What we Learned at Mind the Product 2016

BY MARTIN ERIKSSON ON OCTOBER 10 2016

We came, we watched, we listened. And we tweeted – within half an hour of the start of Friday’s conference, #mtpcon was trending in London. But what did we learn?

Mind the Product 2016

Marty Cagan’s keynote started by examining the confusion that surrounds the role of a product manager. We need to stop having this “ridiculous conversation about role, and about product versus project management”, he said, because it misses the point of the job. He explored the history of some hugely successful products of recent years – iTunes, Google Adwords, Netflix, Adobe Creative Cloud among them – and asked what it was that had made them so successful. In every case it was an outstanding product manager, someone who had deeply understood all aspects of the business, whether it be marketing, sales, finance, manufacturing and so on, someone who had successfully managed the collaboration needed to produce a product that solved real problems for customers in ways that meet needs of business.

“Product management is distinct from other disciplines,” Cagan said. “No one is the boss, but the good CEO knows they need teams of missionaries not mercenaries. Great product managers are true leaders, they are smart, creative and persistent, they lead through inspiration, motivation and logic, and they’re not afraid to lead.”

Mind the Product 2016

In an insightful talk full of hints and practical tips, Google’s Head of User Experience for Material Design Elizabeth Churchill took us through her thoughts on storytelling and metaphor. Product managers should think of themselves as translators, researchers, vision setters, and story tellers, she said. “They must tell compelling stories by understanding and engaging their audience, understanding human-computer interaction, building team thinking, and by persuasion. We communicate best by telling stories, and we can create a shared vision through the use of metaphor.”

Facebook’s Simon Cross continued with the theme of persuasion. His take is that product managers are influencers and persuaders who have no power. This means that they must keep their ideas and argument sharp –“everything we get done is through influence” he said. He looked at how Facebook has built some of its most successful products – like photo tagging and Messenger – and finished with a neat set of takeaways. Ask what’s your equivalent of tagging, the killer feature that only Facebook could execute and made it the largest photo sharing site; and pave the cow paths, or codify your users’ behaviour as Facebook did by adding cover photos when it saw that its users were changing their profile pics up to 10 times a day in order to tell a story. Above all, he said, “make sure you understand, identify and execute perfectly”. He also urged us all to keep reading – as inspiration comes from anywhere and everywhere.

Simon Cross at Mind the Product 2016

In a talk peppered with useful examples, Alison Coward shared her experiences of creating effective workshops and how product managers can ensure that teams work together effectively. She looked at how to avoid what she calls group-think – when people go along with a bad idea, how to balance introverts and extroverts, and how to get people to stay motivated and engaged. “Research shows not who but how people work together that has the impact on success of a team,” she said. “You need to communicate frequently, and that means listen and talk in equal measures.”

Author and behavioural economist Tim Harford looked at how frustration and adversity can make us creative. Keith Jarrett’s The Koln Concert is the best-selling solo album in jazz history, and the all-time best-selling piano album, but it was a concert Jarrett never wanted to give, said Harford, because a mix-up at the Cologne Opera House meant he had to play on what was an unplayable piano in higher registers – so he found another way to get the most of it and produced what the world considers to be a masterpiece. Harford said: “All of us need to play the unplayable piano more often. It helps us be more creative solve problems and do better work.”

Jeff Gothelf is a designer and the author of Lean UX: Applying lean principles to improve user experience. His presentation looked at why lean principles seem to break at scale, and looked at ways in which you can try to overcome this. His advice: “Think about principles not the processes you want to scale… value learning over delivery. When customer value and business value are the same thing, your customers will reward your business with longevity. Have humility in all you do.”

Jeff Gothelf at Mind the Product 2016

Telenor’s Lisa Long then took us on a journey to foreign parts, looking at cultural differences and the pitfalls of expanding your product to foreign markets. Who knew that taking champagne to brunch – seen as a more than acceptable present in the UK – is seen as a drinking problem in Norway? Product managers should be wary, she said, because perceptions of a problem can differ from one country to another. Assumptions always need to be tested and social conventions need to be observed. “Reconsider your user interface, know your data, and know the problem,” she said. “Not all problems exist in all countries.”

