3 factors that contribute to products not delivering business value

A couple of weeks ago I explored the idea of when work is done. This week, I’d like to extend this idea to product management. We have all seen too many products where they promote they do X, but once you start using it you realize that it doesn’t quite do X, or X is so complicated to execute that it defeats the purpose. But how do we really get here? It’s unlikely that a product manager simply decided to push out a bad product. Or that the quality assurance team didn’t actually QA it.

Adobe-blog-product-meme-tell-me-more-extensive-testing-one-client

I think there are probably 3 contributing factors:

  1. Lack of customer feedback – Sometimes businesses truly are on the cutting edge in the development of something new and therefore there is no way to get the feedback needed on your new product (think iPod). However, this is usually not the case. We all need to make sure that we are engaging with customers and getting feedback on the products we are developing otherwise we pose serious risk to missing the mark.
  2. Misunderstanding of the business context – A common factor that occurs as a result of the lack of customer feedback is missing out on the customer context. You can think you know what problem you are trying to solve, and develop a product that solves that problem, but you’ll still have adoption issues if the workflow or functional assumptions don’t align to the business context of how the users will engage with it.
  3. Making assumptions about whether it will work without actually vetting the assumed changes – Too many times we get in trouble for being wrong based on an “I think” rather than an “I think, but I’ll verify and get back to you.” All products are built based on a set of assumptions. It’s usually these assumptions that drive how it gets QA’d. We can’t then assume that because the assumptions change (no matter how small they are), that all will work well. These new assumptions need to be vetted as well.

Product management and project management aren’t exact sciences. They do take a level of art and skill to be able to navigate the chaos and deliver on the business value. However, we can take steps to mitigate these factors, ultimately increasing our probability of success with our customers.

Finding your inspiration

WIT Leadership Awards

L to R: Julia Wilton, Dagny Evans, Emily Walter

Last night I had the pleasure of once again attending the Women in Technology (WIT) Leadership Awards celebration. This event “honors professional women who have exemplified leadership while promoting the WIT mission of Advancing Women in Technology from the Classroom to the Boardroom.” Maureen Bunyeen, long-time Washington news anchor, was our emcee. Not only to I get to connect with old friends, I leave inspired from the stories of the women finalists and winners.

This year the event opened with two special recognitions. First, Kathryn Harris recognized Maureen Caulfield with the WIT President’s Award for commitment and leadership as WIT Sponsorship Chair. Next, The Leadership Foundry, WIT’s board training program, recognized First United Corporation for leading the way in diversity of their corporate board with 33% of their board identifying as women. Then, STEM for Her, a local nonprofit focused on empowering young women to pursue STEM careers, recognized their 2017 cash and experience scholarship winners.

This brought us to our main event, honoring women across nine categories: corporate large-market, corporate mid-market, corporate small-market, government, rising star, small business/entrepreneur, technical leadership, unsung hero and women in defense. Each winner was humbled and inspired to be surrounded by amazing women. This year, winners shared their inspiration by reading quotes from people they admire. We heard about the importance of fathers in setting the path towards STEM related careers as well as having role models to emulate and aspire towards including Walt Disney, Ada Lovelace, Katherine Graham, Katherine Johnson, and Grace Hopper to name just a few.

Congratulations to all the winners! And thank you for raising the bar high!

What makes DrupalCon different?

DrupalCon BaltimoreOver the course of my career, I’ve been to a few conferences. Most were technical and most were related to the legal industry as that is where I spent the majority of my career so far. The last two years, I attended DrupalCon. Drupal is an open source platform for managing content and delivering websites. My business partner and husband Carson has been involved with Drupal for the last 6 or 7 years. Previously, I would travel to whatever city was hosting DrupalCon and would site-see while Carson participated in the sessions. Usually I would meet up with him at night for some of the social fun.

Last year, we decided there would be value in me attending the conference to participate in the business summit, learn a bit about Drupal and maybe pick up a few project management tips. I did all of that and more. You can read about that experience here. But, what made me go back?

When you run a small business, it’s really hard to take time away at conferences. Often, you still need to facilitate project work since you don’t have the luxury of a bigger team to pick up that work. Additionally, no work, no revenue. With all those considerations, we still both attended DrupalCon North America in Baltimore, MD. Why’d we do it?

