Product management (PdM) is full of questions. We approach the correct answer, yet we never truly get there. Questions are, somewhat paradoxically, also the tool we use to get closer to the correct answer.
Since PdM doesn’t have an output — we don’t produce code or designs — we generally have more time than other disciplines to think about questions. Questions drive understanding, which, in turn, gives us better outcomes.
Moreover, this approach plays to the PdM’s likely strengths. Great PdM's are naturally curious, and, as a result, we are full of questions. In fact, although many teams may consider PdM's to be idea people, we're far more question people.
The thing is, though, we can ask too many questions, leading us to focus on the wrong things.
The Question Trap
Let’s explore this phenomenon with a hypothetical company called BobCo. The company’s mission says, “We build software that leads writers to create better.” Based on this mission, the vision for an upcoming product is to enable users to create their manuscripts in half the time.
The product leader at BobCo, Jill, is trying to understand why one of the development teams isn’t solving customer problems by shipping product. Whatever they do manage to ship seems to come slowly. When she talks to them, they are very aware of the path to success. For some reason, however, their work is inefficient.
This inefficiency is strange because things started well enough. The product development team was “empowered,” meaning they were in charge of the decision making for themselves. Jill set them up for success by creating a clear problem set that was aligned with both the company mission of leading writers to create better and the specific product vision, aimed at helping a writer produce a manuscript in half the time. They were well-resourced, and the strategy for the team, which focused on making the software more efficient without raising the sales price, was clear.
So, why are they not creating anything? Jill sits in a meeting to figure out what’s going on.
Shortly after the meeting starts, she begins to understand why the team is inefficient. The designer starts off asking about the workflow for a side project, then an engineer asks about some architecture around a relatively minor part of the project. Soon, the PdM is asking about some research from customers that he finds inspiring, even though the prototype still hasn’t launched. None of these questions are getting them closer to fixing the problem.
The product team lacks an anchor. They have forgotten that they’re supposed to be working toward a mission, vision and strategy. They also have no way to grade the work they’re doing, even though they have a problem statement. Remember that they need to improve the speed of a widget for the customer and clear tech debt without increasing the cost to run it.
What was once a clear path to success has become lost in the details of the questions. Curiosity got the best of the team, and now, Jill wonders how to get things back on track.
The team has fallen into the question trap. This problem happens when a team, although clear on where to go, asks too many follow-up questions and has no way to say, “This is good enough.” Without the ability to make this decision, the team can never find alignment.
The question trap makes it tough to prioritize the bets a team makes with its strategy. You can take many different paths to success, and when you’re in this trap, what should be a clear picture of what success looks like becomes muddled. Without an anchor to help teams set priority, little fissures can appear, leading to multiple bets that don’t help advance the overall strategy. You can end up going in a circle, making little bets that may be interesting, but getting further away from the primary objective. The teams may also lose alignment, with engineering’s understanding of the goal differing from sales.
When teams go the “empowered” route, this is an easy trap to fall into. This problem is how teams end up abandoning openness and go right to “command and control” feature factories. When this happens, leadership gets fed up with the inefficiency and tells the teams exactly what they need to do and when. Things will start to “get done” again, but often, product managers turn into order takers. They’re unable to increase the decision fitness of the organization, becoming simply a poor version of project management. Good PdM’s will quit, and those who aren’t will have no way of improving their skills.
Escaping the Trap
So, what can we do?
Alignment, or how the team connects company mission, product vision, and team strategy, is one of the most important aspects of product management. With it, you get the clarity that you need to turn questions into something useful, and the questions that people ask will have a tether to reality.
Although alignment is one part of the way out of the question trap, we also have to determine what constitutes “good enough.” Making that determination is where accuracy versus precision comes into play. Depending on your strategy, you’ll need to determine how good is good enough, and how consistent that good has to be.
The third part of this equation is how well you tell the rest of the company about the work you’re doing. Product development teams are set to work on a problem, and there are many ways to solve each one you face. Part of a PdM’s job is making sure that the rest of the company is aware of the path you’re taking. You need a way to get everyone else aligned because no one is reading that product requirement document.
So, how can we do this?
Enter the Eigenquestion
“Eigen” is German for “own” or “proper.” In this context, think of its meaning this way: What question will set the appropriate context for the team?
So, in this framework, what makes for a proper question?
A proper question allows the product team to find alignment among its own goals, the company and the marketplace. The eigenquesiton is what the team thinks about regardless of their incentives. The question gives everyone an anchor to hold on to as they do their work. Think of it as a frame, the start of a mental model to help the team get aligned.
