What to Do When Product Theory Isn’t Your Product Reality

Take these four steps today to make a real impact on your product and team.

Written by Olivia Belitsky
Published on Sep. 08, 2021
What to Do When Product Theory Isn’t Your Product Reality
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As someone who writes about my experience as a product manager, I often grapple with a hard truth: Sometimes I write about the way I wish things could be, not the way they actually are.

I see this a lot with other writers in this space, too. Their writing is frequently aspirational and based in theory, not reality. I'd love to work at a company where I have unlimited access to accurate analytics, A/B testing, daily user interviews, enough engineers  and a roadmap that is fully driven by core KPIs and North Star metrics. While this probably exists at a few special companies, the realities of everyday product management are far different for most of us.

Maybe your organization doesn’t value analytics tools, so you don’t have reliable data to work with. Maybe your roadmap is dictated by stakeholder requests and whatever senior leadership thinks sounds interesting. Or maybe you are juggling multiple products with limited resources and are just doing your best to get by each day. I’ve been in all of these situations. 

Since most of us don’t have the luxury or authority to change our company processes and culture, here are some no-frills, practical steps you can take today to make your product a little better.

4 Practical Steps Product Managers Can Take to Improve Their Product

  • Gather user feedback.
  • Clean up your backlog.
  • Streamline your team’s processes.
  • Learn how your stakeholders define success.


Gather Feedback From Your Users

If your company doesn’t have a system in place for user interviews, user feedback or usability sessions, a good place to start is with a plan to gather that missing feedback. 

According to a study performed by 280 Group, “Product managers who spend 30 percent or more of their time engaging externally lead to improved performance for both the product team and the organization.” However, this study also shows that only 10.9 percent of product managers are able to engage at least 30 percent of their time with their users. 

Spending 30 percent of your workweek (that’s 12 hours!) is likely not a viable option for you, but any interaction you can facilitate is beneficial. Remember, as product managers, it is our job to solve our user’s problems, so it is important that you spend some time working to understand them.

What you can do today: Reach out to any teams that interface directly with your customers, such as customer service, relationship management or sales teams. Ask them to share any customer feedback reports they may have. If possible, also ask if you can sit in on their calls for an afternoon. Look or listen for feedback related to problems — even if it’s not specifically about your product. You should come out of these sessions with a list of bugs, enhancements or even new feature ideas.

Get More Expert Product Management Advice From Olivia BeltiskyEngagement Is a Useless Success Metric. Track This Instead.


Clean Up Your Backlog

I once worked on a team where there were more than 1,000 tickets outstanding. The team had so much engineering and product turnover over the years that the backlog became an unruly beast. We were all afraid to delete tickets because some of them contained important contextual information that wasn’t stored anywhere else. 

This may seem like an ignorable problem — as my predecessor told me, “Don’t look at the backlog, I don’t even know what’s there.” — but I didn’t like the culture it created on the team. With a backlog so enormous, it felt like our product had more problems than we could ever solve. Plus, it reminded us all that this was a transient team, and each of us were unlikely to remain for long (I was moved to my next team three months later). 

So we cleaned up the backlog. It was a long and sometimes painful process, but it was a ritual that brought the team together and demonstrated that we cared about our product. The cleanup actually revealed some bugs and feature ideas that had long been forgotten.

What you can do today: Spend 10 minutes each day reviewing the issues in your backlog. My rule of thumb is if a ticket is over two years old, delete it. If it wasn’t important enough to prioritize in the last two years, it probably isn’t worth doing. 

Take any important contextual information and add it to a shared document, like in Confluence, SharePoint or a Google Doc. If you find old bugs, validate that they’re still broken in production before prioritizing them based on severity and impact. If you find an old feature idea that may have some merit, prioritize it!


Streamline Your Team’s Processes

How does your team function? Do you follow waterfall, scrum or SAFe methodologies? Chances are, you don’t follow any particular system perfectly — I know I never have. The real question is: Does your process work for you? Here’s the quickest way to learn.

On most teams, engineers should be able to complete eight points per sprint. If your team is consistently delivering fewer points, that means it’s spending too much time in meetings, your requirements are unclear or context switching is ruining the flow. If your team is experiencing this, you’re not alone: According to the 280 Group, 47.4 percent of respondents said that process was the biggest product management challenge at their company.

What you can do today: Write down the process your team follows for handling intake, prioritization, grooming and development. Then ask these questions: 

  • How late can a stakeholder request a change and still make it into a sprint?

  • Do you allow for mid-sprint shifting of priorities?

  • Where do your release cycles fall during your sprint?

There are no right or wrong answers, just the answers that work best for your team’s responsibilities and limitations. As the product manager, you can show the members of your engineering team that you value their time and expertise by mercilessly defending your processes when outside forces challenge it. In other words, we hedge against chaos.


Learn How Your Stakeholders Define Success

Most stakeholder or leadership conflicts stem from teams measuring success differently. If your team values increasing revenue but your stakeholder team values increasing enrollments, you’ll butt heads when prioritizing work. This problem gets worse when leadership doesn’t set a single success metric to rally around.

What you can do today: Meet with each of your stakeholders and senior leaders and ask them for their vision of the product. How do they measure success? What do they wish your team would build? 

Take notes and investigate their feedback. If any of the suggestions are low effort and high impact, then prioritize them ASAP. Not only does this process help you understand your colleagues’ expectations for the product, but it also helps you build trust. ​​​​

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