I recently inherited the third product in my Fintech career. The first product was already fully developed by the time I joined the team, the second was started and built from scratch, and the current one is a reboot of an existing product line that is starting to stagnate.
These three products are radically different, and had a completely separate development schedule - yet, for all three of them, the question I've most commonly gotten from the team, the engineers, my colleagues and often my boss is: 'what will we build next?'
The reason why this question gets asked is, surprisingly enough, not driven by a desire to plan out one's schedule or technical load. 'What will we build next' is a question that requires execution-driven answers; but don't get fooled: when people ask for the next steps they're generally looking for the broader strokes of your product vision - and not for the nitty-gritty details that will get us from start to finish.
In my personal experience, we can basically classify the reason behind people asking about what's next in your product journey into three pretty wide buckets.
Bucket number one: people want you to help them look ahead. This is largely a vision thing: when going for a long hike, the psychological load becomes way lighter when you can see your final destination up ahead. It's not about elevation, total steps, distance or terrain: what they really need to know is how the next base camp looks like.
What's dangerous about this discussion is that you'll need to be able to present a feasible destination and really sell the reason why you chose a certain route. Fail to do that, and people will stop following you.
That's where a deep knowledge of the product's details and how it fits in the company's story and road map really comes in handy. Once again, your colleagues don't want to know the technical details of the road ahead - but you do if you want to select an optimal route that keeps people engaged.
The second reason why people are asking you 'what's next': it's because they're tired and morale is dropping. Of the three buckets, this one's the most negatively loaded: people are not asking for a way forward; they are asking for a way out.
Ideally you'd avoid getting in this situation in the first place. Products that are complex and with heavy dependencies across departments, parties and integrations tend to go into a 'death valley' phase that is characterized by long stretches of tedious, repetitive work and a lack of tangible results to celebrate.
Avoiding these stretches as much as humanly possible is one of the hallmarks of a really good product person. How to do that in practice is damn hard, but it does boil down to a few basic product hygiene rules:
- You need to be able to correctly estimate how long a certain piece of the project is going to last. The best way to do that is if you've already built it once (that's why industry experience is a thing). If that's not the case, and your journey takes you in uncharted territory, you should probably be very conservative in your timing estimates, and try to plan the product in shorter sprints and consecutive fast iterations of minimum viable/lovable products.
- You need to chase external dependencies like there's no tomorrow. Some PMs I met in my career think their sphere of influence only extends to their product vertical (i.e. up towards their managers, down towards their reports). In my opinion, that's not really the case - if you're not chasing colleagues and teams outside of your sphere of influence you're either lucky or heading for the death valley.
- Finally, you need to accept that not everyone in your team is equally good at avoiding the death valley: some people will get stuck, and you'll need to jump in either by yourself or with some fresh talent reinforcements, put the journey back on track, and deal with the personal/human fallout (no one likes being benched...)
The final, and probably most important reason why people approach you to ask you what you'll build next is the most obvious one: asking about the next step is, by itself, a learning experience. When people ask you why you're doing something, or what you're trying to accomplish, or what your vision for the next steps is, they're trying to steal your damn ideas and know-how.
And you should absolutely cherish that, and you should be doing that too at every step of your career. Picking your peers' brains to learn how they think is by and large the fastest way to learn. You should aim to work with people that are sharper and smarter than you, and learn from them. If you get asked 'what will we build next?' a lot, that's a sign you've probably landed at a good product company.
Ultimately, having multiple sparring partners that constantly question your ideas, vision and plan for what to build next is such a great way to grow while avoiding terrible mistakes, that you should actively go out and look for the question.
So, the next time you hear the dreaded "what will we build next?" question, don't panic. Whoever is asking either needs your help in understanding the product and its future, or is politely alerting you of a potential 'valley of death' slowdown, or is trying to learn from you and have you learn from them. Either way, the question itself will help you and the team grow, and increase your chances of delivering a better product faster.
So what will you build next?