Good eigenquestions are general enough for teams to understand the direction of the team no matter their organization. A good eigenquestion helps focus your sales team, your marketing team, and everyone in between by giving them an idea of what problem you’re solving and how you’re doing it. That way, they don’t have to read a long document. One question is good enough for them to have an idea of what to bring to you and the customer.
So, I know what you’re thinking: “Show me a good one!”
Not so fast. First, we’re going to talk about why alignment matters for decision fitness, which will help you get a better understanding of how to frame the question.
Rowing gives us a helpful analogy for alignment. When rowers are in tune, they move fast. When they aren’t, they go nowhere.
Look at this team. Although each team member is rowing individually, they’re all in tune with one another. Their synchronization makes the boat move. This example is like a well-aligned team; each person does their portion, but they link up to move the group as a whole.
Now, take a look at this debacle. Everyone is out of sync; they’re expending a lot of energy to accomplish nothing at all. This performance is the result of a team without a clear strategy. Have you ever worked in an environment where people all make decisions on their own? It’s a great way to crash your boat into the dock.
If your team isn't rowing well, your best case is sitting still, and you might end up in the water. The right eigenquestion helps your team find that alignment so you can row.
Building an Eigenquestion
If you ask an excellent eigenquestion, you'll find the holes in your process and procedures. What do we mean by holes? Well, we’re talking about the gaps in logic.
Let’s go back to BobCo.
Jill had a one-on-one with the PdM after the meeting and explained the concept of the eigenquestion. She coached him to identify where those off-track questions were coming from. After writing them out and affinitizing the question sets against the strategy, they sat together and trimmed the list down by looking at which ones were closer to the strategy and driving the product forward and which weren’t.
Once that was clear to both of them, she presented them this checklist, the characteristics of a good eigenquestion:
4 Characteristics of a Good Eigenquestion
- Is it general enough for different disciplines to get it? Remember, an eigenquestion shouldn’t be suitable just for one or even some of the disciplines that are following the strategy. It works best when everyone can grasp it.
- Is it tied to the strategy? The eigenquestion isn’t just about crafting a clear question. Instead, it needs to tie back to the overall strategy.
- Is it actionable? Can this question help people answer their own questions. Even if it’s tied to the strategy and understandable, if it isn’t helping folks make decisions, they will just ignore it.
- Is it applicable? Does it make clear what we’re trying to change? Can folks easily understand what the team is working on without doing a deep dive?
Now that we have the rubric, let’s show an example. Jill has decided that she needs to walk her PdM through an eigenquestion to get the team out of the question trap. She proposes this:
How might we increase the speed of our widget to market without increasing the sales price?
This question points the team to the subject (the widget) and the force they’re trying to change (the speed). The question is also tied to the strategy, which dictates that the team doesn’t want to increase the cost for the customer. It also prodvides enough data for various teams to answer their own questions (increase speed, maintain sales price), making it actionable.
In the next meeting, the PdM notices that the engineer asks a question about tech debt. It’s clear that the team isn’t sure if they needed to focus on resilience or speed. Once the PdM gives them the eigenquestion, however, the engineer can think about the assumptions the team is making and decide that they need to prioritize speed. There wasn’t any need to decide since the question contained the answer already.
If the PdM catches someone thinking that the tech debt was meant to bring more resilience to the platform, he can now just point to the question. What could have been a lengthy back-and-forth turns into a five minute conversation to get everyone back on track. The loop that was open through curiosity is closed for the sake of the strategy.
Eigenquestions Clear Up Doubt
Crafting and deploying a good eigenquestion helps your product management practice in two ways.
- It shows a team where it lacks understanding. A good question makes the strategy clear. In our example, you can see the strategy inside of the question itself. If the team starts down an unclear path, the PdM can reference the question and get things back on track.
- It illuminates the areas where the team needs support from the product manager. If the PdM finds themselves or their team working on things that aren’t tied to the question, they can shift resources in back in the right direction.
The eigenquestion helped BobCo get through the question trap by providing one statement that the entire team can reference. The team now has a simple way to stay connected to the strategy so they can find alignment. Because of the guideline to “increase the speed of our widget,” they now know when something is worth releasing, and the PdM now has a clear narrative hook for stories about the widget with every release.
The team picks up the pace of releases and find consistent success. Getting away from the question trap and building a strong eigenquestion helped them get back on track. If you find you or your product teams lost, see if you’ve fallen into the question trap. If you have, creating your own eigenquestion can help your team build things that matter.