Product Management: Whys and Hows

Hello world. I don’t usually write real blog posts. But, I’ve been doing quite a bit of thinking about goal setting, alignment, and product management lately, and ended up drafting the following rant on how I approach aligning day to day work with a big, overarching goal.

Apologies that the original audience wasn’t intended to be you, so not everything is artfully dissected and explained. Just a little something I’m pondering and thought could inspire some thinking on setting goals and ensuring that they a) make sense and b) inform day to day decision-making and prioritization.

Whys and hows

An easy litmus test for understanding whether or not our work is aligned with our primary goal, [redacted company/team goal – insert your own BHAG, because jargon], is something I call the How-Why framework. Jazzy, I know.

Starting with the big goal, ask yourself “how” you’ll get there. This should lead to down a couple possible roads. This is good. Choose one road, and ask “how” you’ll get to that point. Going through several “how’s” will get you in the habit of backward planning from a clear and measurable big goal. When starting with the big goal, we ask “how” we’re going to get there to flesh out possible roadmaps.

Here’s an example of a rigorous process I go through daily. Let’s say that I have the problem that I’m hungry, and my goal is to get full as soon as possible. How will I get there? I should eat. How will I get there? I should acquire food. How do I get food? I could open a cabinet and grab something ready-to-eat that I already have at hand; I could prepare something with ingredients I already have; I could have groceries delivered to satisfy either of the first 2 options; I could go to the grocery store to satisfy either of the first 2 options; I could order pre-made food to have it delivered; I could order pre-packaged food and prepare it myself; I could forage and hunt throughout my suburban neighborhood. Woof. That’s a lot of ways to get where I want to be – eventually. But, my goal is to get full, not to craft a masterpiece of culinary delight. Knowing that, I can weigh my options, find the most straight-forward path to achieving my goal, and prioritize options depending on whether or not I need a fallback or whether requirements change during the process.

Most importantly, asking “how” forces us to think about various approaches and to compare their utility in accomplishing our goals.

On the flip-side, when in the trenches working on projects that we’ve carved out, we ask, or perhaps most often answer, “why?”. Projects that we’ve deemed worth pursuing through backwards planning, a.k.a. asking “how,” should all roll up nicely when we ask, “why are we doing this?”

From my food example, let’s start with the option I ended up choosing – say it was to open my cabinet and eat something ready-to-go that I already had. Now, I can ask myself or get asked by someone else: Why did I just eat 2 spoonfuls of peanut butter and a granola bar? To get full as fast as possible. Why did you want to get full as fast as possible? Because I was hungry.

Notice that “why” will actually take us one step beyond our goal – back to the reason(s) for setting the goal in the first place. Back to the user problem.

Knowing why we are making decisions – because they all build a chain of dependencies that get us to our goal and ultimately solve some problem – will help us streamline and prioritize ongoing work. Asking “why” throughout the development process ensures that we’re grounded in user problems, focused on a big goal that makes sense, and on the same page about things that will get us there.

Since how and why are almost inverses, there’s some redundancy baked in, meaning you can make sure that everything we’re working on checks out. If while asking how’s and why’s you start seeing divergent answers, it’s a good sign that we need to step back, reassess, and realign our work.

There is, of course, no golden ticket for deciding which paths to go down. Adding real usage data, demographic information, qualitative data, stakeholder interests, etc to the mix makes things much more complex than my lil peanut butter example above. The how-why framework is meant to help us think through as many options and contingencies as possible, get on the same page with other stakeholders through open discussion about the options, and help narrow in on the paths that will help us reach our goals faster.