While many tools can be incredibly helpful, there are some that simply rise above the rest in terms of their simplicity, intuitiveness, and ease of use. You know, those apps that guide you seamlessly from one step to another, anticipating your every question, providing every answer exactly when you need it. It’s especially impressive when these tools are doing complex work, like many B2B tools. But what’s the secret sauce that makes these products great? Effective, customer-focused, Lean product management.
Behind every one of those beautifully intuitive products is a team of smart, hungry, humble product managers advocating for the voice of the customer every step of the way. Here’s what differentiates Lean product managers from others and why it matters.
Why Lean Product Management Matters
Product managers play the crucial role of translating customer needs into product features and updates—or at least, they’re supposed to. Often, internal pressures, external stakeholders, and poor product management practices keep managers from delivering products that customers want. Even more often, product managers make product decisions without even really understanding what customers want, which results in wasted time and money, low customer satisfaction, and low team morale.
Lean product management is the application of Lean thinking to product strategy and development. It provides a framework for making product strategy decisions that align with company goals, KPIs, and customer needs.
Lean product management keeps product managers (and the teams they work with) focused on delivering work that matters quickly. Yes, Lean is about increasing development speed, but more importantly, it’s about increasing velocity or speed with direction.
Put another way, Lean isn’t just about building things, but building the right things at the right time. And it’s up to product managers to determine what those things are.
The Critical Role of Product Management in Lean Initiatives
Lean product managers are tasked with identifying, synthesizing, prioritizing, and mobilizing teams around solving customer problems. In this way, the success of your Lean initiative begins and ends with your product managers. Without a systematic approach to product management, it’s painfully easy to waste your precious development resources on unvalidated solutions to unimportant problems—without even realizing it.
Many organizations (even large, seemingly successful ones) operate without a clear strategy behind the way they prioritize their product roadmaps. The result is some combination of personal bias, the highest paid person’s opinion, incomplete or insufficient customer data, and a healthy dash of assumption. This is not only risky, it’s unsustainable. Eventually, a few “bad egg” product managers can take an organization down, simply by making one too many unvalidated decisions.
What is Lean Product Management?
Lean product management minimizes this risk by allowing customer feedback and data to drive product strategy. Lean product managers prioritize:
- Customer problems over internal requirements
- Data-driven experiments over assumptions
- Customer problem roadmaps over feature roadmaps
- Idea generation and collaboration over solution mandates
Lean product management takes all those product management buzzwords like data-driven and voice of the customer and holds product managers accountable to living by them. Here’s what each of these values means for Lean product managers.
Customer Problems and Needs Over Internal Requirements
Here’s a universal truth: The best products solve customer problems. How do you solve customer problems? You listen to the customer. Constantly. About everything. And yet, the typical product development process isn’t built to systematically prioritize customer needs over internal requirements.
Product managers spend a lot of time gathering requirements from within the company—what does marketing need from this feature? What does sales need? What do executives want to see? During this process, it’s easy for the voice of the customer to get drowned out by the opinions of company’s Very Important People.
Ultimately, the goal of any Lean initiative is to maximize customer value. Yes, as a business your goal is to maximize stakeholder value—but this starts with an intimate understanding of your customers.
In order to maximize customer value, you have to know what your customers value, which means product managers have to immerse themselves in customer feedback. Talking to customers helps product managers define value through the eyes of the customer and then help advocate for that value internally. Executives—especially those who directly oversee the product development organization—have to create the space for this by engaging in customer conversations themselves, and by championing the work of those product managers who invest their time into understanding their customers.
Data-Driven Experiments Over Preconceived Solutions
Assumptions, predictions, hunches, and other unvalidated measures should never be used to drive product decisions—and yet tragically, they often are. This doesn’t always fall on the product managers. Sometimes, companies lack the business intelligence know-how to collect meaningful customer data. Sometimes, company culture prevents experimentation.
However, if you hope to be a Lean organization, if you hope to build a great product, you have to be scientific in your approach to decision making, especially when it comes to your roadmap. You must design experiments to ensure you’re using resources effectively toward your goal of maximizing customer value.
In fact, if the motto for sales people is “always be closing,” the motto for Lean product managers should be “always be validating.” Lean product managers use tools like Minimum Viable Product (MVPs), A/B testing, and usage tracking tools to validate their ideas before committing more people to them. And when an organization makes decisions this way, it holds everyone accountable to making informed decisions that are logical, data-driven, and customer focused.
Idea Generation and Collaboration Over Solution Mandates
Above, we said that the best products were built by teams of Lean product management. This wasn’t entirely true—truly great products are built by highly communicative, collaborative, and diverse Lean teams, with Lean product managers serving as the connective tissue. Great products are created by organizations that foster cross-organizational collaboration, especially when it comes to product strategy and development.
This means that Lean product managers must share and listen to insights from marketing, sales, designers, engineers, customers, churned customers, prospects, and others. They’re humble enough and smart enough to understand that their success as a product manager depends entirely on the quality of insights on which they’re basing their decisions. Great Lean product managers actively and constantly solicit opinions from others, and work collaboratively with their peers to prioritize work that will make the biggest impact.