Five Good Reasons for Enabling Product Leaders also on Strategic Level

Editor’s note: This is a refreshed version of a post from June 2013.

During the last couple of months and countless inspiring talks with very diverse people, it is becoming more and more obvious that there are many great opportunities for your company. And some of those are around product management and its function in the corporate world. Let´s call out the most important ones:

 

  1.  Good product management is the answer to your strategic challenge. If you get it right, you will manage your company in a way that it produces the right products. And if you produce the right products, then there is a much higher likelihood of success. Don´t get lost in all those IT and business discussions without having a broader view. Be consequent!

  2.  Don´t make the mistake to believe all product managers are more or less the same. There are huge differences. I think I should write a separate blog post on how to assess the quality of product managers.

  3.  Product Managers listen to customers. And executives should listen to (good) product managers. Why am I writing this? Well, because in most cases there is at least one executive who says: “Believe me, I am more senior than you. And I know what needs to be done.” If this person is good at product management (aka listening to customers), then it is ok. If not, your company will get into trouble – sooner or later.

  4.  Product management is the leading function. Why? Because it ensures that your company is building products “customers love” – enabled by IT and by the business. It is the function that helps to pave the way into uncertainty and how to deal with it.

  5.  Don´t believe product management is mere tactics. If you do it right then it becomes very strategic. Let me give you an example: Changing from a static website to a data-driven app (which is increasingly the case) requires not only investments in IT, but also a fundamental rethinking of business modeling. You need to anticipate future user behavior and align your company deliverables to leapfrog your competition. This doesn´t happen overnight and requires the focus of the entire company.

So, when are you prepared to really focus on the needs of your customers? Good Product Managers can help you with that. But you have to give them the empowerment they need. And bet on the right candidates 😉

Product Management and Company Strategy – There is a Gap!

PO vs CEO
Product Owner in front of a CEO

Editor’s note: This post is an updated version of an older post from 2013

Product management and company strategy – still a gap between hands-on work of product leaders and discussions in the board room?

During the last couple of months, I (Jörg Malang) have been asking myself again and again why there is such a big gap between a product owner and the company strategy. You might say: “Wait, there is no gap there. How can you claim this?” I have had a couple of interesting discussions with people on different levels (from a startup CEO to C-Level Executives). In many cases, one gets to hear: “Our company vision, strategy, business plan & top-level product roadmap are done already. Now we need a CPO to execute it.” Well, at this point, I ask how did you guys come to this roadmap? Here are typical answers:

  • We have identified our competitors so we know what features we need
  • Don´t worry about this. Just make sure to execute
  • We need to achieve our business KPIs and this is what needs to be done to achieve them
  • We don´t want you to restart this discussion. We have no time to lose!
  • etc. etc.

So either these companies already have great product management (and therefore won´t need senior level support) or they need senior product management (but aren´t aware of it). In my opinion, this comes back to a misperception of the Product Manager´s role. If we believe that there is a shortcut to understanding the problems of our users by iteratively building and testing potential solutions we are wrong.

Just read today an interesting chapter of the book “Services Marketing” by Zeithaml, Bitner & Gremler. It also discussed the impact on technology on services (along with their framework of four customer to provider gaps). The paths to get closer to what matters most to customers have changed fundamentally. Please keep in mind that technology is not an end in itself.

Therefore the Product Manager is definitely not the “tech guy” (I have already received this feedback after a discussion: “you are a very technical person” – those engineers who know me will be surprised about this kind of feedback, I am sure). A Product Manager should be the “glue” between all of these aspects.

Conclusion

As @BrianSolis has put it in a 60-second video (SXSW in 60 seconds): 2013 is all about making technology serve us instead of technology chase us. This is the moment of great product management. And believe me, these requirements will push companies to undergo a transformation. Believing the Product Managers will only have an impact on their nice little “feature sandboxes” would be like perceiving them as harmless paper tigers. If they are like that, it is time to fire them!

Leading by Vision – “Man kann auch in Schönheit sterben.”

In interviews, one is often asked: “How do you lead people?”. Leading your own team might be relatively easy if you are their disciplinary manager (but also this is changing increasingly…).

What do you do if you “have to make people listen to you who don’t have to?” (as one NOKIA HR Manager has always put it). I strongly believe that this is the moment to become serious about the “content” and less about the “process”. You cannot solely lead by KPIs or by driving process milestones. You need to answer the “why.” Now imagine a situation where you have to lead really strong people like founders, product owners or senior engineers. What makes people listen to your ideas and follow you?

During the first ten years of my career, I believed it was all about money and job titles. You could buy the loyalty of your employees without having to satisfy their demand for great stuff to work on. You could get any UX person if you just offer a nice title and a decent salary. This was the type of arrogance of people wearing suits and owning the P&L. I was so wrong. I found myself in situations where I had to sell the role to an interesting candidate – and had nothing meaningful to say beyond “our organization is big” or “your salary is attractive.”

