Use experimentation to become more ambitious

When faced with a choice between two implementation paths, in their relentless pursuit of delivery momentum, many teams can fall into the habit of choosing the path of least resistance. This is an easy way to preserve their momentum, which is often what management is judging them by (through either qualitative or quantitative means). While I'm an advocate of reducing scope when it doesn't jeopardise intended outcomes, always choosing the easiest pathway for implementation can cause problems in the long-term. For example, engineers often decide whether they want to build a new feature using their usual (potentially outdated) technical patterns or take the opportunity to modernise their technical approach. By always sticking to the status quo out of a fear that modernisation will come with unknowns that could delay delivery, teams are ensuring a future of technical debt and stagnation (in spite of what appears at first to be a healthy momentum). This same mindset applies to how ambitious teams are from a product innovation perspective.

By encouraging a culture of experimentation, businesses can avoid this trap. A Definition of Ready for initiatives can help with this. While today it is the norm for product development teams to have a Definition of Ready for stories and tasks, this concept is rarely extended to initiatives. By setting some basic confidence requirements before new initiatives kick off, teams can become more ambitious and innovative.

For the uninitiated, a Definition of Ready is an agreed upon minimum set of requirements that must be met on a story before it can be picked up for execution. For example, teams may agree that before they start work on a story, they must first estimate its size and agreed upon some acceptance criteria. Ratification of a Definition of Ready can be a great way to ensure a team maintains a healthy momentum: by ensuring work is always ready to be executed before it is picked up, unexpected pauses in the flow of delivery can be avoided.

This idea extends to initiatives. At a bare minimum, I believe it is critical to define intended outcomes before committing to an initiative. Teams can also lean towards more ambitious and innovative solutions by holding themselves accountable to have a certain degree of confidence in their high-level implementation plan, and making the space to experiment in advance to improve their confidence in the solutions they have in mind for future initiatives. Essentially: start with the most ambitious implementation path that is reasonable, make space to experiment (before the initiative truly begins and decisions become urgent) and use the outcomes of these experiments to inform the technical approach.

by Brandon Sheppard

Digital advertising monopolies and user privacy

Big Tech in-fighting has highlighted the tension between privacy and digital marketing. Personally, I prefer not to be tracked, profiled and targeted. I also appreciate and have depended on targeted digital marketing to build products. So, while I'm undecided on where we should draw the line, here is a summary of how I see the current situation.

Advertising platforms collect most user data through tracking scripts on ecommerce and media websites. Business owners willingly install these scripts on their websites so that they can track conversions and user behaviour. This tracking, amongst other things, allows them to see which off-site ads prompted their users to purchase a product on their website. Advertising platforms combine this data with other data they have on these users to refine their profile of each user and improve their targeting. This data collection technology, which relies on third-party cookies (i.e., a method to match a single user across multiple websites), is actually relatively simple and is not just used by the juggernauts like Facebook and Google. For example, most email marketing apps use similar methods to determine which email campaigns best convert email recipients into paying customers.

This ability to attribute sales to specific marketing campaigns was the first great innovation of the online marketing and advertising platforms. Prior to this, it was difficult to determine whether sales results were actually due to advertising campaigns (e.g., on TV or a billboard). Attribution made internet advertising a superior medium and targeting was the next great innovation.

Advertising platforms like Facebook and Google collect data about users so that they can refine their targeting capabilities. The more they know about an audience, the more targeted they can be. The more specifically targeted each ad is, the more supply they can squeeze into their audience. Ultimately, this results in lower advertising costs and less complexity for advertisers (see Lookalike Audiences), which lowers the barrier-to-entry for businesses wanting to promote their products. Many great businesses, especially ecommerce and software startups, would not exist today if it weren’t for these innovations in advertising.

Apple has recently blocked third-party cookies in the Safari web browser, and the writing is on the wall that they’ll be going further to further restrict the type of tracking that enables the marketing platforms to track users across websites. Firefox lead the charge and even Google Chrome has decided to head in the same direction. Google’s compliance should ring alarm bells for anyone cheering Apple’s move given Google benefits greatly from this type of tracking and are unlikely to have had a change of heart on the ethics of cross-site tracking. Indeed, there are other ways to track users across websites using server side events, which are much more effort but a no brainer for website platforms to support for the likes of Google and Facebook. Google is also uniquely positioned to utilise first-party data to profile users. If anything, this cements the dominance of the major players in digital advertising while raising the barrier to entry for competitors.

