There’s a perception that product managers are neutral parties, and that data is the ultimate decider of what to prioritize and why. It feels like our job as product managers is to get good at looking at data so that we know precisely what we should do.

That’s not true. 

Good product managers have an agenda. (Great product managers will have more than one.)

The data? It’s not telling us what to do. It tells us if our agenda is full of crap.

I’ve found that a product agenda comes down to just two things—a north star metric and a conviction statement. So, they’re not hard to devise, and it’s no big loss when they need to be scrapped and restarted. Here’s how to build an agenda of your own.

Your narrowest north star

How you evaluate your day-to-day product decisions matter. Sometimes, your success metrics line up perfectly with a top-line business metric (like new monthly customers). However, business metrics are often too broad to be useful in a product agenda. It pays to be precise. You’ll also save yourself a headache if you keep your agenda focused on one metric. 

Imagine you’re the product manager at a consumer company that provides premium content to an audience of product managers. It’s a freemium product: some content is available to everyone after sign up, but the good stuff sits behind a paid subscription. You’re responsible for user activation, which includes sign up, new user onboarding, and existing user login. There’s room for improvement everywhere. For instance, let’s say sign up completion rates hover around 25%. In their first 30 days on the platform, half of new users never access a single piece of content and even fewer subscribe. For added measure, we’ll say, on average, it takes two attempts for an existing user to login. 

Without any other data, what area of your product might you focus on first? Well, a 25% sign up completion rate seems pretty bad. Then again, blocking existing users from logging in isn’t great, either.

Now imagine you’ve been asked to improve subscription rates. Where might you focus? You could argue that all of the failures in your product area impact subscription uptake. 

How about improving the number of sign ups? For that, you’d probably start with your sign up experience.

Content-consumed-per-new user? New user onboarding floats to the top. Monthly active users? That failing login experience looks like low-hanging fruit.

The differences are substantial. Focusing on a single, descriptive metric clarifies the purpose of your agenda.

Your strongest conviction

First, an art history quiz.

This is a painting of a painter, who’s painting a painting.

Question: What is the painter painting? (It’s fun to ask this question to a group of people.)

Las Meninas (Diego Velázquez, 1656); image courtesy of Wikipedia

You wouldn’t be wrong if you chose:

  1. The child in the white dress
  2. The child in the white dress, plus the children surrounding her
  3. The two people in what looks like a mirror behind the painter’s left shoulder
  4. You, the modern-day viewer
  5. The dog
  6. Any of the objects in the painting
  7. Some combination of the above

There’s enough evidence in the painting to defend any of these options. That’s the crux of conviction: it’s highly debatable. The same truth applies to our products. There’s typically never a single option for where to take it next. So save your sanity and focus on one that fires you up. Condense the information that supports your decision into a short summary.

Now, bring it all together

Put simply, a product agenda reads something like this:

“I think that _____________ will drive [north star metric] because it _____________.”

The first blank is where you summarize the solution to your north star metric that you’ve built some conviction around. The second blank is where you summarize your crystallized supporting information. 

“I think that triggering sign up when a user tries to access their second piece of content will drive an increase in sign ups because it gives users a taste of what they’ll actually experience after fully signing up, making sign up more compelling.”

That’s it; your product agenda is done.

The next step is to take your agenda and test the heck out of it. Then, after some time, confidently revise it to read one of two ways. There’s the “that’s genius!” outcome, where the revision reads like this:

“_____________ impacted [north star metric] because _____________.”

Then there’s the second—and highly likely—“that’s crap!” outcome, which reads like this:

“I thought _____________ would impact [north star metric], but _____________.”

Feel good about either revision; you’ll end up learning about your users and their relationship with your product regardless of whether your conviction was spot-on or not. And maybe, more importantly, you’ve officially become the boss of your product data—instead of the other way around.

About the speaker
Katherine Kornas Betterment, VP Product Contributor

Katherine Kornas is VP of Product at Betterment, where she leads growth, mobile, and money movement product teams. Prior to joining Betterment, she was SVP, Product at Havenly, and held product leadership positions at Pandora and Autodesk. Katherine has also worked on product teams at and GreatSchools. Katherine is a graduate of the University of Michigan and currently lives in New York City

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