Valerio Zanini is the author of Deliver Great Products that Customers Love: The Guide to Product Management for Innovators, Leaders, and Entrepreneurs (see my book review here). He is the founder of product innovation consultancy 5D Vision, and has helped build digital products for Fortune 500 companies like Cisco and Capital One.
Valerio was also Co-founder of Goozex.com, an online platform for trading digital media like video games, and accessories. His other book is The Spark Engine: Drawing Exercises that Ignite Team Creativity.
The author joins us in this chat on product management in startups, the role of education, importance of design skills, and collaboration in virtual teams.
Edited excerpts below:
YourStory: What are the typical product challenges entrepreneurs face as they scale up their company from startup to enterprise stage? How can they be overcome?
Valerio Zanini: As an advisor to several startups, I see many experience growing problems. One example is the need to create structure to support the growth of the company. As more and more employees join, structure is needed to organise the work, manage productivity, and measure performance.
This can be a big shift from the early "startup" days where things were more dynamic, free-flowing, and adaptable. Often, the founders or the early employees struggle to adapt to the new model with more structure and controls. This creates friction, and friction drives them to leave the company, losing key expertise, and knowledge.
To counter this, companies and CEOs should make an effort at recognising the need for flexibility together with structure. One-size-fits-all solutions create constraints and add friction. Recognising the need and creating transparency for everyone to understand the differences could help to cope with these problems.
YS: In the time since your book was published, what are some notable new product launch successes and failures you have come across?
VZ: One comes to mind above all, and that's a product that has not been launched. Everyone expected Apple to launch an upgraded version of the Macbook with a touchscreen. They didn't. I think Apple is losing touch with its customers.
YS: How was your book received? What were some of the unusual responses and reactions you got?
VZ: A lady contacted me one day asking for a meeting. She was considering a career switch to product management and asked for my advice. When we met, she brought a copy of my book with her. She had not only read it from start to finish, but also she had marked most of the pages with notes, diagrams, and post-its. When I asked about it, she said reading the book had been one of the most enlightening experiences.
I've had several other random encounters with readers of my book since then, but this story really stands out in my memory.
YS: What is your current field of research in product management?
VZ: I'm currently focusing on how to drive appreciation and foster adoption of metrics in product management. This is an area that is often forgotten, or relegated to the very end of a product development cycle. Instead, it should be an integral part of that cycle as measuring the outcomes of a product is key to its success.
The outcomes are not only what the product delivers to the business (revenue growth, pageviews, and so on) but also - and probably more importantly - what benefits do the customers get from it.
YS: How big a role do academics play in product management? Do you see the topic being taught in an updated manner in engineering schools?
VZ: Totally! In fact I'm working with a local university in Washington DC to incorporate product management into their MBA curriculum. Something similar can be said for engineering schools.
The divide between "product people" and "developers" is closing quickly as teams realise that even developers need to have an understanding of the customer's needs and context in order to develop a better product.
YS: How important are artistic and design skills in product development, and what are some myths and misconceptions you see here?
VZ: These skills can be useful - not only for product management but in life in general. However, I'd say that for product managers more than having the skill it's important to have an appreciation for it.
Let me explain. I don't expect product managers to be the next Picasso or Monet. I believe everyone can draw and the drawings don't need to be perfect. In fact, the types of drawings that product managers do - like wireframes and quick prototypes - don't need to be perfect.
They need to give an idea of what we are trying to achieve, but not so detailed and beautiful that we become hesitant to change them. Imperfection is a great asset at this stage!
YS: Most of the case studies in your book feature companies - what are your findings with regard to product management in government and in the non-profit organisation sector?
VZ: While many agencies have made strides to improve their product development practices and human-centered design, I often find that the impediments don't lie in how people like to do the work. Instead, often, a big obstacle is how contracts are written in the government world.
When deliverables, objectives, and timelines are all defined and set upfront, it's very hard to adopt a mindset of discovery, prototyping, and adaptation during the execution of the contract. Agile contracting is a growing practice for many agencies to try to address these constraints.
YS: What are the Top Three trends you see in product management space this year?
1) Service Design: This is a growing practice as companies realise that products don't live in a void but sit within a larger service offering that a company offers.
2) Certifications and Training: Skillset development and experience are often left to the work environment. Product managers need access to advanced product training to hone their skills and grow in their role. This is an area I'm working on with my company.
3) Understanding and appreciation for metrics.
YS: What are the challenges product teams face as they spread across geographies and work in virtual teams, and how can they be overcome?
VZ: Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration. We have many tools available to connect, collaborate, and create transparency on both the work product and the process. The more we adopt these, the better. It's not for the sake of the tools, but to achieve transparency and visibility.
YS: How should innovators strike that delicate balance between ‘Stick to your vision’ and ‘Adapt to a changed world’?
VZ: A vision is a powerful force to rally people together and draw a path to the future. However, every journey starts with a first step: as we walk towards that future destination, we should validate every step we take. Rapid ideation and adaptation are key in the journey.
YS: What is your parting message to the startups and aspiring entrepreneurs in our audience?
VZ: Do it. Try your idea. Be fearless. And fail fast.