Goldilocks CEO – Getting Product Management “Just Right”

Goldilocks CEOSuccessful CEOs aim to foster an environment of innovation and creativity that will ensure that their vision is executed and that projects with the highest potential are prioritised.

Early stage companies, with the best chance of success, are typically led by strong founders with a clear vision of where they want to be – they are not afraid to take risks, they see the bigger picture and they have the ability to lead others to deliver their vision of the world.

To get initial investment the founder CEOs create a clear business plan articulating the market opportunity, the competitors in their space, the problem or need the company is going to address, the technology they will use to solve this problem and how they will make money. The founder CEO will generally start by hiring a few engineers to deliver their vision. They might have one or two sales and marketing people but predominantly the company is focused on executing a defined product strategy.

As the company grows the founder can sometimes move into a different role in favour of a “professional” CEO (often appointed by the board) or they may become more focused on general business development, with perhaps less time for defining the product vision.

In this hiatus, where there is potentially a lack of product strategic direction, one of Sales, Engineering or Marketing may step up to fill the void. However, allowing any of these groups to dictate the product strategy brings risk:

  • A company that adopts an engineering-led strategy runs the risk of focusing too much on the “next cool technology” with little understanding of the needs of the market.
  • A sales-led strategy may simply focus on the needs of each individual customer leading to “bespoke” and “one-off” solutions and driving the company down a services route.
  • A marketing led strategy may focus too much on external messaging with little understanding of technology innovations or the needs of the customer.

So how does the CEO “get it just right”?

CEOs like Larry Ellison of Oracle, Bill Gates of Microsoft and Steve Jobs of Apple managed to scale their companies and remain involved in core product strategy. As their companies grew they ensured they played a key part in defining the “vision” for the product, whilst ensuring that they built a strong team that were equipped to address their core strategic vision. These CEOs knew that, without innovation and the right product vision, the company would die.

The success of early stage technology companies is often a result of a founder CEO who has managed to get the balance “just right” with product strategy. To ensure the product strategy meets their vision they maintain an active involvement in:

  • Articulating the problem they are trying to solve
  • Understanding the competitive landscape
  • Defining the market opportunity

They also have a deep knowledge of the technology that will help them to successfully address the market need.

Continuing to get that balance right as the company grows is crucial for continued success.

Although Steve Jobs was actively involved in defining the vision for Apple’s products, he recognised the importance of adopting a supporting framework to deliver on his vision so that he could also focus on other aspects of business development. He is quoted as saying:

You need a very product-oriented culture… Lots of companies have great engineers and smart people. …..there needs to be some gravitational force that pulls it all together.”

As the company grows and the CEO has less opportunity for acting as the  “gravitational force”, adopting a product management discipline is an important next step –  it is never too early to ensure it is part of the DNA of the company.

Successful CEOs naturally adopt aspects of the product management discipline from the moment they write their first business plan but ensuring it is engrained in the organisation takes focus and alignment across the leadership team.

As the CEO becomes increasingly involved in other aspects of business development, it is so important that they have adopted and resourced a framework for product management that will ensure their vision continues to be executed.

Rather than usurping the CEO, Product Management supports them by understanding their vision and ensuring that a product strategy captures and articulates that vision. They help the CEO to understand the market opportunity, they maintain oversight of the creation and delivery of the product through engineering and they support the positioning of the product to market through targeted messaging and sales execution. Product Management listen to many stakeholders and help the organisation to make decisions based on the “right data” – they are the “gravitational force” that pulls everyone together to drive the organisation’s strategic objectives.

Whether the CEO is the ultimate product visionary or whether this is driven from within the organisation it is essential that there is an established discipline for managing product strategy.

Finding and nurturing the right product management team will enable the Goldilocks CEO to “get it just right” and to allow them to maintain the right level of engagement on product strategy.

To be really effective the relationship between product management and the CEO must be strong and bi-directional

  • The product manager must be able to understand and reflect the CEOs vision and objectives through a clear product strategy. They are a critical resource in supporting the CEO to deliver on their vision.
  • The CEO must understand the value that product management adds to the organisation, they must be actively involved in setting their objectives and reviewing their effectiveness. They must champion the product management discipline in the organisation.

