Learning-Led Product Development — In Conversation With Lisa Schneider

Learning-Led Product Development — In Conversation With Lisa Schneider

As we navigate the ever-evolving landscape of product management, insights from industry experts become invaluable.
Jun 2023

As we navigate the ever-evolving landscape of product management, insights from industry experts become invaluable. Questions such as which is the right framework for your product development, how to get the best customer feedback, and how to learn while you develop products become critical.

To delve deeper into learning-led product development, Puja Bharwani, Co-founder and CMO of Wizly, sat down with seasoned product strategy executive and fractional CPO Lisa Schneider. Lisa comes with nearly 20 years of product management experience, with a  strong background in product innovation in legacy companies and experience working with startups in their earlier and middle stages. Currently, Lisa collaborates with companies across a variety of industries, aiming to solve product problems, implement product strategy, assist with prioritisation, and improve processes.

Here are some highlights of the conversation.

Building Your Product Roadmap

Puja: Thank you so much Lisa for joining us on Wizly to share your insights on learning-led product development. Let’s start by talking about when you have a product that’s in the market, an MVP, and you have a decent budget to create a roadmap for the next year. How should you look at building your product roadmap?

Lisa: Thank you, Puja. I am happy to be here. People often think of a roadmap as a list of features that are put into some sort of order with dates. Companies set it up like in January, we're going to work on this feature, and in February we're going to release that feature. It can be that leadership, management, and investors might expect to see something like that, but I would actually recommend against a feature-filled roadmap. Instead, I would recommend that your roadmap focuses more on objectives that you have, problems that you're looking to solve, markets that you're trying to break into, and roadblocks that your team is seeing with customers. Therefore, your roadmap should be more about how in Q1, you want to increase engagement by 10%.

Learning-Led Growth

Your roadmap is about your goal and outcome! Then it not only gives your team enough of a creative constraint that these are the things I need to work towards but also allows them a little bit more room to experiment and learn. You mentioned the phrase learning-led growth, which really means that we're doing things in very small increments to see if they work and then we are adjusting. I really don’t want to call it a pivot, but more like executing something to get an outcome and then based on that doing other things. But if I do the first thing and the outcome is different than what I expected, that's a learning for me, and that might change the rest of the things that I had planned to do. That is learning-led growth!

It also means that rather than have a roadmap that feels very tightly constructed around features, you have a roadmap that's tightly constructed around objectives. Then you have a lot more room to change without it feeling like something that is whiplash. I think that's a big switch for a lot of people than just stacking up features. I get a lot of calls from people who have a list of features, and they want to know how to prioritise. However, I almost always want them to go back and kind of sit with the strategy and say, well what's our strategy here?

We know that there are a lot of product prioritisation frameworks, and you can do a bunch of calculations with ‘effort x impact,’ but if you do that in a vacuum with any alignment to your strategy and objectives, you won’t be able to go all the way. Therefore, you need to grasp that here’s our strategy, here’s the objective that we are looking for, and here's the priority of those objectives. This is where you need to assess, for example, whether it is more important to get more engagement, extend our product, or get customers in a new market. Those are decisions that you have to make at a strategic level, which then guides your roadmap. Then within each of those objectives that are stacked by strategy, you can start to play with the features.

Moscow Calling

Puja: Is there a specific framework that you use and swear by for creating an effective product management process?

Lisa: I really like two frameworks in particular. The first is Moscow, which essentially provides a method for discussing priorities. The 'M' stands for 'Must,' signifying tasks that we absolutely need to accomplish. The 'S' represents 'Should,' indicating things that we should ideally accomplish. The 'C' corresponds to 'Could,' suggesting potential tasks that, while not mandatory, could be beneficial if undertaken. Finally, the 'W' signifies 'Won't,' pointing to activities that we deliberately choose not to pursue.

This system facilitates the filtering and prioritising of numerous ideas that can emerge from different sources - your customers, your team, etc. However, it's important to remember that not all ideas are good ideas. Some may not align with our strategy, may be overly complex, or may distract us from our primary objectives. Others might be good but not suitable for immediate action. This is where the 'Won't' component plays a critical role. It can be helpful in getting alignment around things that are important versus things that are optional versus things that are not at all important.

But the framework I appreciate the most is quite straightforward: Effort, Outcome, and occasionally I include Importance to the Mission. Sometimes an outcome may seem insignificant on paper; it may not be a substantial task, but it is incredibly vital to the mission. For the problem at hand, it may be table stakes. Table stakes might not yield a large outcome, but if neglected, there's an opportunity cost.

The reason I like this formula is because of its simplicity. It can be done in any spreadsheet without the need for a fancy tool. It's a great way to show your work, promoting transparency in decision-making. This way, whether for your team or your board, you can easily illustrate why you made certain decisions. Even though some of these are estimates, the process appears relatively objective. It helps take some major issues out of the equation.

One such issue is represented by the acronym HIPPO, standing for Highest Paid Person's Opinion. This method can mute the voice of the HIPPO, which could be a literal highest-paid person's opinion. The HIPPO could also be the individual who, for some reason, has the most influence. The person who is the loudest, the most persistent, or interrupts the most might not necessarily be the best and most objective voice. So, when you assess ideas according to our framework, you depersonalise the decision-making process. You might find that what seemed like a good idea doesn't have much potential impact, so it gets moved down the list. Therefore it doesn’t feel personal and takes the emotion out of it.

