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Foundations of Product Success
Why is adaptive learning crucial to product success?
Today, More than ever software is programming the world. All of the technology required to transform industries through software finally works and can be widely delivered at global scale. said Marc Andreessen of venture capital firm Andreessen-Horowitz.
The rate of change we experience today Is the Slowest It Will Ever Be. In such a fast paced environment, achieving and sustaining a successful product initiative is really hard. Further, identifying those factors that will disproportionately enable success is a predicament for Product Managers.
Every stakeholder carries a perspective depending on the prism with which they experience the world around them. Ruminating on a chequered past, they envision a future. They have a clear idea of the perfect cocktail that will deliver the desired results.
Depending on their career trajectory, they recommend a combo of conceptual essentials that includes but not limited to Sponsors, Mentor, Team, Process, Needs, Ideas, Experiments, Measures, Feedback, Business Model etc…built into a system. A decision making apparatus bounded by the various elements of significance on all sides.
There are those who stress upon the execution elements like Intellectual property, Brand, Pricing strategies, Features, Lead Generation, Monetization etc as the best bets to churn out positive results.
An organization's ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage - Jack Welch
There is no doubt that organizations taking a systematic approach to learning always outsmart those that don’t. Often the challenge is how well those systems are built. A class of Innovators believe that systems must have functional depth while others believe that it is important for innovation to be cross-functional.
A few more think that systems should be black boxes while others think it should be a glass box. Each one of them work hard to build a perfect system. What they really end up with is ideological and rigid systems. While it is true that these rigid approaches provide a semblance of order and even some quick wins, however they struggle to withstand the shifting currents of the market.
Past success stories are generally not applicable to new situations. We must continually reinvent ourselves, responding to changing times with innovative new business models – Akira Mori
The old ways of working that withstood the test of time are crumbling, the hidden cracks are showing up. Organizations are recognizing the need to change and are experimenting with many methods, processes and frameworks to improve their adaptability and improve their odds of change.
Improvement approaches as highlighted by Agile, Lean, Scrum, MVP which were expected to bring in transformation to system design and development are only able to deliver incremental change. In fact, their simplicity in terms of rules and principles have forced organizations to create their own flavors that kill the very spirit they were created for.
What is the holy grail of product success?
"It does not make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do. We hire smart people to tell us what to do.” - Steve Jobs
There are two schools of thought.
Hire brilliant people, fulfill their needs and trust them to get the job done
Hire average people, assemble a brilliant process and get brilliant results
One focuses on best practices while the other on best people. Each of it is relevant and important to product and company building. Problem with best practices is that they are not as it is replicable. Need to make it relevant to the new context requires fudging with the original idea which is only possible with people well versed in those areas.
Typically, standardized practices don’t make you the best. Rather, herd mentality makes you the average. Inadvertently forcing you to fall short of expectations. It is clear from past business case studies that best practices curtail rather than foster growth. Fact of the matter is that on many occasions, these lazy shortcuts limit our ability to be creative and innovative.
Real choice between being predictable and being responsive. Being internally focused to being externally driven. It’s about how we can balance those drives to ensure beneficial decision making philosophy and structure for the organization.
Craving for centralized decision making forces teams to morph even agile which stands for people over process into a mechanically adopted paradigm with zero impact on culture, habits and values of the organisation. Desire for local maxima leads to an exclusive organization that is insane to navigate in the near and long term except for the chosen few.
Fundamental assumption with Agile is that all team members are cross-functional, self-organizing problem solvers who can define and continually optimize the processes on the go leveraging experimentation and reflection. To achieve this they must demonstrate ownership, seek out hard problems and challenge the status quo. They also must exhibit an ability to recognize need for course corrections through methodical explorations.
it is indeed very clear that organisations that fail to innovate when people cannot challenge entrenched process interests otherwise known as leadership who curtail the ability to quickly respond to changing market demands by leveraging retrospective and reflective learning.
Radical change is the need of the hour which is possible only with a readiness to reinvent working culture and a desire to adapt to reality. It’s about not taking a rigid position but showing a certain fluidity. It’s about knowing the various levers and ratcheting up the right one at the right time to the right degree.
Unfortunately, It is only possible with a product mindset. A change driven approach to everything product. Product Mindset establishes the link between the principles of products and the purpose of companies. It brings together people at every level of an organization, defines a collaborative structure and encourages intuitive and data driven decisions.
