Another Wednesday, another episode of our podcast! Are you ready for another dose of great tips?
Today I’m talking with Scott Sehlhorst product management and strategy consultant.
Listen to #16 episode to learn how the company’s process of transformation from waterfall into agile state looks like and how to deliver a great product, a better than the competition’s!
Keynotes of this episode:
- Products that are valuable, desirable, and feasible.
- “Startups mostly don’t compete against each other, they compete against no one giving a shit.”
- Creating a product is about solving a problem that nobody on the market has solved so far.
- Time tracking and time management help in creating a good product.
- The process of transformation from waterfall into agile state.
People and books mentioned:
- Good Strategy/Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt
- Value Proposition Design
- Four Steps to the Epiphany by Steve Blank
- Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love by Marty Cagan
- Innovation Games by Luke Hohmann
Enjoy and let us know in comments what are your thoughts on today’s episode!
Kate: Hello everyone, this is Kate and I’m back with another episode of the podcast Stay on Top of Your Work. And today my guest is Scott Sehlhorst, product management and strategy consultant. Scott, I’m happy to have you here, I’m happy you joined me today.
Scott: Thank you, Kate, I’m thrilled to be here, I’m humbled and appreciate for the invite, thank you.
[00:00:35 – 00:01:26]
Kate: Thank you! So the first question to you is: could you say a few words about you and what are your professional interests and what do you do?
Scott: Sure, so, I’m a product management and strategy consultant. And I’ve been doing that work for, I guess about 15 years now. And for the last couple years, I’ve really focused in a space of helping companies move, helping companies transform from like a waterfall environment to an agile environment. The very large companies that struggle with the challenges of actually delivering valuable products to market because their structures and processes are getting in their way. They sort of trip over their own feet. And so my focus is helping them get better in putting valuable products into market.
[00:01:27 – 00:03:15]
Kate: And what strategies and methods do you think are good for product management?
Scott: Probably the two most important things are to be outside in the framing of your problem and to have a clear and focused strategy from the top. And so if I unpack that a little bit, very many companies, and very many engineers, and I’m an engineer by training so I can say this, sort of give in their head they imagine something really cool that they can build and then they’ll go and build it, and then they’ll try to find somebody to buy it. And then they won’t understand why nobody wants this cool thing. And so a lot of companies waste a lot of money building products that nobody wants. So if you start by saying what’s the problem somebody’s trying to solve, and how might we be able to help them and use that as an orienting tool, you’ll have a much higher chance of success with the products you choose to build. And then the focusing area is really particularly evident in large companies, but it can happen even just to an individual, of identifying the particular goal you’re trying to pursue. And then in the company, it would be, “we’re trying to achieve a particular market position, we’re trying to really focus on a particular problem for a particular group of customers.” And then you sort of run all of the work that you’re doing, day to day, through this lens of “am I doing something that helps me contribute to my goal? Or am I doing something just for the sake of doing something or I don’t even know why I’m doing it, I’m just doing it.” So being able to provide that focus, those are the two main points about sort of being effective from a product point of view.
[00:03:16 – 00:4:23]
Kate: Okay, so how can a company become successful by delivering a good product? How can we create a good product? What should we focus on?
Scott: Okay, so you gave me two questions and I’ll sort of roll it back. I think it’s really difficult to say, “here’s how a company will be successful” but you can absolutely say,” here’s some things that will make you more likely to be successful” or if you don’t do them, you’ll be very unlikely to succeed. And the first one is around orienting around the customer. Making sure that you put a product in market that somebody cares about. In the agile world and in the product strategy world we’ll talk about products that are valuable, desirable, and feasible. So it’s desirable in that your customer wants it. It’s valuable in that you actually have a good business case that demonstrates that this is something worth doing. And it’s feasible in that you have a team in an organization that’s capable of executing to do it.
[00:04:24 – 00:06:15]
Kate: And I’ve been thinking that these days there are many startup companies, and many of them don’t achieve success with their product. What mistakes do you think they do and how to avoid them?
Scott: Okay so in a startup world, and I have to talk for a minute while I sort of orient my brain around it because lately, I’ve been spending most of my time with very large companies. There’s a quote from Justin Kan that I’ll use as an example, “startup mostly don’t compete against each other, they compete against no one giving a shit,” which is really consisting sort of challenging way to say, “don’t build something that nobody needs.” And a lot of startups, I don’t know, 90%, maybe 1% of startups succeed and the vast majority of startups are building products or are putting services into the market that aren’t better than whatever somebody’s doing right now. They aren’t materially solving a problem. And even if they are measurably solving a problem, there’s a couple dynamics, like if you look at prospect theory and the way people perceive value of their current situation and feature imagine situations, generally what people will do is they will overvalue what they already have by as much as a factor of three. And they will undervalue something you’re trying to sell them by as much as a factor of three. And so that’s a nine-time multiplier and that’s sort of the science, the psychology behind why you’re talking about startups needing to create products that are ten times better then what’s out there already.
