Teresa Torres is a product coach helping teams adopt user-centered, hypothesis-driven product development practices. In this interview, she shares great insights on experimentation, discovery, customer development, and how to work with UX and Development teams. She also shares some of her favorite books and blogs on Product Management.
This interview series provides one-on-one mentorship sessions with top executives in the Product world. You’ll learn how they got to be where they are today, important lessons from their career, what they look for in a Product Manager, and more.
I’m very excited and grateful for Teresa to participate in the series. Her insights have provided me with great inspiration throughout the years. I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did!
#1 Teresa, thank you so much for taking the time. Please tell me about yourself.
Hi Daniel. Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts.
I’m a product coach. I help teams adopt user-centered, hypothesis-driven product development practices.
I work with companies of all sizes on integrating user research, experimentation, and the right analytics into the product development process resulting in better product decisions.
I’m primarily interested in helping the product management function mature by coaching product managers, working with cross-functional product development teams, and helping organizations improve their product methodology.
I blog at www.ProductTalk.org.
#2 What do you see as the biggest Product Management trends today, and where do you see the profession 10 years from now?
The biggest trend I see is that product management is going through a significant mindset shift.
Historically, the business world believed (and many companies still believe) that product strategy and execution can be planned in a room by senior executives.
But many of the best product companies are realizing that even the smartest executives aren’t going to get it right most of the time and that our product strategy and execution need to be adaptive.
We need to learn from our customers, learn through experimentation, and iteratively develop our strategy and execution plans.
This shift is happening slowly. It started with Agile and is being furthered by The Lean Startup, Business Model Generation, and Customer Development.
But it’s less about the specific tools and more about the mindset.
Agile was introduced more than 10 years ago, and most companies are still struggling to adopt this methodology. Not because the tactics are hard to implement, but because the mindset shift is hard to adopt. It’s easy to start doing daily stand-ups; it’s much harder to let go of certainty in our plans.
I suspect ten years from now we’ll still be on the path of adopting these practices. That might sound pessimistic. But change across an industry happens slowly.
It’s not just product managers who need to adapt, but business leaders across all functions. That’s going to take time.
#3 Many companies struggle to define a strategic vision. Although setting the company direction is the responsibility of the Executive team, what role do you think Product Management should play in helping to define and execute on company strategy?
Product managers won’t be successful if there isn’t a clear strategic vision.
While the executive team should set the strategic vision, if it’s not happening (as is often the case), the product management function can push for this.
Product management should be the steward (not necessarily the creator) of the vision.
If there is no clear vision, the head of product should be facilitating the process of defining a clear vision.
If the head of product isn’t doing this, individual product managers can and should encourage their head of product to do this.
The best way to do this is to make visible the hardship that comes from not having a clear strategy.
#4 In the Product Management world, everybody talks about process (Lean, Agile, Roadmaps, etc) but very few people focus on the interpersonal and inter-team dynamics required to launch a product. What advice would you give Product Managers about the importance of soft skills and how to develop them?
Product methodology matters a lot.
But if the cross-functional product development team (i.e. product manager, designer, user experience, tech lead, data analyst) aren’t working well together, the best methodology won’t help.
Just as product managers are the stewards of the product vision, they should also steward the team experience.
Product managers should invest in facilitation skills, understand how team charters can help teams align around common goals and work practices, and view their own role as that of a steward and not as the decision maker or the authoritarian.
#5 Companies are usually reluctant to spend the time and money doing discovery. What advice would you give Product Managers who want to educate the rest of the organization on the value of discovery and experimentation?
Fortunately, this is changing. More and more companies are starting to see the value of discovery. The reality is it saves both time and money.
But for product managers who work at companies who have yet to make this shift, the best thing they can do is to figure out how to do it anyway.
Do some guerilla usability testing, figure out how to talk to your customers every day, mine your customer feedback.
It’s a slow process to get an organization to change. But an individual product manager can change the way they work today.
Don’t ask for permission. Don’t let a lack of resources be a barrier. Just start doing it. If a startup founder with no resources can do it, so can any product manager working in any environment.
