchronous access to the latest information
  2. Live status updates in dynamic formats

By automating updates directly from your team’s work, you not only streamline the PM’s day but eliminate both human error and information silos. 

Having a source of truth also facilitates top-down visibility that is crucial to teams (why A and not B). Knowing productstrategies and goals helps teams to maintain alignment. Instead of trying to find what’s buried in emails or PowerPoint decks, an always-on source of truth connecting Strategies and Execution empowers engineers to build with the right context. 

4. Automate Multi-Dimensional, Multi-Horizon, Multi-Channel Updates

While a source of truth provides bottom-up and top-down visibility, we don’t have to stop there. Applying portfolio management on top of that grants tech leaders an even wider view to spot opportunities or catch mistakes. Your product is your portfolio, which means you have more than just a list of features to work with— there are the goals dimension, the customer segments dimension, and many others that go into making outcome-based decisions.

Here’s an example: We had a Product Manager whose team was focused on retention features, everything seemed fine. It was only after she adopted a multi-dimensional view that she noticed “retention” was, in fact, last quarter’s focus!

Additionally, roadmap changes happen all the time. Your teams and stakeholders need up-to-date information to fully understand the impact of those changes to better plan their work, and minimizes disruption for both internal teams and customers.

The speed and quality of available information directly impacts the speed and quality of the decisions made so make your updates count!

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Effective Feature Prioritization with Product Portfolio Management

A product manager recently posted on a community group that she is looking to change her career as she feels exhausted from constant fire fighting in managing competing priorities and stakeholder demands. When I recommended Dragonboat, she was puzzled: “But we only have one product. Isn’t portfolio management only for large companies with many product lines?”

Not necessarily! According to Investopedia portfolio management boils down to three things:

  1. Determining strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats in the current market
  2. Selecting investments and allocate appropriately to a set of parameters
  3. Rebalancing periodically

You can see that it is not so much about managing the size of your portfolio, but managing your choices. This is not too different from what a product manager does — you are constantly thinking about the product investment mix to maximize your desired outcomes.

This is exactly what responsive portfolio management is. Applying portfolio management principles, allows us to reframe how we think about product roadmaps. Every product, even if it is the only one in the company, is essentially a multi-dimensional portfolio of priorities and demands.

A Product Manager’s Portfolio

Like the finance industry, we often use SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) to chart our market and product plans. 

However, that is where the comparison ends. While financial advisors work with clear monetary values — such as profit, revenue, or market share — product managers have a wider set of variables and a broader definition of “the best outcome”.

That means we can derive multiple types of portfolios depending on how we view the roadmap. For some broad examples:

  • Objectives
    These can be long- or short-term objectives such as acquiring or retaining customers, reducing operational costs, or expanding into new markets.
  • Customer Segments
    New, existing, enterprise, or partners.
  • Investment Categories
    Such as deciding between product innovation and tech platform refactoring.
  • Stakeholder Needs
    Both internal and external such as customer feature requests, realigning the product for the market, or addressing tech upgrades and debts.

Why Would You Want a Multi-Dimensional View?

A multi-dimensional view lets you:

  1. Address multiple elements of “product success”; and
  2. Make the right allocation decisions faster (i.e. focus vs. support).

Imagine you have a new product. The sign-up numbers look good but, after a week, these users stop coming back. As a result, the team must shift their focus on how to improve retention. Once that is under control, you can shift back to user acquisition, efficiency improvements, and so on.

Many conventional prioritization frameworks are based on a fixed formula such as scores or ROI, and do not reflect the changing needs of the customer or market.  Over time, it may lead you into a “peanut butter” situation where the product simply fails from the company’s resources being spread too thin.

By looking at it from a portfolio perspective, product managers are empowered to understand the current state of the product and market to decide on a responsive prioritization method for identifying areas that truly need your limited resources.

Think of it as trying to fight a forest fire — you look at it from the ground and the top, analyze the situation, and then prioritize, allocate, and deploy. That is what it takes to be a forward-thinking product leader. 

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