Another important detail to consider when criticising the big players in online advertising is the alternatives. Google and Facebook have competitive incentives to protect user data as their ability to segment audiences is their major competitive advantage. Other players in this space do not have the same scale and therefore have a lot more to gain from selling the data they collect.

Ultimately, there is tension and nuance when it comes to tracking on the web:

  • While the dominance of Google and Facebook is bad for competition in the advertising space, their capabilities are very good for small businesses wanting to grow through advertising. Before targeted digital advertising existed, the monopoly was held by large advertisers.
  • Recent changes, driven by the likes of Mozilla and Apple, are more likely to solidify the dominance of Google and Facebook, who have huge first-party properties they can rely on. While this is bad for competition in the advertising space, it is potentially good for users from a privacy perspective, as these companies are the most capable and incentivised to protect actual user data.
  • A world without targeted advertising would be a step backwards for small businesses and competition in all industries (other than the advertising industry).
by Brandon Sheppard

Defining the role of a product manager

Below is a playbook I've used to describe the responsibilities of a product manager for hiring and professional development purposes.

Product managers wear many hats. First and foremost, you are a member of a cross-functional product development team—a team which you will work to support in a number of ways with your experience with business and technology.

Product managers are responsible for ensuring:

  • Their team is rallied behind a unified vision and each member thoroughly understands the impact this vision has on the team, the business, customers and the wider industry.
  • Outcomes are prioritised over outputs and scope is lean enough to deliver value without unnecessary effort.
  • The product(s) they represent have clearly-defined value propositions which are thoroughly understood by each member of their team as well as all internal and external stakeholders.
  • Initiatives are properly scrutinised and considered before they commence and the appropriate documentation (e.g., an initiative brief) has been completed.
  • Customer engagement (e.g., customer interviews, site visits) within their team is frequent and productive. Customer needs are considered and form the basis of decision making within the team.
  • Upcoming work and progress on work is shared frequently and clearly with the wider organisation, particularly key stakeholders.
  • Data is intelligently and transparently consulted to aid decision making wherever possible.
  • Features and products are released with minimal friction.
  • The business (e.g., sales, marketing, customer support) has an understanding of their product and its features and is capable to support and sell it.

Role components

Build, measure & learn to make complex easy.

  • Help your team to define outcome-centric initiatives, user stories and tasks, aligned to the vision, values and measures to which your team is aligned.
  • Define success and failure measures, and ensure every completed task and initiative is measured and assessed by this criteria.
  • Document and regularly share learnings with your team and the wider business.
  • Demonstrate and reflect on value delivered, or undelivered.
  • Encourage your team to embrace complexity and remove uncertainty through experimentation.
  • Encourage a culture of learning and sharing. Every initiative or task is an experiment to be validated.

Bring value to market

Your team is accountable for the adoption and utilisation of the products and features you develop. The buck stops with you, so you need to:

  • Ensure the wider business understands how your product works, who it’s intended for and the benefits it delivers. Personally involve yourself in efforts to demonstrate and expose what you are building.
  • Provide marketing and sales with the information they require to execute launch campaigns and ongoing marketing/sales efforts.
  • Test solutions with customers and prospects.
  • Measure the outcomes of what is being built.
  • Practice radical transparency with your colleagues, especially when it comes to data and other information you may have special access to.
  • Be frugal and pragmatic. Cutting scope is a good thing, we're looking for outcomes, not lines of code.

Communication and visualisation

In case it’s not already apparent—transparency is key. You are responsible for:

  • Clearly and regularly communicating development milestones, key decisions and customer insights, to stakeholders.
  • Experimenting with and finding effective ways to visualise and disseminate information.
  • Keep your team in the loop. We work hard to give our teams as much autonomy as possible, but sometimes priorities will change for reasons outside of their control. You need to ensure they don’t feel caught off guard.
  • You are the face of your product(s) and will be required to regularly represent your product(s) to various audiences including your team, the wider business, partners, customers, prospects and industry peers.

