If I had a hammer

Comedian Kathleen Madigan has a routine where she describes the objects that a single woman has in her household toolbox. As you might imagine (since it’s a comedy routine) there’s nothing in the toolbox used for the purpose it was orginally designed. The “hammer,” for example, is a man’s shoe.

This might be humorous to many people but to my product manager sensibilities Madigan’s comedy routine is closer to a horror show… like the scene in Psycho where Anthony Perkins cuts short Janet Leigh’s shower. (eeet!..eet!..eeet!!)

I’m quite sure that some commission-oriented salesman thought it was, well, “okay” to sell a shoe for a purpose it wasn’t designed. In product speak – the salesman sold the product outside of its target market segment.

What’s wrong with selling outside the target market segment?

hammer2
Selling to consumers who intend to use a product in ways it wasn’t intended to be used creates a very scary scene.

Let’s fast forward to a client conference where shoe consumers attend a voice-of-the-customer session to provide feedback on which features should be modified or added. So, what does the toolbox owner request for new product features for her “hammer”? New leathers, or colors or perhaps softer soles? Unfortunately, no.

She feels that her product needs a handle so it would be easier to grasp… a metal insert on the heel so it would drive the nail with more force… and the laces should be removed completely since they don’t have any function. Of course, all this makes complete sense because she is using the product outside the segment for which it was designed.

There are very good reasons why markets are segmented in product management. Customer market segments define product features which in turn drives the product design for that segment.

All products are designed for a specific target market – a specific set of users who have similar product requirements and who use the product in a similar manner. Selling a product outside of the defined segment boundaries is dangerous… and is guaranteed to create a horror scene for product managers. (eeet!…eet!…eeet!)

How Sticky are your Products?

Why do some ideas succeed while others fail?

Stanford professor Chip Heath has spent the last 10 years asking that very question. I just finished his book (co-authored with his brother Dan who owns a business that specializes in innovation) in which Heath published his findings.

The ability to create winning products (note: products are manifestations of IDEAS) may sometimes feel like dumb luck but there are patterns in why some are more successful than others. Heath’s book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, identifies six traits that help ideas endure.

Jack Welch is renown for communicating ideas that inspire and yet other business leaders are often frustrated that their ideas are too soon forgotten.

What is a “sticky” idea?

A sticky idea is one that everyone understands when they hear it… is memorable… and changes some fundamental concept. While sticky is a straightforward concept, it doesn’t happen too often. (Think back to the last presentation you saw… How much do you remember? Did it change your behavior in any way? Probably not.)

I liked Heath’s example of an abstract message “employees should maximize shareholder value.” ( Okay, we’re all on board… that sounds like a good thing for employees to do.) But what specific behaviors should employees change to respond to this message?

Contrast the message statement above to an example of a FedEx driver who couldn’t open one of his pickup boxes since the key was back at the office. His deadline was tight and he knew that he wouldn’t have time to go back to the office and return with the key to make the deadline for the plane. So he got a wrench, unbolted the whole box and slid it into the truck. He knew he’d be able to unlock it back at the office.

Telling FedEx drivers to “maximize shareholder value” just leaves them hanging. But a story gives them a visualization of what the message really means.

Here are Heath’s six traits for sticky ideas:

1. SIMPLE – Messages are most memorable if they are short and thoughtful. Proverbs are short but also deep enough to guide behavior.

2. UNEXPECTED – An idea that sounds like basic common sense won’t stick… it must be unique.

3. CONCRETE – Anything abstract doesn’t leave sensory impressions… only concrete images do. Compare “get an American on the moon in this decade” with “seize leadership in the space race through targeted technology initiatives and enhanced team-based routines.”

4. CREDIBLE – Will it sell in Toledo? Trying to convey an idea which is outside the listener’s realm of experience won’t stick… even if experts are used to validate the idea.

5. EMOTIONAL – Case studies that involve people are sticky. Heath says that we are wired to identify with people… but yet have no emotional attachment to ideas.