Stop focusing on the things that make it hard, and start thinking about how you can do it.
#6 Even companies that understand the value of discovery struggle making time for it because the PMs are busy helping with delivery. How can PM leaders, especially Directors and above, influence the organization to separate PMs from delivery and focus them on customer development instead?
Many product management roles are glorified project management roles.
The first thing the product manager can do is to stop being an order taker and start focusing on outcomes. Take the time to really think through what outcomes you need to drive to create value for your company.
Ideally, this is based on discovery but start with your best guess. Then challenge your team to deliver that outcome. Don’t tell them how. Your goal is for your entire team – not just you – to figure out how the team can deliver.
Most product managers will be surprised at what their team can do when given the room to explore.
What makes this hard is that most product managers are comfortable being the hero.
We want to have the best ideas, to be the person people come to for answers, and to make things happen.
But when we remove our ego from the situation and remember that teams generate better solutions than individuals, we gain two things: 1) we get way more from our teams and 2) we free up our time to do discovery work.
#7 In your recent post “Fix delivery to make time for discovery”, you mention that talking to customers here and there is not a discovery strategy. I agree. In your opinion, what constitutes a robust discovery strategy?
Talking to customers here and there is better than never talking to customers. But if you want to get to the next level, you want to immerse yourself in your user or customer’s context.
When I’m working on a product, I ask myself the following questions:
- How can I talk to a user or customer every single day?
- How will I keep up on issues that impact my customers?
- How often can I observe my customers in their own context?
- How will I understand how my customers’ goals, thoughts, and behaviors change over time?
- How will I anticipate problems before they impact my customers?
- How will I keep up to date on market trends and the competitive landscape?
- How will I decide which trends and competitors are worth watching?
Many of these questions can be answered with regular contact and by having access to many streams of input. The key is integrating discovery into your process in a such a way that it is easier to do it than to not do it.
It’s not about customer development interviews or usability testing or running surveys or doing a competitive landscape. It’s about doing all of these on a regular basis in a way that informs your product decisions. The strategy will be different for every company.
#8 If you could define the perfect interaction between Delivery (Engineering, QA, UX) and Product Management teams, what would that look like throughout the software development lifecycle?
Product management needs to be a part of delivery. And similarly, engineering and UX need to be a part of discovery. The whole cross-functional team needs to be involved in both parts.
There is no one right way to do things. Each team represents different personalities, skills, and working preferences. The key is for each team to identify what works best for them.
I would encourage a cross-functional team to think about the following questions:
- How do we make sure that we have a sustainable, systematic way of doing discovery that permeates the whole team?
- How do we make sure that we consistently deliver value to our customer?
These are big questions. They take time to define well.
Teams need to set time aside on a regular basis to reflect on how they are doing and to experiment with how they can get better.
#9 Which books and blogs do you think every Product Manager should read?
- Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath – this is by far the best summary of the research on how to make good decisions.
- Lean Analytics – this is a great primer on product analytics and includes benchmarks for many types of products.
- Lean Customer Development – this is a great summary of how to get value out of customer interviews and includes specific questions to ask.
- Any book that helps you overcome your fear of statistics. Some suggestions: Risk Savvy, A Mind for Numbers, How Not to Be Wrong.
- Influence by Cialdini – helps with understanding both influencing internally without authority and influencing user/customer behavior.
Beyond that, read broadly in business, psychology, communications, statistics, behavioral economics, and so on.
The Intercom.io blog stands out as a recent entry that produces high-quality content.
And to also read broadly. I love Shane Parrish’s Farnam Street as he tackles broader topics like decision making and critical thinking. Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings is a great way to get introduced to older wisdom.
#10 If a Product Manager walked up to you asking for your advice and you only had a few minutes to give ’em your best tip, what would it be?
Pick one specific skill to develop at a time. Read broadly. Practice. Get reasonably good at it. Move on to the next skill. Never stop learning.
Product management is so broad that if you try to get good at everything at once, you’ll be mediocre at everything. Get specific. Always be investing in your skills and never stop learning.
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