Focus Your Product Perspective

September 9, 2022
Focus your Perspective

Have you ever tried to work with someone with the best of intentions, but it ends in a shouting match? Or walking away with the same or more problems than you started?

A colleague was dealing with helping their client with upcoming milestones, and it felt like a similar situation was inevitable. He wanted to ensure that the client was informed and understood (really understood) where their product stood.

I’ve struggled through those situations and learned a few things along the way. Here’s what I suggested, to ensure we don’t devolve into shouting.

Establish Your North Star

My colleague noted that discussions wandered into details that didn’t pertain to the immediate goal. (Squirrel!) While the discussions weren’t bad or negative, they weren’t moving toward the immediate goal. This is where a mission statement comes in handy.

A mission statement establishes an intentional scope or milestone for the product/program for a period of time. This period is often a release of a product or a year of the program. Once the milestone is complete, a new mission statement is established. The new mission should account for the changing landscape and learnings realized. (This is not to be confused with a vision statement, which outlines the long-term direction or goal of the product/program as a whole.)

Squirrel (Up, Disney Pixar)
Squirrel! (Up, Disney Pixar)

When conversations start to go in the weeds (Squirrel!), use the mission statement to rein it in. Ask questions like:

  • Does this new feature get us closer to the milestone as outlined in our mission statement?
  • Is this off-brand for the personas we’re trying to target in this release?
  • Did we uncover a new, untapped vein of the product?

New discoveries can prompt new missions, and that’s ok. However, they shouldn’t stop the mission at hand. Having a parking lot or backlog for such ideas ensures people are heard. This allows the current mission to continue while the new ideas can be vetted for a later time.

People with the best intentions can still derail good work without realizing it. Establishing intentional boundaries helps keep everyone honest. Especially when many have input into the mission statement.

Don’t Make It Personal

My colleague mentioned that certain stakeholders seemed to have an agenda. We all do, whether we realize it as intentional or not. But this stakeholder felt emotionally tied to their idea, more so than expected.

When someone gets in this mindset, they could feel personally insulted or attacked by critiquing their ideas. To combat this, focus on the product and its users using facts and data.

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
– Captain Spock, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Focusing on the product’s users redirects attention away from the stakeholder. This also creates empathy with the product’s users and their concerns, which will produce a better product in the end. Putting ourselves in the users’ shoes gets us out of the stakeholder’s shoes. Ideally, the product takes on its own identity separated from the individuals, thus allowing critique free of personal judgement.

All we want are the facts, ma’am.
– Joe Friday, Dragnet

To put extra distance from the stakeholder’s emotions, we focus on facts and data. Having information as the “bad guy” may sound dry or disconnected, but it is better than a person in the room getting singled out. If we can use the information our client has provided, all the better, as it increases our credibility.

However, as the saying goes, you can twist data to say whatever you want it to. To address this, we add a bit of empathy and intentionality toward being the best partner for our client. We want the right answer, not just to keep our job.

At the end of the day, the stakeholder’s emotion is manifesting from somewhere they haven’t or can’t verbalize. Digging in by asking “Why?” a few times can help unearth the source of the emotion. The stakeholder will feel better to be heard, and the team will better understand the context going forward.

Work Backwards

My colleague was having an especially difficult time convincing his client around the appropriate feature prioritization. This pain centered around upcoming milestones and what was feasible to do in that timeframe. We used what we discussed earlier to talk facts around our mission.

Start with the end in mind.
– Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

While all of Stephen Covey’s habits apply, starting from the end and working backwards helps bring things into focus. We knew the features wanted. We knew when the release needed to occur, based on other business/manufacturing factors. However, working backwards showed that not all the features could be done in time. So, now what?

Crucial Conversations

Earlier we said the client told us the features they wanted. But we don’t know the features the client actually needs. It’s a subtle, yet crucial, difference.

There are a variety of ways to elicit the necessary information. We landed on using more conversational techniques, since these could be easily injected into the natural discussions of the pre-arranged meeting. From there, we are able to drive for understanding and sharing, without deviating from the agenda too much.

We focused on a couple major areas to uncover next steps.

Kitchen Sink Syndrome

Many clients have their feature list and take an “all or nothing” mentality with it. In reality, the features must have a unique, ordered priority.

Here is a theoretical scenario: A client says they want it all (and the kitchen sink). You ask them to rank the list. You get a list with 90+% of the items #1 priority and the rest #2 priority. How do we respond? They’ve just told us all the 1’s are “equal”. Here’s where I can be sneaky: I put something I know is high priority right next to the 2’s at the bottom of the list. The client objects because it is obviously higher priority. Now we have a conversation about why and start putting things in a real order, from 1 to 100 with no duplicates.

Now, I say that was a theoretical scenario, but parts of it probably hit home. The important part is that the features are all ordered, not simply bucketed into high, medium, low.

However, the really important part is to acknowledge that the order should not be set in stone. You learn things. Markets change. The client gets a new CEO with a new direction. A pandemic occurs. You need to be flexible and adaptable, with appropriate processes in place to ensure you aren’t changing direction every other day.

Risk Management

Risk isn’t just a board game. It can come in many forms and is entangled in the ebb and flow of any product. How we address and handle risk can make or break a product.

A risk more technical in nature is that of incorporating something that fundamentally changes a large footprint of the product. While the user impact is seemingly minor, much more is hidden underneath, like an iceberg. We have to ask:

  • Is that minor feature enough to warrant such a risk?
  • Will the change enable many more enhancements in the future that makes it worth the risk?
  • Is someone trying to buzzword-bingo to appease a superior?
  • Is there a company initiative driving a requirement that conflicts with the direction of the product?

Lack of clarity (some may call is “hand waving”) is another type of risk. Some of our client’s features were nebulous. Our forecasts to complete them varied from 2 to 8 weeks. That kind of range imposes too much risk to a schedule. Spending time to learn, define, and refine the feature will narrow the forecast range, while also addressing needs vs. wants. That’s what I call a risk reduction.

By recognizing the risks in this vein, we acknowledge that our choices are intentional. These choices should be recorded, so they can be referenced as mission direction, but also challenged if the landscape changes.


Whatever the situation, you can work to a solution given the right tools and right state of mind. Focus and align everyone’s perspective on what’s important for the product.

I’m told our follow-up conversations with our client were well-received. While not everything was answered, the immediate release was addressed with healthy questions posed to the client. We’re researching additional ways to be the best partner for our client and living out one of SEP’s core values: Awesome today, better tomorrow.