Ep. 7: How Do You Help Your Company Deal with Product Ambiguity?

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Hope Gurion: Are you a new product leader who is struggling with your company’s desire for certainty about everything your team is building, including exactly when it will be available to customers?  In this episode of Fearless Product Leadership, we are going to hear from five experienced product leaders and how they help their companies deal with the unavoidable ambiguity that comes with product development. You'll learn practical tips on how to build and maintain trust as well as how to strike that important balance between learning and delivering on commitments.

Fearlessly tackling the topic of ambiguity in this episode are: 

  • Rosie Ruley Atkins, Vp Of Product, Homebase

  • Al Ming, VP of Product and Design at CNBC, formerly VP of Product Discovery Networks and the NY Times

  • Lauren Antonelli, former head of product and now chief of staff at evite

  • Prasad Gune, SVP of Product at Signifyed who formerly led product at LinkedIn and Open Table

  • Stefan Radullian, head of product management at Brainloop, a Diligent company

Hope Gurion: First Rosie Ruley Atkins shares how she’s created a product culture that emphasizes the pragmatism of learning and then investing based on what’s working and will have the largest impact on goals.

Rosie Ruley Atkins: How do we reduce ambiguity, and how far out do we commit? What is interesting about our process is that those two things are absolutely linked together. Our process is optimized for learning and then being able to apply what we learn and how we do that is to instead of saying this is what we are going to do next, we think about it as “What hypothesis are we considering next?”, and “What do we have to know in order to say that this hypothesis is a good idea?”. So, instead of a roadmap we basically say that we have the things that we have just shipped that we are learning on, we have the things that we are building right now, and we have the things that we are considering. When we are considering a hypothesis, we are not considering any tactics. It is an idea, and the idea might be if we change our website to blue, more customers will convert into paid plans.

We ask ourselves: What are the KPIs that we would measure this with? Who is the target audience? What needs to be true? What qualitative research can we do to get to an answer? What data might we have that will help us get to an answer? And what is the TAM? What we found is that we are pursuing many more ideas because if you do not have any tactics and you are not saying “We are doing this,” you do not have skin in the game. You can get to No, not a great idea; not a big enough idea; or not the idea for right now. But if we get to Yes, we have everything we need to very quickly then start to build it, because we have already talked to customers, and we have taken the “What tactics should we use?” question and used a very pragmatic approach to answering it.

Hope Gurion: Excellent and so for a commitment, it seems like, am I right in thinking that it is not until you have gotten to a clear YES on one of those ideas, that it is worth pursuing that it might move into a tactical level? Or is there some other way that you say, “OK now I'm going to actually tell you that we probably are going to do this.”  

Rosie Ruley Atkins: Yeah, so when do we get to a commitment? This process can take us anywhere from a week to two weeks, maybe three weeks if the idea is really big and really risky. So we try to move very quickly on getting to yes, no or not now, so that then we can start thinking how do we apply what we have learned in this research phase to tactics, designs, how can we get a prototype in front of, perhaps some of the people we talk to doing or qualitative research.

So, when we get there, we try to move as quickly as possible because we have really front-loaded the process and we know much more about the customer than if we said, “Here are three different prototypes. Which one do you like best?”  Because we might not even be in the right moment in the journey, or sometimes we look at it, and we say, “Wow you know, great idea, but when we really look at our, you know if it is incoming customers, and we start to look at look-alikes it is just not a big enough TAM compared to another opportunity.” We can take that idea, all of that research and push it out a little bit.”

Hope Gurion: Next, Al Ming shares how common goals, collaboration, and transparency on options eases the burden of keeping communication open and honest to navigate the treacherous waters of ambiguity in product development.  

Al Ming: One of the things that I look for when I'm trying to figure out how to help organizations that have trouble with ambiguity and need that certainty for their clients and their customers are reducing the risk as much as possible. So, the more I know, the more you know. So, it comes down to transparency and being upfront about the reality of the situation.

 One of the things that I do when I talk to new colleagues and new stakeholders in a new job in our one-on-ones and say, “How are things going so far?” And inevitably one of the complaints they tend to have is it wasn't delivered the way I thought it was going to be. Or it wasn't on time and that kind of speaks to what one of my old colleagues called the ‘For Entertainment Only’, that he used to put on the bottom of roadmaps.

If I give you a roadmap, it doesn't mean anything. It's not going to help you. Like so why you don’t try a different way and see if that helps and that different way is: I'm going to tell you what we're trying to accomplish. I'm going to tell you the best bet I can take to make that happen.