Where do we change ? What do we change ? How do we change ? How often should that change happen ? are some questions in the minds of leaders pondering about product success.
Why autonomous cross functional teams are critical for product success?
Leadership requires creating conditions that enable employees to do the kinds of experimentation that entrepreneurship requires - Eric Ries
There is growing realization that product building is a team sport. Shared responsibility and accountability is key to nimble decision making and execution. Role of leadership is to recognize that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, inculcate purposeful collaborative individualism by curating the right team and chiseling an environment for a range of product ideas to flourish.
While a robust architecture, a badly needed feature or optimal coding are important to deliver delightful solutions, they are not deciders of product success. We can give many examples of great engineering and design gone wrong.
Point of all of this is that the whole team with their diverse mindsets and experience is critical to design lateral solutions. Draw inspiration from own and other industries coupled with an ability to cross pollinate ideas is the need of the hour. It’s important to acknowledge that every role in a tech company requires a creative and calculative streak.
Overcoming the realm of narrow job definitions and fudging the boundary between roles is essential to be a successful employee. Bottom line is that everyone in an organization should possess the capability to own a piece of the product and contribute to excellence overall. Expecting the Product management function or the product manager to single handedly drive successful results is a thought from the past.
Product Success is a black swan that occurs with a perfect blend of customer empathy, engaging design, lean engineering and empowered business. To make it repeatable occurrence product teams need to get the critical ingredients right.
Thought Leaders in Product Management like Martin Eriksson, Rich Mironov, Marty Cagan encourage 5 principles for sustainable success.
Assemble a Diverse, Cross-functional and Co-located Team.
Create an environment of Psychological Safety, Autonomy and Purpose.
Encourage and reward them for beginning with customer pains, problems and goals.
Pick The Process that Balances Discovery, Definition, Development and Delivery
Set in motion a framework to continuously learn from all types of feedback
Great Products gets incubated by a diverse team who can assemble complementary skills and leverage lateral experiences to gain a good understanding of the problem space. Teams who can map that grasp with an inherent know how of the technology to construct an optimal opportunity stack that is quick and elegant.
Whole team is responsible for the overall success of the product with product management leading that effort like a captain of a sports team, a conductor of an orchestra. Quality of the outcome is very much dependent on the skills each member of the team, the purpose and values binding them, the code of conduct facilitating harmonious interactions and the limited empowerment each member has to improvise on the go.
Precisely why some of the great product leaders put their complete lot in people and advocate it very eloquent ways.
How important is hiring top talent for product success?
A small team of A+ players can run circles around a giant team of B and C players - Steve Jobs
While all product managers aspire to be great like Steve Jobs, but how many imbibe the insights of such greats in day to day practice is a question. Realizing that the greatest of resources you can lay your hands on is human capital requires a lot of in the trench experience dealing with lots of people.
Every hire brings Culture (Beliefs, Values, Purpose, Attitudes, Etiquettes, Motivations), Capabilities (Experience, Knowledge, Skills, Smarts) and Connections (Insights, Influence ) to the table answering why? what? and How? questions associated with talent management.
A wrong choice in any of these 3 dimensions will be a recipe for discontentment and disengagement in the current ranks. Exits like any negative thing creatives a vicious cycle of resignations leading to loss of valuable human capital.
Studies have found organizations losing billions in value when a knowledgeable hire leaves, yet the drive to proactively mitigate such fallouts through active recruitment of very high quality talent is in short supply. Most important role of product leader is to acquire, develop and retain high performance talent that fits with the organization's personality.
Do product managers grasp what it means to hire smart A+ Players?
the single biggest constraint on the success of my organization is the ability to get and to hang on to enough of the right people - Jim Collins
Irrespective of the functional orientation, any productive individual need to master hard and soft skills. A smart A+ player is one who has a solid foundation in both the hard and soft skills. He is able to exhibit the perfect blend of composite competency in any given context. He is exceptional at something and improvising in others.
Soft skills are social skills relative to people. Qualitative Skills that are must to foster interpersonal collaboration, otherwise known as Emotional Quotient. Concerned with Attitudes, Character and Behavior of People. They are foundational to any job that requires a high degree of people interaction. Empathy and Self Control are Key to Success.
