Product Leadership Book Review  – What we Learned

BY JAMES GADSBY PEET ON MAY 23, 2017

Product Leadership Book
The long awaited book Product Leadership is finally about to hit our Kindles, iPads and possibly even our hands. Anticipation has been building given the high-profile nature of the authors, including Mind the Product’s very own Martin Eriksson.

It’s a book that shows product leadership to be a mentality and style, rather than a set of rules. By drawing on a vast number of experts and their own experiences, the authors have created a book that will become the touchstone for leaders working their way through the exciting digital world we find ourselves in.

Here’s what we learned when we got a sneak preview, along with some of the best quotes from the numerous experts included…

This is a book that shows Product Management has come of age

The simple fact that there is enough interest in this topic to justify a whole tome from O’Reilly speaks volumes about the state of our industry. As the team make clear at the outset — this is not a book about how to be a good product manager. It is directly aimed at those individuals who find themselves (or would like to) in the higher levels of authority, having previously been working as product managers. It shows how far we have come, that the journeys of of our most skilled practitioners have ended up in the boardroom.

The job titles of these vary wildly depending on the state of the organisation, but the one thing they all have in common is that they are trying to apply a product management style of thinking, to new and exciting problems, opportunities and areas.

Who should read this book?

If you are currently a product manager looking to take the next step then you’ll find huge amounts of strategic, tactical and practical advice in here for you. If you’ve already made the leap to managing a team of product managers then here you’ll find a series of tools and techniques to help you become the leader of that team which can take them on to even bigger and better things.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if you’re working with a leader from the product management world, then here you’ll find a detailed look at your colleague and how they approach the world of work. You’ll end up being more successful and happy in your working relationship, helping you both become more effective.

Product Managers make unique leaders

The core tenets of Product Management are a natural breeding ground for leadership roles. Those that practice the discipline well are often seen as empathetic individuals who look to break down problems into their component parts. Add to this a laser guided focus on the customer, a penchant for data driven insight and an innate drive to get things delivered and you get a strong candidate for individuals to take any organisation forward.

“Leadership is empowering people around you to see the vision, strategy, or a mission. The job of the leader is to be connected to the why of the work, not the how. Let teams shape the how.”

Are you sure you want to be a product leader?

It’s not for everyone. By becoming a product leader, you’ll be further from the actual delivery of the products that you know and love. You’ll more likely be managing people instead of roadmaps. You’ll be involved in politics and communication will be your deliverable. Whilst you’ll be key in setting the vision of your teams, how that vision is delivered in the real world will be entirely down to the people within your teams, not you.

“It’s not for all product managers. When you’re building product teams, you’ve got people who are natural leaders and you’ve got some people who are natural individual contributors. Make sure it’s something you’re good at and that you like.”
– Tanya Cordrey, former Chief Digital Officer at the Guardian

But that being said, when product-minded people end up in charge of the direction of organisations, the world really can be their oyster. In an environment where consumers’ behaviour is changing daily, almost every organisation in the world needs the approaches that these types of leaders bring to stay ahead of the game and achieve success. The product managers of today are natural fits for the leaders of tomorrow if they can adapt their style and focus.

“Shifting from managing products to leading people managing products felt like uncharted territory. You need to be a people first communicator who can rally everyone behind a vision without much formal authority.”
– Ken Norton

The team is your product

When you move out of the world of direct delivery, into leading a group of those that do, your core output is the efficient, effective running of that team. You are there to support them just enough, without trying to impose your perspective on the solutions they come to. Your role is to set the vision, the constraints within which they’re working and to help them as individuals develop and achieve satisfaction.

“We trust them. We’re going to give them interesting problems, get out of the way, and let them solve the problem in the best way possible.”
– Andy Budd, founder and Managing Director of Clearleft

As a product leader you may often be given a large amount of responsibility, including direct deliverables, but only tangential authority over the resource needed to make that happen. This is talked about repeatedly within the book with a number of strategies for how to make the most of the situation. At the heart of each of them is the fact that people do what they want to do and your role is to lead them to the right decisions, not command them.