When talking about “leading by vision” I don´t mean the fluffy high flying vague kind of thing. I mean a concrete and tangible artifact. At one of my previous companies, we identified so-called “north stars” aka products that would guide us the way. We built a vision type to illustrate the concept as concretely as possible. It is hard and sometimes almost impossible. But you have to try. If you get this right, no, let´s say exciting for your (potential) followers then they will listen and come. The rest is empowerment and excellent management. Don´t let go. Also, monitor progress and ruthlessly push for the execution of the vision. In German, there is a saying: “Man kann auch in Schönheit sterben.”

Many Business People Eye Away from Uncertainty

Editor’s note: The is an edited version of an older post.

Learning about all the frameworks in an MBA education and dealing with all the business cases leads to a situation where business people might feel overconfident in understanding what is going on in the world. More than that: A lot of managers claim to know better and to have a more strategic view than the product managers.

At the same time, the product manager is forced to justify his/her proposal in a situation where proof of evidence is simply not existing. And not only that: Many assumptions are being made. If you forced design thinkers to prove every single of those assumptions, nothing will ever really happen. It is all about intuition and iteration with real customers. It is about dealing with uncertainty. Really dealing with uncertainty – not just pretending to do so.

“The Designful Company” is a great book. It also describes the situation of the earth not being entirely discovered. Maps would only cover part of the globe, many white areas are still left. There are some people who are attracted by those and who are willing to “fight the dragons“. And others shy away.

Digital has created even more white spaces than ever before. The world is full of new opportunities. So why do many business people don´t conquer them? Well, it is because of the uncertainty they would have to admit to being existent.

If you have an idea about your target market and a top-level understanding of what product you want to build you still have the challenge to build it. Building it from scratch is hard. You can copy cat similar products or you can just tweak your existing UI – both feel more comfortable than jumping into the cold water.

And now imagine the product visionary coming in with her/his ideas. Not using what is out there already but trying to build new solutions to existing problems. And now try to figure out your own emotions in such a situation. You don´t understand the solution, it is different from what you have experienced before. Would you leave your framework castle to deal with it or shoot it down from behind your safe (business) walls? Up to you to decide!

Book cover “The Designful Company”

Thinking business – Why it is difficult for product managers

Editor’s note: This is a refresh of an older post from 2013.

Thinking business is a challenge for product leaders. The illustration below shows us why.

Translation from business to product - graphic

Why do founder CEOs with strong product management skills have difficulties when their companies need to scale? Why are product leaders often perceived as the guys who don’t understand “business”? Why is it often so frustrating to manage stakeholders if you are a product manager?

I have asked myself this type of questions pretty often. Actually, at times I felt so far away from business that I was proud of being an idealistic advocate of our users. I found excitement in challenging the business colleagues by presuming I had the better (because of my arguments being user focused) arguments in discussions. And yes, it is true that there are many articles about this topic. One of my employees pretty often asked me to be less “ideologic.” My strategy papers etc. were often perceived as a kind of “bible”. Personally, I believe this has been and still is a defensive move of the function product.

Let´s try to understand the different historical phases of product management better.

TACTICAL MARKETING – Phase I

“Product” used to simply be one of the four P’s in the marketing mix. Product managers got a list of features they had to build and to release. That was all. Nowadays, the solutions have become more complex than ever. Not only technically. Also, customers are expecting solutions tailored to their needs. 

STRATEGIC MARKETING – Phase II

Marketing became more and more philosophy for companies to be truly consumer-centric. It is the moment where marketing started to ask for seats at the executive table.

R&D COMPLEXITY – Phase III

Latest with the arrival of digital, products became too complex to be built based on a top-down specification. The introduction of agile methodologies changed the way R&D needed to be led.

STRATEGIC PRODUCT MANAGEMENT – Phase IV

With all the agile teams led by product managers, a new level of organizational challenge arrived: How to make sure all teams are working towards the same goal? Thinking business became increasingly important.

Traditional general managers often fail to manage R&D because they are not seasoned product leaders. They need “help” in steering those teams. Please also see the following page if you want to read more: Leading product companies without product background. The only way to inspire those teams is to have a clear product vision instead of asking for simple features to be built. There is a translation needed. Otherwise, there will be no real link between general management and R&D and the company will not be successful.

So, if you experience product leaders who are not embracing your corporate strategy, this might be due to the fact that she/he is not willing and/or able to challenge it. However, it might be a comfort zone related issue as well. On the other side, it is always hard to leave the area of your own functional expertise and to broaden your view. 

A big question remains open: How to broaden your view as a product leader? Personally, I have chosen to do an MBA for this. But if you have colleagues with a solid consulting background and openness towards design thinking this might also be very valuable.

Thinking business – let’s discuss together what might be the best way to achieve better translation in your organization! I am looking forward to your thoughts.