[00:06:16 – 00:08:11]
Kate: And you mentioned that you help large companies transform. What lessons did you learn from working with such companies or tips that you can give to those starting their own business?
Scott: I’ll answer this as two questions. So the first thing from a mind that really sort of jumped out to me as a lesson because I’m really focusing on agility at scale, there’s like, if you look at the scrum organization and the roles on the scrum team, so think about small companies, there’s no project manager role. One of my clients made the statement, “yes, the project manager role is gone but the project management work continuous is just been distributed among different roles.” And when I think about really large companies, even the ones that are getting it right where they struggle is in coordinating work across multiple teams. And figuring out, making those trade-offs between recognizing it in a large organization you’ve got different leaders with different sets of priorities because each of them is responsible for some portion of the business. And then when those companies are doing something interesting for a customer, it often requires them to coordinate work across organizations, which means you have team who have different priorities about the same set of work. It’s a number one priority for one team and it might be number 20 priority for another team. And so coordinating how you’re going to execute and reconcile a schedule of delivery across different teams who care about it in different ways is a particularly challenging problem for the large companies.
[00:08:12 – 00:09:28]
Kate: Right, and I think it’s actually challenging for everyone to manage a team because when you manage a project, a product, you also have to manage a team. So how to, somehow, combine those two things together to make a good outcome?
Scott: That’s a great question, thank you. If you think about, in the transition from a waterfall world into an agile world one of the things that changes is your unit of thinking about how you manage work. So in the waterfall world, the unit of work is usually around utilization of a person’s time. You look at how many hours per day, how many hours per week are on task or off task, that sort of thing. You build that project plans based on estimates of how many hours it will take an individual to do a job that you’ve assigned to that person. You need to do all that management. And in agile world, you don’t do it that way. The sort of a fundamental unit of work is around the team. So you think about the through capacity of the team to deliver together. And so that transition happens in your thinking space of how you manage and make sure you get the work done.
[00:09:29 – 00:11:35]
Kate: And you also mentioned managing time. Do you think that time tracking, because TimeCamp is a time tracking software, can it be helpful in managing a product? Or maybe that’s something that’s not really necessary?
Scott: Yes, I think you’re using information for different reasons. So instead of well, from a human resources HR point of view, you need to track time often when you’re thinking about how you’re paying people or how you’re contracting with the vendors or something like that. From a product management point of view, and especially with companies that are early in their transition from a waterfall to an agile state, and I would argue even for a companies in a waterfall state, one of the first things that the teams who are doing the building need to be able to do is make and meet commitments. So they need to have some predictability associated with how they’re delivering work to the stakeholders on the business side, if you wanna think about business and IT, or commitments made to customers. If you’re thinking about direct relationship between, you know, maybe talking about your roadmap and saying “this is the product we’re going to have in market in the second quarter.” And so, you need some insights that help you manage the work you’re doing in order to be effective at meeting the commitments you’ve made. And so that predictability comes back to, it’s like a feedback loop, if you think about… when you break down your goal into a set of work that you’re going to do and you estimate how long it’s going to take you to do that work or how many of your people or your teams it’s going to take that work. So tracking how long it actually took is an important feedback loop to help you get better at making these estimates.
[00:11:36 – 00:16:14]
Kate: That sounds good. And you said about a transformation of companies from waterfall to agile state. I’d like to ask you how does it look like – that transformation? Are there any stages or something like that? Can you describe it?