Drift founder and CEO David Cancel gave a presentation that underlined how important it is for businesses to listen to their customers, illustrated with examples of the disastrous consequences of what can happen when they fail to do this. “It’s hard to listen to customers, but today there is no excuse not to be listening,” he said. He presented a useful framework to help PMs to work out what to do with customer feedback and added: “Innovation is not just about sweeping changes. People value small updates and fixes and that they were involved in that journey. You build goodwill because you’re taking action. In today’s world helping is the new selling, and customer experience is the new marketing.”

Mind the Product 2016

Film school graduate, product manager, and author Donna Lichaw looked at the art of storytelling and the techniques involved in storytelling that allow product managers to create products that embody customers as heroes. She said: “A foundational tenet of film-making is telling a story. Your products – whether they are software, websites, apps, services or analogue have a lot in common with films – if you want to engage your audience you have to have a story at your foundation.” This storytelling should permeate all aspects of the product, she added: “It should weave through everything, from the un-boxing of the product, the user interface, and through every key user flow you build, in order to build long-term engagement.”

The final insights of the day came from Jeff Veen, design partner at True Ventures. He shared some of his experiences from a long career spanning everything from Wired Online, to co-founding Adaptive Path, and running design at Adobe. He explained how crafting a creative culture can help you to build better products and he shared his strategy for creating this culture. “I’ve learned that everything breaks all the time, everything is connected and everything breaks. I’ve learned that everything is user experience, not just the interface, and I’ve learned that teams thrive with equanimity,” he said.

Jeff Veen at Mind the Product 2016

So what did we learn? What did all these by turns inspiring, insightful and entertaining talks have in common? There were plenty of practical and very useful frameworks, methodologies, recommendations, books to read and jokes to pass on. Many themes emerged as fundamental aspects of a product manager’s role – storytelling, listening to customers, building teams that can work effectively to name a few – but the one dominating theme from all these experts is ownership. Product management is ultimately about ownership, whether it is ownership of the problem, the solution, the story, the process, the discipline, the action. It’s this ownership that enables you to lead – through persuasion, creativity and professionalism – all the disciplines involved towards the outcome of a successful product.

Look out for videos and write-ups of all the talks in the coming weeks! In the meantime check out our recap video, photos, and sketchnotes!

Martin Eriksson

About MARTIN ERIKSSON

Martin Eriksson has 20 years experience building world-class online products in both corporate and start-up environments for global brands such as Monster, Financial Times, Huddle, and Covestor. He is the Founder of ProductTank, the Co-Founder and Curator of Mind the Product and currently a Product Manager at large, advising and mentoring startups while writing Product Leadership, How Top Product Leaders Launch Great Products and Build Successful Teams (O'Reilly, 2017).

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  • maverickuv

    Thanks a lot Martin…Great article. I am eagerly waiting for the videos and write-ups as you mentioned to learn more about the frameworks, books, etc.

  • The “ownership” language is dangerous. Experts on leadership, such as Steven Weinberg, have pointed out that some of the most effective leaders don’t own decisions. They create an environment where the teams they lead own the decisions.

    Similarly, product managers may to some extent “own” the process, but the process should be one designed to foster team ownership of the problem, the solution, the story, and product decisions. Team members generally aren’t as productive when everything is “owned” by the product manager.

    • Hey Roger – in the context of the conference and the talks we’re definitely talking about about shared ownership by everyone on the team. Mind the Product has always espoused a team approach to product that brings together the best of everyone on the team – from design to engineering – and it’s in this context that ownership became key. We can only succeed in building amazing products if the team owns the process, the product, and the outcome together.

      • It sounds like we’re on the same page, but I would avoid or change language such as:

        “Product management is ultimately about ownership, whether it is ownership of the problem, the solution, the story, the process, the discipline, the action. It’s this ownership that enables you to lead – through persuasion, creativity and professionalism – all the disciplines involved towards the outcome of a successful product.”

        That passage strongly suggests the ownership is by a single individual – the product manager.

  • Dorota Tsatsaris

    Thanks for the write up. Can you also share the slides used by the presenters?

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