We’re all familiar with the foundational skills that make for a great product manager, such as user-centricity, the ability to prioritize, and strategic thinking. Developing these key skills is important, but it’s a whole other thing to apply them successfully, particularly when operating within the complex realities of a large, heavily matrixed organization. This article delves into what it takes to build great products in such environments, with tips for adhering to core product management principles while also getting things done.
1. Clearly define “success” upfront
As product managers, we often talk about the importance of understanding the customer to enable better decision making. The same applies to understanding a company’s business objectives for a product. This may sound obvious, but in a big company with numerous goals and many layers, it’s all too common for team members to have varying definitions of what success looks like. For example, perhaps executives have more ambitious growth expectations than that of the day-to-day team. Or perhaps the sales team has a different view on regional needs than the product team. This happens often, particularly at more established companies, as the bar for what’s required to make a meaningful business impact may be higher than that of an early-stage startup. This type of misalignment can result in unnecessary rework and team-member frustration and must be avoided.
The easiest way to prevent such a situation is to ensure every team member operates with the end in mind. As a product leader, it’s important to understand leadership expectations across business units and clearly define success upfront. This should include setting expectations around product revenue, growth, usage, functionality, and more. This information provides the necessary framework for prioritization and decision-making. The vision then needs to be socialized with all team members at every level. By understanding these goals from the beginning, each team member will have the information necessary to make smarter trade-offs and decisions in all aspects of their day-to-day work.
2. Navigate the organization by understanding stakeholders’ motivations and incentives
Building a great product that customers love is important, but that alone doesn’t automatically translate into product success. It’s also necessary to get buy-in across departments like sales, marketing, legal, and others to provide the support necessary to bring the product to market. This “internal sale” can sometimes be more challenging than selling to the customer!
To do this step well, it’s important to understand each team’s incentives and clearly articulate how your product will help them achieve their goals. This often requires a bit of creativity.
For example, suppose you need the support of the sales team to find a few early adopters for your new product. On the surface, sales may not feel incentivized to sell a new solution that’s nascent and unproven. After all, if their goal is to drive revenue and customer satisfaction, why would they invest time in learning to sell a product that’s not ready to be sold at scale and risk their clients having a negative experience with a brand-new solution? The key to garnering their support is to recognize their incentives and describe how their help is beneficial for them too. For example, perhaps you can demonstrate how the product ties closely to one of their client’s strategic objectives; sales may be able to bring their client a new product before sharing it with others. Or perhaps you can show how selling the product helps support a broader corporate-wide objective, and the sales team can gain favor with management by being the trailblazer in a new growth vector. Regardless of the specifics, the key to driving influence is taking a tailored approach to each and every conversation by understanding each person’s unique motivations. This is a critical skill for any product leader navigating a large organization – and is a valuable skill for other roles.
3. Be comfortable deviating from your product playbook
We’re all taught a common set of best practices for how to build great products, such as taking a customer-focused approach, remaining agile, and testing products before scaling them. These core values are crucial and should always anchor your approach. That said, there will be times when practical realities get in the way of executing against best-practice ideals. As a product leader, it’s important to find a balance, and it may require being comfortable “breaking the rules” now and then.
For example, suppose that to take advantage of a fleeting market opportunity, you’re asked to develop and scale a new product more aggressively than you had planned. In a situation like this, it’s important to acknowledge the pros and cons of deviating from the ideal product development approach, make those trade-offs visible to stakeholders, and have a fact-based discussion on the best way to move forward. What do you stand to gain (or lose) by taking a more aggressive development approach, and what are the associated risks? What are the steps that can be taken to mitigate those risks? How do the probability and consequences of those risks compare to the potential benefit of the more aggressive approach?
In some cases, this may result in a decision to stray from best practices to move quickly. That is perfectly okay, and it is part of building products in the real world, where decision-making is a lot messier than it is in a textbook. The key is taking a fact-based approach, finding a balance between the ideal and reality, and accepting the practicalities of building products in your organization. This may require making occasional sacrifices along the way, as long as you can still achieve your overarching goals. Walking this line can be incredibly hard, even for seasoned product managers, but the ability to do so is one of the key skills that differentiates good product managers from great ones.
Building great products at any company, big or small, comes with its own unique challenges, pros, and cons. These lessons highlight a few tips for how to be successful at a larger, complex enterprise, but many of these concepts apply broadly as well. Regardless of the situation, the key is recognizing the factors that dictate success at each organization and being nimble enough to adopt and thrive in your unique environment.
Navigating a large, heavily matrixed organization may be challenging, but when done right, it can unlock incredible advantages hard to find elsewhere, including stability, global scale, work-life balance, and enhanced flexibility. No two organizations are the same, and likewise, what it takes to be a successful product leader varies from company to company as well.