Throughout the process, I'll keep you informed on how this works, and we'll find some solutions for what it is. And well as soon as we can speak to a customer about what that is to a client, to an advertising agency, as soon as we can, we will. Like I think one of the things that helps in that direction is, especially in the advertising industry or the direct consumer industry, (any of the ones that I tend to be a part of) is that consumers are consumers of data and publishers are becoming savvier.

There are ad agencies that want to see a product manager in the room when they are talking to a salesperson, because they know that the answer they get is going to be real, is going to be innovative, is going to be impactful for their business, is going to be connected to the customer in a way that wasn't there before. And that helps a lot in that direction to create that.

That kind of hitting it from both hands-on folks who are not used to dealing that way I think a part of it. Also, there are going to be things of course that are much more straightforward in their definition, they are as predictable as they can be, and I think again part of that conversation if things become more complicated velocity slows down for some reason new things pop up that you couldn't figure out how to deal with it's about that transparency , it's about saying hey let's make a choice together like you are you have as much stake in this as I do this is what I believe to be the challenge, what do you want to do for this client how are we going to achieve this success in terms of what we're doing I'm a big proponent of shared goals being if not the answer to ever say a pretty big answer that where we're going, I want to make money for this company too, I want success for our customers, I want to build a sustainable business, and the more I can do as a product leader or with my product teams to help their by being part of those conversations,  by providing visibility as things change, by involving you in the process to make decisions about what to do when things go strange, the better we're going to be.

So, I think ultimately you can avoid or start to change that culture around hard deadlines and predictable scope for your customers by being transparent, by being collaborative, by being present you know like and genuinely engaged in the same goals. This is what I want and if I understand your goal, you understand my goal maybe we don't work on the navigation changes, we wanted to make maybe we don't worry well, we refer to our ties the things, if I understand what the value actually is and it cuts both ways if you hear you know what there's a bigger opportunity on the horizon let's change this around and figure out where it works because we are trying to accomplish the same things.

Hope Gurion: Next, Lauren Antonelli uses the 6-week cycle and how that helps teams keep their commitments help her organization at evite balance desire for certainty with truly impactful, valuable work the teams can actually deliver against.  

Lauren Antonelli: I really took inspiration from Jason Frieden and Basecamp, and sort of how they cycle their work, when I'll share with you the article that I'm talking about, but they really work in six weeks cycles ,and they don't believe that anything that you do can't be done in six weeks, and whether or not people can like wax poetic whether that's true or not like they're putting it to the test . So, it's like okay they figured it out maybe if it's longer than six weeks it needs to be chunked out in two versions anyway and that gives them time to work really hard together and then take you know a period of reflection and decision-making for the next period,  so one of the other things I think it's hard if you have it with capacity is like the planning versus executing in the same time period ,and they found a really good formula that works well for them that you know I've tried to take inspiration from. It's going to be really hard to change the way that company works overnight but trying to say like version things out commit to iteration don't plan everything in advance, learn something and then plan the next.

 It's a little more unknown, but if you have a leader or leadership team that believes in the experts in the company ,then there can be trust that you're going to learn and iterate in a way that is productive to the business and not well no one knows what they're doing or working on right. The say you do ratio is super important in product and also in leadership, you got to do what you said….

Hope Gurion: What is the right ratio? Tell me about the say-do ratio.

Lauren Antonelli: Yeah, I mean it's got to be one-to-one right, it's like if you say you're going to do something you got to do it ,that's how you build trust in product ,that's how you build trust with your customers ,that's how you build trust with your CEO.

So, much of the managing up and down and out is because people don't know what they're going to get and they're nervous about it. Well am I going to get the results , we are going to be able to move this needle like so being able to say we're going to do this in this time period for this result ,and if it doesn't work we're going to try something else again ,and we'll continually iterate until we find the thing that will change us that commitment to getting work done. I think is more valuable than trying to hire the next Steve Jobs because finding that needle in a haystack of innovation and having these brilliant product ideas is great, that's like that in some way ,that's like the easy way out ,but to find that person and to find those kinds of like really unique thinkers and who are so ahead of their time in product is ,it is really hard and, it's not a reality that I've come across. 

So, if you don't have all of that then the next best thing is to keep trying stuff until you figure it out and learning from every single thing that you release and if you are doing that, then you will get to where you need to go maybe not overnight but you will step change your business and that is what happened bye-bye it is a 20 year old company,  it peaked a while ago and we have now started growing again at an amazing rate and it was from listening to the customers iterating not giving up figuring out that even if we don't hit it the first time we can hit it the second, third and fourth and just trusting each other to get it done, it doesn't mean it's always easy it just means that we stick to the formula and we commit.

Hope Gurion: Now, Prasad Gune shares how he uses a two, two, two horizon frameworks to keep his company informed with a reasonably possible level of detail.

