Fast Track Product Management

Apr 10, 2017

The problem statement

The paradigm shift towards agile and lean product development has brought collaboration within large cross-functional team in the spotlight. The existing literature is already mature explaining clearly how benefits can be quickly reaped by executing a clean transition to agile delivery by enhancing the performance of the new cross-functional teams. However, in parallel, the time spent in endless meetings by product owners, business analysts, engineers, product managers and many others involved in the product creation, has grown exponentially. This leaves key product people with little or no time to do the critical activities they are employed for.

The idea in brief

A great deal of the time spent in meetings is about calibration and deciding how to decide, or what is important right now for the product the team is building. Even worse this calibration time exceed a lot the time taken to make the actual decision and leaving close to zero time for the actual work. The team size, the spread of roles, and distribution across locations contribute as dragging factors multiplying the poisonous percent of time spent on alignment of ideas. There are many frameworks about how to optimize the decision time, redistribute the work down the chain of command, cascade decisions and ultimately optimizing the collaboration; instead of all these, how about making an effort to avoid this alignment, decide fast and move forward when it comes to product management?

Fast Track product management decisions

1. Radical cells instead of alignment

One of the biggest antagonist of decision making is a big group of people incentivized to align themselves and forge a new direction or strategy. To account for a critical mass the group would be all peers ranking wise, so no central point, and will generate lots of ideas drifting from original assumptions and constraints of the system.

This is a good opportunity to create a radical cell; a mean to organize in a small cross-functional group to solve an immediate problem inspired from modern warfare operations. The members of the cell can share the same vision and may guide over the same principles or just feel familiar working with each other. This kind of pairing is mandatory to foster an environment where wild hypothesis just half-thought are not immediately dismissed or diluted to look better in front of management.

When looking at the nuts and bolts of the cell, people are used to raise legitimate questions about: wrong customer profile, risk of competition, bad business model, how failure looks like and most important they are not afraid to find themselves as not knowing all the answers.

There is a good balance between where the product should go and where it shouldn’t go, although most of the times may be easier to start with the dont’s. The radical cell begins to fast scale decisions after a relative short time as it does not need all the data but only some data with statistical significance which can withstand some hypothesis testing. Even incomplete, these pieces of information can validate a hypothesis on the value proposition and product - market fit that can be the bedrock on which a clean execution is performed.

To preserve the unique advantage of this kind of cell, which is to fast track decision and remain focused, it has to have a certain degree of freedom from normal rules governing corporations. This freedom will help later to focus on the execution of the strategy, this is equally important as the world is flooded with ideas for new products yet 90% of them fails because of execution.

2. Hanging in the balance

It is written on the wall: “… a good backlog delivers only the right work at the right time, it is prioritized using SMART and INVEST and the product owner help the team to understand what to do next by shepherding them through hundreds of epics, stories, or issues created”. This iconic almost biblical image of the product owner is nothing but inexistent, constantly not happening and the management still wonders why.

Product management is like an acrobat tightrope walk with no harness or safety net… hanging in the balance between no coordination and extreme coordination. No coordination at all means chaos, teams working blindly, each member pulling in a different direction. On the other side, extreme coordination equals thoughtful and careful planning, risk management, portfolio, excellent documentation but no product released.

How long you can remain up depends on this very complicated state of balance. Start the walk with a plan that fits on a page. If it doesn’t fit, or you are unable to explain it to: the team, the stakeholders, the CEO or your mom it is not good enough. However there is one caveat here: there is only one page but this page can have a different flavor according to your auditorium (e.g. the CEO is interested in different aspects than the team). There are various very good tools to help you to do this: Business Model Canvas (Alexander Osterwalder), Product Model Canvas (Roman Pichler), or Lean Product Canvas (Ash Maurya). All these tools are perfectly fine, use the one that comes handy to create an initial understanding between everyone involved in the building of the product. You know it is done when repeated data crunching, user research, market gap analysis yields a similar result. You know it is successful when people discuss it, challenge it, modify and improve it, with people other than yourself.

Next thing in line is how to group product backlog items (stories, epics, features) and how to sort them in a way to be fairly easy to understand where the value comes from and to identify the priorities aka what’s in a release bucket. A technique like story mapping can help on this initial backlog forming stage. The challenge does not stay with the splitting , sorting and grouping all ideas on specific levels for User (target customer), Goals, Features, Epics, Stories, but with a long-view to maintain a healthy balance — particularly under pressure. This balance means to maintain always the coherence of the product with the strategic direction no matter if the mapping/planning was does for the next two or six sprints ahead.

Moreover no single stage or iteration is broken from the vantage point of strategy and each stage comes to complement the existing without regressing to sub-optimal whole, thus each software feature is deeply rooted to one or more goals and has a direct positive impact on this goal. In this phase, if executed correctly, you will have obtained some additional advantages: a shared visual representation of the product work to be done; fast sizing of the items by having all work on the “release - wall” the team can perform quickly relative sizing of the stories (in story points or so,...); key players into the same space (collocated) and faced with the same issue results in a drastic reduction of waiting and handover times.

3. Delete the default option

When people don’t know what to choose, or the cognitive load to decide is heavy they prefer not to make a choice thus choosing the default option and engaging the autopilot. The default “options” add one after another in the product, just like technical debt for code, resulting in a messy legacy system. The product manager needs to see inside the black box of the product, even when it becomes slightly technical, probe the “messy” data and findings, and ruthlessly delete any default option that does not add anything to the product. Make the product by design not by default options. The relearning and breaking out of default old habits can instill a state of mind in the team that creates a virtuous circle in which more and more decisions are taken by thinking on your feet and deliberate change.

In order for members of a highly technical skilled team to discuss each use case from different angles, own it and respond to the challenge, they must focus on the true delighters of the product and less on the baseline. The product manager creates this unique opportunity by rendering irrelevant all default options that may be overridden with real choices.

This is an interface to the team that allows for detailed analysis and thus the product manager unearths an opportunity that had never been probed before.

Instead of conclusion

The life of a note taker begins gradually and calmly when the most important thing becomes to document decisions so as to have a central repository. It degrades a bit when the follow-up notes consolidation and broadcast takes longer than the initial meeting and responses never came without a great deal of push. The later stages involve a massive invasion of collating feedback from extended leadership teams, putting shared plans together and giving up to temptation to make it all look pretty in the eyes of management.

When all looks good, stable and neat and no change is needed to adapt to the outside world, the product manager has finally transformed into a glorified note taker and the product is probably on a dead line. Fast track to another line, pivot and a start a new business!


Iavi Rotberg

Author: Iavi Rotberg

Energetic, resourceful and performance-driven Business Analyst and Product Manager with an entrepreneurial spirit having proven 15+ years experience in the market. Focused on discovering, managing and continuously improving software solutions for large enterprise organizations.
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