Two Controversial PM objectives

(img src – taken by me – Shotang Demo Day)

There are two slightly controversial topics that I hold dear to me, when I think of PM-ing.

(1) Stake holder management – internal and external. I have written about this extensively in the past. Some folks think that it is a project/program managers job. But I don’t. I think it is an integral part of a product managers job. No one knows the bigger picture and the granular details of the product than a PM. Getting every contributor and decision maker in the same page is super critical. Giving this job to a project manager is suicide. Absolutely lack of credibility will kill everything in sight. (I have nothing against project managers, but they are ninjas at managing the project as an entity, and not quite objectives and people).

(2) Data is everything in this new world. But ever so often, there is either too little data, or there is too much data. In both of these cases, it becomes incredibly hard to extricate inferences out of the data, leave alone insights. During these cases, it is the singular responsibility of the PM to work closely with leadership to suggest a solution based on “gut feel”. The extensive involvement of the PM in the multiple facets of developing the product (no one else puts their fingers into so many facets as the PMs) makes the ‘gut feel’ more credible.

Empathy and PMs

I have been thinking about this word for quite a bit of time these days. Whenever I am talking to folks and describing my definition of being a Product Manager – almost every trait distills down to this one word – Empathy.

Now, let me try and recollect and jot them down here –

  1. Stakeholder management – One of the key traits that I believe a PM should have. The cliche’ phrase of PM being the CEO of a product, imho loosely translates to this. Unless you are empathetic to the various parties (product, tech, marketing, operations, leadership, …), you will not be able to get them on to the same page. You need to empathetic to the tech team as to why they are resisting a decision ~ perhaps this would involve tossing out a lot of code that they just wrote; you need to understand how they feel. You need to be empathetic to the operations team ~ perhaps they are short staffed during a certain time and they cannot handle so many escalations. You need to feel this issue. And so on.
  2. Customer empathy – this is a given. A PM should be the biggest voice of the customer within the company. This might be a bit contrary to the first point, but customer empathy trumps empathy within the teams. You do not care if code needs to be rewritten, or more support staff needs to be hired, but if the customer experience is affected, it is unacceptable.
  3. Strategy Roadmapping  – this is empathy at a different plane. A product leader needs to sense the emotions of the founding/executive team and the investors (if any), to see what would deliver the best RoI for these stakeholders. Too aggressive a roadmap might seem awesome to the investors, but not to the leadership team, but too sluggish a roadmap might make the investors lose confidence. This is extremely important. This is in most cases unspoken and very subtle.
  4. Project Management – lets face it. This is a part of a Product Managers job ~ in varying degrees depending on the org. Good PMs exhibit a bias towards action(shipping) and make a dent here. While strategy/road-mapping is part of steering the ship, project management is choreographing the drum-beat of releases. You cannot do either of these without a deep sense of empathy to the executors.

And for those who are wondering if empathy is a key trait only for PMs, nope, check out Rand Fishkin’s blog where he says –

The best skill I’ve developed and the one that’s served me best as a founder, a CEO, and a marketer is empathy.

I offer coaching/training on PM empathy. If interested, please ping me on gcmouli at gmail.


Small data

We keep hearing about Big data everywhere – sometimes in places where we do not even expect to here it. I was listening to the latest Trailblazers podcast from Walter Isaacson, and he just casually dropped this nugget.

Small data is the capturing of the small, subtle nuances of a customer. A lot of times, these small seemingly insignificant subtle pieces of information lead to huge product insights.

While extracting big data, and distilling data out of it is important – it is still generalisation. It is amortised data. It is a collective. It is very important for PMs to observe customers at close quarters on a regular basis.

In my three years of observation, being a product leader, I have seen that insights distilled from big data, can only result in incremental improvements.

To get 10X improvements, we need to observe and incorporate these behavioural, often times visual, subtle insights. These are few in number – viz small data.

Decisions, decisions, decisions …

Much has been written about the functions of a Product Manager (PM). I usually do not subscribe to the ‘textbook’ definition of a ‘mini-CEO’ of a product/feature. I feel that, while there are a few overlaps between the roles, it is unfair for the CEO and for the PM to be called the ‘mini-me’ of the other.

