Transformers: Understanding Product Leadership
We are confused and speechless (in the literal sense) when it comes to leadership. Or shall I say management? After all, we generally call ourselves “product managers”, not “product leaders”. Maybe “product directors”? Or “product owners” who need to lead laterally, as they don’t really have the power to call the shots (contrary to those pesky senior managers). I am now called a “Chief Product Officer” – an executive – and I used to be a “managing director” at my previous company. Another three different terms!
How to make sense of this? I propose to describe all those (product) managers (directors, leaders, executives, officers) as transformers!
Let me explain: We are generally unclear about what “product management” and “product leadership” mean, and what it takes to be a good product leader or manager. “Transformer” is an umbrella concept which provides a framework for the various aspects of product management and leadership. Quite literally, transformers create or form something new out of something given. In an organizational context, they are hired to transform the input from resources and people into something meaningful for the organization’s customers. Transformers are the people who take responsibility for getting results, and a product manager takes responsibility for solving the problems of his company’s customers.
This transformational definition of managers (directors, leaders, executives, officers) implies that transformers have certain qualities; they
- Choose an attitude of initiative. They do not see themselves as a victims, where external circumstances shape their destiny. On the contrary, they want to shape the future and even risk making mistakes. As a product manager, they do not complain about what’s not working, but instead take steps to make progress.
- Understand the context they are operating in, and the results that are expected. As a senior executive of a company, I make sure customers appreciate our products and services, such that our company stays in business. As a product manager, you know what specific problems you are working on and how they relate to the products and services of your company.
- Have a bias towards making progress. This includes execution and decisions as well as reflection and insight. As a product manager, you judge each day by the amount of insight you’ve gained and the value you delivered towards your customers.
Now, what do transformers actually do all day? How do they get their results? As the various names suggest, transformers do their job through three functions: directing, managing, and leading.
The Functions of Transformation
Transformers principally fulfil all three functions to some degree, though the respective weightings might differ given the context and personality of a transformer. A product manager focuses more on managing, a product director puts more emphasis on leading (and directing), while a chief product officer has to excel at directing (and leading).
Directing is about meaning – It creates clarity of intent
Directing is a conceptual task. As the name suggests, it is about defining a direction that provides context and purpose. It explains the intent and focuses on the WHY and WHAT, not the HOW. For product development, this is mostly about product vision, strategy, and high level roadmap.
Transformers ensure that such a direction exists. In order to define it, they make sense of the information at hand and create insights out of it. This is followed by a strategic choice of picking one direction and excluding all other options. This gives people clarity of intent and enables them to act within this frame.
While other people could and should help, especially with sense making, directing is the one task that cannot be delegated.
Managing is about resources – It creates alignment of commitment
Steve Jobs used to present new products with “it just works”. This is exactly what you want from any operation that is managed well. Managing means making the best use of people, time, money, and any other resources, orchestrated together. For product management, in practical terms, this is about handling various stakeholders, prioritizing backlogs, making trade-offs between scope, time, and quality. And, if necessary, doing other people’s job.
This is a daily challenge. Structure and processes (the tools of choice) certainly help, but they are not enough. All people have their own agendas and their perspectives on situations will differ, and therefore so do their priorities. This means that structures and processes can and will be gamed. To efficiently manage resources, an alignment of commitment is necessary. The key to getting people to commit their resources, in particular energy and will, is to create a shared understanding of the context.
Each person acts rational and is right – from their own perspective. Sharing those perspectives within your team or organisation will create a deeper understanding of the situation at hand, letting everybody see the whole picture. Once a shared understanding is created, everybody either agrees on how to make trade-offs or is generally much more willing to commit to your decisions, as everybody is heard and has seen equally valid different perspectives.
Leading is about people – It creates autonomy of units
Transformers cannot save the world alone. You need help. Once you’ve defined the intent (directing) and got aligned commitment (managing), you want everybody to work as independently with as much empowerment and speed as possible on the HOW. People should be able to react to new information, changed situations, and new learnings without asking for guidance at every turn.
