Marta Rolak, Product director at Springer Nature in this guest post, shares how teams can undergo product transformation within their own organisation.
Is it possible for your company to deliver great products if it’s learning how to develop products at the same time? Whether it’s a business undergoing digital transformation, or a start-up with an opinionated founder, there are lots of companies out there that are on a journey of product management and development discovery. Chances are you will work for one of those at some point in your career. Does it mean you and your company’s products are doomed?
Features vs. products
Everyone knows there are feature teams and there are actual product teams (Marty Cagan, 2019, Product vs. feature teams, SVPG). The latter create products that customers love, the former is sometimes believed to mindlessly throw features over the fence.
Any respectable product person wants to be part of a team that finds solutions to delight customers and designs products that make a real difference.
In today’s commercial environment, whether or not a product person gets to do real product development and product management depends on the product manager themselves and, to an extent, on the company’s digital maturity.
Digitally mature companies vs. others
One of the main characteristics that distinguish true technology companies from others is the universal understanding and appreciation of product management and product development. The product function will often report directly into the CEO of the company and have a permanent seat at the table where decisions are made. This is the type of company where you will most often see product teams at work.
By contrast, at non-tech companies — especially those undergoing digital transformation and where technology is mostly considered a service to the business — there is only limited understanding of the product management role. Product managers may be perceived as administrators of a product backlog, which in turn is expected to contain all stakeholders’ requirements and feature requests. Product managers will often report into various business areas like operations or marketing, being far removed from the decision-making powers.
Is it actually possible to do product management well at a company like that?
There is potential to deliver great products everywhere
Bad news first though. For starters, face it: You have a difficult job to do. As per my rather unscientific LinkedIn poll, about 6 out of 10 people believe that it is “definitely more difficult” to do product innovation at companies that undergo digital transformation. This, of course, may be for a number of reasons, including lack of infrastructure, poor ratio of legacy to modern systems, lack of skills, etc.
However, I believe one of the main reasons is low adoption of modern product management techniques by the company and/or a conviction that the role of product and technology is purely to serve the business. Both of those may pose significant constraints for anyone involved in product work.
The good news is that it is not all lost and there is potential to deliver great products everywhere. You, in particular, can make a significant difference and influence how product management is perceived by your colleagues. So, don’t give up your product ideals and instead start experimenting with different approaches until you find some that work.
3 tips for product managers at companies learning how to do product
#1 Communication is key
You need to act as an advocate for product management as a function and one of the most effective ways of doing that is by working closely with your colleagues to show them what product managers and product development teams do.
To put it simply, you need to invest significantly more effort into communication and stakeholder management than you would at a company with a strong product culture. Consider these steps:
- Over-communicate about what you do, why you do it, and how you go about it. This is hard because it may feel like having to justify your very existence at times but it will help build mutual trust and understanding in the long term.
- Invite the most reluctant stakeholders to user interviews so they can see your team in action and hear about pain points from real people.
- Involve most reluctant stakeholders in creative activities, from inceptions to story kick-offs, so they can witness your trade and have multiple opportunities to provide input.
- Consider embedding representatives from the key business areas in your team as Subject Matter Experts. Invite them to some of your team ceremonies so they can witness what product work is about on the inside.
- Be prepared to demonstrate the data and research to support your decisions over and over again, trying out different ways to visualise it, making it accessible and easy to consume even by those not overly interested in technology.
- Use simple language to explain what you are working on and why. We are all guilty of using the product and technology jargon too often and that just makes it more difficult to understand.
- Be patient. It takes time to build trust.
#2 Accept there will be many feature requests and deal with it
Product managers receive requests for specific features wherever they work because it’s a completely natural thing for people to look for solutions to problems, and those solutions are often disguised as features. However, you might get those requests a lot more frequently than your colleagues at more product-minded companies.
My advice is not only to expect it but also to accept that stakeholders will come to you with feature requests all the time. Once you’ve accepted it, instead of getting frustrated, you can start using it as an opportunity to have an open dialogue with a colleague and understand what they are after. This is your chance to show you are interested in finding a solution to a problem that’s clearly important to them, and over time, to build a trust-based relationship.
#3 Find allies. Don’t walk it alone.
It’s a big ask to actively promote the product function at your organisation. The bigger the company, the more people you will need to reach with your message and the bigger the task will be. The reality is you won’t be able to and, more importantly, you shouldn’t do it alone. You will need others to help you spread the message as well.
Ask your team and your fellow product managers for help. Maybe you can hold some lightning sessions together to talk about what you do or organise “open door days” for your colleagues so they can see you and your team in action.
You might find there are many people in your organisation who are naturally more interested in technology, maybe it’s someone in customer services or a seemingly reluctant stakeholder. This is a wonderful common ground to build on so invest in creating personal relationships; having technology advocates among colleagues who sit outside of the technology and product organisation is invaluable.
Is it possible to do great product work regardless of whether the company is ready for it or not?
Yes, definitely. There will, of course, be times when you will feel like the Eye of Sauron is upon you and you will be in plain survival mode.
However, there will also be periods of time, perhaps with less pressure on delivery, when you’ll be able to dedicate more effort into communication, building relationships, and forging alliances. It is during those times when you will be able to make the most progress as an advocate for modern product management. If you keep coming back to these three steps, I guarantee that, over time, you will build a solid foundation for better conversations about product management and for better product outcomes for your customers. It is a journey that – while tough – can be also exceptionally rewarding.