Applied product management: Why you may be struggling as a product leader by Gijo Mathew "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs 26 May 2022 True Premium Content, Product leadership, Product Management, product management conference, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 739 Product Management 2.956
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Applied product management: Why you may be struggling as a product leader by Gijo Mathew

In this #mtpcon Digital Americas session, Gijo Mathew, CPO at VTS, explains why we should be thinking of product management in the same way we think about applied mathematics — as the application of methods and specialised knowledge.

Watch the video to see his talk in full or read on for an overview of his key points:

  • Gijo looks at how to identify the ‘fields of product management’, key differences, and practical steps you can take to be successful in each.
  • Companies fit into three stages- startup, scaleup and stable
  • Success looks different at each stage
  • Expectations of product people are different at each stage
  • Rigour is different at each stage

Gijo starts with a quote from American mathematician William Paul Thurston,  “mathematics is not about numbers, equation computations or algorithms, it’s really about understanding”, which he says can also be applied to product management: product management  is not about user stories, PRDs and Sprints alone, it’s about understanding as well.

Companies fit into one of three stages

He puts companies into three stages. The first is startup, where companies are looking to survive, the second is scaling, where companies are looking to grow, and the third is stabilising, where companies have grown and are looking to optimise what they’ve done. He asks delegates to think about what stage their company is at and to talk to others in their company about this: “Sometimes it seems obvious, but I will bet dollars to donuts, that it is never that obvious.” He advises us to go outside our own echo chamber to ask the question, and “try to hear it from the cross-functional teams, other functions at the company because that will give you more of an indication of what type of field you’re in right now.”

In a startup growth usually means survival, he says, whereas in a scaleup it means introducing more revenue to the organisation, and in a stabilising company it usually means driving profitability. “Understanding what growth means enables you to formulate what success looks like at the stage that you’re in,” Gijo says, “and it will be an indicator of how you operate.” In a scaleup the trade-offs are real, he says: “Anything you choose to do at a scaleup means leaving another opportunity on the table. It might be an interesting opportunity and maybe a high-growth opportunity.”  In a stabilised team growth means focusing on the experience and the cost of the service, how you can improve the experience from a customer perspective and company cost perspective.

Think about growth parameters

Gijo also advises that we should think about growth parameters, like time, resources and budget. He gives an example to illustrate what he means. He was working at a company that was moving from scaling to stabilising, and he and his team failed to focus successfully on timing. “It meant that we didn’t really fully capitalise on this huge, huge opportunity that we had in front of us,” he says.

The expectations of product people are different in each of these types of companies, he says. In a startup you’ll be pitching in with whatever is needed and working with the strengths and weaknesses of the founders. In a scaleup you start to own capabilities and products. In a stabilising business, you “start to own lanes and start to own experiences”. In startups, product leaders are rewarded on activity, says Gijo. In scaling organisations product leaders are rewarded on outcomes, and stabilised teams are usually rewarded on improving the service or solution.

Gijo says product leaders should consider how well they understand what’s being asked of them and how long they will be able to do it. “Identifying what’s expected of you as a product leader and understanding you’ll never get this perfect will save you frustration,” he says. “Most product leaders have to come in with a level of self awareness of what they are, what they want to do and for how long they want to do it.”

The rigour process is also very different in these different types of company, says Gijo, and he uses the process of goal setting to illustrate this. In a startup, goal setting is very fluid and based on lots of assumptions, and ideally lots of experiments. In scaleups, goal setting is “fickle and less structured”. As you move to stabilised teams, goal setting is usually clearer and mostly measurable, Gijo says.

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