For product management to become part of the DNA of an organisation it needs the support and “buy-in” of the CEO from the start. 

 

Building Bridges – Product Management

Product Management – Managing Up and Across

One of the more difficult challenges for any Product Manager is “managing up” or “managing across” the organization. The ability to demonstrate the soft skillsrequired to effectively communicate and work with multiple people in the organization is often an underestimted part of the product manager’s role. This is not about becoming the bosses best friend, it is about stepping through the sometimes subtle political minefield that exists in most organizations.

Few of us receive specific training on what is a very important part of what we do. We don’t often discuss the negative impact of this aspect of our role with others for fear of showing weakness and the training to deal with political interactions is often “on the job”, with many of us bearing the battle scars.

So what are my top 5 approaches for managing up and across (although like all of you I’m still learning!)

Build a relationship of trust with your key stakeholders

Difficulties in establishing a strong relationship with other stakeholders can stem from a lack of trust and a lack of understanding of the other person’s role. People can sometimes have a tendency to retreat to their trenches and adopt a stance based primarily on mistrust.

Making an effort to understand the value that each group in the organization brings is crucial. We all think we are brilliant and are clearly adding the most value but in reality we are all part of a bigger team. All stakeholders have the potential to add value – no man is an island, you need other people as much as they need you. In your communication with others show how you can support them in their role and how they can support you. Great companies are built with great people who develop strong relationships.

Understand your counterpart’s objectives and their management style

Conflict can often occur when you don’t understand or care about your peer’s objectives. Although we may be working to different team KPIs at the end of the day there must be some common ground – do we not all aspire to create successful companies?

Rather than going head-to-head with someone over a position they have taken, try and understand their motives and objectives. If you are new to the role, try and speak to others in the organization to understand the different “management styles” that exist in the organization. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes first – it can help to avoid conflict if you know what motivates the other person and what they are trying to achieve.

Take advice from others – work with a mentor

Product management is a multi-faceted role – it requires good communication, a strong focus on commercial aspects of business development, an ability to multi-task, the capacity to lead and above all the capability to deliver order from chaos. Often the product manager is a solitary figure with no direct reports but they communicate with and require support from many people in the organization.

I found huge benefits in working with a mentor in my early days of product management and today I find it hugely satisfying to mentor product managers in their role. Product Management can be a lonely place but it is an immensely rewarding role if approached in the right way. Take advice from as many other people as you can, especially those who have faced similar challenges to you. If you have a product manager in your team, ensure they are receiving the right supports from inside and outside the organization.

We are all on a journey of continuous learning – reach out to others who have made mistakes, learned from those mistakes and who can guide you in your approach.

Adopt processes that support better communication and interactions

Misunderstandings are more likely to occur when there is no formal process in place to guide how people work together. In the absence of a process for communication things can fall between the cracks and one side can blame the other.

Using something like the RACI model to understand who is responsible, accountable, consulted or informed for key projects can be hugely beneficial and can support positive cross-team interactions.

Keeping lines of communication open outside of your own group and establishing forums of communication can be hugely beneficial.

Understand your leadership team’s strategic objectives

It is important for product management to have a “voice” at the leadership table – they support alignment, guide decision-making and ensure everyone is moving in the same direction. As much as possible they try to reflect the CEO’s corporate strategy in their product strategy. Sometimes the leadership team may disagree with or do things that undermine the product manager’s strategy. Dealing with this situation can be a political minefield.

Managing up is such an important part of what we do and sometimes our passion for “doing the right thing” can override our ability to recognize that sometimes there are people more senior than us, who (for the best of reasons) may not agree with our vision. Product Management must tread a fine line between giving good counsel and dictating strategy. We have to ensure that we can see the bigger picture and that we recognize that there are often many contributory factors to good decision-making. As long as we enable our leadership teams to make informed decisions, with the right data, then we are doing our job. It’s important to realize though that we may not always agree with every decision that is made.

Although product managers may feel like they have no authority they do have the ability to lead and guide good decision-making and that is where they can add true value. Remember, don’t bring problems to the leadership team without some well thought out potential solutions.


Can your Product Manager “see the wood for the trees”?

