Insights from the #mtpcon London Product Leadership Forum

BY James Gadsby Peet ON OCTOBER 30, 2018

The Product Leadership Forum is a chance for senior product professionals to discuss the challenges they face in a safe environment. The product manager role is evolving at pace and this means that there are a range of conversations that are hard to have in public. Here’s some insight into what was discussed at this year’s London forum.

From Individual Contributor to Product Leader

Alex Watson at mtpcon Leadership Forum
Alex Watson, Head of Product, BBC News

Intense, difficult experiences can make us strong Product Managers. However, if we are to use such experiences to our advantage, we need to build personal resilience. This is a skill that can be practised and can separate you from your peers as you evolve into a Product Leader.

The first step to becoming a resilient leader is to build principles for yourself. These are mental models that you have considered, explored and tested. Crucially, these principles save you time and bandwidth, because they give you a shortcut to answering the myriad questions you’re faced throughout the day.

A starting point for creating these principles can be to speak to previous managers you’ve enjoyed working for. By gaining insight from your experiences, you can develop principles on which to base your leadership style.

Once you’ve got some insight, you can combine this with values that resonate with you. Your team will work out which are important to you so you need to have a good appreciation of them. Start by ranking a long list of values and then keep cutting until you have a core set that you can use to guide your way of working.

In order to develop as a person, you have to understand your weaknesses and which parts of your personality you want to amplify. By getting a clear picture of these weaknesses, you can become the hero of your own story rather than always working against yourself.

Grief is only ever as deep as the love it’s replacedPat Barker, The Silence of the Girls, 2018

Bereavement makes us think about the relationships we hold dear. If you’ve truly engaged with someone then you’re not that sad about the things you didn’t say before they died, you’re thankful for the experiences you had together.

The impact of a bereavement can make you reflect on the profession and roles that you inhabit. It’s important to express and explore how your experiences outside work shape who you are. This leads to an authenticity which people will respect, but also to a more complete picture of you for people to understand.

By committing to leadership as this expression of your true self, you’re more likely to be successful and resilient.

How to Level Up Your Product Teams to Product Leaders

Marc Abraham leads a panel at mtpcon Leadership Forum
Alex Watson – Head of Product at BBC News, Dave Wascha – CPO at Photobox, Asha Haji – CPO at SchoolApply, Alice Newton-Rex – CPO at WorldRemit, and Marc Abraham – CPO at Settled

Create an Environment Where Your Teams can Learn by Failing

People learn through doing – which invariably means failing. Framing your language and thinking in hypotheses and experiments, is the first step to allowing people to make mistakes and learn from them.

Certain parts of an organisation, marketing for example, will be more comfortable with this than a financial function. Find them and make allies to help your team to develop.

Building credibility with other leaders helps the reputation of your teams and allows them to be supported through mistakes that are made. That said, underperformance is different from making mistakes. If people in your team have agreed and understood the level that you’re looking for and aren’t able to meet it, then you need to tackle it quickly. Your credibility as a leader will be undermined if you don’t make the change as soon as you can.

Many leaders lack confidence because they haven’t set expectations for the team. Start with this communication as soon as possible and document it so you know what you’ve said and can refer back to it.

Give Yourself and Others Time to Reflect

Good leaders don’t try to control their people’s’ emotions. They allow them to experience them fully and then create the context around them to be supportive rather than focusing on blame.

Identifying future leaders is something all strong leaders look to do. Focus on those people who are significantly improving their effectiveness and try to understand why. Then give them space and time to build their own model of leadership.

Develop Your own Authentic Style

The best team members, who often end up developing into leaders, show resilience and adaptability to their environment, teams and context. For example, if your style of Product Management is to know everything about your environment, you should re-evaluate when you move into a leadership role. Rather than being the person with all the answers, you need to be the one who asks all the right questions.

You can’t learn by copying what others are doing – you have to work it out for yourself. This allows you to come to your own authentic style of leadership that people will respect and understand.

