With eight months under my belt as Head of Product at EP, I’ve been reflecting on the challenging and highly enjoyable start to the role. With an influx of new users due to COVID-19, we’ve seen our opportunities for improvement vastly accelerated and magnified – helping us form a laser focus on what matters. Below is a brief snapshot of some of the key things I’ve learned along the way.

Prioritising a backlog is not the same as having a vision

Are we building an annotation feature, or improving our onboarding experience? Working on reporting for senior leaders or launching EP Studio? Building video-conferencing now that we’re in a new world of remote learning? I must admit it can be a lot of fun when you are in the game of haggling which exciting new things to build next. But there are many problems with this approach:

  • the focus skews towards solutions rather than problems to solve; building a shiny new thing rather than necessarily maximising benefit for users
  • it risks recency bias, or bias towards the idea that has the best ‘salesperson’ pitching it
  • most people walk away disappointed that their priority list isn’t the one we’re following

We recently developed a clear vision and ‘winning aspiration’ for our EP for School product. I must admit, I can’t recall the last time EP had a clearly articulated product vision before that. We have been far from rudderless – we have a strong consensus of where we are going and why. Despite this, it can be tempting to distract yourself with all of the exciting opportunities that are out there to chase. While keeping an eye to the ground and open mind are important, it is essential to draw the line between the business-as-usual pushing towards your established goals, vs. conscious choices to chase a new opportunity. The risk of spreading focus too thin and not achieving much of anything anywhere is very real.

The Gantt of crushed hopes and broken promises

Don’t get me wrong, visibility of what to expect in the coming months is essential. Sales & marketing and customer success need visibility to help in planning and comms with customers. It’s also healthy to set ambitious goals for driving product development. But predicting delivery beyond more than a couple sprints gets murkier and murkier, to the point of risking being highly counter-productive the further out you go. This is due to two universal truths:

  1. estimation is hard, and especially so for problems that are loosely defined and where you haven’t taken the time to properly scope what the solution might look like
  2. it’s ok (in fact, required) to continue to evaluate priorities regularly, to evolve your plan as you learn more

Previously, we’ve tried slotting in a bunch of projects in a 12 month view. Looking back at the one produced late 2019, it’s almost laughable how off-base it has proven to be. Sure, a lot of the ‘projects’ are the same as what we’ve done, but the order and development time are wildly departed from reality and there are a few key things missing or additional. So we’ve ditched the 12 month Gantt Chart roadmap, and are working with a combo of 12-week product & engineering planner and a now, next, later roadmap:

Now Next Later
Image courtesy of: https://www.prodpad.com/blog/how-to-build-a-product-roadmap-everyone-understands/

We’ve found that the beauty of this approach is a nice balance between clarity and confidence in the short term vs. healthy discovery and debate the further out you go. Like all of these things, a hybrid can often be the best approach – we’ve recently framed our Now and Next as ‘the things we are aiming to get done by the end of 2020’. We’ll give that a crack and then iterate again when we need to.

Saying no is hard, but not saying no is even harder

This is a bit of an extension of the previous points, but worth calling out as a common symptom of an unclear vision or dodgy roadmapping. When where you are going and why is not clearly understood and accepted, each new idea is just that much more difficult to evaluate alongside the rest, and a ‘no’ or ‘not yet’ more difficult to explain. A clear plan can help to focus the wider team, and allow them to evaluate for themselves whether an idea has merit to push into the mix – does it fit our direction? If so, how? If not, is it really worthy of a discussion to change our tack?

The risk of not having the confidence to say ‘no’ or ‘not yet’ is twofold; ongoing debate of the merits of an initiative can become a distraction, and their proponents can become disengaged and disillusioned at a lack of progress. The trick is to: 

“Find out how to master the art of saying no with empathy, so you can maintain positive relationships and stop all those zombie ideas from haunting you.”

Holly Donohue, Mind the Product

Remember to stop and smell the roses

It’s natural to want everything bigger, better, faster, swishier, and to want it all now. But you can’t have it all now, and in fact might not have it all anytime soon.

While I’m a big believer in the power of lofty goals and ambitious targets, it’s also really helpful to sometimes look back and remind yourself what we’ve been doing and how far we’ve come. Consider the marathon, not just the sprint. Remember when a million users seemed a long way off? We have that now. When going global was one of the pitches in the business plan? We’re in over 50 countries now, and growing.

If we’ve achieved all of that, then we can move forward with equally ambitious goals, with the confidence that we have the people and the product to achieve them.

– James Santure | EP Head of Product