From Zero From the First 20 Customers
13 August, 2021
We started a small cross-functional team that was tasked to find new solutions for a problem area that was relatively unknown to us. We cooperated closely with public schools, so we started to work on a product that would help school districts measure the usefulness and effectiveness of educational technology used in the classroom. It was merely an idea, nowhere near reaching the product-market fit.
A streamlined team process was critical to finding a solution that would work for customers. We gathered a team of three engineers, a designer, an EM, and me as a product manager; all of us coming from different teams. Though we were motivated, we didn’t know what we should be working on. We were given two months before a school year would start to figure something out. We were left wondering what would be the best way to approach this problem area and how to align the team with no clear direction.
We knew from the start that we could come up with a meaningful solution only if we had solid team processes in place. For starters, we wanted people on the team to have strong ownership over the problem and be aligned in their actions. Whatever a process we would come with, it should support rapid iteration because we were uncertain what solution we should deliver to customers.
The first thing we wanted to figure out was how to stay close to customers week after week. We got everyone on the team involved in interviews with school districts and have them share interviews publicly. We were focused on building relationships and enhancing interaction and would keep scheduling interviews even if we didn’t have anything new to offer to them. During the interviews, we focused on key problems customers wanted to solve today. Rather than focusing on future problems or long-term vision, we wanted to learn what they were struggling with today.
We operated as a team on a weekly cadence. Every week we would sit together and brainstorm. We used our brainstorming sessions to prioritize on our objectives. We had to stay focused and thus would never allow for more than two or three things to be on the board. All of the things that would be placed on the board would be weekly objectives. In the early days, we didn’t want any tasks to be added there. Instead, all objectives were reasonably achievable within a week, concrete and clearly articulated as outcomes. For example, find one school district that will agree to use our prototype in 200 classes. As this example illustrates, we had a clear outcome without knowing what the solution was. To achieve that objective, two people would work on it throughout the week, which would entail talking to multiple customers.
We would meet every day to estimate how confident we were that we could reach a certain objective. Instead of having weekly standups to discuss status reports, we would daily discuss how confident we were to achieve our current goals.
Once we had a clear understanding of the problem, we had to approach it holistically and cross-research different districts. We wanted to learn what technology was used in the classroom. The problem was that many school leaders didn’t have an idea of what was used in the classroom. We reached out to our allies -- school districts that were quite willing to work with us on solving their problems -- and tried to dig deeper. Each person on a team acted as a liaison officer for a specific district. They would be responsible for one particular customer and would try to learn as much as possible about them. We soon were able to compile a quite exhaustive list of our customers’ needs. The process was structured in a way that allowed us to learn from people who were top experts in their field; they knew better about the challenges of applying educational technology in the classroom than we could ever figure out by ourselves.
We moved a long way from total uncertainty to understanding the problem that we could solve in a short period of time. We built a solution that allowed school districts to roll out a piece of technology to all of their devices. By using our solution, they could see a table of all of their applications that are used. We came up with something valuable to our customers because we created a streamlined team process where everyone took ownership and engaged with talking to customers.
- Trust your team to own outcomes instead of tasks. When working on an unfolding product where things need to reiterate fast, giving people autonomy and responsibility is incredibly important. It starts with assigning individuals on the team with clear outcomes. It provides a balance between accountability and agility and allows people on the team to drive their initiatives.
- Even in uncertain circumstances, you can build alignment within a team. One of the ways to do it is by getting everyone close to customers and having them understand the context in which customers are operating.
- The key to our success was that we were tremendously focused. We used a whiteboard to prioritize even if that format doesn’t feel natural to limit things because physical constraints are hard to mimic in a remote environment. What helped was to make an arbitrary rule that you can only do two things at once. Choosing mediums that support that kind of thinking can be critical in streamlining team processes.
- Once we became successful, we had to transition from this iterative stage where everyone was involved with everything to the stage where people were more specialized and owned long-term projects. It is important to plan for that moment when a weekly iteration and goal-setting will no longer make sense.
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Individual Contributors are familiar with a technical development framework that helps them with building products. Managers, especially new managers can leverage a parallel framework to help them build their teams while drawing analogies from an already familiar framework.
Viswa Mani Kiran Peddinti
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