Wood from the Trees (1)More and more companies over the last few years have made the bold move to establish a product management discipline in their organization. They understand that to be successful they need to:

  1. Create products or services that customers love.
  2. Ensure the organization is marching not only in the “right direction” but in the “same direction.”
  3. Work to a clearly defined business model.

This requires someone to hold it all together and keep the company focused. As Steve Jobs said “You need a very product-oriented culture… lots of companies have great engineers and smart people. …there needs to be some gravitational force that pulls it all together.”

Initially, when the company is small, the CEO or CTO will fulfil this role – but as the company begins to scale it is important that the CEO looks for support. Adding a product manager to the team is the right next step, but …

What exactly does this product manager do and how will they integrate with the existing team?

Often there are many political obstacles that need to be addressed as people’s roles change and the organization settles into a new way of thinking.

The new product manager has a myriad of functions that they “could do” – the question is what functions “should they do” that align best with the organization’s structure and vision. Although there are many training organizations that provide great frameworks to help product managers understand all aspects of their role, quite frankly the breadth and depth of areas to be covered would give any new product manager palpitations – you would need to be superhuman to address everything effectively!

So, how do you decide which aspects of the product management framework make sense for your new product manager?

Well, it depends on the stage of your growth as a company. I think it is best to start with a “lean” approach to product management – don’t overwhelm yourself and your new recruit from day 1.

For many new and established product managers they exist in a state of constant bewilderment and despair as the enormity of the role becomes apparent to them.

They often have a very unclear definition of the role, unachievable expectations are set by senior leadership or often no expectations are set at all (which is even worse), there is no clear prioritization of projects and they have to juggle the demands of a sales and engineering team who expect their undivided attention 24/7. This situation can become a cycle of despair where the product manager becomes increasingly disillusioned and the leadership team begin to dismiss the product manager as ineffectual.

Things do not have to be this way – understanding who does what in your organization and clearly defining the role and boundaries for each group is a first step. Then, applying a structure and discipline to product management that aligns with the stage your company is at is crucial. Helping the product manager to apply methodologies in areas such as portfolio management, value proposition creation, requirements management, agile development, customer validation, ideation, ROI analysis, sales management and leadership alignment will undoubtedly help alleviate the pressure.

Don’t assume your product manager will hit the ground running from day 1

The Product Manager is an important resource in your company. In my work with companies I often see frustration from the CEO and the Product Manager as they struggle to understand the role of product management and how it can be applied effectively in their organization. Just because a product manager has previous experience, don’t assume they will just walk in the door and hit the ground running in a new company – it takes time and support to establish the discipline and to work effectively with all stakeholders in the organization.

It is not a sign of weakness if a new or existing product manager looks for mentorship or support outside of the organization – it makes sense.

As someone who has performed the role of product manager and ultimately managed both a portfolio of products and a team of product managers I understand more than most the demands of the role. I learned quickly that applying structure and discipline ensured myself and my team could work effectively. We can all read books or attend courses that will give a good grounding in the product management discipline but the application of this discipline and the understanding of what works in reality comes with experience.

Don’t wait until either you or your product managers have reached the point of despair – seek the support and help of those who have done this before, who have been at the coalface and who understand the demands of the role.

Irrespective of whether you are new to the role of Product Management or have been doing the job for years, look to get as much insight as you can from those around you. Product Management is a continuous learning path.

“Seeking help is not a mark of weakness, but of power”


A Rose By Any Other Name… Product Manager or Business Analyst ….?

So does title really matter? I find myself asking this question more and more lately as I come across people in technology organisations with titles and roles that, on the face of it, look similar but in reality are quite different.

Although I don’t think there is too much merit in getting hung up on titles, I do think it is important that anyone performing a specific role knows what they are supposed to be doing and clearly understands their responsibilities. Difficulties arise when you have a title that can be applied to a very broad discipline.

For example, I sometimes come across people in established technology companies with the title Business Analyst – they sit somewhere between engineering and marketing but their role descriptions can be quite vague. This really got me thinking about whether title really matters and if it does then what are the key differences between the roles of Product Manager and Business Analyst?

For many companies they only begin to adopt a product management discipline at a certain stage in their evolution – often they apply many of the principles of product management without formally recognising that they are doing it and often they don’t recruit a specific resource to manage the function – someone just evolves into the role. In some cases however, it may seem like a natural next step to hire someone with business analysis experience to manage the process.