One of the overlaps that I find very interesting is that of decision making. For a PM, and more so, for a PM leader, this is one of the key attributes. In fact, as you rise up the ranks of PM-ship, more and more of your tangible time would be going towards decision-making.

There are a few things that I wanted to talk about in this post, about decision making – in no particular order.

  • A lot of times, you would have enough data that you can lean upon, to make a decision. Why do I say ‘lean upon’? If the decision is perfect, then kudos, but then human tendency is to fall back on the data as a crutch, when the decision is wrong. The key thing in the latter scenario, is to learn from it. There is nothing more you can do from it. Accept that, data, can sometime fail you, and try and find a pattern that you can recognize in the future.
  • There are definitely times, when you would not have enough data. In a subset of these times, you also do not have the luxury of waiting for data to be got/collected. In these cases, a seasoned PM would need to take decisions based on extrapolating whatever data she has, or to be able to correlate with an analogous event/incident/feature/project and take a gut call. The key thing here, is to stick by the decision, immaterial of its outcome. Human tendency is to exhibit ‘excusitis’. Like in the previous point, learning is key.
  • There are three typical classes of decisions that PMs make on a regular basis – assumptions/trade-offs ; prioritization/road-map ; go/no-go.
    • Assumptions and trade-offs occur during mostly the planning phase. During the planning phase, the PM, along with business, and the tech-lead, need to freeze on assumptions/trade-offs to be able to ship within a certain deadline, or be able to ship with constrained resources. Resources, here, can be team, compute resources, or technology stack. These decisions sometime creep in during the execution phase – typically due to late realizations or plan changes etc. The PM’s negotiation and influencing skills also play a key role here, along with the decision making skills. Example – Given that a new feature would be hand-held by the feet-on-street teams, the first version of the feature need not have as many educational prompts.
    • Many think that prioritization and road-map decisions occur during planned times (month/quarter beginnings etc). It definitely is not. The best PMs are continuously prioritizing. Devs get sick. Servers go down. Unexpected bugs turn up. Features get new requirements. In an agile environment, a PM needs to manage all of this, and still be able to ship reasonably on time, with adequate communication to all stakeholders. New ideas do not wait for quarter beginnings to pop-up. As and when they pop-up, PMs prioritize and add to the road-map. Again, a continuous process. Example – The biggest issue is to identify if IMEI numbers of returned products match the ones in our system. Let us build a first version that will let the call-center support team do just that. Further versions can be fancier and accept direct requests.
    • Lastly, a go/no-go decision. This is when a PM works closely with QA and business teams to decide, whether a feature can go live (or not!). Time pressures and business requirements often require a feature to be shipped at a certain date/time. A lot of times, this is non-negotiable. However, a PM can take a call to go live, with a version that probably has a non-show-stopper bug. Breaking design perfection paralysis also falls into this bucket. Example – When the seller does not have stock of products, and he is prompted to give multi-tier pricing, the UI might break. Ship the feature, and fix the corner case UI in a subsequent merge.

I have not counted hiring decisions in the above list. PM leaders would need to make hire/no-hire decisions for hiring PMs in their teams. In some companies, PMs are also called up on to do an interview round for senior dev leads and designers.

PMs – have I missed anything? Let me know in the comments below. Would also love to hear examples of key decision making techniques that you follow.

Modiji, Bullet trains, and the Prioritization conundrum

PM Modi and the Japanese PM Abe jointly laid the foundation stone for the first bullet train in India. Enough has been ranted about this in social media. About, why this is not the thing that is needed now. And why the Govt should fix all the issues that is plaguing the railways and so on.

I think this is a problem that Product managers face too (Hmm. Just a coincidence that, they are PMs too.).

The feature prioritization conundrum is the scenario where a PM is faced with a host of small urgent + Important  issues/features to deliver in a short time-frame ; and a smaller bunch of longish important but more challenging hard problems to solve. The engineers want to do the latter, but the former are very important too.

