I’ve talked before about the dangers of a “cargo cult” mentality when it comes to Agile practices, but in this instance I’m going to take a Devil’s Advocate position, at least it will appear that way. All too often, people and companies start their Agile transitions with training about the “theory” of Agile — what it means, how it should work, what glorious and wonderful benefits are, and to attempt to indoctrinate people into concepts that may be entirely foreign to them and how they’ve done their work in the past. The problem is, nobody really cares about theory — and all too often the theoretical underpinnings are lost as soon as people get back to their desk and start their next day of work. Here, however, I’m going to propose a plan to implement Agile practices without the theory, and without creating a “cargo cult” mentality where you’re just going through the motions without understanding why…
For the second installment of my “10 Questions With…” I reached out to one of my mentors in the PM/Consulting space, Rich Mironov. I met Rich many years ago at ProductCamp Seattle, where he was giving a presentation about the struggles and challenges of the role that really spoke deeply to me and where I was in my career. Over the years, when he’s passed through town I’ve tried to maintain a connection, bouncing ideas off of him and mining his depths of experience for pearls of wisdom to help me grow as a Product Manager. I’m happy to present his 10 questions here, and for those of you who don’t know him, here’s a quick bio:
Rich is a 30-year product management veteran based in San Francisco. He’s an unrepentant blogger at www.mironov.com, author of The Art of Product Management, and coach/consultant to product management teams and startup executives. On occasion, he parachutes into software companies as interim VP Products. He thinks a lot about the strategic and organizational challenges of running product management teams.
This is the first in a (hopefully) continuing series of interviews with leaders in the Product Management community, hosted right here by the Clever PM. The idea is to have five static questions about Product Management in general, and five questions that are specific to the current participant’s areas of focus. For the very first installment, I called on my good friend Lewis Lin, one of the most knowledgeable resources around in the arena of interviewing for Product Management roles, and the Amazon.com bestselling author of Decode & Conquer: Answers to Product Management Interviews and his new book titled Secrets of the Product Manager Interview.
It’s been awhile since I’ve posted one of my “PM 101” articles, so I figured with 2017 just kicking off now is as good a time as ever! Past articles have focused on marketing, sales, and design teams, but this time I want to focus on service teams. These types of teams are your integration specialists, your technical sales people who come in after a deal has closed to help clients onboard, or even your own internal team that uses your product on behalf of your customers. No matter where exactly they sit in your organization, service teams can be a prime source of information and validation for any Product Manager.
A lot of Product Managers wind up rolling into the position with little to no preparation, training, or even a real understanding of the role, and it’s common for early struggles to really hamper a newly-minted Product Manager’s success. To avoid this, it’s important to approach your job and your career just like you would any other product — by creating a vision of an intended future, and an action plan to get there. Your future vision should be focused on establish a set of relationships based on trust and respect, having a solid bank of social capital, and making important decisions that are trusted because you are trusted by others in the organization. Here’s a good framework for success that I’ve used (and advised others to use) to establish and build a successful role in nearly any organization. If it seems like a long time, don’t worry — 90 days goes by so fast in a new Product Management role that your head will spin; accelerate the plan at your own risk and to your own needs…
Due to the vagaries of how different companies and industries define the role of Product Manager, it’s often a struggle to determine what skills and abilities one must have in order to separate themselves from the crowd. But while the roles may differ, I’m a strong believer that there is a core set of capabilities and competencies that any Product Manager can leverage in order to break from the pack. I’ve captured three of these here for your reading pleasure – if you focus on these areas in your personal and professional development, they will certainly give you the tools that you need to advance as a Product Manager.
The number one thing that separates a “great” Product Manager from a “good” one is likely to surprise a lot of people, because it’s something that we only have indirect control over. But that’s the primary source of a Product Manager’s ability to influence the direction of our product and our strategic direction – we manage through influence, which means that in order to be a truly great Product Manager, we’re going to need to excel at creating and managing our relationships with others in the company.
Having a strong network of relationships both inside and outside the organization is critical to the success of every Product Manager – it is only through these relationships that we can drive things forward. There is almost no Product manager in the entire world who can cover the entire breadth of a product with any level of mastery – from finances to strategy to marketing to sales to development to support to operations to implementation to services…it’s simply too much for any one person to tackle in an organization of any real size and a product of any real complexity. Thus, we build relationships with those people who are actually charged with managing these things, so that we can gain their insights, leverage their strengths, and bolster the weaknesses that they and their teams may have.
The better we are at establishing, maintaining, and growing our relationships with others in our organizations, the better we will all be as Product Managers.
Second to relationships is a natural and honest curiosity, not only about our product and our customers, but about the world around us in general. The absolute best Product Managers that I’ve seen don’t limit themselves to what they see every day, and certainly not to their immediate daily surroundings. They’re open to learning anything and everything they can, about whatever they may encounter that interests them. This is absolutely not about being curious about technology, though technology is certainly one area that it helps to be curious about. The concepts, ideas, and new directions that we come up with can only ever be truly different if they’re informed from different contexts and experiences.
What we do at work is greatly influenced by what we do elsewhere; if we want to change the approaches that we take at work and in our products, we have to start elsewhere first. New concepts, new ideas, and even new problems to solve don’t just appear magically within the four walls of our office – they exist outside our daily context. They exist in new and different experiences. The more you try, the more you test, the more exposure you have, the more interesting and different the ideas you’ll come up with.
Innovation is the result of thinking outside the box – but you can only think outside the box if you take time to exist outside the box.
A lot of people think that Product Managers should have a singular focus – on the customer. While I agree that’s a very important part of being a Product Manager, I think that the reality is that Product Managers need to not only be focused but also to bring focus to whatever they do; and this focus that you bring may or may not be solely focused on the customer. For example, when things are going sideways, and people are responding in an emotionally-charged fashion, Product Managers bring focus to the table by obtaining objective data with which they can drive the organization to focus on the rational circumstances rather than the irrational reactions that can make us randomized and lose track of what’s really important.
When bringing focus, it’s also important to make sure that we’re bringing the right focus to the table – and this is where the customer must always come first. And that will make you a pretty good Product Manager, focusing on the customer. What makes a great Product Manager is knowing which customer to focus on and when it’s more appropriate to focus on an aggregate view of the customer and when it’s important to focus on the needs of an individual customer. This is where the ability to balance out your short-term needs and long-term goals allows you to separate yourself from the pack.
It’s not enough just to be focused as a Product Manager, we need to have the ability to bring focus to our organization and our teams when they need it most.
A common question posed to Product Managers in organizations interested in or transitioning into Agile is, “How do we know that we’re Agile?” Because agility is a cultural value, there’s no pre-determined checklist of things that one can step through and certify your company as 100% Organic Agile. There are, however, indicators that we look at to determine whether or not the company, a team, or even an individual, is thinking and acting in an Agile way. Here are a few key indicators that you can use to weigh your assessment of how agile you, your team, or your company are…