At the Edge of a Tangled Forest

And what product managers can do to clear the path for the customer.

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Sometime ago, a new customer of our division (I’ll call her Sue) pinged me and asked if I had time for a quick chat. I said, “Sure,” and she sent me a calendar invitation with the rather damning subject line “Confused.”

Sue and I didn’t work together directly, but I knew her in a different capacity, and I figured this was going to be a friendly chat (it was). But I felt a mixture of both eagerness to help and, well, a smidgen of defensiveness. Even as a tiny cog in a big wheel, I still represented IT, and our division within IT in particular, so I was sensitive to how our division was viewed by customers. But perhaps I could help answer a question or two.

So I got on a call with her, and it turned out that she wasn’t confused about a couple of things.

She was confused about a lot of things.

“What’s a product owner?”

“Why do I have to attend these 15-minute daily meetings?”

“I’m supposed to fill out this security assessment and quite frankly I don’t understand half the words.”

Sue had more eye-opening questions for me, and she confessed towards the end of the call that she felt really lost throughout the process.

And why shouldn’t she be bewildered? The world of Information Technology already has a vocabulary and a process both equally abstruse to laypersons. DevOps? Backlog grooming? Story points? Pair that with a tossed salad of abbreviations (CI/C-what?) and — well, it wasn’t the sort of meal to go down easy. Sure, I wouldn’t have been expected to understand the language of her division either. But that’s no excuse for the lack of a clear onboarding process, or a confused customer. Especially potential customers.

And confusion — well, that’s a stone-cold deal-killer.

It’s a little useless to have a roadmap for your customer if the road itself is strewn with boulders and fallen branches. Below, I’ll discuss what we can do to clear that path. In particular, I write about the primary role we product managers should take on to ensure customer success, and a metaphorical scenario to illustrate this role.

The Story Begins

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Sue stands at the edge of a forest and shivers. The woods are dark, with little sunlight penetrating the canopy to reach the forest floor. The path, which she can barely see twisting through the gnarled trees, is narrow and choked with thorn bushes and acronyms.

She hesitates, unsure of what she’s about to get into, or what happens next on this uncertain and potentially perilous journey. All she knows — all she is promised — is that at the other end she will get to solve her problem.

But she has neither compass nor map, and she doesn’t know when the food will run out, and when and how she’ll get to the other side.

She’s your customer, and if she’s going to be successful in her journey to meet her need — — she will need a clear plan that eliminates any confusion or doubt.

You can look at this : Your customer is Katniss Everdeen, or Harry Potter, or Frodo, and even though they’re the heroes of the story, they still need someone to get them through the forest safely.

The Guide

Person looking at a map of the world and standing before a forest view
Person looking at a map of the world and standing before a forest view
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That’s where we product managers come in: to provide that clear plan. But our responsibility is not just about creating clarity. The role is far more comprehensive than that. Product managers — or marketing reps, or customer success managers — ought to see themselves as guides, machetes in hand totally optional.

And by “guide,” I mean it in a specific story-element sense. The Guide, or Mentor, is the archetypal Dumbledore / Obi-Wan Kenobi / Morpheus character: the person who gives the heroes the tools they need to succeed, and shows them the way through the dark forest. (Joseph Campbell also refers to this figure as the Wise Old Woman or Wise Old Man.)

In this story, where the customer is the Hero, the product manager acts as the Guide.

Neo is the hero of The Matrix, but the knowledge that allows him to see the world with a different lens comes from his Guide: Morpheus. Morpheus also gives Neo lessons in badassery: how to dodge bullets and battle a crew of quickly-multiplying Hugo Weavings. (Also see: Obi-Wan teaching Luke how to use the force, or Haymitch Abernathy putting Katniss Everdeen through her paces in The Hunger Games.)

The Guides don’t just teach skills. Sometimes they also bestow useful items the Hero can use. (The folklorist Vladimir Propp, in his analysis of the morphology of 100 Russian folktales, called this structural element “The Receipt of a Magical Agent.”) But that item doesn’t have to be magic: James Bond’s success was always invariably aided by that Wise Old Man Q, whether a ski pole gun in The Spy Who Loved Me or a rocket cigarette in You Only Live Twice. (Also see: Obi-Wan giving Luke his father’s lightsaber, or Glinda the Good Witch giving Dorothy her ruby slippers.)

You can think of that “useful item” on two separate levels:

  • The micro-level: On that metaphorical journey through the woods, that “useful item” is an operating manual, or an onboarding document.
  • The meta-level: That “useful item” is, of course, your product or service.
Luke Skywalker doing a handstand with Yoda balanced on one of his legs
Luke Skywalker doing a handstand with Yoda balanced on one of his legs
Not quite something I’d recommend you do with your customer.

I’m building on a point I explore elsewhere: , however heavy any lifting we accomplish. (In my opinion, it’s the development team that does all the serious deadlifts anyway.) Yoda we must be more like. It’s the most crucial part of customer engagement.

In retrospect, my conversation with Sue was a big teaching moment for me, and I told her later I was grateful for her honesty. What I learned was not just about the blind spots I may have in terms of onboarding and communicating with the customer. I myself usually have a little spiel at kickoff meetings where I talk about Agile and participatory design. But once the development begins in earnest, I don’t always take the time to check in with the customer because my head has gone into product-delivery mode. Even though we clearly collaborate with the customer, the emphasis of our meetings quickly shifts onto the deliverables at the end of the sprint.

Yoda we must be more like. It’s the most crucial part of customer engagement.

It was a reminder that I need to make sure my customer and I are looking at the same map. Otherwise I would look back and realize with shock that my customer was still far, far behind, still trying to pull her shoes out of the mud. Some Guide I was.

We’re there to help the customer navigate through what they may perceive as a thick and tangled forest — whether that’s a complicated bureaucracy, a confusing array of software choices, or convoluted terminology the customer may not need to hear anyway.

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And so we product managers should tell our customers like Sue: We know a simpler way through. We will give her a clear hiking map, we’ll remove those tangled bushes from the path, and make sure we’ve packed enough vittles and bug spray for the journey.

We do this so customers can make the most out of the product and come out feeling like a hero. As a product manager, I act as a guide on their journey — our journey — to get there.

Senior product manager, fiction writer, former anthropologist. I study culture, tell stories, and herd cats. More: .

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