A PM cannot keep prioritizing the smallish important problems higher, because they will never end. You will never get to the largish challenging problems. This will lead to your engineers getting demotivated and doing mundane familiar stuff. But at the same time, you cannot just prioritize the challenging projects – this will keep your engineers happy – but the business suffers. Some of these urgent+important tasks are most likely important for the business.

One of the solutions to this is to assign more than one task to engineers. This should be a mix of the smaller urgent tasks and the longish exciting tasks. This will keep your engineers happy and the business going.

So, does that make, what our Prime Minister did, with the bullet train right? I do not know, since I do not have enough context. But if I see the PM as a PM ( 🙂 ), then I guess he is doing the right thing.

What are we shipping today?

Ask any of the PMs who have worked with me, they will say that this is my favourite statement. I ask this statement at least once a day to them.

I was talking about this with one of the PMs who works with me, and I thought I would share some of the conversation highlights here.

  • Shipping is the most important outcome that any PM needs to aspire towards, at any given time. The more you ship, the better you are.
  • The primary reason for existence for a PM (in my humble opinion) is to ship. Sure, programmers code. Designers make the product beautiful and usable. Business folks give their requirements. Marketing folks get out the word. Customer support teams are on standby. But what is the use of all of this, if you do not ship. The PM is the glue that enables all of this to come together and ‘happen’.
  • Example of ‘shipping’ being considered a real (and an important) thing — the famous ship-it awards in Microsoft. Every stakeholder who was part of a release used to get a Ship-it award (a tiny trophy kind of thingie). MS folks proudly display these ship-it awards on their desks.
  • A lot of PMs that I know (including yours truly) come into this field from Engineering, Marketing, and various other fields. In most cases, we have boarded this ship, as a leap of faith. As a matter of fact, the best PMs are the ones who learnt on the go. It is incredibly hard to ‘explain’ to someone, or to ‘teach’ someone about ‘PM-ship’ (no puns intended). In these cases, the only way to ward off self-doubt (which is bound to happen) whether you did the right thing — is to ship. You keep shipping. And the spiral is always upward.
  • Shipping creates tangible outcomes. And it reinforces.
  • Ship incrementally. If this is not an option, get your devs to at least commit incrementally.
  • Lastly, you are known by what you ship.

The original conversation was a very free-wheeling conversation during our 1-1. And so, was this recollection of thoughts. The above is in no particular order.


(Cover image source)


4 things I would love to see Mast Kalandar do


As most of my reader base know, I am die hard fan of Mast Kalandar. From the time, when I ‘converted’ to MK, because it was the only pure veg chain, to now appreciating the various initiatives, and their prompt social media presence.

As I do for most things I am a fan of, I am never satisfied. I always want more. See my wish list for BigBasket here. And MK is not getting excused either 🙂 So here goes:

Mobile App: Well, hellooo ! Are you guys sleeping or what? Why is there not a Mast Kalandar app yet? I want to be able to order my food through the MK app. I want to be able track the delivery through it (yes, I order home delivery quite a bit). What would I like in the app? That is a bigger post for a different day. What is even more irritating is that, their website itself is not even mobile optimized. Sucks to even to take a look at the menu on a mobile. Guys, please — develop a mobile app (android/iphone/winphone). And please mobile optimize your website. I tried reaching out to their twitter handle (@mastk) about a year ago, and they said they were working on it. A year, and it is not yet ready? Oh cmon.

Packaging for Roti/Kulchas: As I said earlier, we do order home deliver often. Have you considered alternative packaging techniques for rotis/kulchas? Rolling and wrapping in aluminium foil is so yesterday. Sure, it retains the heat, but it just spoils the taste. The humidity just makes the rotis/naans become hard. I am not an expert in packaging, nor have I done experiments, but have you tried perhaps some form of a pizza box type packaging. Maybe they would stay warm and also retain freshness? Worth a try na?

Indian salads: Have you guys tried creating Indian salads? The Indian market for healthy food is heating up like anything. Have you tried salads with traditional indian veggies and even more traditional chutneys as dressings? Perhaps a try? And I am sure, with the whole patriotism (Make in India, Eat Indian food, whatever), this will catch on pretty well.