Prasad Gune: So, the question about how do you manage ambiguity with the sales team when there's a ton of excitement and interest around you know specifically when certain features are going to be delivered. I think it's a great question it's not an easy one to solve, and the way I try to put it is well number one you know we've talked about this elsewhere, but you know the vision matters a lot.

So, the team having a sense of where the product team is going that would be the first thing I'll do. You know if they don't even have a directional sense of where the product line is going then that's a big gap, so you start with that.

I think it is fair to say that trying to get too specific about dates and then the thing never convenient is probably not a good model to be in and so, the way typically trying to phrase things is clarity on near-term stuff and you know sort of directional as you go further out and you know at LinkedIn we instituted a model which we used to call.

There a few years ago said I still use that model, but it really was a ton of clarity for features which are two weeks out so anything which is two weeks out we should have pretty much almost to the day kind of the obviously ignore next things happened.

So, it's not 100% but you're pretty close to you know high confidence that what are we shipping in two weeks as you look further out you know like you could say do months out I have good clarity but there are things which are in beta, which may or may not come to fruition in exactly two ones but they're pretty close and the unknowns are less there and took water there are very good visibility right into that, but I can't be as specific on a date that things will be released. You can add an extra to do that by the way and say two years out you know when I look into what we'll be doing in 2020, I can give you a sense of what will happen in the first half of the year or what'll happen in the second half of the year it's going to be more crystal than that for most themes.

I think, you know having that kind of clarity is helpful so sales team logo with that I would hasten to add by the way that this model only works if you are mostly delivering against the two-week and two-month things as expected, but then you start building confidence with the internal teams as you know and the product team as well as the sales teams that yes, you're doing what you said.

I think nothing sets a the sales team up for disappointment point but then over-promising and under-delivering and so,  you're better off being specific and what you're going to deliver that and then say, “Hey, just like we did previously, here's what we going to do” so, while I might not be able to tell you specifically what I'm going to deliver in exactly a year from now you know that in due course that will come into focus,  I'll be able to give you a better timeline.

 So I think so, chunking it down into these you know something like a 2 to 2 or a 2 2 2 2 I think that's the right number because I don't think we share those two decades at some point probably look beyond our ability to see but something like that build confidence in both the in your own teams were also in the deal there work with you. 

Hope Gurion: Finally, Stefan Radullian acknowledges that while companies and leaders often want certainty, you have to create room for risk-taking and experimentation, which is why the language of the scientific approach of hypotheses and assumptions are key.

Stefan Radullian: So, in the software business we always think about what next market to revolutionize and then to come to conquer that was previously analog and traditional, and I think where we in product management can actually learn from other markets is a scientific approach ,and I think you were mentioning that quite often I or we found we to found a way to put this into words is by calling something on hypothesis or an assumption and say okay .

I don't know, but here is what I think will work and then let's say that accept whatever happens ,so we open that it can fail and accept if we learned something and then see how we can validate it or not, but that's extremely difficult because companies actually or business leaders they have difficulties accepting these uncertainties .So working with probabilities or risk it can go 80 percent wrong with that do you still want to accept the twenty percent chance that it will work and it's a lot of psychology here and so a lot of risk-taking mindsets and it's really difficult it's very difficult yeah but we could learn from this openness of scientists that they say “Hey, it's an experiment. It can go wrong. It's okay.”

Hope Gurion: Ambiguity is one of the most challenging realities for product leaders, their teams and their stakeholders. Why? Because every other functional leader in an organization is usually creating plans under the illusion of certainty. Product leaders have to intentionally inject doubt into every step of their planning process. Everything is crafted as a hypothesis to be proven or disproven, so there is inevitably going to be ambiguity! Ambiguity around:

  • Who is our target customer?

  • What are their unmet needs?

  • Which unmet needs do we have the best shot at creating a solution that is better than their alternatives? And when are we going to have something for them to try? So that we can actually decide if in fact we're going down the right path.

Your job as a product leader is to help your teams and the company embrace this ambiguity because it means that you're not going to be building things that will have no meaningful value for your customers or your company and getting the organization comfortable with this discomfort is one of your main responsibilities as a product leader. 

Do you have questions like the ones I’m tackling in this podcast that you’d like to see in a future episode?  Reach out to me on LinkedIn, Twitter or post a review with what you like and what you’d like to know more about.

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You can find me, Hope Gurion, on Linkedin and Twitter or subscribe to “Fearless Product Leadership” on your favorite podcast platform to be notified of new episodes.  You will find transcripts, videos versions of each episode as well as more information on my Fearless Product coaching and consulting services by visiting my website, Fearless-Product.com. 

Hope Gurion