Agile, Empathy, and 12 Steps… What we Learned at MTP Engage
MTP Engage returned to Hamburg last week as the largest gathering of product people in Germany for the second year in a row. Over 350 product people gathered to make new connections, share experiences, and learn from 20 amazing speakers.
This is Your Tribe
Martin Eriksson, Arne Kittler, and Petra Wille opened the day by welcoming the crowd, and reminded us that this is our tribe, brought together from all over the world. This conference is built by product people, for product people, and the strength of the German product community has allowed it to happen.
To Build Great Products, Build Great Culture
The theme of the morning was that good culture is key to building great product. Julia Whitney’s opening keynote told us that regardless of our level in an organization chart, the nature of our jobs means that product managers have to be leaders. And leaders have an outsized impact on team performance. She shared some insights on human behavior, and how we as leaders can use our influence to build a culture of psychological safety, enhancing collaboration and problem solving in our teams. (Catch Julia’s stakeholder management workshop in London in October!)
Next, Lukas Vermeer explained how the culture of Booking.com has allowed experimentation to flourish. Companies want to be data-driven, but they don’t empower people to make decisions independently and actually make use of their data. By providing ownership and creative freedom, teams at Booking.com are empowered to craft experiments based on well-defined user problems.
The key to this empowerment is aligning the team around customer-centric product development. Experimentation is not about testing guesses and hoping a “magic number” will move. Instead, start building educated hypotheses about problems your users have, how you might solve those problems, and create your tests out of those hypotheses.
Two Tracks of Product Insights
Both the English and German-language tracks brought some great talks from the product community. We heard many speakers focus on empathy with our users and our colleagues, to help them solve real problems in simple ways, leadership that comes not from authority, but by enabling others to be their best, and diversity that brings multiple viewpoints to the table, removing barriers to collaboration in our teams. These themes paint a picture of successful product managers as people who maintain a level of humility, and are able to bring together the right groups of people to move their products forward.
On the tactical front, we talked about the good and bad sides of data. We saw case studies that showed us how to use data to understand what was happening in a product and help teams achieve extraordinary results. We were also cautioned that data can be deceiving, and can misrepresent reality if we are not using it wisely.
Speakers also told us to have courage to challenge the status quo. The methodologies that are common practice are good frameworks to start, but teams should feel the freedom to understand the intention behind the best practices, and use those foundations to find their own way. At the end of the day, it is more important to do what is right for your team than to follow precisely what the “experts” say.
The closing keynotes challenged us to think about our craft at a higher level. As one of the earliest Agile product managers, Jeff Patton has seen the “brand” of Agile degrade – even so far as speakers eliciting spontaneous applause by saying “I hate Agile.” He recognizes that many people feel that Agile sucks, but posits that the feelings toward Agile are really born out of a major misunderstanding that can be solved by a simple readjustment of the Agile methodology.
Anti-patterns existed in waterfall development that pitted “the business” against “the tech team”. Agile didn’t solve these anti-patterns; it actually considered the product manager to be “the customer”. Instead, Jeff advocates for looking at the product team as the combination of product, design, and engineering. This allows us to shift the focus to our actual customers’ outcomes rather than output, and value the impact of what we build over meaningless measures like velocity and features shipped.
Paul Adams challenged us to expand our minds and reconsider who we are as product managers. We live in a world where the things we build are temporary and the processes we use to build them are completely made up. We also typically view product management as the center of the universe, which keeps us from seeing the full picture of what it really takes to make great products.
He outlined his 12-step process to make great products, and pointed out that product managers are only a part of about half of them. It takes everyone to create great products, and most of them don’t care about our standups or backlogs or retrospectives. It is good to think about how we can do our daily jobs as product managers better – but don’t forget about all of the other people that are necessary to make great product. Go wide and remember that we are only one part of the universe.
Another Successful Year
We ended a day full of networking and learning as product managers like to do – with an epic after party! A special thank you to our local organizers, Arne Kittler and Petra Wille, as well as our speakers, sponsors, and volunteers. The 2018 edition of MTP Engage Hamburg was a success, and we look forward to seeing you all again next year!
Watch out for our recap video and videos of all the talks – coming soon!