Hard skills are technical relative to the domain. Quantifiable Skills that are acquired to excel in a Job Function otherwise known as Intelligence Quotient. Concerned with Aptitude, Abilities and Application of Knowledge in a Given Context. They are the foundation to getting every job done. Expertise and Efficiency are Key to Success.
Leave Alone product managers, every hiring manager has a problem spotting the right people for their organizations. It all begins with understanding organizational dictum and aligning with its practices. Many false binaries like hire fast - fire slow or hire slow - fire fast philosophy, missionary hiring versus mercenary hiring purpose, growth or profitability priority are forced on them as hiring mantra thus handicapping their ability to be contextually smart.
Add to this the various pressures of customer contracts, roadmap compliance, human resource department targets, recruiters limitations, financial policies, etc. It’s no easy job. Even when a product manager or any manger aspires to hire the best, there are inherent limitations.
Every manager aspires to hire the best of the best A+ players. Real challenge is if they have the capability to anticipate and work around existing limitations to hire the appropriate candidate.
Many recommend that teams formed to be lean and entrepreneurial, this is legit when organizations are just getting started. Creative Chaos is normal and in fact necessary to thrive. As growth picks stream, discipline becomes very important. Having executives who can get organized and focus on specific deliverables becomes key to accelerate.
Hiring A+ players is about being comfortable with people who have a mind of their own. It’s also about having an eye for candidates having situational flexibility.
What Makes a Great (A+) Product Talent?
A responsive Product organization is normally structured to balance organization vision and customer need. Inside out, it is driven by aspiration to find, mind and grind customers. Outside in, it is driven by the purpose to build a Desirable, Feasible and Viable product. Both approaches feed the continuous Discovery, Definition and Delivery cycles.
A great product talent is an impact creator motivated by belief in excellence and is driven by purpose that extends pure commercial interests. Missionary Contributor.
A great product talent is a smart intellectual focused on enduring value and is a magnet attracting gifted individuals who can co create. Influential Team Player.
A great product talent has the ability to hold conflicting perspectives and adept at weighing the merits of all inputs to make unbiased contextual decisions. Accountable Leader
A great product talent demonstrates a growth mindset and is focused on delivering consistent outcomes to all stakeholders. Strategic Tactician.
A great product talent is one who evolves his or her skills depending on the phases of product development and stages of product growth. Continuous Learner
A great product talent exhibits emotional intelligence, aspiration, drive, empathy, active listening, critical thinking, structured thinking, design thinking, intuition, curiosity, problem finding, problem solving, experimentation, creativity, collaboration, communication, decision making and business acumen. Skill Bundle
It’s hard to find a single person that possess all these competencies. A+ talents realize this and build teams adepts at complimenting each other aided by product managers who anticipate and facilitate the availability of such talent.
What are the strategic imperatives for product success?
Any product needs to fulfill 3 criteria to be successful.
It has to alleviate customer pain and enhance experience - Be Desirable.
It has to empower business stakeholders with confidence to forge ahead - Be Viable.
It has to deliver long term win-win outcomes without draining resources - Be Feasible
Achieving Desirability is possible through a feedback driven product strategy that constructs outcome driven solution that delights the customer. Do Customers need this ?
Achieving Viability is about constructing a business strategy that fires up the imagination of the whole organization in pursuit of a highly profitable value exchange. Should we do this ?
Achieving Feasibility is about assembling an optimal solution stack that resonates with the market and enables the achievement of business and product objectives. Can we do this ?
It’s a dream come true for innovation when the sweet spot at the intersection Desirability, Feasibility and Viability happens for a product. Unfortunately, the probability of such an occurrence is slim and remote due to the constantly changing nature of the environment.
Chasing Ideal proportions of all these factors of innovation is akin to pursuing a mirage. While the desire for perfect outcomes is normal, acknowledging the reality that some things need to be given up and others adjusted along the innovation journey is essential to achieve practical impact.
Adapting to reality and accommodating change through constant experimentation is necessary for successful commercialization. enhancing the 3 dimensions through progressive iterations that deliver appropriate, actionable, and tangible value. Balancing such a complex dynamic is only possible with extraordinary talent who are conscious, nimble and adaptive.
Today, every Product team member is busy with their executional things. Product Roadmaps, Feature Prioritization, Customer Analysis, Technology Architecture, Prototypes, Coding, Release Planning, Copywriting, Launching etc. Together, their business yield is far below expectations. Consequence of such underperformance results in lost Momentum, amplified Acrimony , broken Collaboration and Customer apathy.
