After all these years designing digital products and services at Clearleft, we’ve finally realised the secret of our success, and it has nothing to do with us. Well, maybe not NOTHING, but our most satisfying client engagements all have one thing in common (as do our least satisfying engagements), and that’s client-side product management.
Catalysts, Enablers, and Informed Negotiators
When we have a dedicated client-side product manager who understands modern digital design practices, and is committed to delivering a great solution, we’re able to focus on solving the problem at hand without worrying about organisational friction. Decisions arise and are dealt with almost immediately, helping maintain momentum. More tricky challenges are removed from the process and dealt with in a separate branch, being folded back into the project at the appropriate juncture. A good product manager acts as a permanent champion of the product, as well as a surrogate for organisational decision making.
By comparison, when we find ourselves in the situation of having little or no client-side product management, progress is slowed as we try to navigate the internal political terrain, and clear the barriers ourselves. The process becomes a series of gates we need to navigate, where stakeholders with little day-to-day involvement in the project attempt to get a clear enough picture of the landscape to make critical decisions. This tends to reduce both momentum and the quality of decision making.
The Missing Ingredient
This was brought home to us recently when working for two very similar organisations in the same sector. One project was led by a full-time product manager who understood Agile and had the authority to make decisions without referring them up the chain. Because of this, issues were addressed on a continuous basis, and both momentum and quality remained high. Everybody enjoyed working on the project and the initial engagement has led on to future work.
The other project also had a product manager assigned to it, but they lacked prior PM experience. We suggested agile product management training but were assured that this wasn’t necessary and their team “got Agile”. It quickly became apparent that they didn’t have a handle on things like backlog management, so we ended up making decisions around priorities and resource allocation that should have been made by the business.
When larger decisions needed to be made, they were passed up the ranks, often losing touch with the original problem along the way. The process would invariably take several weeks to resolve, drawing important resources away from the project. With nobody owning the process from the client side, or filtering feedback, the results often clashed with strategic objectives made by other stakeholders, causing lots of political wrangling along the way.
Intangible Yet Essential
None of this is unusual, and it’s all stuff our project managers and design leads are more than capable of handling. Still, where one project felt smooth and efficient the other felt challenging and fraught with compromises; where one team felt energised by the experience, the other felt exhausted; where one project focussed on solving problems and delivering solutions, the other focussed on clearing paths and building understanding—all important things, but all things that come as standard with a dedicated product manager.
We’ve seen this experience replicated a few times, so we’re going to encourage our clients to appoint a dedicated product manager from here on in. Somebody who can give the product the attention and focus it deserves.
This means clearing the decks, handing Business As Usual (BAU) tasks over to other people, and making yourself available for the duration of the project. Ideally it will involve some form of co-location as it’s difficult to be party to the day-to-day decisions if you’re out of the room. So embed yourself in the team, own group decisions, and champion the resulting product around the organisation.
It’s still possible to deliver amazing projects when this doesn’t happen. It just takes more time, effort and resources—three things that clients often find in short supply. As a result we’re going to be a lot more caution working with clients that lack experienced and dedicated product-management, and will adjust our approach accordingly.