At some point in my meanderings online, I heard tell of a Slack channel that had been set up for Product Managers to engage with each other and discuss topics of concern to those in the profession. And, being the Clever PM that I am, I had no choice but to check it out — that channel turned out to be hosted by the folks at the Product Coalition, and administered by none other than Jay Stansell. The channel has turned out to be an exceptionally popular location for PMs to share articles they’ve written, ask for thoughts or feedback on idea that they have about how to improve the craft, and even to just humbly ask for advice when they’ve hit a brick wall on something. When creating my list of participants for this 10 Questions series, I knew right away that I’d want Jay’s thoughts on the role, and he was more than happy to oblige.
In his own words:
I’m a product person, who is grounded in design, shaped by technology and inspired by profitable business models. I “cut my teeth” in a travel start up in 2007, and grew it into one of Australia’s leading travel products. I’ve since been fortunate to craft products and product experiences for some of Australia’s largest brands. Today, I take my start-up learnings, attitude and culture, into coaching Agile, Lean Startup and Design Thinking methodologies at Australia’s most innovative insurer, IAG.
What I’ve enjoyed the most from my story so far, is the talented people who have become friends. It’s these connections that inspired me to launch the product community ProductCoalition.com – a place for product people globally, to connect, collaborate and inspire.
And without further ado…my ten (eleven) questions for Jay…
What does “Product Management” mean to you?
Product Management is the practice of delivering valuable products and services to customers. Product Management as a job title or responsibility of job title varies greatly in each organisation.
How did you wind up becoming a Product Manager?
I’m a classically trained graphic designer, however, it was my Master’s Degree in Multimedia Design which set me up well to design compelling user experiences and the fundamentals of programming (PHP, Lingo and Actionscript!). The products we created on the course, typically had to be run off a CD-ROM, which gave us a great appreciation for being innovative within fixed constraints.
My career path took me from web designer to Product Manager, quickly and under pressure at an Australian travel start-up, BestFlights.com.au. It was 2007 and I advocated strongly for the back-end dev team to use agile, and move to cloud technology. I was lucky to have a Managing Director and later, mentor, who appreciated me as being someone who is always willing to take calculated risks. I was 26 and just moved to Australia from England, alone, with no contacts, and nothing more than $1000 to my name, so risk taking was what I was all about at this age.
The role began leading the design and development teams through delivery, and grew in to a leadership role at an exec level. In 2010, as one of the largest travel sites in Australia, BestFlights.com.au merged with Australia’s second largest travel company, and with BestFlights.com.au as the digital jewel in their crown, the CEO turned to me to lead all consumer facing products for the enterprise.
Since then I’ve led product management for Australia’s largest eCommerce group, taught Lean Product Management for General Assembly, and now coach Lean Start-up thinking for IAG, a large Australian insurance group.
What one piece of advice would you give to someone who wants to be a Product Manager?
Understand the varying definitions of product manager there is.
Start-ups, founders and enterprises typically define the role differently. Additionally, depending on the maturity of the product itself, the role responsibilities may vary. Some have power and responsibility for all teams that create and manage the product, some are focused on the SCRUM definition and responsibilities.
The most success I’ve had with a product is also tied directly to the culture I had the most fun in, and in a role where I was responsible for every team that delivered marketed, and supported the product: design/engineering/DevOps/marketing/SEM agencies/partner and customer support. This definition of Product Manager is very rare in 2017, however, it is still the role I look for in career development.
What is the most commonly overlooked ability that separates the “1%” Product Manager from the rest?
Being rationally decisive. Out of the 8 deadly wastes, the 2 I see in product management most often is waiting or excess processing. Masters of influence; those who are strong at building up influence-capital, rapidly, I admire.
What’s the best advice you’ve personally received or read that positively affected your approach to Product Management?
“Just put your crash helmet-on, and get on with it.”
As a product manager, there’s always fires to fight, and you need to accept that as part of the job, then get on with carving out big chunks of time to speak to your customers, validate idea’s rapidly, employ a diverse team of engineers and designers, and create a fun work environment.
What’s the most interesting thing that you’ve learned from your work with the Product Coalition and it’s Slack channel?
How freely the community is willing to give advice and constructive opinions. The Slack channel was an experiment, off the back of the ProductCoalition.com publication, and I was really surprised how fast and engaged people are.
What are some of the most common themes that you see in articles that are popular on the Product Coalition site?
In 2016, it was all about entering the product management industry. In 2017, ways of working is far more popular, which represents maturity of the audience.
What are common blind spots that you think many Product Managers have when it comes to User Experience?
As a former designer, I have a bias on this.
Lack of trust of the UX team. Unless you have years or pure UX experience, trust the UX team first. I’ve seen product/executive teams spend far too much time debating font size or design rather than trusting the UX team. If it’s contentious, put it in Optimizely with a hypothesis and test it this afternoon, then get back to having value-driven conversations.
What are some things that Product Managers can do today to incorporate parts of the Design Thinking approach to their daily lives?
I’ve spent the last 2 years upskilling heavily in Design Thinking. Firstly, jump on the Acumen Design Thinking Course (http://www.plusacumen.org/courses/introduction-human-centered-design), with some of the product team, I really enjoyed it. Then I’d recommend to study and learn the difference between Shared Value (http://sharedvalue.org/about-shared-value) and Corporate Social Responsibility.
If your way of working is the Lean Start-up/Lean Enterprise approach you’ll find overlap, however Design Thinking takes you deeper into the emotional state and context of the customers lives. Even if you have a hugely successful product, applying design thinking to investigate how, where, why customers are using your product, will provide you with new innovative insights from the outset.
What are two things that large companies should learn from startups, and vice-versa?
Culture x2 Is what large companies should learn from Start-ups. You can take the Lean Start-up book and change the way you work and say “we’re like a start-up”, but you won’t be until you have the culture of a start up, and that is an art, not science.
For Start-ups, I’d say have an appreciation for methodologies and frameworks – they won’t all choke your flow and creativity. Also, give work life balance some respect. Phone your family more. Do something to get the heart rate above 100BPM. My start-up experiences involved 80+ hours a week, and this cost me friendships, relationships and health.
Bonus Question: What effects do you think that cultural differences have on the practice of Product Management — is PM “different” in some meaningful way between the US and Australia, or in other parts of the world?
Woo-hoo bonus question. I don’t think there are meaningful differences of the practice of Product Management between countries or regions, but they all have the same variable – the definition of the Product Managers responsibilities is different in every business.
I have learnt that there are huge customer culture differences that do impact the practice of product management in different countries, such as India (where I’d love for my career to take me), customers order online, but a significant proportion pay by “cash-on-delivery”.
So, if you’re looking to become a Product Manager in a new country, give yourself time to understand and appreciate the differences of the customer shopping culture.