It also ensures that if you're soliciting ideas or receiving them from team members, they can feel included in the decision-making. I've literally had people tell me they don't feel bad if their idea or project isn't prioritised because they can see the corporate priorities. They understand the decision-making process isn't personal, and they can better apply themselves to initiatives that will help meet our goals.

This framework is not only easy for you to execute but also easy for you to communicate and gain alignment on, which is equally important. You need your team aligned, your board behind you, and overall support. If people question how you reached a decision, that's a fair conversation. The discussion then becomes more objective, aiming to drive alignment and is relatively easy to share.

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Does Your Customer Want A Window?

Puja: Every product has new features and takes customer feedback. How do you know when to take the right feedback from the right customer and not get stuck in a rut doing the wrong things? As we know, not all customers are equal.

Lisa: True, not all customers are equal! Moreover, not all customers can articulate well what they want to solve their problem. If you respond to every piece of customer feedback, you will constantly be adding features, possibly unrelated to each other. This can lead to a Frankenstein product where you've tacked things in different directions. It's not ideal and can be high cost due to maintenance. Plus, you may end up neglecting the initial objectives that you worked really hard to find in your strategy because you're too busy building these one-off features everyone asked for. That feels messy and problematic.

People mean well, but they don't always have the best solution for their own problems. It's crucial for sales, marketing, and product to align closely and speak directly to the customer to understand their underlying need. For instance, if a customer wants a window, figure out why they want it. Maybe they want more light and air, or they want to get out of a window. Instead of blindly agreeing to build a window and asking what size, it's better to understand what they hope to achieve with it.

Similarly, if another customer wants a chandelier and another isn't sure, perhaps they all want more light. Try to find the throughlines and the underlying problem. Maybe it's something already planned to be addressed in your upcoming roadmap. Then you will effectively be able to communicate the same to your customers.

So, understanding the motivations of your clients, validating them with other clients, and seeing the trends helps you make data-informed decisions. Check if the perceived problems or wish lists align with your strategies. Instead of taking each request literally as a one-off, view it as an opportunity for learning-led growth to understand the problem, validate it with other customers, and figure out a scalable way to solve it.

Moreover, for collecting feedback, have that MVP mindset. What is the essential thing you need to know? You don't want to have someone go through a whole survey or spend a lot of people's time each time you make a tweak. Think about your measurement. Do I understand the impact just based on user behaviour? Am I planning ahead? That should be part of the roadmap and planning process.

How will I measure this? What do I need to know? How will I know if this is successful? How will I know if we're achieving our objectives? It could be as simple as a pop-up question or a quick survey. Think about the smallest pieces of information that you need to know how your customers feel about something. Do that in smaller increments as you release things so that you're getting regular feedback without overwhelming customers with longer surveys and conversations. You can do that, but not as frequently.

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Should You Hire In-House CXOs?

Puja: How important is it to have your CPO in-house? Is a CPO an essential part of the core team or is it a CTO and director of product?

Lisa: It really depends on the product. If you are doing something highly technical with cutting-edge technology, you might actually need a CTO. A CPO is a very strategic role and generally not cheap. You don't necessarily need a CPO in-house, but you might want to have someone like a fractional CPO, someone serving as your CPO one to two days a week. They are part of your team, and their job is very clearly scoped. Their role is to set the strategy, understand the objectives, help to frame learning-led growth, optimise processes, and ensure good cross-functional alignment.

This can apply to a fractional CTO too. They are great options for smaller organisations. If I can pay half or a third of the cost to get strategic thinking into my organisation without having a full-time employee, it's a great opportunity.

Puja: So, it depends on the product, and you can put in fractional roles to save cost.

Lisa: Yes, consider your space, the problem you're solving, and the capabilities you need. If you're a FinTech startup, you probably need someone that understands highly regulated industries. This is because you need to build a little bit more aggressively in your early stage. You need someone competent enough to understand the security risks while collecting user data. You cannot just throw everything in an Airtable and wait till you have enough paying users to build it properly.

Understanding what capabilities you really need is crucial. Do you need somebody with subject matter expertise or do you need somebody that complements that?

For instance, I was helping a marketing technology company. They wanted someone with technical capabilities similar to what they had. They also had significant internal challenges changing their culture to a product-led culture. My advice was that they needed a complement, someone who understands the product and can align the company around learning-led growth. This person's ability to work with technical experts is more crucial than being another technical expert. You really want to think about complementary skills and what you lack in your team for your specific situation.

Building In Uncertain Times

Puja: Your one piece of advice to companies as they build in uncertain times — how can they keep the mission and focus integral to their product-building roadmap? Or maybe the question to ask is they probably should be mission-led more than anything else.

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Lisa: Indeed, I do think that the combination of mission, vision, and strategy, so you have a purpose and a north star, and you're not necessarily flipping and flopping to every change is really important. However, in uncertain times, two things are true. First, you might have to double down on proven things and focus on commercialization rather than innovation for some finite period of time, to extend that runway and get through a period of difficulty. This might mean reconsidering some pet projects that sounded fun but were good ideas for stable times and focusing on things that will enhance commercialization and revenue.

Second, we're all very focused on ourselves, but it's crucial to ask what has changed for our customers. Whatever you were doing before may or may not be what the customers need now because things have changed for them as well. It's not just about doing more of what has worked; you really want to stop, think, and understand what has changed for your customers and what that means for how you can better serve them.

This was one of many insightful and engaging sessions we have lined up for the future. Be sure to join the Wizly Community for the latest updates.

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