Leading the Organisation

Kate Tarling on stage at mtpcon Leadership Forum
Kate Tarling, Product and Design Leader

Many organisations are building digital capabilities for the first time. They’re having lots of conversations about where people sit, what responsibilities they have and how to work together. Existing teams are added to, bureaucracies are stretched, and processes start to struggle.

In these situations people sense there is a better way, but find it hard to pin it down. We know what we’re doing isn’t good, but we don’t know what good looks like.

Tensions are rife as existing teams feel shut out and new people worry about being adopted into the business. These rifts lead to bottom-line issues such as increased costs, delivery falling behind and products that don’t meet any needs.

Many organisations try to fix these issues by looking internally. They ask what they need to build, buy, and outsource. The answer, however, is to look externally and to understand how an organisation can better meet the needs of its audiences.

Have a Shared Definition of Success

A good organisation mission can bring people together and resolve many issues. A good definition should start with describing successful outcomes for your users. From there, you should look at the rest of your stakeholders, including internal partners and external suppliers.

User journeys should define measures of success at each stage. These must be true reflections of success, rather than simply describing the number of people at each step. Conversion rates, drop-offs etc are key here.

Show People how Your Service is Performing

Once you have decided how to measure success, make sure you speak to everyone about it. This makes a big difference to senior leaders who then socialise it around the organisation and use it to get comfortable in making decisions about the product.

Use Desired Outcomes as the Basis for Redesigning Products

When you start from scratch, you need to define what you’re trying to make happen before you build anything. Base these on your user outcomes and you’ll build stronger services across the board.

Outcomes Must be Shared Across Teams

Very few genuine user outcomes are influenced by just one team. They are created by interacting with various services and products, usually owned by more than a single team, department or even organisation. As such, the outcomes and measures need to be shared by all the parties involved.

How to Drag Your Organisation Into the 21st Century

Bruce McCarthy leads a panel at mtpcon Leadership Forum
Kate Tarling – Product and Design Leader, Cait O’Riordan – Chief Product and Information Officer at Financial Times, Claire Calmejane – Chief Innovation Officer at Societe Generale, Adam Warburton – Head of Product at The Co-Op, and Bruce McCarthy – Author and Consultant

Make Difficult Decisions by Focusing on What Matters

If you want to transform an organisation to be fit for the new normal, you need to make some tough calls. By focusing on a North Star metric that aligns with your organisation, you can drive change that builds products which deliver value. For the Financial Times, this metric was the number of engaged users.

Remarkably few organisations actually know which metric is the most important for them.

Put Users at the Heart of Product and Service Development

An organisation of any longevity will have worked in a way that puts it ahead of its users. Any modern product development function needs to start with user needs and build out from there.

Digital Transformation is a Journey That’s Unique to Each Organisation

Most organisations start by digitising their existing service and end up trying to build front-to-back digital customer experiences. This situation asks questions about the ways of working of any business. Each organisation takes a different length of time to effect digital transformation – based on where they are located, how many people they have, and existing ways of working.

Product and Engineering Have to Work Together for Successful Outcomes

At the most innovative organisations, Product and Engineering report into the same leaders. If these two functions don’t pull in the same direction, then you will very quickly start to struggle to deliver value for the organisation and its users.

Creating Product Teams Devolves Power Away From Senior Teams

Often when senior people ask for product teams to be created, they don’t appreciate the change they’re implementing. To implement product as a function you need to empower people at the delivery end of the organisation to make decisions. Leaders will need to be reassured and educated about such changes, and the benefits they bring.

Take Time to Define the big Vision

People need to understand the changes you’re trying to make are important, so they should be described in terms that matter to them. It’s tempting to jump straight into activities when starting a new role or product, but this means you end up being measured on short-term KPIs rather than the large opportunities which should be your goals.