Scott: Yeah, so a company I’ve been working with recently called Leaning Agile, has a model and a theory of transformation that I find to be very compelling because there are lots of different ways to do this. And this is an approach that starts up by saying “if you think about where companies often are in the context of their market needs, their market needs could either be rapidly evolving or fairly stagnant.” And the organization can value making commitments or they can value responding to the changes in these market conditions. So you can think of that almost like a two by two. And if you start out with the companies that are struggling because either the market’s rapidly changing or their understanding of the market is rapidly changing. And they’ve got teams that are built not to respond to change but they’re built to sort of orient around predictability. Then you’ve got a bit of a problem because when you set up a project, let’s say it’s gonna take a year, by the time you get that project delivered, the reasons that you started that project in the first place are likely to not be relevant anymore. And you can’t correct the course of the ship along the way because your organization’s not build to do it. And so you can’t immediately, effectively go from that kind of a world to something like a lean startup organization at scale. You can absolutely stand up individual team or teams and let them operate like a lean startup to up they are adapting and responding to changes in the market as quickly as any startup could. But moving an entire organization that way doesn’t work so you go through a journey and in this model from Leaning Agile we talk about sort of a first stage is being able to be predictable. So making the changes to the organization that allow you to make any commitments is the first step. And then that allows you to move down a journey around efficiency and adaptability where the next thing you would do is start to manage work in smaller batch sizes. Because that allows you to put things in market with greater frequency, it allows you to create options that help the organization make changes more rapidly. The next step is around moving dependencies. So you could have tightly coupled system architectures, tightly coupled business processes, teams that are working in a shared code base so a mainframe vs issued systems. All of those different kinds of dependencies are impediments to being able to make changes rapidly so this sort of the next stage in the journey, you look at these impediments in execution that enable you to start making decisions at that faster frequency. And then that moves into being able to distribute some of that decision making and provide some autonomy to the teams that allows them to look more and more likely in a startup.
And so, you can take an organization through that journey and part of the framing that I find really compelling for leading agile is that you can’t just go in and teach somebody how to do Scrum or whatever, for say for at least any of the processes. You can’t just go in and train them and expect it to work. What you have to do in an organization is create the conditions where those methodologies have a chance to succeed. Because each of them has a set of assumptions and preconditions whether it’s around executive support or organizational capability or levels of skill or the people, there are all these things about your organization that have to be true for any of these methodologies to work. And so the transformation process is around making those conditions that allow it to succeed.
[00:16:16 – 00:18:57]
Kate: When we talk about that transformation, do you think there is any good way to predict the risk that is included in all that transformation because I think it’s quite challenging.
Scott: Yes, I don’t know that I know enough to predict the risk of transformation but, from a product management strategy point of view, and this is why it’s such a great question, you don’t transform just because you want to be able to say that you’re agile instead of waterfall. But there’s some reason that your organization needs to have the capability to respond to market changes better. And so the over arching framing of that risk is one of understanding how your market’s evolving, so how your customers and their expectations are changing and how rapidly your competitors can adapt to customer needs. If your competitors are rapidly out at maneuvering you and iterating with new designs and developing new technology, and improving the capabilities of their products, then that’s the risk to your business. And so that’s the context for driving transformation. It’s changing the underlying or the implicit capabilities of your business to compete more effectively. And then, with large companies, when we’re talking with senior leadership, that conversation makes a ton of sense. There’s a struggle because very, very often I think the statistics are over 80%, the people doing the work, so think about your software developers on the team, writing code, they don’t have that appreciation. They very often just asked to write code because somebody asked them to write code. Or maybe they’re writing a code because somebody asked them to build a feature and they know the code is the best way to get there. They are almost never thinking that “I’m writing this code in order to help us be more competitive and respond to our customers in a way that differentiates our products from the other choices those customers have available. That conversation resonates strategically with the leadership of the company and we have to have conversations when we’re working with these companies to help the developers and the individual who are doing the work or organizing like the line managers or product managers and product owners within to help them orient around that.
[00:18:58 – 00:22:26]
Kate: Okay, so let’s switch to the more creative part of the interview. And I’d like to ask you, what inspires you in your work? Do you find any particular things or maybe books that inspire you or maybe it’s something else?
Scott: So one of the drives for me is a little bit selfish. If I’m able to help companies create better products, then they’re gonna be better products in the market for me. I’ll drive a nicer car that has an instrument panel and the entertainment system and all that will work better. I’ll be able to get in a car and… Like you know, you have cars today, like some of the fancier cars, you adjust the mirrors and your seat, you get it just right, and then when you get out and somebody else drives a car and they adjust it when you get back it will remember your settings. And the car will switch back and forth. That’s pretty cool. But what would be really awesome would be, if any time I get into any car, so I travel a lot for work and I get a lot of rental cars, whenever I get into one of those cars, each should know my settings to. If every car from the auto manufacturer would be able to remember and know who I am and adjust to my settings that would be really pretty cool. And that’s the kind of thing that, when I’m helping companies with the product strategy I would help them figure out if that’s something that benefits them and they now make a better product and then I get to use it as a consumer. So that’s sort of a selfish thing for me.
