Agile Product Consulting Toolkit
5 Key Areas to Excel as a Product Consultant or Product Coach
There is a new acronym trending: VUCA. It stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. VUCA perfectly describes our world, accelerated by the pandemic and a low-touch digital economy. The good news is, there is an answer. The antidote for ambiguity, when more things are unknown than known, is agility.
The antidote for ambiguity is agility.
If you are working with an organization that survived the early challenges of the pandemic, you experienced the ability to excel at change and competitively respond to the shifting marketplace. Organizations that thrive during uncertainty apply an unprecedented focus on delivering customer value and improving the customer experience while reducing time to market. These are the principles at the core of Product agility.
Succeeding in this VUCA world, where product agility is the key, means the demand for Agile Product consulting is substantial — and increasing. If you are navigating a career move, or are just curious, read on to learn about a toolkit for Agile product consulting.
Consultants are often considered the ‘expert,’ with good reason. Hired to provide a specialized service, they typically focus on a specific outcome and a defined timeline. It doesn’t require extensive years of expertise or education. However, you should have the experience to navigate a wide variety of complex problems and the interpersonal skills to manage various personalities and conflicts.
If you are considering product coaching or consulting, here are four key focus areas to build your toolkit for success: practices, partners, patterns, and patience.
Product consultants benefit from having experience in various domains and industries and practical application of a broad skill set. However, some practices are specific to product consulting and coaching that are worth highlighting.
Empathy. As a new, temporary member of a team, it is critical to establish trust. And one of the best tools at your disposal is to practice active listening and understand everyone’s perspective. This includes having empathy for the user, imperative for every product professional, as well as understanding what is driving your client. While external users may be easier to identify with, as a product consultant, your product is the people you are supporting. Understanding their needs and motivators may be more nuanced than external users, such as professional accountability or personal credibility.
As a product consultant, your product is the people you are supporting.
Product Discovery Techniques. As a product consultant, the main focus of your role should be to redirect people to the intent and problem to be solved. People are generally excellent problem-solvers, which means they tend to jump into the solution, which can be a dangerous misconception. But you can bring the beginner’s eye to the team and benefit everyone by creating a shared understanding of the problem you are solving. This clarity will help you, your team, and your organization. Tim Herbig, a product discovery expert, suggests starting with these two questions:
- Why is this a problem worth solving?
- What solutions are worth pursuing?
Co-creation is an essential piece of product discovery, Herbig points out. To paraphrase, “These questions should be answered through a series of related but non-linear activities. And these activities should be embraced and performed by a cross-functional group, not just product people.” This includes involving your developers and engineers in product discovery is critical for success. No one else is better positioned to know the art of the possible than your technology experts.
Visualization. There can be a lot of unspoken assumptions that may be known by some, but not all. As a product consultant, using visualization techniques like assumption mapping, impact mapping, or opportunity mapping can help you communicate mental models and clarify the problem, people, and the systems in play. The added advantages to co-creation and visualization are improved transparency and buy-in. Product discovery coach Theresa Torres, the creator of Opportunity Mapping, says, “Visualizing your thinking allows others to critique it.”
Here’s a fantastic article that explores 10 Visual Models by Aditi Priya to check out:
10 Visual Models That Let You Simplify The Most Complex Ideas
Systems Thinking. As a product consultant, it is critical to understand quickly the environment and systems you support. Systems thinking will bring fresh ideas to your product team and assist in solving complex problems. At a product level, a simple first step to utilize systems thinking is a context diagram. This is visualizing the components and interactions of the product you will be supporting. You can also use value stream mapping, opportunity mapping, and impact mapping to help flex your systems thinking muscle.
In addition to Adita Priya’s article above, you might enjoy my article on how to out-think your competition with second-level thinking.
Data Analysis. You or your team may have some gut reactions and strong instincts, but data will help tell an empirical story that will either support or contradict the ideas, anecdotes, and opinions you might be gathering. Data is an effective tool in combatting strong opinions from influencers. Use data to guide decisions and validate key assumptions.
Stakeholder Management. Managing clients and engagements are the lifeblood of being a consultant. Consultants of any expertise should strive to become trusted partners with the goal of repeat business. As a product consultant, you will need to understand who you should be partnering with and their motivations, interests, and influence so you can focus your time and talent and manage expectations.