Show not Tell. Then Educate Others

By building products and services that work for an organisation, you demonstrate to everybody how a new way of working can happen. You may well then see other parts of the business start to create their own versions of your model, without necessarily understanding its intricacies. This should be seen as an opportunity to educate them and to help push change across the organisation. Get into these teams and help them become better product managers to build more user-centred services.

Keeping Products and People at the Edge of Adaptability

Nate Walkingshaw at mtpcon Leadership Forum
Nate Walkingshaw, CXO at Pluralsight and Co-Author of Product Leadership

The Industrial Revolution was based on a small number of inventions that changed the way humanity operates. We are at the same point now with digital products. It’s hard to know where technologies like AI will take us, but this time will be looked back on as a critical point in history.

Not long ago, people shipped products once or twice a year. Now, we build products that change every day. So our organisations need to adapt in the way they operate – and technology can help us do this.

Martha Stewart is an example of someone who is a master of diving into the practice when she needs to, but she can jump back up to strategy and manage a business when necessary. This skill is crucial when leading modern organisations, especially those building digital products.

Everybody in a company needs a clear vision of what it is committed to. No matter what level you’re at, you need to be able to tie what you do to the mission, vision and values of the organisation.

As a product leader, your role is to tie the business objectives to what your customers value. Some product leaders feel it is solely their responsibility to do this. When working really well, each different part of the leadership team knows their role in achieving this goal.

Design, test and iterate is the standard way of operating for modern companies. However, many are still working out how to build quality into this process. At Pluralsight, there are multiple stages for a prototype before it “earns the right to be seen by customer”. A design has to hit 4 out of 5 measures at each stage before it can move forward. Individuals are not blamed for this, but their biases and assumptions are explored and a new way forward is planned by speaking to the customer.

In many companies the technologies have been built using a single type of code. Newer organisations can use different types of tools that come together to create products. This brings diversity of thought, plus autonomy and accountability.

How to Align the Organisation Around Outcomes, not Outputs

Emily Tate leads a panel at mtpcon Leadership forum
Emily Tate – US General Manager at Mind the Product, Nate Walkingshaw – CXO at Pluralsight, Alla Alimova – Global Senior Product Manager at eBay, Jane Honey – Product Director at Intercom, and Nilan Peiris – VP Growth at TransferWise

Outcomes Take Time

Some outcomes may be simple to achieve, but often a desired outcome may take years to realise. The end product will often go through several shifts and look very different from what was originally envisaged. Looking to outcomes requires a shift to long-term thinking and an understanding that you might not be able to move every metric in just a month or two.

Communication is Key

Shifting from outputs to outcomes doesn’t just affect the product and development teams. Finance, sales, and marketing all have to get used to a world where they don’t have a list of features, set in advance, to base their plans on. Start by educating your peers on the process – show them how you make decisions and how they can have input. Then keep them informed as things take shape so they have the information they need to be aligned.

Focus on the “Why”

Many teams have measured success for years on delivering features “on time and on budget”. When moving to an outcome mindset, you need to help your team to look beyond purely shipping code and understand why you are building things. You want your team to feel ownership of the vision so they can help to achieve the desired outcomes.

Outputs are Still Needed

While we all agree that focusing on outcomes is ideal, it becomes easy to villainise any discussion of outputs. The reality is that at some point you have to talk about outputs, because the outcomes you’re working towards are driven through a series of outputs. Just be careful not to fall into thinking the outputs alone are success.

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James Gadsby Peet

About

James Gadsby Peet

I've been in the digital industry for over 10 years and have worked across small and large charities, as well as my own freelance projects. I am now Director of Digital at the sector leading creative agency William Joseph. Having been at Cancer Research UK for the last four years, I have been able to work on high volume, high profile campaigns such as Race for Life, Dryathlon and the much-quoted #nomakeupselfie. In that time I helped drive forward the charity’s digital product and marketing capabilities to be some of the most respected and successful in the sector. I'm always excited to work with other organisations, share expertise and swap cat gifs. Give me a shout!