The role of Product Management covers a breadth of functional activities in the organisation, encompassing product strategy, sales support, commercial ROI, pricing & licensing, support for release management, go-to-market strategy and so on. However, you may see titles like Product Manager, Project Manager, Programme Manager, Product Marketer and Business Analyst being applied to those who are carrying out these functional activities. The roles and responsibilities for each of these titles will often vary from company to company.

In reality I don’t think it is the title that matters so much as the function or role that we perform and the responsibilities associated with that role. It is important for all of us to understand the requirements of the job that we undertake – otherwise the title is meaningless. It is not enough to assume that if we have been given the title of Product Manager or Business Analyst that there is a clear definition of what this means for the organisation for whom we work. Having been a practitioner of product management in a large organisation myself and now helping organisations of various sizes apply the discipline, I know that the responsibilities of the Product Manager will vary depending on the stage of growth of the company.

So what if we take the role of Product Manager and Business Analyst as an example – is their a difference?

The International Institute of Business Analysis defines business analysis as:

…the set of tasks and techniques used to work as a liaison among stakeholders in order to understand the structure, policies, and operations of an organization, and to recommend solutions to enable the organization to achieve its goals.

They go on to say …

Business analysis involves analyzing the business and understanding:

  • Why the organization exists
  • How an organization works
  • What are its goals and objectives
  • How it accomplishes those objectives
  • How it needs to change to better accomplish objectives or to meet new challenges

So if we were to substitute the word “organisation” above for “customer” or “market” then perhaps in reality there is not much difference between a Product Manager and a Business Analyst? – but in my view there are key differences:

  • Product Managers focus on understanding an external customer or market in great detail. They analyse the jobs the customer does, what problems or needs they have and what their goals and objectives are? Their aim is to find many customers with the same problems or needs – they seek out and define a market in which to position a product or solution. In this way they can develop a scalable business model.
  • Business Analysts are focussed more on the business needs of a specific organisation – typically the one that they work for or are contracted to. Their focus is more internal than external and they seek to find processes or technology solutions that will meet the business objectives of that individual organisation.

The IIBA identify many job titles for business analysis practitioners including business analyst, business systems analyst, systems analyst, requirements engineer, process analyst, product manager, product owner, enterprise analyst, business architect, management consultant, business intelligence analyst, data scientist, and more.

So, it may help to view the Product Manager and Business Analyst as practitioners of business analysis who adopt similar tactics in doing their jobs (stakeholder interviews, requirements capture and specification, user stories, etc.). Both are effectively conduits between the stakeholders from whom requirements are captured and the teams who will deliver on those requirements. Although they may adopt similar practices, at the end of the day they perform different roles – one more focused on “internal” organisational process and one on “external” customer or market needs.

Having said all of this, each of you may have your own view as to what a Product Manager or Business Analyst does. In reality, as long as the people who are performing the function know what they are supposed to be doing and are delivering against core objectives for the business then titles shouldn’t really matter.

Perhaps this is where the problem lies. In my consultative experience, I am finding that confusion around titles leads to confusion around roles and responsibilities.

Whether you are performing the role of Product Manager, Business Analyst or any other role for that matter, make sure that you get the right help in defining the role for your organisation and articulate clearly what the title means in your business. Don’t assume that everyone working in the organisation has the same view – you need to clarify.

After all, if unclear product requirements lead to poor products then … unclear job specifications will surely lead to poor employees.


Top 5 Approaches for Product Managers to Manage Up and Across

Org StructureOne of the more difficult challenges for any Product Manager is “managing up” or “managing across” the organization. The ability to demonstrate the soft skills required to effectively communicate and work with multiple people in the organization is often an underestimted part of the product manager’s role. This is not about becoming the bosses best friend, it is about stepping through the sometimes subtle political minefield that exists in most organizations.

Few of us receive specific training on what is a very important part of what we do. We don’t often discuss the negative impact of this aspect of our role  with others for fear of showing weakness and the training to deal with political interactions is often “on the job”, with many of us bearing the battle scars.

So what are my top 5 approaches for managing up and across (although like all of you I’m still learning!)