6. REPEATABLE – We use stories every day to convey ideas. Why? Heath says that rehearsing a situation helps us perform better. Stories that are easily repeated act like a mental flight simulator, preparing us to respond more quickly and effectively.

As you develop your products, try using these concepts. It just might help make them a bit more sticky.

What’s your pledge?

With the undeniable spirit of optimism that swept our country this week as part of the inauguration of President Obama… this post is dedicated to advancing this sense of renewal.

As our new President challenges: “…let us summon a new spirit of patriotism…of responsibility… where each of us resolves to pitch in… to look not only after ourselves… but each other.”

what are YOU going to pledge?

Share your pledge below… I’d like to know.

Then go make something happen.

In today’s Economy… is “Tactical” more important than “Strategic?”

Are companies delaying strategic product investments (i.e., where product returns are realized in future years) for investments that provide returns in 2009?

Tom Nicholas from the Harvard Business School published in The McKinsey Quarterly an article which says that executives who take a “wait and see” approach to innovation investment during downturns may be putting their firms at a competitive disadvantage. “Companies that delay these investments may forego significant growth opportunities when uncertainty subsides and the economy recovers.”

In the 1930’s, DuPont R&D produced synthetic rubber and nylon. Radio Corporation of America (RCA) focused on a new technology called Television… And Hewlett Packard and Polaroid were start-ups back then.

The lessons on innovation investment in downturns is very pertinent today. The market will improve and those firms that continue to invest strategically in the down economic cycle will likely see a product advantage over competitors once the cycle improves.

So, are strategic investments taking a back seat during this downturn?

Innovation ROI: What’s YOUR best practice for little “i”?

Extending features of existing products (that is… little “i”) versus big “I” (new product innovation), has gotten a lot of debate on the best way to prioritize product requirements.

Let’s face it… the features that often move to the top are those that the most profitable customer needs or what the CEO thinks is important. In many cases, legacy product request prioritization is not scientific. But should it be?

If this was a perfect world, how should a good product manager prioritize features in a release? Do you segment and rank benefits that are closest in congruence with long term business strategy…. those that return the most profit over the near term… those that are easiest to develop… etc.?

It seems everyone has their own approach… their own “best practice.” It seems most product managers assign attributes to each feature. Examples of these include:

* Build customer loyalty
* Create competitive advantage
* Further business strategy
* …and, of course, the near term financial contribution (more revenue, lower cost, etc)

Aligning each feature request to a list of attributes is vital. As business cycles change, so does product investment. In a down cycle, for example, management may want to advance features that provide revenue sooner versus investing in features that return value further out.

Most product managers that I speak with assign a weighting to each benefit on a scale of 1-10 based on the stakeholder voting. They then calculate a weighted sum score of all the benefits in a release to get to a “Total Return.”

Then they assign a cost value to implement the “Investment” in the release again on a scale of 1-10. Dividing the “Total Return” by “Investment” will give a simple (real simple) ROI Metric for the release. The goal is to craft a portfolio of features that best meets the needs of the stakeholders.

You can then use it to prioritize the features and get a straightforward structured method to prioritize the features in each release. This type of a methodology is much more repeatable and defensible than ad-hoc judgments often used to prioritize requirements and features.

Obviously, the trick is to get the stakeholders to value the various features similarly. Value agreement isn’t expected to be exact, but outliers can be a problem. For example, the client user committee may value highest those features that give more immediate operational relief (i.e., short-term focused), the sales reps may value the features that they have already promised to their sales prospects (i.e., whatever generates new sales in the next quarter), and the marketing team may value highest those features that improves competitive advantage in that new market segment that have been promoting.

Consensus? I think not.

Years ago, a mentor told me that being a product manager is about balance. And she was right. All stakeholders are right… all the time. Disagreements in feature value assignment is largely due to perspective. Like skiing on ice, its all about negotiating the bumps and achieving perfect balance.