The book is written with its users in mind (of course!)

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is its structure. After an initial overview of product leadership and general examples of what makes a good product leader, the team dives into the types the specific approaches and techniques which will be relevant to you, depending on what stage organisation you work in.

The authors have cleverly realised that the same content for a startup product leader is not as relevant for someone operating in a large-scale enterprise or an emerging enterprise. Rather than getting their readers to sift through irrelevant information, they’ve handily broken it out depending on reader needs. Hardly surprising given their user-centric thinking, but great to see none the less.

You’re going to make loads of mistakes and that’s OK — they’re key to learning

As Ken Norton says in his foreword to the book:

“You’ll still make lots of mistakes — everyone will. But after reading this book, you won’t make the same ones I did.”

This statement is the heart of your leadership journey that this book starts you on and the role that many product leaders find themselves playing most often. You’ll be working hard to set out the problems that need to be solved and looking at the insight which gives you a clear path forward. As discussed, you’ll then be getting out of the way and letting your teams create the final solution or tests that validate your vision.

“Great product leaders spend the majority of their time focussing on the discovery process.”

By using the product leader’s bias towards action, the organisation also gains a member of the top team, who is able to provide a practical and informed way of driving strategy. Through prototyping and the testing process, which is covered in detail here, you can actually find answers to the questions asked to give you an informed direction rather than a set of guesses.

“If a picture is worth a thousand words, a prototype is worth a thousand meetings.”
– John Maeda, Global Head of Computational Design and Inclusion at Automattic

Roadmaps

One of the exciting and useful sections of the book is how it handles the topic of roadmaps. By taking a step back from the normal best practice conversation and looking at how roadmaps can and should be used across the organisation as a communication tool, we arrive at a series of conclusions and practical considerations for making the most of these important artefacts.

Where the book does stray into advice for those on the ground, it does so in a way that draws new conclusions about best practice. Of particular note, is the way that consumer insight is handled:

“Data is very valuable, but isn’t helpful without qualitative research. You need to ask the right questions. You need to really understand who’s using it and what you are not fulfilling as much as what you are fulfilling.”
– Marco Marandiz, Product Manager at HomeAway

By focusing the majority of roadmap advice on the conversations which happen around the production of a roadmap, and the focus, visibility and alignment they can bring when done right, you may see them in a whole new light. Rather than simply a document which directs your team’s delivery and prioritisation you may now consider them as a way to allow collaboration with other teams and areas of the business.
This doesn’t mean that they will remove all barriers and challenges, after all “collaboration doesn’t mean consensus”, but they can give a common language to provide the starting point to productive conversations, that get to the heart of any disagreement rapidly.

“The key thing to remember with a roadmap is that the document itself is uninteresting — it’s the process of understanding and negotiating that the team goes through, to own the problems and commit to solving them, that is its real purpose.”
– Matt Walton, Chief Product Officer at FutureLearn

To conclude

In the end, any leadership position is about communication and building influence across the areas of the business for which you don’t have direct control. This book will help you do that whilst also making the most of the skills that you will have developed as a product manager. Whatever sized organisation you’re working in, and whichever sector your focus, you’ll find inspiration and practical advice that you can start using before you even get to page 5.


Get your own copy of Product Leadership: How Top Product Managers Launch Awesome Products and Build Successful Teams today!
Product Leadership Book

James Gadsby Peet

About JAMES GADSBY PEET

I've been in the digital industry for over 10 years and have worked across small and large charities, as well as my own freelance projects. I am now Director of Digital at the sector leading creative agency William Joseph. Having been at Cancer Research UK for the last four years, I have been able to work on high volume, high profile campaigns such as Race for Life, Dryathlon and the much-quoted #nomakeupselfie. In that time I helped drive forward the charity’s digital product and marketing capabilities to be some of the most respected and successful in the sector. I'm always excited to work with other organisations, share expertise and swap cat gifs. Give me a shout!

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