Using A Theme For Your Product Release
Using themes - to help your products and team to stay more focused and on track.
One technique that can be used to focus your team's efforts and simplify the business process is to use product themes.
This typical product planning process of gathering data and delivering an MRD/PRD presents 2 challenges:
- How does the Product Manager prioritize, rank and make sense of what sometimes amounts to hundreds or thousands of feature requests?
- When new features are proposed after the functional spec and schedule are frozen, how can they be evaluated to determine whether it is reasonable to consider risking the schedule to include them?
Using a theme for marketing your product can make both of these dramatically easier.
To create a theme take the original list of feature requests and begin to classify them into similar categories to see if any trends emerge. It might be that the majority of requests are for product stability or for increased performance. There might be a trend towards better security in the product, or a trend towards multi-user collaboration. The key is to identify whether there are one or two high-level categories that have a large number of features that fall under them.
If you can identify one or two, then you can go to your team and propose using a theme for your product release. Your theme might be "Security and Performance", "Secure Collaboration", "Extreme Ease of Use" or something else in line with what you are trying to accomplish. Come up with a good name for it and then meet with engineering and other teams who have a stake in the product and get them to buy into this as the primary theme for the product.
So why go to this extra work? There are many reasons.
- First, writing the MRD or PRD will be far easier because you'll have a focal point around which to make decisions and tradeoffs. You'll have some context for making your high-level decisions about what is in and what is out of the release.
- Second, when one of your engineers or salespeople insists on adding a new feature to a brand late in the development process, you can ask whether it falls under the theme of this release. If it does, maybe it should be considered. If not, it is much easier to defer it to one of the next releases. (you may even want some high-level theme names to use as placeholders for upcoming releases as well so that people can see where their deferred suggestions might fit into the future product roadmap).
I have used this approach several times as a Product Manager with great success. One product that I used themes on was an all-in-one Internet appliance for small businesses named the Whistle InterJet (server, router, etc.). The theme for one of the releases was "Total Control", which included being able to monitor and control website usage by employees, perform basic spam blocking, and limit the hours of usage of the device to business hours. When new feature requests came in we as a team could immediately ask "Does this fit under the theme of Total Control?" If so, then we evaluated whether it was worth risking the schedule and what the resource implications would be.
Oftentimes the team was much more understanding if their feature wasn't included because they saw that it didn't fit in with the theme, yet they could see where it would fit in the future. Of course, not all of the new features will fit cleanly under the theme you choose. There will be some required features that have to be put in even if they have nothing to do with the theme (bug fixes, must-have requests to close deals, competitive pressure, etc.). But using this approach will help your products and team to stay more focused and on track, and will result in a higher likelihood of meeting the schedule and delivering a great product.
Brian Lawley is the CEO and founder of the 280 Group (www.280group.com), and has shipped more than fifty successful products. He is the former President of the Silicon Valley Product Management Association, won the 2008 AIPMM award for Excellence in Thought Leadership for Product Management and is the author of the best-selling books, Expert Product Management and The Phenomenal Product Manager.