In this guest post, regular Mind the Product contributor and Product Leader, Alex Hughes, delves into the conversation of building better product teams, and why focusing on the system matters the most.
Why aren’t product managers talking to more customers? Why aren’t we running more experiments? Why aren’t product managers thinking holistically about the end-to-end experience we’re building?
Whether an organization is facing the pressure of an economic downturn or scaling challenges, these concerns show up along the way. As you bring in more people, processes inevitably break. And when growth slows, efficiency and execution become even more critical to the success of the business. If you want to survive, you have to move fast and focus on the most impactful problems.
Reacting to symptoms
The challenge is that at the first sign of distress, senior leaders often turn to tightening their grip. In their push to become more involved, they mistakingly believe that they must also become more prescriptive.
This leads to more processes—which only slows things down further. And it results in mandates disguised as goals—talk to five customers, run four experiments, complete three usability tests, peer review two product requirement documents. Product management becomes a weekly checklist.
But this won’t fix the challenges you’re facing. At least not for long. It might work for a month or two, but it fails to consider the systems and incentives that exist. As a result, you end up treating symptoms rather than fractures at the foundation.
As a product leader, you need the ability to appreciate and consider the interconnected whole—team health, performance, operating cadence, headwinds, tailwinds, and internal dynamics. Focusing on a single challenge in isolation leads to shallow, ineffective decision-making.
“Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots.” Peter Senge
A systems mindset in practice
Consider an example of a product organization where product managers are struggling to adopt an iterative approach and rarely talking to customers.
Surface level thinking would lead you to treat the symptoms—telling product managers that they are required to talk to more customers, run more experiments, and find creative ways to reduce scope. If you want to see more of a certain behavior, you simply demand more of it. You might even introduce a check-in to create accountability.
But you’ve failed to consider why the problem is occurring in the first place. The right incentives and systems aren’t in place to drive lasting change. As a result, the lack of customer engagement and iteration will continue showing back up as a problem every quarter. You will continue to put new mandates or processes in place to force the right behavior. It will inevitably fall out of focus. Rinse and repeat.
“If you want to understand the deepest malfunctions of systems, pay attention to the rules and who has power over them.” Donnella H. Meadows
A systems mindset would instead lead you to focus on the contributing factors. As you dig in, you begin to realize that there’s significant attention on deliverables and features. In quarterly planning, you orient around solutions rather than business or customer problems. These solutions are then handed over to product development teams to execute. And when product teams fail to execute these solutions as prescribed, they’re criticized by senior leaders.
Everything here is working against you. There is no incentive for product managers to talk to customers because they’re being handed a feature to build. The solution is already baked. And when they fail to deliver the feature exactly as outlined, there are negative consequences.
Product managers learn that they shouldn’t waste time meeting with customers or testing different ideas. It’s an unnecessary risk and a waste of time. Because what matters is shipping the deliverable that was handed to them. This becomes the path of least resistance. And this behavior gets rewarded either indirectly by avoiding criticism or directly through positive feedback and performance reviews.
Fixing the foundation
Try as you might, you can’t reverse engineer a feature factory.
You can prioritize output or you can prioritize impact. But only one can act as a guiding principle for how you operate and organize teams.
With a systems mentality, you can start to fix the foundation by examining the interconnected whole. Rather than enforcing behavior through mandates, your attention turns towards putting more effective operating structures and incentives in place.
More tactically, instead of prescribing solutions during quarterly planning, you can shift the focus back to business problems and customer problems. From there, you’re able to guide product managers in setting clear objectives and key results (or whatever variation you prefer) to help them orient around a meaningful problem with a clear measure of success.
Out of necessity, product managers will talk to more customers. Because how could you know what to build or what’s working if you don’t understand the problems your customers are facing? Product managers will have to seek additional context and instinctively move closer to customers.
This also encourages product managers to right-size risks. When they understand the problem they’re solving, what they’re being measured against, and the timeframe they’re operating in, it’s far too risky to design a solution in isolation, spend six months building it, and hope it works. Instead, their focus will turn to validating or invalidating assumptions as fast as possible. The team will lean into a build, measure, learn loop because that’s what gives them the best chance at hitting their goals.
When you prescribe solutions, add excessive processes, or create a culture of fear, it shouldn’t surprise you when teams fail to understand customer problems or build anything of substantial value. You’re stripping away the autonomy and creative problem-solving required to do the job. And in the process, you’re telling your product managers to act as delivery managers.
“The iron rule of nature is: you get what you reward for. If you want ants to come, you put sugar on the floor.” Charlie Munger
Better systems, better outcomes
Adopting a systems mindset is about getting to the core of the problem. If your product organization is struggling and you aren’t reaching desired outcomes, tightening your grip won’t solve the problem. You need to peel back the layers until you understand what incentives and factors exist beneath the surface. This requires careful observation of the culture, environment, operating cadence, incentives, and other dynamics at play.
When the system is broken, you will forever be fighting an uphill battle. Every quarter you’ll end up with a slightly different flavor of the same mandates or processes that didn’t quite work the last time around. The only way out is by building a better foundation and empowering your team.
If you want to create a world-class product team that drives measurable impact for your business and customers, you must focus on getting the system right. The best product managers won’t waste their time at companies focused on output and deliverables. Because the strongest product managers are mission-driven and care about impact. Your job is to create an environment where it’s easy to do the right thing so your best people can thrive.