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Build your product execution playbook

Updated: Apr 2, 2021

As the years go by the product manager accumulates a wealth of experience and gets familiar with the execution process. PMs should document what works for them so that they dont have to reinvent the wheel when they are next faced with a similar situation. The same goes for key decision making criteria which are adopted - its essential to capture these nuggets of wisdom into a playbook for quick future reference.

A playbook puts together strategies, decision criteria, assumptions and inputs which are required to chart a way forward. It also serves as a map to navigate through the obstacles to reach the desired goal. Playbooks are used in sports and there is merit in incorporating this approach in product management.

A well documented playbook extends into incorporating your learnings and experiences being synthesised into a set of crisp notes which you can call on in the future. Playbooks are also a great way to mentor and train junior staff in getting to know the game.

A playbook fills an informal knowledge gap, which is not taught and which to a large extent is influenced by your organisation, culture, people and the typical challenges that you would encounter in managing and launching products.

The playbook is also your library of best practices, political toolkit and your battle card which will help you build a habit of thinking ahead and planning for the best execution outcomes.

The product management lifecycle describes the entire journey from discovery, execution and post launch review. There is the management side of things which is taken for granted and the stress this causes to PMs is very real and can often lead to procrastination, decision fatigue and disconnection - and loosing the will to live. This is where the playbook comes in, a ready reference to get the person back on track when they are jaded by everything which is going around them putting themselves in the midst of confusion and chaos.

When you first get into product management the impression is that its all about just having a good idea and then building a compelling business case. Product management is like any other "management" function where you have to eventually deal with the demand and supply constraints which every company grapples with. The moment you realise that there isn't much gravy to go around it becomes very clear that every resource in the organisation is up for grabs and its indeed the same as the Darwinian theory of evolution - survival of the fittest.

In this post I will share with you the topics which you should consider to include into your playbook. There will be other topics specific to your situation but I suggest you start by your journey by looking at these topics for starters. Your playbook can be combination of diagrams, tables, text - use which ever medium is comfortable to get you going and captures information in a quick, easy way. Your playbook can also include formal information such as policy and process information.

Product funding - you have done everything which was asked of you. A great business case, extensive management support yet somehow you didn't get what you needed to deliver the promise you made. You have two choices here, start with what you have or go down the rabbit hole of asking for more. Both have their pro and cons. If you have enough to deliver a MVP with some additional concessions, then start of the project and slowly build the narrative of what great would look like and come to an agreement on a tollgate where after demonstrating a specific KPI you will go back asking for more funds.

Keep your eye on the prize which is to get the product out of the door into the hands of the customers. Push for a reduction of lower costs from the development team and vendors. This will give you some buffer to absorb. Check to see how much you can over-run your project by, normally 3 to 10% is acceptable. Scrutinise the headcount costs for project managers and programme managers - try and share this with others, so that your not paying for the full body. Leverage other teams in the company like marketing to pick up some of the costs as they have budgets as well. Look for synergies with other products and evaluate the possibility of building out a proposition where the other team may be able to inject some funds.

Technology support - theres always a risk that you have the money but not enough people in technology to support your execution. The common failings for this are a combination if not connecting with the technology managers and confirming your execution plan early on. Out of plan projects will face a bigger execution risk. You need to understand that business demand always exceeds technology resources.

Figure out ways you can hire contractors, vendors or even reduce the scope. Find out which is the skill which is causing hurdle. Find other teams who may have the resource. On the business side make sure the issue is escalated all the way to the top and have good use cases and reasons on why the project needs to go ahead and what is the loss to the business of execution is pushed out to another date. The inter locking of the business delivery plan with technology resources needs to happen very early on so that both camps have these projects in their submissions.

Customer problems - there is no shame in not knowing what the customer wants. By the time the problem comes to the product manager the message has been diluted. Find a way to have a set procedure to initiate the discovery exercise to crystalise the problem statement.

Build up partnerships with front line teams and customers to have ready access to your customers and their users. You need to have an inner circle of industry contacts and end users who can give you insights. Persona's are great way to start so is the customer journey mappings where you go through every aspect of the task which need to be completed. Another way to get a quick feedback is get a prototype in front of the user - these are powerful tools to get the user to start thinking about how to improve the product. Sometimes we dont understand the problem because we dont have the expertise to identify it or appreciate the impact of the problem - in such a situation you will need to bring in subject matter experts in to help you.

Think about ways to engage your customers, the questions and challenges they are likely to pose, and how to win them over. I will also put the prioritisation process of the product backlog under the microscope here - identify what is your framework and guiding principles to funnel and filter what should be focused on.

Office bureaucracy - in a perfect world the product manager would have the total liberty and freedom to build out what ever they wanted. Alignment of the product roadmap with stakeholders goes without saying, the items which you want to delivery need to be married up with the company’s strategy and immediate business priorities to garner support. You need to have your stakeholder maps across the organisation in place. Figure out a regular engagement model with them through the course of the year so that you continue to be relevant and top of mind. Keep these individuals appraised on progress, they need to know why your work is important and how their support and influence has helped. Your objective is to have ready access to these stakeholders who have decision making powers or significant influence on the direction of the product.

Product commercialisation - selling is everything, but often we rely on traditional sales channels as a means to get the product in front of customers. eCommerce and social media need to be included into your channel strategy. Digital products have some advantages in reaching out to customers and the offerings can be tied up closely to subscription based and freemium pricing models. You can even tie pricing to usage so that customers only pay for it if they are getting immense value from the service. The commercialisation model continues to evolve every couple of years there is a shift in the equation from the seller to the buyer. eCommerce has brought about this change.

Building influence - those who dont share the vision and challenge the execution plan is a common obstacle. Stakeholder mapping at the early stage will lead to insights on who is with you and against you. Getting people over the line revolves on getting them early into the discovery phase so that they feel consulted, valued and part of the journey. The second part is to let them realize why their involvement is critical to deliver the desired business goal. They need to be convinced that there is something in it for them to participate. PMs also need to understand the nature of their hesitancy to support - address the elephant in the room early on and put it to rest so that the issue doesn’t come up again during the execution phase.

Vendor contracts - capture the learnings from vendor contract negotiations into you knowledge base so that you can leverage it on your next contract. Vendor's are really good at narrating the cost base of their product and have clever ways of coming up with pricing and consumption models. Product manager can learn a lot about commercial models by analysing the construct of vendor contracts. While the focus in a contract negotiation is more on the pricing there are other things which need to be given equal attention to protect your organisation in the event the vendor is unable to honour their part of the agreement. As a business you need to have your list of non-negotiable demands clear these could be insurance, escrow, support, training, roadmap and licensing for starters. Assuming these are minor points of negotiation will be costly mistake if not addresses

Great product managers master the art of execution by building an arsenal of relevant skills and networks across the organisation to deliver that on time execution which they are reputed for. Cultivating the habit of tracking the quality of your decision making along with knowing which step to take at the appropriate time plays into the overall campaign effort to lead from the front and marshal the troops around you. These notable successes and failures should feed into your playbook to give you the opportunity to reflect on the past while giving you a perspective on how to tackle similar events in the future. We think we will remember these details later on, but we only retain the bigger narrative and forget the ever so important minute details.

So go on, make that first step of creating your own execution playbook, it will serve you well for years to come.


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