All posts by Avi Gelber

4 Tips for Agile Product Managers

More companies are using agile methodologies – according to the latest State of Agile report from April 2017, 94% of respondents said their organizations practiced agile (at least some of the teams).

Moving to agile has a major impact on our work as Product Managers. While it improves visibility, increases team productivity and enables managing priority changes more efficiently, agile introduces challenges such as finding the time to be available for R&D while handling all other product tasks, breaking requirement documents to user stories and more. Here are 4 tips that can help you be a more effective Product Manager in an agile environment.

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#1 – Do not neglect longer term Product Management activities

Agile introduced the Product Owner role, which many confuse with the Product Manager role. Although in many cases one person performs both, these are different roles (with some overlap). The Product Manager is more customer-focused and market oriented, and the Product owner has internal focus and handles more detailed definitions. You can easily find more information about the differences between these roles, for example, this post from Aha! Blog.

If you are a Product Manager who is also acting as a Product Owner, you can easily become entangled with Product Owner responsibilities which are usually more urgent. Be careful not to neglect your Product Management responsibilities which are more strategic and long term. Allocate specific, well defined, time for your Product Management activities.  Do not allow those times to be compromised with your Product Owner activities.

#2 – See the forest for the trees

In agile, you break requirements into many user stories. With so many user stories, it is not easy to keep the bigger picture in mind. Furthermore, the constant pressure to define enough user stories for the team to work on may draw you to detailed definitions and distract you from strategic definition of requirements that add significant value to your product.

Follow a structured Product Definition process that starts top-down with definition of strategic goals and themes for your product. Make sure the detailed requirements you work on are not there because they help you fill the team capacity, but because they are steps on the way to the product strategic goals.

#3 – Do not define details ahead of time

In order that the agile team will be effective. You need to provide them well defined User Stories they can implement. If you use SCRUM, you have to provide enough User Stories until a deadline before every sprint. You may be tempted to define many detailed user stories for backlog features, in order to avoid the deadline pressure. Don’t!

While you do need to have enough stories that you want to implement in the near future (next sprint and a few more), defining User Stories that you plan to implement later is in most cases a waste of time, since by the time you get to implement them, things change and you have to rewrite the User Stories. When you add items that are not for immediate implementation, write only a high level definition, start with a title and elaborate later.  Write the detailed definition only when you plan to implement the feature.

#4 – Adopt agile product processes

There is no reason that only processes that involve R&D will be agile. Apply agile process and practices to other Product Management dimensions – Product Strategy, Product Marketing and Product Definition. Increase visibility of these processes, involve relevant stakeholders early in the process and manage changes using strategic goals as guidelines.

If you use rituals when you work with R&D, use rituals for strategic activities. Following such rituals will help you allocate the required time for longer-term activities.

6 challenges Telecom Product Managers deal with

Companies that sell to Telecom companies and specifically to Mobile Operators, face a market that consists of several hundreds of potential customers (out of which a few dozens are tier-1 operators) and have distinctive characteristics. Product Managers that work in such companies have to deal with some challenges typical to the Telecom market.

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Pressure to develop features per customer

Mobile Operators are big organizations that have superior negotiation power over their vendors.  In most cases, the mobile operator will publish a bid with specific requirements that your product need to comply with in order to win the deal. Since deal sizes are usually significant for your company, as a product manager you are under pressure to develop features required by a specific potential customer.

Mobile operators are different from each other and often have different product requirements. Therefore, if you are not careful, you can find yourself with multiple silo projects instead of a product. To avoid this situation, you need to make sure your product is highly configurable, and have customization layers that enable maintaining common modules that are identical for all customers and at the same time support specific customer requirements.

Identifying common requirements

The number of potential customers is several hundred at most (the global number of mobile operators), so market data is more difficult to obtain. You need to obtain data from customer meetings, surveys and RFx documents.

In many cases, your information is based on interactions with a relatively small number of customers and potential customers. Do not assume that if, in 3 out of 5 meetings, customers requested a specific feature, it means that most operators will want it as well. Try to obtain information from many mobile operators – through more customer meetings, RFx documents (list of requirements shared by mobile operators as part of a bid) and surveys to get a picture that better represents the market.

Satisfying multiple personas

Mobile Operators are complex organizations where multiple departments are involved in the purchasing decision. Engineering, Marketing, Finance, Operations and Customer Support may all be involved. For Product Managers, this means that they need to consider multiple personas that represent all key decision makers and make sure the product provides value to each of them and does not have negative value to minimize objection (e.g. Operations object a product that is complicated to operate).

