Performance reviews, evaluations, or appraisals are awful, and we need more of them. it’s time to recognize the need for Product teams to evaluate themselves based on the performance reviews of their products.
This is meant to establish the mindset that in order to evaluate a Product Manager’s and Product Team’s performance it’s not about delivery it’s about the performance of their product relative to the goals of the organization over time.
Why is this Important?
One of the things I see the most on message boards or during Q&A with other Product leaders is, “How do I move to the next level?” or “How do I show I am ready for ‘X,Y,Z’?”
It’s right there in your title – you’re a Manager.
What is a Manager typically responsible for?
- finding the right individuals for a job
- ensuring each individual understands the role, expectations of performance, and how they will be measured
- ensuring each individual have the skills and capabilities to do their jobs
- ensuring the processes and tools are in place to help individuals perform
Now replace the word individual with product. Sound familiar? That’s you – what better test bed than working within your product space to prove you can lead so you can then grow your responsibility and lead a group of Product Managers to do the same. Learn it and live it so you can teach it.
As a Manager, like it or not, the performance of those that report to you reflect on your performance. It doesn’t matter if you manage a product or a group of individuals on an assembly line – you can’t do well unless your team is doing well.
Now, let’s make the leap, and start thinking of your product(s) as a product workforce that you are accountable for so that you can begin to answer whether your product(s) needs coaching, upskilling, replacement, retirement, or to hire a new product. Bear in mind, it is the product or group of products you manage – not the team that builds the product
Defining the right product for the job
The idea that the tools we are building are being hired to perform a specific job isn’t a new one. The Jobs To Be Done (JTBD) framework has been around and is well covered. If you aren’t familiar with the concept you can go down the Internet rabbit hole – there are tons or articles, podcasts, and videos on the topic. The core of the concept is that everything has a purpose and we as Product Managers are teasing that purpose out and, if done well, we bring that hidden potential to life with and through our teams.
“I know because I must know. It is my purpose. It is the reason I am here.”
– The Keymaker The Matrix Reloaded
You have to know the purpose of the products that are within your influence – this is table stakes in order to understand how you and your product fit within the broader organization. If this is where you are stuck, stop reading now and double down on why your product exists.
The harder part of your job is thinking about the broader ecosystem or organizational chart of products and determining the bounds and interactions between the products across the entire product portfolio.
You need this organizational chart not just for defining the role for the product(s) within your responsibility, but it will pay dividends when mapping out the interactions and cross-functional engagements within your broader organization and establishing those metrics to let you know how your products are performing.
As new jobs come up that need to be accomplished you will ask yourself:
- Do we currently have products that perform this function?
- Can a product be up-skilled to accomplish this, i..e, new features?
- Does this require a new product?
- Do we build or buy for this function?
Defining the expectations and measures
With a digital worker / product organization chart in hand, you can start breaking down and detail the expectations and measures of the roles. Depending on the time-horizon you are working within, you must be able to answer – How do you know whether you have won the day, month, quarter, and year?
Without an expectation; you are just doing things.
“Action without philosophy is a lethal weapon; philosophy without action is worthless.”
Knowing what the product was hired to do makes this a much easier exercise. You can now break down the actions performed within the job into their logical parts.
How do you break down these actions? There are a multitude of mapping techniques – you need to dig in and get your hands dirty and see what works best for you given the situation. I have some of my favorites, but that is mostly due to familiarity. I am not praising the virtues of any one technique over another.
What we are trying to build at this point is a map of what you expect your product to achieve and, by extension, the activities or “levers” available to the product. The scope of these levers will determine what outcomes are within your influence or, if you prefer, which “needles you are capable of moving”. As a result, these activities and levers will also become the DNA for what measures you put in place.
As you grow in your career, what becomes interesting is how you combine the products across the organization in order to create broader impact. From there, you might get to start training Product Managers under you on how to add value globally across products, rather than locally optimizing within a single product, and that’s a whole extra level of impact.
Defining the skills and capabilities of your product
This is the inflection point where we begin transitioning into how well the role is being accomplished today – or can be analogized as the effectiveness and efficiency of the feature set of your product.
A capability is just the ability to do a thing – you should know what those things are based on the activities and levers defined in the prior section. This is where you begin translating those activities into basic calculations to determine a baseline for how well your products are performing against their roles. This is what will become your leverage document – you will use this to align organizational goals with actions needed to accomplish those goals. This is where you will make the assumptions and decisions on where to put your products to work.
Defining the processes and tools to ensure product success
Now that you know your product’s purpose and how well they perform that function, you have a good sense of the strengths and weaknesses of your product(s). As a Product Manager, it is then up to you to establish an individualized development plan for your product to capitalize on your product’s strengths or the actions to mitigate weaknesses.
Another way to say this is that you now have a set of hypotheses on where you have leverage points to focus your (and the broader product team’s) attention. These leverage points will become your areas of focus that you use to negotiate goals with leadership for your products to either develop a new skill or optimize an existing skill.
Guess what! now that you know where you are and where you want to be (i.e., the goals being negotiated), you have a roadmap and you know how you will keep score.
The performance review of your products
This is where we bring all the pieces together.
Looking at Google Trends you can see that the key words “Performance Appraisal” really starts picking up in September and peaks at the end of December – just in time for that annual performance discussions taking place in January and February before tapering off and normalizing again until the following September.
This is exactly the wrong thing to do as a Product Manager when reviewing your product. The pace at which you are trending toward your goals is what’s important. You want fast, frequent, and continuous feedback – an always-on performance appraisal. With your map in hand, you own the conversation with leadership and your stakeholder group, you know how you and your product(s) are performing, and you now have an always-on methodology to constantly evaluate and pivot as needed. Being in a position to articulate where you are headed – and why – is a much stronger position to be in than guessing about your performance and what’s next.
This flips the traditional HR driven and top-down performance review process and puts it in the Product Manager’s hands – you own your performance.
How are you trending toward your goals?