Since #mtpcon Singapore 2019 Mind the Product has been on a mission to support the continuing growth of the AsiaPac tech community. In this post, we examine the product scene in AsiaPac, its ongoing challenges, and the emerging trends.
Behind the West?
By general consensus product management as a discipline in AsiaPac remains behind the West and the product management role is misunderstood at times. Some of the observers and product professionals we spoke to in preparation for this week estimate that that region is running five-plus years behind. Liam Hutchinson, who has worked in Singapore and Thailand, and is now VP of product at Uploan in the Philippines, comments that Singapore is probably four to five years behind, while Thailand is probably a good five to eight years behind the West.
But the region is playing catch-up fast. At Mind the Product, for example, we’ve seen a 26% year-on-year increase in numbers of people interested in coming to our ProductTanks. And this is borne out by anecdotal evidence – a cursory tour of any reputable recruitment site shows that there are thousands of open senior product management jobs at the moment. A quick LinkedIn search ahead of APAC week, for example, showed there were nearly 19,0000 open roles across AsiaPac for product managers or heads of product.
Zalora CTO Silvia Thom has been based in Singapore since 2013 and previously worked on consumer products in Europe and Japan. Speaking to her during a Mind the Product AsiaPac tour in late 2019, she confirmed that the product discipline has grown hugely since she’s been in Singapore. She told us: “When I started here, the product community was tiny, and I can really see the growth that’s taken place over the last six years. It’s a super exciting time to be in Southeast Asia because there’s so much going on.”
She added: “I don’t have to explain what product management is as much anymore. There’s certainly now less confusion with other disciplines and the number of people practising product management has become so much bigger. I feel like I spent years explaining it and building up my own vocabulary and examples of what the role is about and I really enjoy that there are now more people to talk to about it!”
This has been helped by the boom in the tech industry in general, with market leaders such as Atlassian, Gojek, and Grab showing that it’s possible to build world-class products from AsiaPac – and along the way showing that everything doesn’t have to be done the Silicon Valley way.
Cultural Differences and Conflict Avoidance
While it may be growing, Product in APAC is still different from the West, in no small part due to the cultural differences between the regions. In the West there is much talk of the need for product people to lean into conflict (have a look at Shaun Russell’s recent MTP Engage Manchester talk for more about this) but in AsiaPac this is not always easy to put into practice.
Kenneth Chin examined this issue in detail last year at #mtpcon Singapore, in a talk that looked at what it’s like to lead product teams in Asia. Conflict avoidance, he said, is a core issue that builds up over time.
The cultural differences between East and West, he also explained, come from two foundational philosophies. In the West, Socrates laid the foundation for the scientific method, which is fully open to conflict and the challenging of ideas, while the Confucian philosophy of the East embraces much of the opposite – respect for your elders, social harmony, and learning by example.
These Asian cultural norms help people to actively avoid conflict. “For example, it’s considered a bit rude to disagree with people in public, especially if it’s someone in authority,” Kenneth said. Disagreement can be seen as a sign of disrespect, while anger or frustration openly displayed in a meeting will simply be met with a wall of uncomfortable silence.
Liam Hutchinson further comments that this traditional respect for authority can also lead to unquestioning obedience. “People tend to think, okay, well this is my order and so I’m not going to challenge it,” he says.
With this in mind, people coming to product jobs from outside the region need to learn to adapt and respect the culture they find. Delivering feedback has to be done differently for example. Says Liam: “I couldn’t go into a meeting and call out somebody as wrong, or say that things could have been done better. You’re not going to win any friends taking that approach.” He tells the story of an Australian designer working in Thailand who was frustrated at having to teach designers there the basics of user research. “I had to explain that what they’d been doing in user research for the last five or 10 years in Australia were methods that teams in Thailand were only just starting to figure out,” he says. “You need to respect the culture. I’ve seen people come here and fail because they tried to be abrupt and direct, and to offer feedback in a way that’s perhaps not as diplomatic as it needs to be.”
Trends and Challenges
If product thinking in AsiaPac is running behind other regions of the world, then this is also reflected in the way product management is practised.
Product Management Expertise
The relative immaturity of product management in the region means there’s a lack of senior product managers. There just aren’t the numbers of locals who have practised product management over several years and across multiple companies and industries, and who can pattern match solutions to the biggest challenges, that there are elsewhere in the world.