Customer intimacy

You must bridge the gap between your team and the customer:

  • Engage with those who speak more regularly with customers (e.g., customer success, support, sales).
  • Cut out the middleman. Go see your customers in person and contact them over the phone.
  • Find quantitative ways to engage. Interviews and surveys are great, but also consider how you can analyse the data we have (e.g., support tickets, ideas, phone calls, bug submissions) to understand the market.
  • Represent the business and the user, but don’t monopolise your insights. Don’t just represent the needs of external parties—expose your team to these parties. Your team should be able to prioritise work without you.

Further reading

Product managers come with a range of strengths and weaknesses. When building a product team, it is important to keep this in mind and hire for complimentary strengths. Neal Cabage's Product Team Competencies is a fantastic resource to better understand this.

by Brandon Sheppard

In defence of cutting scope

Scope cutters can get a bad rap. We've all experienced situations where a team, under the pressure of a looming deadline, is forced to remove functionality from their upcoming delivery and the result is an unworkable feature that does not meet user needs. So, it's understandable that when the scope of a feature is cut during the development cycle, this is often met with cynacism and disappointment.

It doesn't always have to go this way, though. When trimming scope, teams should keep in mind the intended outcomes of their initiative, which should've been explicitly set before execution began. If the particular reduction they're tempted to ratify significantly reduces the likelihood of achieving intended outcomes, teams are probably better off simply taking more time to finish their work.

This goes the other way, too! Teams should be encouraged to safely reduce scope, even when they're not pressed for time, in cases where desired outcomes are not at risk. Less complexity will lead to shorter cycle times and make delivery more straight forward. And, by getting a slimmer implementation out into the wild first, teams may realise they never needed the heftier scope to begin with. Over multiple iterations, this will lead to more frequent delivery of value and greater ROI.

by Brandon Sheppard

Thoughts on the Australian Government's draft news media and digital platforms mandatory bargaining code

For ones success at the expense of the other, should the automotive industry have been forced to subsidise the horse and carriage industry? As ridiculous and anti-progress as this sounds, this is essentially what the Australian Government's draft news media and digital platforms mandatory bargaining code argues. Earlier this year, the Australian Government requested the ACCC to address the alleged "bargaining power imbalance" between news media businesses and Facebook and Google. The resulting proposal is incredibly misguided, big-government hypocrisy from the small-government Liberal party and should alarm Australian residents and businesses previously under the impression that the parliament, and not News Corp, was the highest governing body in the land.

While it is unfortunately common for large companies to lobby for regulation to cement their dominance into law, it is rare for government handouts, in the form of market regulation, to be as blatant and bold as the ACCCs draft news media bargaining code. At a high-level, the draft proposes:

  • Facebook and Google must provide advance notice of changes to their content ranking algorithms.
  • Facebook and Google must compensate news media businesses (who qualify) for original content shared on their platforms.
  • Facebook and Google must give news media businesses (who qualify) more control over user comments and user data as it pertains to interactions with their respective content.
  • Facebook and Google must let news media businesses opt-out of their content being shared on their platforms.

The premise of this proposal misunderstands the way value currently flows between news organisations and social media. While it is likely true that audiences are shifting their attention from news media to social media, this is not happening because social media companies are taking anything from news businesses:

  • News content ends up on Facebook because it is shared by users, in the form of links which direct new users back to news websites. In this sense, Facebook is, for free, increasing the accessible audience for news businesses, not decreasing.
  • To read news content posted on Facebook, users must navigate to the source website. Facebook is not stealing any content, merely linking to it.
  • Facebook users do not go to Facebook primarily for news content and Facebook is not competing as a news business. Facebook simply shows users what their friends are posting and even has a preference for more personal content. Audiences turning their attention from older media to newer media is an inevitable constant through human history.
  • Google is in the business of information discovery and is not the gatekeeper the ACCC seems to imagine it is. Like Facebook, Google directs traffic towards news destinations and is best thought of as an upstream sales channel to these websites that can acquire a massive new audience via both platforms. If someone was sending a big chunk of new prospective customers your way, would you then expect them to also pay you for the trouble?