Leading puts people, teams and units in a position to perform, i.e. it enables them to use and build on their strengths. This autonomy only comes with responsibility, and it needs the mutual trust that people know what is expected from them (WHAT and WHY), and that they have the competence to solve the HOW.
As a product director, you want your product managers to ‘own’ their product as much as possible. It is your responsibility to ensure that your product managers operate just beyond their comfort zone, but not yet in their panic zone. If a (senior) product manager can define a product vision or a roadmap on their own: great! If a (junior) product manager asks for more freedom than his competence allows: be clear and firm about performance expectations and define jobs accordingly. And, as a product manager, you yourself should only ask for the amount of freedom you are capable of handling.
The Traits of a Transformer
So far, I have defined a manager / leader / executive / … as a transformer, i.e. a person who takes responsibility for results, and creates new value out of existing resources. And I explained that a transformer fulfills three functions: directing, managing, and leading. But how do you do that every day, on a practical level? What does it take in terms of traits to be a transformer?
At the risk of sound cliché, transforming requires your whole personality. You need your heart, your brain, and your gut – in other words: it takes compassion, creativity, and courage.
Being not only good, but great at anything means doing it wholeheartedly, and acting with passion. A transformer is determined to take responsibility for results in an organization, even though they cannot control everything. It is a people-driven business, so they engage warmly with other people.
Do you want to do that? As a product manager, do you really love digital products? Do you want to make a little dent in the universe, or at least really want to help your customers? I hope so, because it really is a requirement.
Yet, at the same time, with all your well intended determination, do not take yourself too seriously. Value humor, and don’t let your passion become an ideology. There are other truths to be lived. Scrum is not necessarily better than kanban. Engineers and designers both bring great stuff to the party. And in the long run, we are all dead anyway.
Transforming means creating something new, and the act of creation surely needs creativity. I personally define creativity as the capacity to find new possible solutions to problems, where the problem can change based on discovered solutions. In other words, it is an iterative process where you look at a starting hypothesis, generate options by letting associations run freely, recognize patterns, and then identify what really matters. Through this process, you sharpen your focus down to the problem that you truly want to solve. You come up with solutions you haven’t thought about before. Now, the problem and the solution make perfect sense together, and you think: “Of course!” At the risk of sounding nebulous, creativity leads to an integration or synthesis of possibilities on a higher level.
As a product manager, you especially need creativity in two domains:
- Really understanding, at a very deep level, the customers’ problem you want to solve…
- And in your daily operations, solving trade-offs not through domination (“boss said …” ) nor false compromise (avoiding the intense quest for a better solution), but rather by finding integrative solutions that take the valid points from different perspectives into account. As an example, when two people fight over whether to ship feature A or B first, looking at their implicit assumptions might lead to a different understanding of the real problem to solve. That, in turn, should hopefully bring an agreement over which feature is more important, or even a decision to ship feature C.
Transforming means changing, and change is tough. A good transformer is present in every moment and pays attention to their “gut feeling” or instincts, which should provide them with an inner compass of sorts. Of course, this is assuming that you have a deep understanding of your market and the situation, – a prerequisite for any transformer!
It takes courage to face the truth of how we really see things: not just externally to the organisation, but especially within ourselves. Being courageous means recognizing and reacting to the tensions we sense within the team, across the organization, and even within ourselves. It also means being strong and tough enough to do what needs to get done in order to create a great product.
As a product manager, have you really understood your customer, the other stakeholders, and your team? Are you really trying hard enough to find the best solution? Are you saying NO with truly good reason? When people look for leadership, they are looking for people who stay true to the situation and themselves. This is the basis for the integrity that every transformer needs.
- As a leader, you are paid for transforming resources into results (outcome, success). Nothing else.
- Regardless of what you are called (leader, manager, director), as a transformer you always fulfil three functions: directing (i.e. create clarity of intent), managing (align commitment), and leading (enable autonomy of units). Although your particular mix of functions might vary, don’t be misled by your formal title on what you need to get done.
- Look for and leverage your personal strengths with regard to compassion, creativity, and courage. Find your own way and style in transforming your product.