Food for train journeys: Guys, you need to do this. There are so many times, I had wished I had ordered food through MK, and they deliver it to me either in the platform. Also, you should explore a rail menu. Stuff that does not get bad even after a few hours. There was a time, when I had packed something from MK (I dont remember what?), but it got bad after a few hours. I am not blaming MK for it – perhaps the ingredients were such. But I am sure you can come up with a menu with stuff that stays for a few hours. Combine it with the above mentioned ability to order through a mobile app, and good solid pizza box style packaging, this would ensure a hearty comfortable meal to eat, even in a moving train.

Well, thats it for now. I sure wish someone from the product management team in MK reads this.


Big Basket Features that I would love!


I have been a big fan of for quite a while now. While I love walking by the supermarket aisles and ‘discovering’ new products, bigbasket has taken away the stress of monthly grocery shopping for the family. To be fair, I should also disclose the fact that, we alternate buying weekly vegetables from bigbasket and our local HOPCOMS vegetable store (walking distance).

I had been thinking of a few things that bigbasket could introduce to make it even better. Having been a program manager (in a previous live at Microsoft), the first thing you do is to write a feature set / requirement spec. Here goes!

Weekly vegetable delivery. This is something similar to Amazon Fresh in select areas of the US. Most of India shops for veggies once a week, for a week. There is usually a preference on vegetables in most households. The vegetables could be a randomized set. (This is a common pain point when you buy veggies – what veggies did you buy last week – no one wants a repeat, leave alone several repeats). Ofcourse, no one minds repeats of favourite veggies (um, potato?). Send an email on Friday or Saturday listing a proposed selection of vegetables that would be delivered on Sunday. This would let the user to potentially tweak the order set. Guarantee freshness delivered at your door step, every weekend morning. I am sure you will get a bunch of customers asap.

Grocery is something that is fairly predictable too. Pulses, masalas, and other house hold goods are typically purchased at a roughly similar frequency. There is some infra that is already available with bigbasket for this – in the form of smart basket. I got this idea from looking at my own shopping analytics that is available at bigbasket right now. If I can see it, so can the system, and make a prediction.

Festivals and Diets: You can incorporate all kinds of smarts into this too. Suggest more ghee and sugar during festive seasons like Diwali maybe? Suggest baking accessories during Christmas maybe? How about incorporating your diet plan into this as well? If you get broccoli every week, would you throw it away? Always suggest low sodium salt?

Recipes: Hey ! You are throwing in a bunch of veggies, and you know the other groceries that you have delivered recently, why cant you put together 2 recipes per week using these ingredients. Simple pictorial ones. Easy to understand, and prepare. Even better, add one or two more exotic ingredients (for free), which in conjunction with the veggies delivered and the groceries that you recently delivered, would make a super exotic meal. This is marketing for those two exotic ingredients. If they like this recipe, now, you have a regular customer for 2 more of your offerings.

Secret box: There are a few start-ups in the US that are attempting this now. For a monthly subscription, they will deliver a monthly surprise box containing cosmetics or snacks, or other similar consumable stuff. This is a great marketing tie-up opportunity with partners. Drop in a couple of satchets of the newest flavour of Saffola Oats – carefully concealed in some secret wrapping of course (to enhance the interest) for free with your delivery. Notice the delight in the customers attitude. You can also link this line item with the previous (recipe) for even more customer delight goodness.

Delivery: What if the customer does not really want you to deliver home? Get up early on a sunday morning to a doorbell? Really? I bet the idea of bigbasket kiosks are already running the rounds inside your org now. You should, and yes, I mean, you should, introduce kiosks for ordering and taking delivery of orders. Best place for these kiosks for the yuppie crowd would be malls and IT parks.

Well to paraphrase ‘Sound of Music’, these are a few of my favourite things. I would love Big basket to come up with these features. And I would be the first one to trial these out !! And well, yeah, to be fair, thanks BigBasket for letting me do some PM stuff that I had not done in quite a while.