Linda Gorchels blogs

Defy Best Practices

In a world that’s always evolving, magic bullets or best practices don’t guarantee product management success. They’re all about what worked in the past. In a specific context. Some have anchors, and others have wings.

Note the words I used in the title. Defy best practices. I didn’t suggest ignoring best practices, but defying them. Exceptional product managers understand best practices and learn from them. But they don’t fall prey to them. They aren’t afraid to challenge and change those that are obsolete or only habits.

Think about the best practices you’ve seen in your career. Stage-gate product development. Agile. Globalization. Nationalism. Economies of scale. Spin-off start-ups. Design thinking. Re-engineering. Net Promoter Score. Six Sigma. Lean. And dozens more. Did they all work well for you? Chances are, it was a crapshoot. (Pardon my informality.)  But you can get better at it with some effort.

Start with awareness

Are you aware of what diverse product management professionals consider best practices or best-in-class? Awareness is step one. Reading broadly, attending conferences and education events, and interactions with co-workers provide this knowledge. There are both universal and specialized principles to consider.

The universal maxims I’ve gained over the past quarter century are general. Here is a condensed list of best practices for the discipline of product management.

·       Interact with customers, face-to-face whenever possible

·       Balance innovation with operational efficiency

·       Gain business and financial skills

·       Plan for the future (long-term) and the present

·       Build rapport with all functions

·       Keep the data flowing

There are also some best practices related to the governance of products. These are less general, more likely to require serious adaptation to get their full value.

·       Use product information management software

·       Design and manage products as portfolios

·       Build life-cycle attention into the initial concepts

·       Apply benchmarks and KPI tools

Again, awareness is just the starting point. Deconstruction and reconstruction follow.

Deconstruct the best practices

I can’t tell you the number of companies that have told me they were planning to institute a new strategy or tactic because the competition was (or wasn’t) doing it. Or because it’s in the news. Or because sales were down and something had to be done.

That’s like a tailor sewing a garment taking no measurements. Do some analysis first.

Consider the Context. Did an approach work better in one industry than others? Were there different financial components? Was the target market and need set dissimilar?

Observe the connections: Was product success or failure connected to the best-practice model applied? Or was there a regulatory catalyst, macroeconomic phenomenon, or other explanation for the results? Was the short-term progress followed by long-term success? Are there any unintended consequences? For example, Six Sigma was almost a religion at GE (and other places) in the 1990s. But it has fallen out of favor in companies that assessed it had a negative effect on innovation. It is being replaced by a greater emphasis on failing fast and disrupting business models. (More best-practices?)

After deconstructing the best practices, reconstruct them for your purposes.

Take the next step

Reflect on the objectives you are trying to achieve. Be clear. Do you want to speed up product development? Improve innovation? Respond better to RFPs? Once you’ve clarified goals, try to determine whether there are better practices for you to implement. It’s a puzzle, but at least you’ve decided on the picture of the completed puzzle. What best-practices claim to help in that area?

If you are considering adopting a practice different from what you now do, test it out first. Try it with a specific product or market before launching it more broadly. The challenge is to have a good experimental design. Control for as many variables as you can. Determine whether the software, or the policies, or the theories are likely to work for you, in your unique situation. And if they don’t, try the opposite.

Don’t change for sake of change if you can’t envision a better outcome. But do it if you can improve on the probable tomorrows.