Product teams fail to execute when there is an imbalance in team composition. When ownership and accountability solely rests on the shoulders of a chosen few. Ignore hiring of smart A+ players at your own peril. organizations with weak talent get busted sooner or later. The real challenge is that problem with a dysfunctional team isn’t obvious.
“Everyone’s fault. No one’s fault.” Imbibing a sense of accountability is the strategic driving force for high performance teams.
How to nurture a high accountability product team?
Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement - Daniel H. Pink
Product managers don’t have an option other than to play their best game every time. It all begins with defining organizational purpose, principles, values and drivers. Creating a culture of shared ownership, common language, reciprocative expectations and mutual empowerment. Finding people with the right mindset and attitudes fosters a collaborative environment.
Getting reliable results predictably is a payoff of cohesive team culture that values every individual. In addition to focus on hiring individual talent, experts recommend assembling a cross functional team of designers, developers, business and relevant domain experts to form the core unit of execution. Finding such contextually relevant co-creators is hard but not impossible.
Teams can only play their best games when there is natural trust, autonomy of decisions , contextual execution and sound grasp of consequences. It all begins with removing ambiguity via transparent communication of strategy, structure and process and ends with imbibing accountability among diverse team members.
Clearly laying out the small steps that will lead to larger outcomes is essential to achieve objectives. At its core, accountability is really about specificity. specific expectations, specific consequences, specific language and specific coaching. When specificity increases, miscommunication, frustration and rework decreases.
In a cross functional environment, every member of the product team including the manager comes across decisions they can control, decisions beyond their control and decisions where they are merely consulted or informed. In Spite of having an indirect hand in the decisions, the burden of accountability will be shouldered by everyone.
While it is unfair from a traditional perspective, the art of product demands a holistic accountability that is over and above individual responsibilities. Everyone must have the ability to listen to multiple perspectives, synthesize expectations and imbibe those dimensions into the solution scope that is specifically assigned to them.
A product manager orchestrates this joint accountability without authority. Enhancing and Influencing each members perspective about the comprehensive demands of the piece of work assigned to them. Dear Product Managers, Your job is to make people awesome.
How culture leads to product success?
Product Management is not about the product but about the people - Martin Eriksson
There is a growing realization that the strength of products are founded on the capability of people and the culture binding them. This is well proved through innumerable documented evidence of team triumphs. Anything of grand stature and lasting value results from team work that brings to bear exceptional individual skills at opportune moments.
As per Harvard Business Review, cultural norms is the tacit social order of an organization that defines what is encouraged, discouraged, accepted, or rejected within a group. Culture is the result of teams giving up on fixed mindset and embracing a growth mindset.
It all begins with aligning different teams to a shared vision of the future. Establishing a learning process to Improve everyday. Accepting accountability in pursuit of common goals. Being comfortable challenging each other's assumptions.
In fact, a well cited work on team development by Patrick Leniconi argues that lack of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results as the root causes of team dysfunction. It also argues that each of these are caused by certain types of false beliefs and inhibitions.
As per a study by Deloitte in 2016, it was found that people feel loyal to companies that support their own career and life ambitions. Finding that personal meaning in whatever is expected to be done is critical to their excellence at work. Challenge in front of leaders is to help team members overcome and reconcile organizational purpose with personal passions.
Enabling an individual to find himself, his interests, his hobbies in the work environment that demands something bigger, something different, something selfless and something remarkable. Marrying passion with purpose for not just one individual but for all of the team members and aligning them in pursuit of a common goal is the job of culture.
Teams can only win when they begin with purpose, follow it up by clarity on outcomes, compliment it with a culture of trust, courage, commitment, accountability etc..polish with characters of transparency, integrity, reliability, credibility, etc.. Healthy interactions among team is fostered when a team member is self assured about his competencies and is confident about the leverage possible with his peers.
Overcoming inhibitions to collaborate and magnanimous appreciation of peers results from a set of emotionally intelligent characteristics. objectively assessing capability and total contribution value of team members requires self and situational awareness.
Giving up personal preferences, biases and prejudices in pursuit of unifying objective results from a broad mindedness that is tuned to voluntarily compromise self aspirations to realize the organizational mission. Creating far-reaching impact that touches many lives in meaningful ways is only possible when personal beliefs align with purpose.
