In Mind the Product’s state of product management survey last year we noticed a strong theme – umpteen respondents said that their biggest challenge was to get the business to see the value of product. With this in mind we’ve asked some product leaders about how they do this, the problems and sticking points they’ve faced, and any advice they might have for their peers.
What Does the Customer Want?
Why is it so important? After all, businesses have been successful through organising around functional structures – sales, marketing and so on – for a very long time. There’s one simple answer: if you’re going to be citizen or consumer centric then you should organise around the way your customer experiences you. Terry Cordeiro, head of product at financial services consultancy 11:FS, and formerly in charge of digital transformation at Lloyds Bank, thinks that this connection to the customer that comes from being organised around product is becoming more understood: ”When you look at things through a product lens – Marty Kagan’s valuable, usable, feasible concentric circles – it’s a really simple way of saying, am I doing something that actually the customer wants? Non product-focused organisations have always thought ‘we know what our customers want’, and foist what they want onto their customers.”
Is it Getting Easier to Demonstrate?
Craig Strong, global speciality practice advisory lead for EMEA at Amazon Web Services, helps AWS customers transform and innovate to become cloud-enabled, so he deals with this issue every day. He says demonstrating the value of product has become easier in recent years, simply because it’s now obvious that customer-centric companies are much more successful than those that aren’t. A case in point: “Amazon aims to be the world’s most customer-centric company.”. His role has changed, he adds, from one of persuading businesses of the value of being product centred and customer focused, to one where clients come to him looking for advice on how to transform to a customer-centric structure.
But not all businesses are online tech businesses, so may not see the need to organise around product management as we know it, as Emma van Dijkum, head of product at financial services group Octopus, points out. “Saying that, taking the looser sense of the word, ultimately a business is there to sell something – a product (which could be a service) to its customers – without which they would not survive. To increase the likelihood of success of that business, the product needs to be the focal point. If it happens to be a technology business, it’s a no brainer.”
Customer-centricity may be on the ascendance, but lots of businesses are happy to continue to organise around functional structures. Tom Loosemore, partner at Public Digital and a co-founder of the UK Government Digital Service has a theory as to why this is: he posits that after about 15 years of existence businesses get stuck in the prevailing mindset of the time. Government, he says, is therefore stuck in the 19th century, with departmental silos that are essentially sovereign in nature. There are also many organisations stuck in a late 20th century mindset who are supposedly all about efficiency, and have centralised all their services. “But what was supposedly efficient in the 1990s no longer gives them any agility today,” says Tom.
Product Needs a Seat at the Table to Succeed
If a business is organised around its products, it needs to be done with unequivocal commitment. The product function is there to help the business reach its full potential of success, and product teams should put their preconceptions and egos aside and start with the true user need. Says Holly Donohue, principal product manager at the Co-op: “By doing this, the likelihood of success is increased, products are based on what users really need, and less on what the business thinks the users want. A subtle distinction that can save a lot of money on wasted development effort. This only works if the product function holds a seat at the table and has a loud enough voice in the organisation.”
Tom Loosemore also points out the notion of being organised around customer experience requires a level of agility and flexibility that can be unsettling to many organisations. He worked at the BBC for six years and says the BBC made the decision to launch the iPlayer in 2003/4 but didn’t launch anything till 2007. Why? Because no one would leave their silos. He says: “No one would give trust to a new thing that was strategically necessary but that emotionally, required you to give up some control, resource, and influence as a leader. So people did the whole committee thing, but they would all sit in silos and not give up the people, control, or brands.” If your organisational structure is disconnected from your product structure, then the functional parts of the business supporting the products have to be run by people with the humility to let go, he says.
How do you approach the challenge of getting a business to see the value in product and adopt a product-based structure? It’s something all the product leaders we spoke to have experienced.
Holly has worked with a couple of organisations at different stages of their product journey. Her observation is that product people can be very passionate about doing the right thing and working in the right, usually agile way, and can become a little purist about this. “This creates friction with those who are experienced in working in a more traditional, waterfall style environment who can feel like they’re being told that what they’re doing is ‘wrong’ and find it hard to lose the false certainty of product features mapped out for the next three years,” she adds. She says she’s often heard the question, “how can I stop my executives giving me solutions?”. “The hard answer is, you can’t,” she says. “In these situations, it’s important to build a relationship of trust with the person, making pragmatic compromises and then use data and research to show what could be and start to tip the balance towards more product-led ways of working.”. It means learning what’s important to your stakeholders and speaking in their language – if they are revenue driven, go heavy on the financial impacts, if they need to see solutions, show prototypes.