  1. Proximity to DC and Opportunity to network with government contacts – While Baltimore isn’t our first choice for where I want to spend a week, it’s close enough that we didn’t really need to work for it. We drove up Sunday night and returned on Thursday evening. We also figured that the location would draw more government attendees. Since we live and work in the DC metropolitan are, we thought it would be a good networking opportunity.
  2. Global community – DrupalCon North America had more than 3,200 attendees from all over the world – Europe, Australia, India, South America.
  3. Willingness to tackle hard subjects – The Drupal community has been undergoing some serious scrutiny and challenges times as it relates to people’s choices and the perception & reality of that as it relates to an open source community. Many volunteers spent numerous hours coordinating community discussions, leading sessions and BOFs (birds of a feather) on diversity & inclusion and how to be an ally. The annual Women in Drupal event was the best one yet. We were glad to be sponsoring it again this year.
  4. The un-conference components – I can think of several parts of the conference that reduce the formality of the conference. Let’s start with the annual pre-note. This is fun, engaging sketch comedy formatted event that precedes the official keynote. It is usually comprised of drupal-themed songs, colorful costumes and a cast of characters. Then there are the BOFs, or birds of a feather sessions, are participate driven areas of interest to gather like (or unlike) minds to discuss. We can also include the unofficial “official” hallway track. I had numerous conversations with people this year about how they come less for the technical training and more about the community. Everywhere you looked you could see hugs, reunions and of course, the making of new friends. This year, one sponsor distributed flowers for the purpose of using it to thank someone who helped you. It was a little reminiscent of 8th grade or high school valentine’s day, but the sentiment was nice.
  5. Openness – Drupalcon always reminds me of the openness of the community. From the most basic example of vendors not being particularly elitist about who attends their large, very expensive parties to the level of details organizations are willing to share about how they run their companies and how they make decisions.

Thanks again to all the Drupalcon Baltimore volunteers and association organizers for putting on an amazing event.

Has discrimination made me a better project manager?

hippoMy dad recently sent me this article by David Silverberg on questioning your hippo boss. Once I got over the unfamiliarity with hippo as a business term meaning “highest paid person’s opinion”, I started to ponder the premise of the article. Mr. Silverberg introduced me to a study by the Rotterdam School of Management, which determined that “projects led by junior managers were more likely to be successful than those that had a senior boss in charge, because other employees felt far more able to voice their opinions and give critical feedback.”

Next consider all the studies and social experiments around how differently men are treated than women in professional situations. The most recent one I’ve read is where two colleagues switched signatures for 2 weeks and Martin Schneider learned the hard way about the not so subtle sexism that happens towards women in professional situations.

Let’s also consider the premises by CIO.com and Capterra that women make better project managers. According to the CIO article, “more than 75% of projects $10 million and over fail, overshooting their budgets by 55%, costing the typical Fortune 1000 company an average of $160 million per year.”  Since only 17-30% of large projects are led by women, the majority of those failed projects are led by men. Much of the differences are attributed to the difference in the ways that women assess risk and the confidence trap (the more wrong men are, the more confident their assertions). The Capterra article shares several compelling details about female leaders including “female project managers are almost twice as likely to be on projects costing $1 million or less”, but “women are seen as more  effective (by others) when they held senior-level management positions.”

And finally, let’s consider my my career. I have been the highest paid person on my team and have run several successful technical implementation projects. I often speak up and challenge the status quo to drive others to find better solutions. I have done this with my team (project or direct reports), peers and bosses (direct and several layers up). I have also been challenged many times in my roles as project manager, director or vice president of technical teams and projects.

Should we then conclude that women make better senior executives and project managers as a result of the inherent bias that results in women being treated differently than men?

It’s certainly possible. As a project manager or team lead, I definitely work harder to:

  • foster a collaborative team – I’m very willing to pull additional resources into conversations, as required and force an issue on a call rather than dragging it out over email. If you start building bridges with other groups, departments or resources, you open yourself up to having a wider variety of people to bounce ideas and solicit diverse input.
  • share everything – I’m also a strong believer in documenting everything I can and sharing that with others. I pride myself on doing this, and making it available. It frustrates me that so much of this is not considered important or too proprietary to share even at the team or department level.
  • do my own research – In the same vein, I do a lot of reading and thinking about different topics. Not only does this expand my worldview, it also makes people more willing to engage with me when I need help.

Whether it’s because of or in spite of, I will continue to learn, adapt and delivery on projects.