Build a relationship of trust with your key stakeholders

Difficulties in establishing a strong relationship with other stakeholders can stem from a lack of trust and a lack of understanding of the other person’s role. People can sometimes have a tendency to retreat to their trenches and adopt a stance based primarily on mistrust.

Making an effort to understand the value that each group in the organization brings is crucial. We all think we are brilliant and are clearly adding the most value but in reality we are all part of a bigger team. All stakeholders have the potential to add value – no man is an island, you need other people as much as they need you. In your communication with others show how you can support them in their role and how they can support you. Great companies are built with great people who develop strong relationships.

Understand your counterpart’s objectives and their management style

Conflict can often occur when you don’t understand or care about your peer’s objectives. Although we may be working to different team KPIs at the end of the day there must be some common ground – do we not all aspire to create successful companies?

Rather than going head-to-head with someone over a position they have taken, try and understand their motives and objectives. If you are new to the role, try and speak to others in the organization to understand the different “management styles” that exist in the organization. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes first – it can help to avoid conflict if you know what motivates the other person and what they are trying to achieve.

Take advice from others – work with a mentor

Product management is a multi-faceted role – it requires good communication, a strong focus on commercial aspects of business development, an ability to multi-task, the capacity to lead and above all the capability to deliver order from chaos. Often the product manager is a solitary figure with no direct reports but they communicate with and require support from many people in the organization.

I found huge benefits in working with a mentor in my early days of product management and today I find it hugely satisfying to mentor product managers in their role.  Product Management can be a lonely place but it is an immensely rewarding role if approached in the right way. Take advice from as many other people as you can, especially those who have faced similar challenges to you. If you have a product manager in your team, ensure they are receiving the right supports from inside and outside the organization.

We are all on a journey of continuous learning – reach out to others who have made mistakes, learned from those mistakes and who can guide you in your approach.

Adopt processes that support better communication and interactions

Misunderstandings are more likely to occur when there is no formal process in place to guide how people work together. In the absence of a process for communication things can fall between the cracks and one side can blame the other.

Using something like the RACI model to understand who is responsible, accountable, consulted or informed for key projects can be hugely beneficial and can support positive cross-team interactions.

Keeping lines of communication open outside of your own group and establishing forums of communication can be hugely beneficial.

Understand your leadership team’s strategic objectives

It is important for product management to have a “voice” at the leadership table – they support alignment, guide decision-making and ensure everyone is moving in the same direction. As much as possible they try to reflect the CEO’s corporate strategy in their product strategy. Sometimes the leadership team may disagree with or do things that undermine the product manager’s strategy. Dealing with this situation can be a political minefield.

Managing up is such an important part of what we do and sometimes our passion for “doing the right thing” can override our ability to recognize that sometimes there are people more senior than us, who (for the best of reasons) may not agree with our vision. Product Management must tread a fine line between giving good counsel and dictating strategy. We have to ensure that we can see the bigger picture and that we recognize that there are often many contributory factors to good decision-making. As long as we enable our leadership teams to make informed decisions, with the right data, then we are doing our job. It’s important to realize though that we may not always agree with every decision that is made.

Although product managers may feel like they have no authority they do have the ability to lead and guide good decision-making and that is where they can add true value. Remember, don’t bring problems to the leadership team without some well thought out potential solutions.


September 2014 – Scala CEO – Create High Value Companies through Great Products

Brochure CoverDelighted to be working with great companies as part of the Irish Software Skillnet’s  Scala CEO programme. This programme is targeted exclusively at the CEOs/Founders of Irish technology companies and focuses on product management driven approaches to help these companies to scale and grow.

Through this programme participating companies are learning how the application of a product management discipline across their organization can help them to:

  • Create scalable and repeatable revenues through products that customers value
  • Ensure future revenue growth through the continued progression of innovative ideas
  • Ensure the organization is focused and moving in the same direction
  • Ensure that the organization works to a clear business model that meets corporate strategic objectives
  • Prioritize the finite set of resources available and deliver the right projects

The programme incorporates a corporate capability assessment, two day workshop for the CEOs and two separate 1/2 day mentoring sessions with each individual company.

IntegratedThinking are delighted to be delivering this programme for ISA Software Skillnets and we are very much enjoying the interactions with the participating companies to date.