Products Don’t Need to be Perfect
Terry Cordeiro has spent much of his career working in product for large banks (RBS and Lloyds), organisations that epitomise siloed hierarchical organisations with traditional waterfall product development for many of us. In the past, even for the launch of traditional financial products like credit cards and loans, any research would be limited to looking at competitor activity, he says. If competitors were launching a new credit card offering customers 1% cashback, a bank would launch a similar offer, he says. But by the time it was delivered, the market had moved on.
He says the crux of the challenge is getting the business to understand that a product doesn’t need to be 100% perfect before it can be released, that you don’t need to wait two years before putting something to market. It means showing that the process needs to be flipped, he adds, by doing more initial research: if product development shifts to more research and testing of ideas, then the greater the likelihood of a timely and successful product.
Naturally some parts of the business can be more resistant to change than others. Craig says in his experience it’s often functions like security, risk and compliance and the project management office that prove to be sticking points – because they’re focused on methodologies and frameworks and they’re threatened by the idea of a shift from outputs to outcomes. His approach is to be empathetic, and to support his case with evidence and data. You can only show, you can’t tell.
Tom suggests finding someone senior in the organisation who is interested and has a problem that is big enough to have an impact but small enough to tackle. He gives an example from his couple of years as head of digital services at the Co-op – its funeral business. “Obviously you don’t put a funeral business online, but you can apply product thinking to it,” he says. The manager of the Co-op’s funeral business at the time wanted to enable funeral directors to spend more time with the bereaved. Funerals are deceptively complex businesses – there’s a body to deal with and an event to organise to a tight deadline. And every funeral business has its own hearse, a £200,000 vehicle with typically 15% utilisation. Says Tom: “How do you get it right? How do you make sure that the wishes of the bereaved are understood? If you turn up as a funeral director in the middle of the night, and you start a conversation with the bereaved about what their wishes are, how do you capture that information? How do you make sure you don’t lose the body when you take it away? We knew we could take advantage of the internet era mindset to make the process more empathetic.” Every funeral home was run differently on paper, so Tom and his team started with one funeral home and then scaled up. “We applied this thinking, this mindset to iterate and user centricity, to the users – who are funeral directors and the bereaved – and the fact that there’s no website is irrelevant. What mattered was finding the right leader with the malleability of mindset who was willing to take a risk with us.”
Address the Loudest Voices in the Room
Emma comments that there will often be influential people in a business who don’t understand technology. “They are loud voices and don’t always like to admit they don’t have a clue – a dangerous combo. People think ‘I give you a deadline so you stick to it’ works for most things – and often it needs to work if you’re dead set on hitting targets by X. It’s often quite hard to work around that rigidity.”
In such cases, Terry Cordeiro advises product leaders to find the biggest doom monger among their stakeholders and uncover a pain point that affects their business. “Show them how it can be done differently and how you can solve that problem. Because if you can convince that person and then you’ll convince everybody else,” he says. In one of his roles he built chatbots for the bank’s call centre. The most common reason for people to ring the call centre was to ask for their bank balance, so he got the call centre manager onside by building a prototype that he showed to customers. “We asked them ‘if you could use this, would you still call the bank?’ They all said ‘yes of course, I hate phoning the bank’.” Solve a sceptic’s problem and you have them for life, he says.
Product leaders should also bear in mind that most organisations aren’t ruthless enough about killing ideas that don’t work, adds Tom. “A big part of the product mindset is that you run with a bunch of assumptions that could be false, so you’ve got to be able to kill what you produce quickly, and that requires organisational agility. Amazon is really good at this at the moment, it’s ruthless about killing things that don’t work.”
The Main Sticking Points
The main sticking points then, are organisation culture and power. Organisation culture appears to be slowly changing, thanks to the example set by some wildly successful customer-centric companies. Power is a tricky thing to negotiate, because it speaks to ego, control and all those things that people typically associate with success. Interestingly Tom observes that in his experience organisations run by women are easier to transform because women are more open to feedback and iteration.
In summary then, how do you go about making a change and getting people to work in a product-centric way? Holly sums it up: “Focus on building the stakeholder relationships first, listen to them, really listen and understand what’s important to them. Know what you are willing to graciously compromise and where you are not. Keep communication lines open with your team. Most importantly, be patient.”