In some cases, Mobile Operators use the product to provide a service to their customers. This is a case of Business-to-Business-to-Consumers (B2B2C), in which in addition to the Mobile Operator personas, the product should provide value to a consumer persona (end-user).

Long sales cycle

Standard sales cycle in Telecom includes multiple bid phases and takes between 6 months to over a year. Upgrades of products that are installed in the operator network are usually not simple and do not happen often. This cycle affects the time-to-market and slows the introduction of new features to the market. Product managers have to take it into consideration in their roadmap and version release planning.

Budget shrinkage

This means that mobile operators invest less in value added services (VAS) and are more focused on reducing their expenses. It is more difficult to convince mobile operators to purchase, so your product must have a clear business case that shows your product can generate significant revenues or reduce cost. Mobile Operators will want to test it in their production environment before they are convinced, so it should be possible to conduct Proof-of-Concepts (PoC) with your product at minimal cost for both your company and the mobile operators.

The impact of NFV

There are prediction (e.g. by Northstream) for a breakthrough and strong growth in NFV activities in 2017. It seems that the hype is phase over and it is time for NFV to really take off. If the prediction is correct, Product Managers should analyze how it affects their product. Product Managers should ask whether it is an opportunity or a threat, whether their product should be adapted for NFV and take the required measures to benefit from this change.

To B2B or B2C Product Manager?

Both B2B (Business-to-Business) product manager and B2C (Business-to-Consumers) product manager are responsible for managing their products throughout its lifecycle.  However, their day-to-day work can be very different. So whose job is better?

Note: while there are B2B products that are sold in large volumes, and are similar in some aspects to B2C products, I refer here to B2B products that are more complex and are sold to a smaller number of very big customers at a high price.  
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Data, BIG Data

The number of customers of a B2B product is usually in dozens, hundreds or in the better case thousands, while a B2C product can have millions or even billions of customers. A B2B Product Manager who wants to get market feedback in advance can speak with friendly customers (and hope their opinions represent the market) or conduct a survey (hoping that the number of respondents is sufficient and that their answers represent reality).

A B2C Product Manager has a more direct exposure to the market. For example, a B2C Product Manager that manages a cloud-based service can use multiple versions and conduct AB testing to check which UX is more efficient, or to set different prices in order to see which price works better.

The strategic customer bear hug

In B2C, the average deal size is small. You need many deals to generate significant revenue. In B2B, one customer (or a few) can generate a significant percentage of your revenue.

The upside for a B2B Product Manager is that a few good deals can make your product profitable. However, having a small number of customers make them strategic for your product success. As a result, the B2B Product Manager is under pressure to develop custom features for the important customers, which may distract the product from its course and may make it a custom solution that meets the needs of specific customers, but is not relevant for the rest of the market.

Who buys your product?

In B2B, the product users are not usually the buyer. Furthermore, as the purchase decision has to be approved by multiple people in the buying organization, the B2B Product Manager should take into consideration (besides the user) the buyer and other influencers who are critical to the sales process.

Customer relationships

B2B Product Managers maintains close relationship with customers. It can start from presales meetings and continue in ongoing face-to-face meetings and calls throughout the product life cycle, before and after launch.

B2C Product Managers usually do not know their customer. They can hold focus groups, run surveys and interviews to learn their customers’ point of view, but they do not, usually, have ongoing relationship with them.

Your daily activities

Both B2B Product Managers and B2C Product Managers write product definitions, prioritize features and work with other teams (technical, sales, marketing) to bring the product to the market.

If you are a B2C Product Manager, you usually start your day checking the latest analytics to see what works well and what should be improved and you continuously plan AB tests to optimize the user experience. If you are a B2B Product Manager, you invest more time in customers meeting/calls and work closely with the sales team to obtain market info.

So, which job is better?

At the end of the day, it is a personal preference. If you prefer longer cycles, like to develop relationships with your customers and work closely with the sales team, you may enjoy more managing a B2B product. If you like analyzing statistical data and are focused on user experience, you may enjoy more managing a B2C product.

As a Product Manager, you do not have to select either B2B or B2C. In order to be able to manage both B2B and B2C products, consider where you are on the B2B-B2C spectrum, and work on the skills required for the area you are less experienced in.