The Midior MailboxMidior
Volume 4 Issue 1
A Product Manager's Playbook
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The Plays
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The Midior Team
Led by Founding Partners  Susan Loconto Penta and Michael Goldberger, the MIDIOR team is focused on  the discipline of product development and management, helping clients seize new opportunities and respond to changing markets.  
Changing the way you think about products


Part One. Begin at the Beginning:

Establish Context First


Many of the questions we get from clients relate to the challenge of defining requirements. Studies suggest that the overall success rate for new products and services is well below 50% which means that at least half of your investment in product development will be lost.  Getting the right requirements can make all of the difference in the world and we are often asked to recommend a structured process that will help product teams design the functionality that is most important to their target market.


This year our series of MIDIOR Mailbox newsletters will focus on this important topic and offer a step-by-step approach that is actionable for both products and services. We'll share what we have learned in our former lives as product managers and developers as well as from our day-to-day work with clients.  In addition, we'll bring in some of the issues we encounter in our one-day Requirements Workshop. This interactive forum is where we work with product teams to build their requirements analysis skills by working with them to define requirements for a specific product development initiative challenging their organizations.


How can we get better at defining requirements so that our products and services consistently delight our customers?  We often get stuck on debating features that, in the long run, don't make a material difference to the product's success.

MIDIOR's Answer
This question happens to come from the leader of a product team at a technology solutions provider but it is typical of almost every client engagement where we get into a discussion about requirements. Defining and prioritizing features and functions is hard work, made even harder by the fact that it is a collaborative effort that depends on a fuzzy combination of facts, opinions, projections and guesses about the future.  In this instance, where there is a services component to the offering, it can be difficult to see where the product starts and stops, making the requirements definition process even more challenging. But let's start at the beginning. A critical mistake many product teams make is that they attempt to define detailed requirements without first establishing context. We feel this step is so important that the rest of this newsletter will focus on context. If the product team takes a disciplined approach and actually works through this step, we're confident the result will be more accurate requirements and more relevant products.

Ask the Right Questions
We say that every requirements discussion has to begin at the beginning - which to us means starting with the "why" of the product in order to establish context.  A product manager needs to ask a lot of questions and unearth the details in terms of what he doesn't know AND what he doesn't know he doesn't know (those unknown unknowns!) Asking the right questions to get to meaningful answers takes persistence and courage and is not always easy to do, particularly if development has started or you are dealing with commitments that have already been made. Consider how rare it is to start with a completely blank sheet of paper - the enviable 

position of an entrepreneur starting a company.  We suggest you begin every requirements discussion with three critical questions:


1.     Why is the company doing it?

2.     Why does the customer want it?

3.     Why does this opportunity make sense?


The first question deals with how the product or service aligns with overall corporate goals.  You need to assess how important this initiative will be to business success and if it doesn't matter, you should quit while you're ahead and focus your precious resources elsewhere.  We are continually surprised by how many product teams simply neglect to ask this question, only to find themselves, months later, unable to secure funding or executive support.


The second question ensures you truly understand who will use the product and more importantly, why they will use it over what they are doing today.  Will this product or service be useful to a broad spectrum of customers or are you relying on input from a narrow slice? Context helps you apply a filter to the target universe and carefully evaluate who falls into it and who does not. 


The third question deals with why the opportunity actually makes sense.  Sometimes the answers are surprising. You might find, for example, that a product aligns with company objectives and will fulfill customer needs yet doesn't make sense because a competitor already has a strong position in this space and the investment required to succeed is too steep. On the other end of the spectrum, you may experience support for a product that does not have the strongest financial business case but because the company is already too far down the road in terms of expectations set with customers so the decision is made to proceed.  Regardless, ensuring the team understands why the opportunity makes sense is critical and although you may not always agree with the reason, it will enable you to move forward.  Knowing the answers to all three "why"questions paints the true picture. Many companies overlook context and shy away from the hard questions, but they need to be answered in order to make the right product decisions.

Why is context important?

Without a clear understanding of the context, product managers will be launching a product into a world they don't understand. No wonder that products fail to meet the needs of customers or fall short of expectations.  So often we see the product manager forced into a defensive mode, stuck in the middle between engineering and sales. Consider this all too familiar scenario. The head of engineering comes to the product manager with a product or capability that already has resources allocated to it and says, "here's the product, go document the requirements".  Or conversely, a sales rep comes back from a customer visit with the directive, "here's what the customer wants, now we have to spec this into the product".  Without having established context, the product manager has no foundation to properly assess the request or meet the challenge.

What's the diagnosis?

A good analog for asking the right questions and "beginning at the beginning" can be found right in your doctor's office.  Before attempting a diagnosis or prescribing a plan of action, a physician first takes a detailed medical history to establish context. The why questions will include a thorough understanding of the genetic landscape of a patient, previous illnesses and surgeries, significant life events and so on.  Only then will the doctor turn to the immediate symptoms that bring you to the office, offer a diagnosis and prescriptive plan.

In conclusion, being disciplined about understanding context before you define requirements will make it easier for you to stick to priorities, say no to requests that are out of scope and allocate resources more effectively.


For more information about defining product requirements and how the one-day MIDIOR Requirements Workshop can help your product teams establish context and build the skills to be more successful, contact MIDIOR.


A New MIDIOR Workshop
Bring your product initiative to this one-day requirements workshop and build your team's knowledge and skills to generate accurate requirements, the first time and every time...get agenda.

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In the Next Issue

The next step is defining requirements. We look at different approaches to getting true customer insight and recommend what we have found works best.

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