A product manager’s core problem is deciding what to build. This is always a challenging question but it is even more so without substantial constraints. When working in an established company with an established product, the question of what to build becomes slightly more focused: What should we build that enables our product to better meet our users needs? The difficulty is that there are endless additional features that can be built. A product manager’s role is deciding how to move forward by:

  • utilizing deep user empathy and inquiry in order to discover problems the product is still not solving
  • analyzing inbound customer feedback (looking for trends, paying attention to surprises)
    distilling what is most important from internal team feedback (e.g. balancing the need to limit technological risk with the need for technological innovation)
  • weighing these against company priorities, strategy, and resources

With sufficient discovery and information, this can of course all be quantified with a weighted scorecard. There is, however, still significant ambiguity before the feature is actually in the hands of users. This ambiguity can be further decreased by looking closely at what is still unknown and creating tests that can be done efficiently in order to evaluate your hypotheses. This is much of the art and science of product management.

Alternatively, what if you do not have a product already in development that you are managing? What if your possibilities are more open, you are working without very limited constraints, and there is no inbound customer feedback because your product isn’t on the market yet? This is the art and science of entrepreneurial product management. At an event this Tuesday with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) and the group Bay Area Women in Machine Learning and Data Science the particular difficulties of entrepreneurial product management were a major theme in the conversations after the event. While CZIs overarching mission is clear, to accelerate science in order to cure, prevent, or manage all diseases by the end of the century, what to build to meet that goal is not (though they are already starting to build some really cool products).

This got me reflecting on how, as product managers, do we make the best decisions when faced with this much uncertainty. This is the situation many early stage companies are faced with and the situation any large company is faced with when they want to innovate and build something completely new. There may be, as in CZI’s case, a broad problem to solve and user group, but how do you go from there to a specific enough of a problem and user group that you can innovate for? As someone that has operated as a product manager at my own company for the past few years, I’ve identified a general approach to this question.

This process involves two core parts: 1) the ideation funnel and 2) narrowing down the possibilities to your best opportunity.

The Ideation Funnel

  1. With wide open possibilities you are in an exploring, learning, and creativity stage. Talk to people in your market, listen to them, understand their problems and leave any preconceived notions you have behind.
  2. From there, you can surface the biggest problems. What is the largest pain point for the greatest number of people? Who are those people and why is the pain point you identified such a significant one for them? Why might this problem not already be solved?
  3. Once you have narrowed down a set of problems to focus on, it is time to ideate around how those problems could be solved. I am keeping it as problems instead of problem because you may find that your team isn’t ideally equipped to deal with a problem you identified even though it seems the largest. At this point, all ideas should be on the table.

Narrow Down the Possibilities

Finally, you will want to narrow down your ideas. To find your greatest opportunity, you are looking for the idea that does three things better than any of your other ideas. It a) is well suited to your team strengths, e.g. my company made products that leveraged the fact that my co-founder was highly skilled in linguistics; b) solves user needs; c) serves company priorities, e.g. revenue or strategic objectives.

Diagram of opportunities

This gives a big picture framework that can help us navigate greater levels of ambiguity as product managers. What do you think? Do you have other tools and strategies that work for you?

This article was originally posted on LinkedIn on August 31, 2017 and featured on LinkedIn Pulse.