The Myth of the Product Management Best Practice

Published Jul 10, 2018

A few months back I was giving a lecture about product prioritization to a group of entrepreneurs who are trying to build companies and validated their business. I created a presentation which laid out everything I know about how a product owner — whether a founder or an actual product manager — should approach prioritization in order to ensure the right things get built at the right time and with the right impact in mind.

After the session was over, one of the participants approached me. He had been a product manager at several tech companies and is someone who knows his stuff.  He shared that at his last company there had been an attempt to implement one of the strategies I discussed in my presentation. While it seemed like a good fit, integrating it into the company workflow failed, and it faded out shortly after. This got me thinking, as someone who both practices and teaches product management, that as a concept, “best practices” are risky business. The conversation with this participant made me consider more deeply how we should share knowledge as PM practitioners and leaders.

What Is a Best Practice?

Loosely speaking, a best practice is a group of methods, strategies, or procedures that are considered to be the most effective or have the greatest impact on a specific operation.

The road to understanding what should be considered a “best” practice for your organization starts with identifying the gaps and challenges that prevent your team from streamlining certain processes at scale. I find this to be particularly critical for product teams because the process of market-product validation and cadence velocity — or in simpler terms, speed and efficiency — are the core functions of the role. Product teams, responsible for identifying opportunities and acting on them quickly, must constantly ask themselves if there’s a way to optimize that exact process.  

Is there one best practice to rule them all? The short answer is: probably not. But there surely are ones that are a better fit for your company/operation than others. The main challenge is to identify these practices and measure the impact they will have on your business.

Deciding What’s Best For You

I believe you should approach the ideation and implementation process of “best practices” the same way you would a new product for your customers:

Take a Page from the Agile Book

Best practices, by definition, are meant to be the crème de la crème, objectively superior to other practices. But this designation overlooks the fact that each business operation (whether a product or not) has its own culture, structure, and definition of success. You will have to identify early on in the process which elements of the practice simply won’t work in your operation. Eliminating the parts that we know won’t work well is key — it allows you to focus on making sure the things you choose to implement will stick successfully.

As a rule of thumb, I treat “best practices” not as objective truths, but as subjective suggestions. One of the things that I use as inspiration is Agile — not necessarily the process of it, but just how customizable the famous manifesto is — every organization can tailor it to its needs, and apply it in a way that serves the organization’s goals and KPIs. The same should be true when you choose your best practice – think of the ones that you can most successfully integrate, and the ones that will have the highest-yield effects on your processes.

Think User Stories, Not Epic Saga

Once you’ve decided on the practices you would like to integrate into your workflow, treat each one as a user story, instead of trying to integrate all at once. User stories look at the who, what, and when of a problem. A reason and an outcome. What user stories enable us to do is deliver value to our customers in small bits. Each new practice which is going to be implemented in our workflow is going to affect people differently. This requires you to capture early on in the process who is going to use this practice, what value they should expect to get out of it, and why this value will make their life easier / more effective.

Break each practice into small pieces of value and deliver it systematically across your team/organization, this will allow you to move forward without rocking the boat too much. Just as you would with a new feature, form a feedback loop and iterate quickly as needed.

Crossing the Best Practice Chasm

One of first lessons of product management is learning to cross the chasm of a product adoption lifecycle, popularized in Moore’s eponymous book. In the same way that this is applied to product, it can be applied to integrating a “best practice” into your team’s workflow.

Moore's Crossing the Chasm's Diagram
Moore’s Crossing the Chasm’s Diagram

When trying to implement a new “best practice” in your organization, there will usually be a small group of people who will get excited by the new methods and fresh approach. These early adopters’ excitement will be felt, but they have one other important job, which is to carry you over the best practice chasm.

By drumming up support and getting buy-in from their less-convinced colleagues, this group can be the difference between success and failure. They will probably be more effective if you can show actual uplift in performance, which is better than any ambassador, but before that happens, enthusiasm is all you have. If you are planning on introducing a new method, try to think of who your coalition members will be, and get them onboard before a full implementation.

Moving from Best to Better

We all know how to find “best practices” when we’re unsure about some aspect of the work, or want to increase efficiency. I say that with some confidence because I strongly believe that product managers are naturally curious beings. But, more often than not, we fail to integrate those “best” practices it into our workflow, which ends up leaving us less confident about the “bestness” of the new practice and its ability to make a difference in building a great product.

When trying to introduce new methods into your personal craft, or to that of your team, I have found that staying flexible, telling a story, and building consensus can make a massive difference in adoption, and ultimately, success. Now, I try to think of “best practices” as “better practices,” not universal truths, but tinker-worthy method that can be made to fit under the right circumstances.