Either this proposal is written by people with a fundamental misunderstanding of how social and news media interact, or it is written to achieve specific outcomes for specific beneficiaries at the expense of specific parties and is not concerned with the flow of value. I suspect the latter given the proposal calls out Google and Facebook by name and sets a high bar to qualify as a beneficiary.

Industry regulation should make competition fair and protect consumers by setting the rules for industry. Anyone should be able to play provided they play by these rules. This proposal does not set the rules for industry and is instead targeted at specific companies determined to be bad actors as the FAQ for the code itself boldly calls out:

Digital platforms must participate in the code if the Treasurer makes a determination specifying that the code would apply to them. The Government has announced that the code would initially apply only to Facebook and Google.

Regulation as arbitrary as this, that applies to you simply because the Treasurer decides it does, is an outrageous overstepping of power that makes investing in the Australian market increasingly risky and unappealing, and reeks of an invitation for future contenders to seek backchannel deals to avoid inclusion on the list. What criteria were used to include Facebook and not Twitter in this? What must they do to appease the Government to ensure they don't end up included in the future?

As bold as the ACCC is to call out Google and Facebook by name, they've exercised some restraint by not mentioning News Corp as the core beneficiary. They have, however, defined the criteria to qualify through a conveniently specific description of News Corp that also limits any benefit to upstart competitors.

Based on the news sources they nominate, news media businesses can participate in the code if:

  • They predominantly produce ‘core news’, and publish this online: The draft code defines ‘core news’ as journalism on publicly significant issues; journalism that engages Australians in public debate and informs democratic decision making; and journalism relating to community and local events. Some examples of this kind of journalism are political reporting, court, and crime reporting.
  • They adhere to appropriate professional editorial standards: These can include editorial standards set by the Press Council or the Independent Media Council; editorial standards set in relevant media industry codes; or equivalent internal editorial standards.
  • They operate primarily in Australia for the purpose of serving Australian audiences. In addition to the criteria above, an eligible news media business’s annual revenue must exceed $150,000, in either the most recent financial year or in three out of the five most recent financial years.

In conclusion, Australians should consider:

  • What type of influence did Rupert Murdoch's News Corp have on the drafting of this legislation and the politicians that have promoted it? Is this how Australians want federal laws to be drafted? Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has numerous times called for a royal commission into News Corp and its impact on Australian democracy.
  • Are there ways to address the various legitimate concerns regarding big tech without a handout to Rupert Murdoch?
  • Should it be acceptable for the government to target specific companies with regulation rather than broader industries?
  • Should the Australian Government be doing any favours at all for news media businesses that have significant sway on public opinion and election outcomes?

All excerpts are sourced from the ACCCs Q&As: Draft news media and digital platforms mandatory bargaining code document.

by Brandon Sheppard

Defining initiatives with at outcome mindset

When starting an initiative, it is important to focus on the desired outcome before jumping to solutions. A simple first step towards becoming an outcome-focused organisation is to change how you define initiatives. Many companies define initiatives in an output- or idea-centric manner, where the focus is on the specific desired scope. This can lead to confusion around why we're actually tackling an initiative. It also limits us to only think about the suggested idea, rather than alternatives. Better and simpler ideas are often waiting to be found.

Output-centric initiative

At most organisations, initiative briefs start with objectives or desired outputs. We want 𝑥 and it needs to meet this scope.

① Objective

We need a way to predict how much stock we will need during peak trading seasons.

② Scope

  • Prescriptive
  • list
  • of
  • required
  • features

Outcome-centric initiative

The following brief covers the same initiative, but focuses primarily on the desired outcomes and problems to be solved. This process encourages the problem to be addressed from multiple/alternative perspectives and makes it easy to keep everyone on the same page throughout implementation.

① Problem statement

During peak periods, flagship products are often out-of-stock.

② Proposed value

If products are available to more shoppers, customers will be happier and revenue will be higher.

③ Proposed solutions

  • Build a tool to predict seasonal stock requirements.
  • Allow shoppers to register for “Back in Stock” notifications when they land on a product that is out of stock.
  • Prominently recommend alternative products when shoppers land on a product that is out of stock.

Scope can then be determined after the various solutions have been explored and one or more have been selected.

Outcome-focused brief example.

by Brandon Sheppard

Subscribe for updates

Sign up and receive occasional dispatches with my latest articles on technology, business and design.