A mountaineer cannot summit without ropes or an ice axe. A chef cannot make pasta without eggs and flour. Like these tradespeople, a product manager (PM) also requires a toolkit to succeed at their work.
Whether your company has only a couple PMs or is broad and deep — with product managers, program managers, product marketers, and designers — you need to thoughtfully build a product management toolkit for product success. When such tools are absent, or the mechanisms that incorporate them into your company are not defined, dysfunction will follow — from your product team to engineering to sales and marketing, and eventually to your customers.
Three essential tools can connect your product planning, communications, and release, and put your product team on track to success. They are the product roadmap, customer feedback, and the release checklist.
3 Essential Tools for Your Product Management Toolkit
- The product roadmap.
- Customer feedback.
- The release checklist.
The Product Roadmap
The product roadmap guides nearly every conversation that a PM has, and therefore should have agreed processes and formats for how it is created, influenced, and communicated with product stakeholders. PMs are accountable for continuously updating and communicating their roadmap to stakeholders. Don’t expect to create a beautiful roadmap document — throw it in a shared drive, and expect your stakeholders to check it regularly for updates.
A product roadmap can be as simple as a spreadsheet, or as intricate as a specialized software suite. The choice will depend on the culture and maturity of your company, but essential elements of a great product include:
- A variety of views and details for different audiences. Some roadmaps include features and delivery dates for the next three months, while others outline quarterly themes over the next three years. Establish a roadmap view specifically for the product team to enable continuous planning discussions with your closest stakeholders (like engineering teams). For this purpose, it is helpful to have a roadmap view that is organized and prioritized based on a custom priority rating system.
- Internal and external versions of your roadmap. When product management makes a roadmap available internally, you can assume that your sales and marketing teams will want to turn it into a sales tool, so be sure that your customer-facing teams have a clean version of the roadmap that contains non-confidential information, and is free of code names, acronyms, and other jargon that may ambiguate a customer conversation.
- A defined process for influencing the roadmap. Who are your primary product stakeholders? What influence does each stakeholder have on the roadmap? Who is the final decision maker for what is committed on the roadmap? It is helpful to create a set of rules around product roadmap creation and communication so that there is no misunderstanding of ownership and accountability for the features that are committed to the roadmap.
- Defined communication channels. Adopt the mantra of frequent and transparent communication around your roadmap. This looks different for different stakeholders. For those who interact daily with the roadmap, email or chats are an acceptable way to provide roadmap updates. But for a senior- or executive-level audience, who may not be engaged with the details of the roadmap, a monthly or quarterly meeting should be established where you can discuss the short-term and long-term business case for initiatives on your roadmap.
User research is a profession in and of itself, but many companies do not have the luxury of hiring a dedicated team for this function. As a PM, you are accountable for bringing customer obsession to your product development process. Without your target customer’s feedback, your product will become generic and bloated over time, as you attempt to solve all of the problems instead of the ones that matter most to your target customers.
Product management teams should partner with their design counterparts to establish, at a minimum, the following customer feedback mechanisms:
- Weekly conversations with customers. These should be specifically about their use of your product or their desires for the future. Lean on the customer-facing roles in your company to connect you. Over time, you should create a customer cadre of your own, which includes customers that you can reach out to at any time to get input on product decisions.
- Regular analysis of free-form feedback. Provide your customers with a way to give you regular feedback on their product experience. An example of this is a feedback button that is built directly into your product. If you have an app, a regular perusal of app store reviews is another great way to gather customer feedback.
- Implement usability testing. Usability testing runs the gamut from coffee shop chats over paper prototypes, to working with user research agencies that charge tens of thousands of dollars to organize usability sessions with perfectly functioning software prototypes. Scrappy usability testing can produce every bit as much value as working with a usability agency as long as your interviews are (1) conducted with your target customers, and (2) focused on a specific goal or feature, rather than an end-to-end complete product experience.
The Release Checklist
As a PM, you live the product requirements and product development process all day, every day. What may seem obvious to you will likely be foreign to most other functions in your company. The purpose of the release checklist is to create a bridge from the product development team to the rest of the organization. Without this tool, confusion will undoubtedly ensue.
Each feature or product release will require a different scope of release tasks, depending on the complexity of the release. So, a good practice is to create a release checklist, specific to your product and company, for the most complex release you can imagine, and review this checklist for every single release. There is no release too small, or too obvious, to bypass the release checklist.
Each PM is responsible for executing the release checklist for each of their product releases, and product marketing or program management can often assist with the management of the tasks on the checklist.
Release checklist items include:
- Scheduled internal testing or bug bash events.
- Go-to-market documents including details of any press release, sales collateral, website update, and other sales and marketing materials.
- A dashboard (or a simple spreadsheet) to track your product success metrics. This includes any product data that informs how your newly released features are performing.
- Training materials and events for sales, support, account management, and operations.
- Internal documentation, including release notes, FAQs, user guides, and so on.
- Customer-facing help documents.
- App Store updates.
- Customer-facing announcements.
If your goal is to mature or scale product management at your organization, don’t take an ad hoc approach to your processes. Thoughtfully build mechanisms with this toolkit to bring success to your product planning, communications, and release.