When I took on my current role as Director of Product, I was fresh from my own little tiny startup. I’d been living and breathing survive-or-die entrepreneurial product management for over 3 years so I was determined to keep that spirit alive in myself – and in my new team.

Digital Product Management is a relatively new role and many businesses and the Product Managers themselves are still finding their feet, often defining the role as they go.

I look at the skill of Product Management as a triangle, and where a Product Manager is on the triangle, depends on their background, and the business environment they were in when they got their Product Manager stripes.

At one point of the triangle are the Purists. Usually from a creative or purely theoretical background, possibly having been Product Manager (not founder) at a well funded startup. They believe in pure Product Management, it could be argued that they are idealists, at the extreme they are dogmatic. They can get frustrated when something doesn’t conform to their ideal; if a JFDI comes in, there can be flouncing.

At another point on the triangle are the Deliverists, possibly having made their path to Product Management from Project Management, Product Ownership or Business Analysis. They can be a little too pragmatic at times and can find the visionary side of the role a challenge; transitioning to “big picture thinking” can be difficult for them. They can stick close to the sidewalk in the role and when the chips are down, can revert to what feels safe i.e. ask-the-stakeholders-what-they-want delivery.

At the 3rd point sit the Entrepreneurs. Visionaries, with huge ideas – and lots of them. At the extreme they can be too “big picture” losing sight of the day to day and getting lost in life 3 years in the future, running the risk of leaving their team (and their stakeholders) behind by not showing them the steps they need to take to follow them. They can lose patience with anything that makes them feel constrained, becoming frustrated with the hum drum bureaucracy of real life businesses.

My team, and most product teams, are made up of Product Managers at different points on the triangle, but no matter where they are on the triangle, give them 3 things and they will become a high performing super-team with the respect of the business.  

I wanted to create a big picture visionary, strategic thinking, data driven, customer obsessed, business focussed Lean product team who weren’t afraid to be pragmatic and get into the weeds when they needed to. Quite a laundry list! Instead of giving them that ridiculous list, I thought hard about how to explain my ideal team in the most digestible way I could, and settled on positioning them as virtual CEOs of their products. This is the first thing you can gift to your product team; accountability, as the virtual CEOs of their product.

I asked the Product Managers to imagine that they had this awesome product idea and that they had just been given funding, a development team, a marketing team, an amazing content team and a team to sell it for them. It changed their perspective on what they had previously thought of as “stakeholders” and instead, drove them to reimagine the way they worked with the rest of the business. Under this new outlook, they proactively built cross-business working groups, where each member was fully accountable for their area of the product’s success.

This virtual “CEO of the product” positioning of my team reached further than just driving them to build great teams. It also helped them to get their role straight in their own heads and empowered them to look around and see what was stopping them from achieving this “CEO” status.

CEOs are delegators. They spot when they are being sucked into time-eating tasks that aren’t central to their role. They are empowered to put things in place to barrier themselves from them – that could be anything from adding a delivery/business analysis layer between them and the team to organising a bug busting day/sprint to reduce the weight of the backlog.

CEOs have the full picture. They are best placed to hold the vision and strategy for their company (product) because they have access to the micro detail about it (data, usage, customers, revenue) plus a view of the macro; the competitive set, the best in class and trends and changes in their particular industry and the economic landscape in general.  

CEOs are leaders. Leaders paint and sell a big exciting vision and then lay out the practical steps needed to get there. They are brilliant at selling their visions, knowing their audience’s motivations, hopes, dreams and pressures, and tailoring their vision to take all of that into account. CEOs collaborate to create their vision, they are masters in bringing people along with them, getting them to feel a sense of ownership of both the vision and the outcome – and accountability for its success.

CEOs are empowered. No one is going to push the CEO around. Trying to undermine, strongarm or badger a CEO simply won’t fly. As their manager, if you do any of these things, you will not get the results you are looking for, plus you will have a very disillusioned team.

My team don’t “do” roadmaps. That’s a sweeping statement and not entirely true, but what you might think of a traditional roadmaps, well, we’re repelled by them. My team work off the company’s targets for the year. We break those targets down to products and then into quarters. Once we have targets for the products, the Product Managers will work collaboratively with their working groups to come up with a list of features to hit the targets. Under the umbrella of the company strategy, product strategy and a set of company targets, they have complete freedom to come up with whatever features they like to hit them. This is the second gift; complete freedom, not only to come up with any features they like within this remit, but also how to come up with the list. Because targets rely on creating happy, engaged customers and clients, they are the first port of call (to establish problems to solve) and the last, (to validate the features will solve the problems). Because they collaborate closely with the working groups they have built, the Product Managers bring everyone along on the journey. Because they are positioned to have an eye on both the micro and macro information about their products, they naturally have the final say, and the trust of their teams, to make the final call.

The final gift, as the manager of a team of Product Managers, is to take a couple of gigantic steps back from your team’s day-to-day. If you have given them the accountability they need, a strong product strategy to work off, enabled them to get the targets and information they need, and empowered them to make the calls. Your final gift is to trust them to do a great job at it. Let them make mistakes, work Lean, launch and learn, try new things and get burnt, maybe even let them get hauled over the coals by an exec or 2, get told off by customer services when their product goes down, get a bit of heat from delivery teams if their prioritising is dithery. Your trust and the freedom to make mistakes will only make them stronger (and feel more accountable).

One thought on “These 3 things will set your product team on fire

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