4 Challenges That Get in the Way of Effective Product Leadership

BY JAMES MAYES ON FEBRUARY 5, 2018

I recently had the opportunity to attend a roundtable discussion for product leaders in London. Under strict observation of the Chatham House rule, the group picked out a host of themes for discussion, and I’ve chosen the four topics which seemed to resonate universally, along with a selection of the considerations mentioned and the approaches people are taking to tackle them.

Decision Making: Data vs Gut Feeling

There’s an increasing number of research tools, analytics providers and general reading material available, all pointing to the need for more evidence-based decision making. But many product leaders at the roundtable reported that their teams struggle to make decisions when they feel the data is either inconclusive or not available in sufficient quantities.

One attendee strongly recommended The Effective Executive by business legend Peter Drucker as a solid read – understanding the differences between type one (permanent) and type two (reversible) decisions can be remarkably empowering.

We discussed a number of coaching and development opportunities associated with this difficulty. Below are the main conclusions we drew about decision making, as well as aspects of the process we felt would warrant further investigation and action:

  • We should recognise that personal experience and gut feel both are valid inputs and have value
  • There are occasions when a gut-feel decision might be justified. Open discussion is the best way to explore this. Is it possible to create a framework for non-data decision making to increase psychological safety?
  • If gut feel is the only guidance available, then we should return to classic Lean experimentation – looking at the smallest thing that can be tested in order to prove/disprove that gut feel.
  • As the daily news attests, data can be (and often is) inaccurate. But it is only one of many signals that product people should be attuned to. It should not be trusted with blind faith and gut feeling can be a valid reason to challenge data.
  • In team review sessions, the senior person should share at least one recent failing each time, alongside the learning – this normalises openness, uncertainty, curiosity.

CEO vs Product Management

As you might expect, a reasonable contingent attending the roundtable work in startups, businesses where the founder/CEO is still very much involved with the product. Difficult though it may be, a founder needs to step away from the product and relinquish more control to the product function; there were three approaches to easing this process that resonated most strongly with product leaders:

  • Make it a communication and focus exercise. The CEO needs to focus on the vision, then agree with the product leadership what the key areas of focus will be in order to deliver that vision – or at least move the needle significantly towards it. By picking a handful (three to six) key things, alignment of teams becomes easier, distractions can be more swiftly dealt with, and goals become clearer.
  • Your job is to “make the CEO win”.  Product leaders are hired for their experience and expertise, and to release the CEO from their current duties so they can take the next steps towards the organisation’s growth.  The CEO doesn’t necessarily want to lose touch with the product – so as a product leader, make that aspect of their role easier/better, allowing them to build the trust to step slowly further back, affording the team more freedom. Commit to the CEO’s goal, but be running small experiments constantly so that you’re ahead of the discussion. This allows you to remain informed and influential on what should come next, not just deep in the execution of “now”.
  • Work to align measurement. In a number of firms, it seemed that product management teams were measured primarily on features shipped, whereas engineering teams were held accountable on reducing tech debt. It was felt this misalignment is probably exacerbated by neither metric even being aligned with the CEO’s bottom line or with customer outcomes.

Diversity and Retention

Diversity in hiring has been a hot topic for some years and is finally being recognised as not just politically and socially important, but also as crucial for creative thinking. Different backgrounds, upbringing, philosophy, education and so on, all have an impact on the approach we take when solving problems. Since problem solving is the fundamental goal of most product people, diversity is something the roundtable attendees took very seriously. Indeed, Mind the Product co-founder Martin Eriksson took a closer look at some of these aspects in this recent post.

At the roundtable, we looked at some of the more immediate aspects of diversity, such as writing gender-neutral job adverts (this tool is a handy checkpoint – imperfect, but a step in the right direction).  We also debated whether computer science degrees are really necessary for product manager hires, and whether this discriminates against female applicants or those from less privileged backgrounds.  We also looked at where else in the business suitable hires might be found. Interestingly it emerged that our discussion chair, ProdPad’s Janna Bastow, was originally plucked from a customer success team – she was chosen for her insatiable curiosity, and because she liked solving problems, and knew exactly where the users were experiencing pain.

We also discussed how to support people moving into product management.  We agreed that this could be done by:

  • Creating informal mentoring networks
  • Giving an expectation of where time and effort should be focused in the first 100 days in any new role
  • Changing the language (“Let’s go learn about this next” implicitly acknowledges experiments and potential failure, but doesn’t call it out directly, building on psychological safety).

There was some interest in the potential of sales people for product management roles – they’re focused on outcomes, used to taking risks, iterating on their approach, passionate and committed to their work…

We also looked at stakeholder management and influencing. No one willingly identifies these softer skills as weaknesses, but many will ask for support on developing them. Conversely, at Mind the Product we know that our workshops on “hard skill” subjects tend to book up faster than those on softer skills.  Perhaps the tangible nature of hard skills makes them more rewarding to learn and complete?

Commercial Product Management

Finally, as we work to develop future Mind the Product content for both workshops and conference programmes, I asked the roundtable what people thought of the commercial strengths of product managers.

There was wide agreement that product people (especially those in Europe) are weak commercially.  Depending on the firm, “commercial strength” was interpreted variously as operational complexity, supply chain management, cost of development, cost of support and ownership, pricing models, business models, and upsell/cross-sell potential. I doubt we covered half of it!

We agreed that this commercial weakness can lead to bad assumptions, particularly in more complex environments. And while there’s no ideal solution to this, there were some interesting ideas put forward:

  • Rotating product managers through different departments so that they gain the understanding they currently lack. This had some support.
  • Hiring a product manager with an MBA – just one on the team, enough to bring knowledge where others were lacking. One attendee had done this. The product manager in question didn’t have a Computer Science background, so mutual support within the team proved to be an excellent approach. This led to the suggestion that a “mini or internal MBA” could be developed for all product managers, provided the right support and rotation could be achieved. This would be similar to the Associate Product Manager programs more common in California.

My thanks to Nick Charalambous  for arranging and hosting the session, and to Janna Bastow of ProdPad, who did a great job chairing the discussion using the Lean Coffee approach.

James Mayes

About JAMES MAYES

Co-Founder and CEO at Mind the Product. James spent his first 15 years in recruiting, building high performance tech teams (including building the first Java development team in Europe!). He joined Mind the Product in 2012, initially building partner relationships and subsequently looking at other ways Mind the Product can better support the Product ecosystem.

  • Jake

    Chatham House rules != naming participants

  • Thanks for the round-up, James. It sounds like you could have spent lots more time discussing those topics – there’s plenty in there 🙂

    On the soft versus hard skills, a few of the places I’ve helped have been hiring people who are relatively new to product management.

    When interviewing them, I tend to look for candidates with strong soft skills and the aptitude to learn the hard skills needed for product management.

    I can teach someone how to prioritise a backlog – it’s much harder to teach them to have empathy…

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