From the Passenger Seat – An Engineering View of Effective Product Management
An ineffective product manager can leave a pile of waste behind – a waste of time, money, hope and enthusiasm by the time the product gets launched, if it ever gets launched. The only constructive byproduct is a learning experience worth communicating to save other products from succumbing to the same mistakes.
From my experience of working directly with and solving problems for product management and delivery in a Fortune 100 financial services organization, I’d like to share my list of top grievances against bad product management, from an engineering perspective.
As Henry Ford said: “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” I hope that the following observations can help your product management environment to evolve into something stronger and better.
Vision: The art of Seeing What is Invisible to Others
If a product manager can’t visualize the product before others, with full clarity and purpose, then they can’t shape it for any sort of business relevance. The final output becomes soulless with no competitive edge. Lack of vision is the foremost reason for frustration for engineering leaders, especially when they see no roadmap or alignment to value stream and not much continuous market feedback for keeping the product on track. Lack of vision can also easily erode any technology investment or hope of return, adding to the misery of the engineers at the end of the product delivery.
Prioritization: Keep it in Order
Unless engineering teams get a clear sense of priority on features, variables, data objects, production issues and so on from the product manager there will be many challenges in the execution of backlog management and project collaboration. Prioritization and communication should happen daily and any deviation from aligned priorities should be logged clearly and shared with all the stakeholders. Moreover, regardless of the delivery methodology (waterfall, agile, pseudo-agile, SAFe etc.) there should be undivided focus on right-speed incremental deliveries and getting minimal viable product out of the door to recognize value, gain feedback and improvise.
Alignment: …and Sometimes you Need to put Your Foot Down
A product of reasonable scale is surrounded by a handful of stakeholders (for example, other interfacing products and governing bodies) requiring engagement and alignment from time to time. Product managers need to lead effectively, get everyone aligned and on board and then make firm decisions which they stick to. Product managers are at the driver’s seat, not engineering teams. Engineering teams are enablers but not primary decision makers. If the product manager doesn’t steer these decisions well enough then the product can very easily go in a ditch, taking the engineering team along with it.
Engineering generally must witness such accidents from the passenger seat.
Technology: Product Managers Must be Technically Invested. Period.
Engineering leaders require and respect technical partnership and it works best when the product manager has a reasonable depth of knowledge of the technology stack used. It becomes difficult for engineering when, due to lack of such a partnership, an incorrect technical direction or architectural decision is made resulting in technical debt, rework, production issues and poor quality and ultimately end-user/customer dissatisfaction.
Adapting: Let’s see who’s Using it
Nothing disappoints an engineering team more than when they see negligible usability or adoption to their piece of work a.k.a. the product they built. All the vision, prioritization and alignments need to be tightly connected with well-planned change management, user migration and associated training, followed by tracking, visualization and milestones for an intelligent feedback mechanism and introspection for evolution.
Governance: Measure, Manage, Maintain
If the product manager can’t measure the product clearly then they can’t manage it efficiently, and engineering team can’t maintain it technically. Technology teams need the product manager to define and streamline business critical metrics (for example data quality and product performance) in order to get insight into the relevant KPIs not only for maintaining a product’s health but also to streamline team working/capacity and predict team and project performance and releases.
Engineering leaders are the driving force behind the delivery of multiple concurrent business programs, leveraging and extending an organization’s robust technical platform. But they can’t be successful by just being excellent in isolation. The product management team is their partner and it is up to the product manager to step up to their responsibilities if these common pitfalls are to be avoided and the product built and delivered as envisaged.