And then I guess sort of the other thing is I really like figuring out the solutions so the engineering me to these really tricky problems, you know, you have simple problems that are easy to understand but difficult to overcome and then you have complicated problems that have a lot of moving pieces but once you get your arms wrapped around them, and you straightforward yourself. And then you have complex problems where things are really interdependent and you can create a situation where improving one aspect of the reality actually is detrimental to another aspect and so you have to balance those things out. And those are the kinds of problems that, I guess, invigorate me intellectually. I enjoy really trying to peel back the pieces of these complex and multidisciplinary problems, understanding how it impacts the people culturally and perceptively, making sure that when we help with transmission, we want to create the situation where people get greater enrichment and satisfaction from the work that they’re doing because that’s the right thing to do. But also from a company’s benefit, people who are enriched and enjoy their work, do better work. So we wanna help company be more competitive, we want a company be more efficient, and we want to make that reality better for the people. And sometimes the goals of one advancing one goal can undermine the others so I enjoy solving those kinds of complicated problems.
[00:22:27 – 00:25:58]
Kate: That’s a good source of inspiration. Are there any books that you would recommend or maybe you don’t really read books? 😉
Scott: Oh no, I read too many. And there’s too many to recommend. So I’ll throw out a few answers sort of in context. As a strategy book, there is a book by Richard Rumelt called Good Strategy/Bad Strategy. And so for people who are trying to figure out how to frame everything that you’re doing so as a company or a government or a non-profit organization, your reason for existence sits at the top of that and then everything that you’re doing unpacks underneath that. So Good Startegy/Bad Strategy is a game changing book for framing that. If I dive down into sort of, something a little bit more actionable, especially for people in smaller companies, I would look at the book like Value Proposition Design or the classics like Four Steps to the Epiphany, and Inspired by Marty Cagan that all takes sor of a product and business value orientation of thinking about how you’re trying to engage with your market in the nearer term so one to three years, so that kind of stuff, or even day to day. There’s another direction, one of the challenges in solving larger problems is getting teams to work together effectively and it isn’t the sort of commanding control model like you would imagine in a manufacturer so very often there’s a lot of interesting work being done to help tap the creative insights from people. And there’s a book called Innovation Games written by Luke Hohmann that provides a lot of sort of workshop and facilitation techniques for bringing people together to solve interesting and difficult problems and reach consensus and get on the same page and focus in a line. And it just to me opens up a lot of compelling ways to approach solving problems.
[00:25:59 – 00:26:15]
Kate: And I’d like to ask you, also, what is the number one rule in your work, in your strategies maybe that you cant imagine your work without?
Scott: The number one thing would have to be value-orientation. And I have this conversation over and over again in different ways and different levels. When you’re creating the product, you don’t get to define whether or not that product is providing value, your customer does. Another way to say it is that your customer has a problem that they’re trying to solve. And they can talk about how they would measure success at solving that problem and they might consider using some tools or products to help them solve it. And do your goal is to help them pick your product as part of how they solve their problem. And that framing helps you align toward something that’s valuable for them. It gives you a little bit of corporate humility and some perspective that really helps you make better decisions about understanding your competitors too. That’s probably that one thing.
Kate: Okay, and my last question, which refers to the podcast name, which is Stay on Top of Your Work, how do you stay on top of your work?
Scott: It’s a struggle for me just like it’s a struggle for everyone else. I’m trying to regularly balance important and urgent. And managing things, I’m not as rigorous as I could be, like using a canva board to manage the flow of activities and break them down. But I do stay fairly goal-oriented and I have almost sort of a sloppy version of the old 43 folders. I know that some things are coming up, I knew that we were gonna have this conversation today and so I had time set aside to make sure that we could do this effectively, that I could be in a quiet space, and you know, be thoughtful as we talk. And so a lot of my energy’s right now being focused in a way where I’m not really sure which client I’m gonna be working with a month from now. You know, sometimes I’ll work with one client for several months in a row, the last couple months it’s almost sort of been a week to week thing and I’m not doing as much long-range planning in terms of my day to day activities. But then I have these important things that sort of run as a background threat. And I’m gradually building a product management practice, I have some ongoing teaching that I do at a couple of product management and master’s degree programmers and thinking about evolving that body of work in the background, I guess I have my own sort of personal parallel to a proportional investment strategy so as a company I might say we’re gonna spend 30% of our energies understanding this new market we’re trying to enter and 40% of our energies really improving the company’s ability to be competitive so fixing bugs, cleaning up legacy code, technical debt, broken windows, improving efficiency, that sort of thing. And the remained of our percentage is focused in some different areas. So I have in my head something sort of like that and I do far more content switching than I probably should.
Kate: Now, now, that’s fine! Okay, Scott, it was my pleasure to talk to you today, thank you for coming here. I enjoyed our conversation and I wish you all the best.
Scott: Thank you so much and to you, this was really a pleasure for me and again thank you so much for the invitation. It’s flattering and appreciated.
Kate: Thank you, Scott. And you guys make sure to check out our information below the podcast about Scott and to always stay on top of your work, subscribe to get more information. See you next time, bye bye.
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