Product Management Rule #25: Create a Culture of Openness

42 Rules of Product Management

Product Management Rule #25 from the best-selling book, 42 Rules of Product Management, was written by Eric Krock, Chief Marketing Officer, Voximate

It’s not the land mine you know about that will kill you; it’s the one that you don’t know about.

As a product manager, you will not see all of the greatest dangers or opportunities yourself.

You must create a culture of openness within your company. Only open communication will ensure that dangers are avoided and opportunities are capitalized on. At one employer, I was asked to take over the product management team after a restructuring. So I asked every member of the remaining team (myself included) to divide up a list of people in all functional units and ask them in private one-on-one meetings how they felt about the team’s recent performance.

We found many opportunities for improvement.

Engineering said the current server schedule was unachievable. A team review showed they were right; we had to slip the delivery date by four months. Sales said their input hadn’t always been solicited in the product planning process, and engineering said that product management decisions had sometimes been made arbitrarily. No security review had been done on the plan for rewriting the client, so I convened one. In the first five minutes, the sales engineers reported that a simplifying assumption in the client plan would be unacceptable to our enterprise customers, so I had to throw out that plan and slip the client delivery date by six months. I also went to our major customers and privately asked for their input. Some said that in recent months they’d stopped hearing from the company and felt ignored.

To fix the product planning and delivery process, we created a culture of radical openness.

I asked the IT group to deploy a wiki and began tracking every open issue within it for all in the company to see. I required that every product release plan be reviewed and approved by engineering, quality assurance, sales, and the executive team internally, and by all our major customers externally. We didn’t assume our plans would please customers; we confirmed it. We didn’t assume that engineering, QA, and sales had had the opportunity to voice any concerns; we ensured it. I personally reviewed the mock-ups for the major client rewrite screen-by-screen with our major enterprise customers to ensure they’d be willing to deploy it to their tens of thousands of desktops when it was released.

We didn’t just solicit input; we acted on it.

We ensured that release schedules included realistic adequate buffer room to ensure there was time to deal with the inevitable surprises along the way.

The results were extraordinary.

The company went from not knowing it was six months behind schedule to shipping the next thirteen releases in a row on or ahead of schedule. Every customer accepted the delivery of every release and feature we delivered to them, and we won every deal that was contingent upon the delivery of new functionality. We closed a record number of new customers, became profitable for the first time, and more than tripled the company’s valuation in just eighteen months. But I’m happiest of all about the results of the annual employee survey we conducted at the end of this period. Ninety-five percent agreed that “everyone has the opportunity to express their opinions,” “after the debate, we move forward and support decisions made,” and “we foster open and direct communication.” Ninety percent agreed that “we focus on listening and understanding,” “we challenge each other’s thinking to get the best idea/solution,” and “we communicate early and often.” These numbers had doubled since the previous year. Not only were we performing better, but everyone felt included in a rational, open process. This was no coincidence.

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