It is always a pleasure to share the article of our former friend and collegue Regis Armel Asseman, previously Project Manager at QPSoftware, a web design agency based in Shanghai, where he worked for more than two years. His article draws the analogy between software product management and a healthy life.
Being passionately involved in software product management is an exciting and remarkable pursuit. I am consumed and driven by my passion, and this is my first attempt at writing an article about this interesting area.
Over the past five years, I have read and experimented a lot with the art of crafting technology-powered products that people love. Using the knowledge I’ve acquired in my pursuit of becoming better at building great products, I have compiled a set of best practices and tips into what I call the "healthy product diet."
This "diet" is designed to help product managers keep their product healthy inside and out.
1. Inspect and adapt
(Get on the scale regularly)
Everyone on a diet has a goal. Dieters regularly check their progress to ensure that they are on track toward achieving their diet goal.
During software product development, it’s important to regularly inspect and adapt to react to the versatile nature of development requirements and accommodate unpredicted changes that may arise through empirical process control.
2. Avoid feature bloating
(A low-carb diet keeps you healthy)
In software product development, continually adding features is similar to abusing high-carb meals. It won’t do you any good in the long run. A great product is certainly not one with hundreds of features, nor is it one with a product backlog with an endless pile of features.
Don’t build a product that can do 100 different things — build one that has only 5 real, working features. Customers aren’t impressed by products because they offer a wide range of mediocre capabilities. Stick only to features that can truly help you meet your strategic objectives, and make those work like a charm.
3. Create actionable user stories
No one enjoys eating half-cooked meals. Similarly, make sure that your user stories are always fully ready prior to development. Unclear or half-documented user stories result in either complete failure or mere short-term success, and ultimately in technical debt to be resolved later on.
Ideally, do not work on features that have no business case. You are likely to refuse a dish if you have no idea where it came from or what it’s made of. Features lacking a solid business case are more likely to be low priority, misleading, and not actionable for development.
Also, break down your epics into proper smaller user stories that are easier to take on and digest. We all know it’s difficult and bad for us to take big bites at once, so do not work on epics until they've been broken down.
Additionally, get familiar with quick, small meals that are high in nutrients. Know your quick wins and low-hanging fruit, which have low development effort and high impact on business value.
4. Reduce technical debt
(Avoid cheat days)
We’ve all been there — cutting corners from time to time because of laziness, or sometimes for good-enough reasons. However, we have to keep this behavior to a minimum.
A dieter's cheat days are comparable to technical debt. Having too much technical debt will surely make your product fail. Technical debt often arises from a lack of resources or trying to meet a hard deadline. Known to be one of the most common sources of failure in product development, it is usually less visible from outside the product and to most stakeholders. It tends to get little support from senior management, who are more focused on high-level strategic objectives. Remember that beauty also lives on the inside, and this shouldn’t be ignored.
Similar to the extra effort required at the gym to make up for the “cheat days,” in software product development you also have to make up for the cut corners in previous development before they severely impact the product. Mike Cohn described technical debt as the interest on a loan; you need to pay by a certain time, and you simply can’t ignore or refuse to pay the accrued interest on the loan. Otherwise, you will be in trouble, and this thinking also applies to technical debt.
5. Perform backlog refinement
(Go to the gym, exercise)
Regular physical exercise helps you to stay fit, strong, and in great shape.
Product backlog refinement is the equivalent of going to the gym. Unfortunately, many teams skip the backlog refinement meeting because, unlike the Daily Scrum, sprint planning, and review and retrospective meetings, it’s not a mandatory event prescribed by the Scrum framework. However, it is highly important, because it helps in maintaining a detailed, estimated, emergent, and prioritized (DEEP) product backlog on the horizon of predictability, usually up to two to three sprints ahead.
6. Continue with support and maintenance
(Fix the occasional small health issues)
Everyone experiences a few health issues occasionally. It is important to be able to react to these issues as early as possible, whether they are critical or not. You certainly do not want the issue to escalate into something more complex that causes greater damage.
Tasks, regardless of their severity level, should be addressed in time to avoid escalation. Performing maintenance tasks is also similar to going to the gym to exercise and ensuring that the product is fit. Ignoring maintenance tasks gives room for vulnerabilities and compromises the system infrastructure (or backbone).
7. Manage risks in architectural innovations
(Be careful with body enhancement)
Innovation is in most cases a good step forward, so you are probably wondering what am I going to say.
Body enhancement is usually costly. The same applies to changes in technology or upgrades — they are usually expensive both in time and money, which sometimes results in a different outcome than anticipated. In most cases, innovation requires a lot of time, high effort, and due diligence to shift and deploy any new technology stack.
Onboarding customers and other employees to the new technology stack is also an extensive process; it doesn’t just happen overnight. So you might want to cross-check the risks involved to determine whether the innovation or upgrade to the latest release is aligned with your corporate vision and is not being undertaken solely for the purpose of being up to date.
8. Screen customer feedback
(Choose your advice carefully)
As you know when you are working on your health, some people provide you with more useful feedback than others. If you are working in product development, you’ve probably heard or read somewhere that "you should listen and talk with your customers regularly." Customers obviously represent an important portion of every corporation. Although listening to your customers’ feedback is important in product management, not all customer feedback is actionable.
Screening customer feedback and being able to properly understand and translate that feedback into business value for your product is, therefore, another moving part that shouldn’t be ignored.
9. Apply data-driven decision making
(Track nutrition facts on product labels)
With the rise of big data, there has been a tremendous evolution in terms of trackable online data. Today you can almost track every event happening within most products. Consequently, management and product managers are leveraging this tracking to unlock their power when it comes to decision making, which is great — except when you are acting on meaningless data.
With the amount of extensive data out there, one can easily lose focus on key relevant strategic metrics, so know your core strategic metrics. Also remember that tracking metrics about all aspects of consumer behavior can provide limited information.
The fact is that many customers tend to simply not take any action whatsoever when they come across an issue using your product. They won’t bother answering to your satisfaction survey. It’s important to remember this, even while having a strong connection with numbers. We are human, so sometimes it’s OK to go with the old-fashioned gut feeling — backed by solid experience, of course.
10. Beware of HiPPOS
(Don’t be taken in by big-name diets)
Yes, beware of HiPPOS, in work as you do in life. A glamorous movie star’s diet is not necessarily the right one for you.
HiPPO stands for “highest paid person’s opinion,” which often conflicts with your roadmap, strategic initiatives, or plans. If you haven’t come across the term HiPPO yet, read Janna Bastow’s great article “Is Your Boss Hijacking Your Product Roadmap? Try This," in which she outlines tips and tricks on how to handle HiPPOS.
While there are certainly more items we could add to the "healthy product diet,” the 10 tips above represent a good start to ensure that you are heading in the right direction in managing and maintaining a healthy product. So start today!