Everything a team is expected to deliver requires a complementary individual trait that is nurtured to favorably envision the organizational path. Getting Alignment on each of these requires an empathetic considerations for individual sense of fulfillment. Influencing human psychology through positive reinforcements forms the basis for executional excellence.
In fast paced environments like product development, continuous change is necessary to be responsive. We need people who feel safe enough to nudge for that change. Culture unshackles the critical, creative, and curious perspectives of team members in pursuit of excellence.
Product Culture will need to evolve with the growth of your company. We need to balance respect for our culture, with an openness to change it as needed. As a product manager, you need to maintain a team that is open to adapt.
How do product leaders foster a collaborative work environment?
The Secret is to gang up on the problem, not each other - Thomas Stallkamp
symptoms of a dysfunctional team are obvious. members refusal to share knowledge freely is the top most, inhibition to learn from one another, resistance to help one another meet deadlines etc. An overall apathy toward shared goals, sharing of resources, accommodate new workloads and work together to overcome unexpected bottlenecks are tell tale signs of a team in conflict.
Biggest cause of headache and heartache in teams is Friction within team, among teams and stakeholders. Friction is a normal outcome of us being together. Motive boils down to the need for reinforcing our individual identity and sustaining our tribal identity.It’s like in a Marriage, where occasional tiff's lead to stronger bonding.
Some leaders believe and institutionalize controlled environments in the hope of eliminating friction. All that they end up achieving is to push it below the carpet and leave it simmering for another day. Fact of the matter is not all friction is bad. A healthy dose of it is essential to bring out the best in individuals and teams.
Friction during times of change when there is hyper progress can be good. Constant change takes you along unchartered waters into unknown new. Resulting uncertainty causes a certain amount of friction in teams that are stuck in routines defined by stagnant systems.
WorkPlace Performance Studies have found that deficiencies in Leadership, Communication, Alignment, Engagement, Accountability, Competence and Decision Making as causes of friction and resulting low productivity. Depending on team size and interconnections, friction is multiplied and amplified.
Another cause of friction are Layers of organizational bureaucracy that curtail high performance. Control reduced friction in factory floors where knowledge disparity is rampant. An adaptive and anticipative environment with devolution of authority is a critical foundation to proactively manage friction.
Leaders in Digital Products succeed by empowering knowledge workers with information parity so as to innovate on behalf of the customers. Innovative teams are purposeful, egalitarian conscious, aligned, adaptive, autonomous and collaborative.
Why is emotional intelligence critical to team success?
Emotional intelligence (EQ) allows us to better connect with the people around us in nurturing and productive ways. ~ Kevin Moore
Successful products are built by people who are bound together by purpose and are motivated to collaborate. Leaders often concentrate their energy on ensuring a harmonious environment. Going to lengths to imbibe camaraderie and support through extensive team building activities.
Anticipating and proactively mitigating fires is seen as an ideal trait of great leaders. To this effect leaders go to great lengths to build a team who are alike, exhibit great personality fits, have aligned thinking etc. while this might reassuring about potential, similarity has never been found to spark creativity and innovation.
Office dynamics that values diverse thinking and broad spectrum of diverging perspectives is important to bring fresh new ideas. Creating an environment for everyone to express strong opinions fosters a diligent environment. A culture of questioning is necessary to stir up discussion whose every word gets scrutinized and held to account.
Encouraging everyone to exhibit intellectual humility through intrinsic and coercive development is important for high performing teams. In other words, people who grasp the need to continuously improve their competencies through persistent effort. A lifelong learner, inspired by the experience of others.
Industry leaders are looking for people who recognize the existence of multiple perspectives and demonstrate sensitivity to the opinions of others. Someone who can be attached to a line of thought long enough till alternate reality strikes. People who can instantly overcome their need to be right and are at ease detaching from their original position.
Swallowing ego and acknowledging value in alternative ideas requires an ability to think and feel from others point of view. Taking things in jest and not personalising counter opinions requires a level of intellectual maturity. Great Teams are shaped by emotionally Intelligent and competent contributors.
Where can we find such people ?
How do we structure hiring to identify them ?
How do we nurture them for performance ?
are some very important questions product managers should be focused on in every stage of team development.
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