But, as John-Simon Purcell, senior director of product at Naspers/Prosus, comments there’s a huge amount of less experienced talent in the region. This talent requires solid mentorship, so it’s natural that businesses often look to hire their more senior product people from the international community. If you’re not able to import talent, John-Simon says, then “your organisation is going to have to go through a lot of learning hoops with these greener individuals, as they learn and move up on their own”.
There may be less confusion with other disciplines than there used to be, but the shift to cross-functional teams is still a new trend in AsiaPac, according to Silvia Thom. “Here, having a cross-functional team structure is still a fairly new thing,” she says. “At Zalora we now work together in cross-functional teams. In fact, we have various squads that are taking care of either a single platform or working on a certain element of the customer experience.”
Liam Hutchinson comments that many of the organisations in the region who were early to embrace product management were bigger, very hierarchical, companies like banks. “It means you end up with product managers who are more like project managers a lot of the time,” he says. “However, I do believe that this is changing, and changing for the better.” He adds that, like Silvia, he too often sees teams set up in squads, with product managers very much in the mix, but “it’s also still common to see companies with separate product and tech teams”.
While enabling continuous discovery – that practice of continuous experimentation and customer validation to inform product development – is currently a big theme for product teams in Europe and the US, it’s some way off in AsiaPac, according to Liam Hutchinson. He says: “In Asia, we’re just getting towards discovery. This idea of continuous research, for example – we’re just now getting comfortable with being able to readily do customer interviews or usability testing or whatever that might be.” But it’s coming, he says, as the more global consultancies introduce the idea of discovery and continuous discovery to their clients in the region.
In AsiaPac generally, there’s a greater emphasis on super apps – those apps that someone once called the Swiss Army knife for apps combine many functions into one single app. The best-known example is China’s WeChat, and others include Line, Grab and Gojek. It’s not a pattern that’s been commonly seen in the West, but it means there are differences in the strategies that companies choose to deploy.
And what’s especially exciting about this is seeing how Southeast Asia tackles this challenge differently from China, and how global players such as Uber are actually learning best practices around combining multiple services in one app from Gojek and Grab.
Remote Working and Distributed Teams
It’s difficult to draw generalised conclusions about remote working culture in the region. Parts of AsiaPac enjoy an exceptional technology infrastructure and have a large digital native workforce, however cultural norms may dictate that an office-based, face-to-face business culture dominates.
Writing in Channel News Asia earlier this year, Steven Borowiec, politics editor of Korea Expose, commented: “…despite having the technological infrastructure, South Korea has generally been slow to adapt to workplace evolutions like remote working. The country’s traditions of collectivism still posit that all members of a team should, whenever possible, be together in the office for the whole day.” The picture is similar in China and Japan, and remote working hasn’t found the same level of acceptability that is seen in Europe and the US.
These cultural norms have been overturned by the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak of course. In fact businesses in AsiaPac are teaching the rest of the world a great deal about the factors necessary for successful remote working.
The problems associated with remote working and distributed teams are all in a day’s work for global collaborative whiteboard company Miro. Anna Boyarkina, Head of Product at Miro explains how they tackle remote discovery with their customers. She says: “Since we’re a global company with clients all over the world, we have had to adapt to remote user discovery to hear about user pain points and understand their workflows.” But, Anna explains, there have been some challenges. “Even simple things such as setting up calls through different time zones can be hard in the beginning. We were sometimes working with a 12-hour time difference”. Add to that the limited ability to see the customers’ work environment (a barrier to developing empathy), as well as their technology setup, and the process becomes more challenging still However, Anna emphasises that any teams struggling with remote discovery should view the challenge also as an opportunity to learn about users.
Will remote working remain commonplace in AsiaPac once the world returns to some semblance of normality? It’s too soon to tell, but it’s interesting to note that a 2015 Stanford University study found that productivity among call-centre employees at Chinese travel agency Ctrip went up by 13% when they worked from home for a nine-month period. They took fewer breaks and reported more comfortable work environments.
Learn More About Product in AsiaPac
- Find information about our APAC conferences
- Revisit past APAC conference content
- Hiring Product People in AsiaPac
- Building Products in APAC: Colin Pal and Adrienne Tan on The Product Experience
- Stories from the ProductTank Community – AsiaPac special