Friday, April 16, 2010

Who Cares? Guiding Products to Greatness: SVPMA April meeting report

On April 7, 2010, roughly 50 Silicon Valley Product Management Association members were treated to a presentation entitled Who Cares? Guiding Products to Greatness with Kimberly Wiefling of Wiefling Consulting. I was not prepared to be entertained, to learn how to ROAR with laughter, and to have things tossed out into the audience, both figuratively and literally.

Weifling is a physicist by education, who spent 10 years at Hewlett Packard in product development program management and engineering leadership. She served as VP of Program Management at a Xerox Parc spinoff. Kimberly has helped to start, run and grow a dozen small businesses. She’s the co-founder of the Open Kilowatt Institute (OKI) and the co-chair of the SDForum Engineering Leadership Special Interest Group (EL SIG). She currently spends about half of her time traveling in Japan facilitating leadership, innovation and execution workshops to help Japanese companies solve global problems profitably. She is the author of “Scrappy Project Management - The 12 Predictable and Avoidable Pitfalls Every Project Faces”, recently published in Japanese. Explaining Japanese companies’ appreciation of her emphatic personal style and approach, she pointed to Japanese popular culture that embraces game shows that are “wild, messy, noisy and too energetic.”

Wiefling is a walking resource regarding customer-centric project leadership, timeline risk analysis, portfolio management, risk assessment and mitigation, and all the tools necessary to develop products more predictably, which she doesn’t hesitate to share. What is uniquely delightful is how Wiefling communicates the essential aspects of successful product management leadership – with humor and audience involvement, memorable sayings and acronymns. She doesn’t just talk about great leadership tactics, she demonstrates every communication skill from using powerful visuals, to intriguing the audience with questions designed to draw upon relevant experiences, involving the audience in small groups to interact in response to a challenge, rewarding the teams with pertinent giveaways (buttons & stretch toys), and generously sharing her own business and personal experiences.

Wiefling demonstrated techniques for effective meetings that ROAR – Roles are clear, Objectives are clarified and kept foremost in the minds of the participants throughout the event, Agendas serve as a flexible framework for the creativity of the group and are used to keep the group on track and build momentum for achieving the required results, Rules of engagement enable everyone to participate in a respectful and productive way that builds commitment to results beyond the event conclusion.

Wiefling is clearly passionate about business leadership via product and project management. She discussed the benefits of concurrent engineering and integrated product development that results in less development time, fewer engineering changes, less time to market, higher quality and worker productivity. She identified key product engineering difficulties and dismantled the root causes of project failures. She touched on how email is the illusion of communication, and discussed the PRONG way to managing and influencing stakeholders. (Prioritize stakeholder interests, Relationship building, Open two-way feedback mechanisms, Needs and wants – know them, Goals – establish shared goals.)

She repeatedly emphasized her essential point – recognizing who cares – who is going to use it, what are their needs, who are the stakeholders and how do they measure success. The persistent question is, “who is majoring it?” She implored product managers to be completely and unrepentantly obsessed with the customer – and to determine who the customer is in every situation. She shared an example of a stakeholder analysis using a communication map that portrays each of the stakeholders, how they relate to other members of the team, what they need from you and what you need from them, how they could enable or hinder success, and how you will manage communication with each. This provides a helicopter view of the team relationships, dynamics, resource needs, requirements and feedback and enables you to tune into the “WIIFM” channel for each stakeholder. (What’s In It For Me)

She talked at length about managing and influencing stakeholders’ expectations for a product from the beginning by setting expectations using a one-page document. Identify what the product is AND isn’t, the definition of success, how success will be measured, who will work on it, critical success factors, assumptions, major risks and mitigation plans, relative priority of schedule, scope, budget, quality and other factors, target audience, distribution channels, roadmap of business driven milestones, rough budget and anything else that you recognize must not be left to chance. She suggested that if you can’t fit the intent of the product on one page, then it’s probably too complicated. Create a visual indicator of the route to success that indicates progress to inspire the team.

Wiefling insists that “impossible is in the eye of the beholders”. The root cause of project failures is a failure to include the perspectives of the critical stakeholders at the appropriate times. Recognize that smart people love complicated solutions even when a simple solution would work better. Smart people learn from experience, wise people learn from the experience of others. Common sense is not common practice. Product management is a high risk profession – you have to do the right thing for your customer and product and some days you’ll be a hero, some days you’ll be a zero. If you’re going to be a great product manager, you’d better keep your backbone intact, be prepared to be respected but not necessarily liked, and keep your resume updated!
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