Networking: Another critical tool for a Product Consultant is networking. I couldn’t add any better insights than those already presented by Siddharth Arora in this article I highly recommend for your reading list:
Shoshin. With all the practices called out here, it’s important to balance them with another “p-word:” perspective. Shoshin is a word from Zen Buddhism meaning “beginner’s mind.” It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and a lack of preconceptions about a subject, even when observing as the expert. Just as a beginner would. Great product consultants balance their understanding of the problem, their service to others, and their expert practices by bringing the beginner’s mind, practicing “shoshin.”
This perspective can be hard to describe as a practice. Mary Jones, a product consultant with CPrime, a national consulting and training firm, describes the need for product consultants to keep their sense of curiosity. Chris Conlin, a product consultant at Insight and Professional Scrum Trainer, reminded me of the importance of understanding your own purpose as a consultant on a product engagement. Sara MacQueen, the founder of Big Fish, a renowned mobile apps development company, mentions the advantage of bringing the outsider’s perspective. Sara describes her experience with product consulting:
“You’ll have insight that the rest of the team who have been so close to the product for so long may not see…especially with usability. You’ve probably been brought on for your experience and the team will (hopefully) be eager for your input, ideas and suggestions for improvement. That’s probably why they are hiring a consultant to begin with. So on the one hand, you want to learn as much as you can from others — but there is also value in ‘going in blind’ with first impressions, just like a real user.”
Product consultants are likely to be hired for only part of a product life cycle. You will not have enough time to understand all the nuances, so you will need to rely on developing relationships with a variety of partners on the engagement to ensure success.
- Business Partners — typically strategic focused. Who are the people focused on the strategy and business outcomes? What outcomes do they want?
- Technology — typically solution-focused. Who are the people who have the technical information you need to provide a holistic picture of the solution, from design to support?
- User Representative — typically user-problem focused. Who helps determine this is a viable problem to solve? What user behaviors do they want to influence?
- Influencers — consider governance, regulatory, and vendors who can influence decisions and success. Who are the influencers you will need to partner with?
At the beginning of an engagement, you will collect a vast array of information, opinions, and data. As a product consultant, you are under tight deadlines and need to quickly make sense of all the information you gather to clarify your focus. Your team will probably be eager for your insights. However, you should not make suggestions or decisions based on singular observations, so learning to recognize patterns will help sharpen your focus and create actionable plans and recommendations backed up with data.
Your goal is to find the pain points. People buy products or use services to reduce problems.
Be a problem finder, not a product finder.
Your goal is to find the pain points. People buy products or use services to reduce problems.
- Generalizations. What do people generally think of the product? Gather broad observations from both internal and external perspectives, such as industry trends and customer support feedback. As Jim Seneck points out, “When you conduct about 15–20 interviews, you will start to hear the same things again and again. You’ll hear patterns. So by the 21st interview, you’ll ideally hear something similar to what you’ve heard previously.
- Exceptions and surprises. Explore scenarios that don’t fit the generalizations or paradoxes you notice to understand why it is happening. Then, document any unexpected information and occurrences to look for trends or commonalities. Be cautious of acting on any singular perspective or point of view, but don’t bypass them. Sometimes minor issues can cause liability issues or other blockers to success, and they could also point toward opportunities and innovation.
- Puzzles. These are the questions and opportunities for learning that will take time and investigation to understand. Or perhaps they are not going to be worth your time and attention. Seneck concludes, “If you don’t observe a pattern of pain after a dozen interviews, then there might not be a problem to solve.”
Consultants often have time-based or project-specific contracts, which can create a sense of urgency. And due to the temporary and specialized nature of the role, they are usually paid above market rates.
While it is important to show value quickly as a product consultant, give yourself time to develop the patterns, practices, and partnerships to build trust and be successful in your role. To paraphrase Tim Herbig: “Prioritize the time it takes to provide strong insights, instead of prioritizing the time it takes to complete activities.”
I hope these tips will help you create your toolkit for product consulting and coaching. Ultimately, there are no cookie-cutter approaches to product consulting, but these key areas will help you round out your approach. To provide the most value during an engagement, help your client create their own product playbook versus adopting any dogmatic approach to a specific framework.
Does this resonate with you? Are you considering product consulting? Let me know, below, what is standing in your way?
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