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Product Management Tools – Are They Worth The Hype?

January 4, 2018

Product Leadership

It’s a new year, a time for reflection and self-improvement, at home and at work. How can I do my job better? You ask yourself. Then comes the internal monologuing and googling, “great product management tools”, but are they worth the hype?

Everything starts with a google these days…

“We don’t need a tool,” you think. We don’t need them and don’t use them, it’s a waste of budget and they are overly complex!

In many regards this is true. You don’t need a tool. You’re right, you don’t. Not really… But that is like saying teams don’t need a CRM for sales or a help desk for support. In the strictest sense, you don’t need a tool to do anything, but it sure does help.

Tools are optional until they are mandatory.

You don’t need a product management tool to do your job, but there are several benefits to introducing a tool that are worth considering. Even if you are happy with your set up as it is, the right tool can streamline your product management workflow and even shape the company’s culture.

Tools are but an augmentation of the human condition.

Using a tool is about being more effective and efficient about the goals we are trying to reach. It is about opening new possibilities that are hard if not impossible to do without tools. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it most certainly was built with precise engineering and the most modern technology for its time.

“But we’ve never used a tool before and that’s the way we’ve always done it! It worked for us!” That sentiment is a great way to be left in the dust. Just because something has worked before doesn’t mean it can’t be done better – and to be better, you need a tool.

How to think about product management tools the right way.

The decision to get a new tool should stretch far beyond the walls of the product team – after all, your product IS your business.

You’re deciding what and how you’ll communicate with the rest of your company and how they communicate with you. You’re deciding what kind of product habits you’ll instil across your company and the rhythm at which your business moves.

Your product management setup is really a decision around what kind of product culture you want to bring to your business.

“Having a product culture is about having the product, the very thing that you’re building, at the heart of the business, a core aspect that’s granted the attention it needs. This means that everyone in the company is an advocate for what you’re building and how you’re building it.

The most successful product-centric companies include a team that considers a solid product to be the top priority, and in my experience, the quality of work done by a team who’s collectively bought in and invested in the product vastly outperforms one who doesn’t.”

Janna Bastow, Co-Founder and CEO, ProdPad

“But we’ve got Excel, post-it notes and whiteboards!” Indeed. We all do. All of which are fine and useful but that is not the same as having a dedicated tool that improves your skill set.

So whatever you’re looking at now – whether it’s a homemade setup of spreadsheets and Google or the hottest new tools on the market – be sure you’re accounting for the future of the team you want to work in.

Will what you have today work tomorrow? Will it hold up to the needs of a growing company? Here’s what you should think about to help you make the right call.

Take a look at your existing set.

The three most important elements of product management are customer feedback, the product backlog and the product roadmap. If you can consolidate them into a single tool, you should.

The more there’s on your plate to manage, the harder it is for you to map out and understand important relationships in your data.

The constant stream of data flowing into any company needs validation, if you don’t know how to map it to something tangible, you end up drowning in it. If you can understand what pieces of feedback are important to your customers, they become the basis for your ideas. Once you do that it’s not difficult to pivot your roadmap based on validated important ideas. How can you understand what ideas are important to your customers if you can’t connect them? How do you know where to pivot your roadmap if you can’t see what’s important to your customers?

Leaving them in silos not only makes it more difficult for you to drum up new insights, it also makes it difficult for people on your team to flag up important issues.

For example, if you want is to make a case for a new experiment, you should be able to pull up the data and reasoning to support it.

Just because it worked early on, doesn’t mean it will scale.

The reality is that you’ll lean on different tools/processes at different points of growth. That being said, now is still the time to plan and budget for the future because changing down the line will be disruptive.

I see so many product managers using spreadsheets when they first start off. Now we love spreadsheets, they’re useful, easy to use, and get to the point. There’s a reason Excel is still one of the most widely-used tools in any industry.

But if you’re using spreadsheets today, you’ll need to start thinking about how it will scale as your team and product grows.

How do you plan to accommodate a growing team and more user data?

Regularly, using a spreadsheet as a backlog tool results in a vertigo-inducing stack of requirements with a mishmash of columns, half of which are assorted footnotes, mixed anachronisms and colour coding.

Another popular use of spreadsheets is to use it to communicate a roadmap.

Spreadsheets, however, are not known for their visual design, being leant upon for visually communicating your entire product strategy. It may have started off feeling like a good idea, but you’re mostly spending your time fighting with it these days. (Especially when Excel is so editable – team members might make “tweaks” to make it “clearer” – which as we all know means it’s a convoluted mess that gives you a headache.)

Same goes if you’re using multiple tools: you need to start considering now how you will consolidate these tools in the future.

Whether it’s a matter of multiple tools or processes, making changes to the product management process is uniquely disruptive since it affects the pace of product releases.

Good tools vs great product management tools.

There is a reason why our ancestors relentlessly iterated and improve their tools from stone and bone, to bronze, to iron. Each tool improvement made people better at their tasks and opened up new horizons.

Product management as a discipline and a craft is no different. While you can do it without tools and rely solely on the latest and greatest fad framework, you will do better with tools.

Good tools allow you to do your job. Great product management tools help you become better at your job by nudging you towards best practices and philosophies.

So how do you know what to go for?

Here’s a real world example:

When we first started building ProdPad, we used one of the best tools in the market: JIRA.

The tool itself was inherited from our development team, which was initially outsourced. JIRA in itself is a fantastic tool and has a great name behind it, so we didn’t really question using it.

But as the team grew and our process became from refined, we started clashing with JIRA. We weren’t getting the team visibility we wanted, it was overly complex, and we were falling behind on releases.

That’s when we decided to switch to Trello. As a tool, Trello fit our process, allowed us to be agile, and it increased our productivity and visibility throughout. We now release twice a week, have sprint meetings once a week, and have a seamless integration with ProdPad.

In this situation, we learned what tool is great for us as a company and a team, and in our case, that meant making a switch to something else! Lesson learned.

Takeaway

There are good products and there are great products – and that will change from company to company and team to team. Ensure you set the right tone and process for your team by selecting a tool that will help you become better at what you do, and improves your overall productivity.

Remember:

  • Whiteboards, post-it notes and spreadsheets don’t scale.
  • The days of product managers being whiteboard jockeys are long gone.
  • Frameworks are guides and suggestions – they’re not tools. They often become about the dogma and not the process.
  • Starting your search through best-of-lists is a great jumping off point, but ensuring you keep what you want to end up with, top of mind is key to success.
  • A great tool is a tool that is right for you. Sometimes it’s not the market leader if its premise is contradictory to how your team operates.
  • The addition of a dedicated product management tool will allow you to do your job better.
  • The addition of a dedicated product management tool will improve your skills and help you become a leader.

Simon Cast is a product expert and Co-founder of ProdPad - building great product management software, and of Mind the Product, a global community of product managers. He has 14 years experience in building products, ranging from satellite control software to online social capital tools, and also spent time in the Australian Army. In 2010, he co-founded ProductCamp London with Janna, and he now organizes ProductTank events and the Mind the Product Conference.

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