By Luke Gallimore, Head of Product Management, Monstarlab
Every product management team is busy. However, some are far more effective than others.
In order to live up to their purpose, effective product management teams need to do two fundamental things, extremely well:
- Define a clear, value-based product strategy
- Create and manage a healthy roadmap
However, just because these are fundamental, does not mean they are easy. Sometimes it can feel painfully difficult.
Why can’t we agree on our direction? Why isn’t our roadmap full (or worse — it’s full of stuff that we don’t know is valuable)? Why does this feel like an uphill battle?
This article provides a framework to move your product team forward and level-up your capability.
The Big Issues
Here are three very common issues which contribute to the busy-but-ineffective problem of some product management teams:
- We can’t find our North Star. In complex products, ideas can easily get diluted. Decision making with so many stakeholders is really difficult. Busily trying to make decisions is obviously less effective than making them quickly and then doing the work. A good product strategy solves this problem.
- We feel too much pressure from delivery. When the delivery team is chasing your tail it can lead to prioritising outputs over outcomes. When deadlines drive products, wastage is inevitable. This is a severe and common problem — “building for the sake of building”. Managing an effective discovery process gives you a roadmap full of valuable stuff to build.
- We need to gain perspective. Inward-looking teams find it difficult to innovate. They lose focus on other departments and ignore important external factors. Seeking an external perspective to break out of the echo-chamber seems low-priority when you’re busy but it’s important to break this cycle as early as you can.
These frustrations — and many others — can be solved by tweaking the operating model of the product management team.
The operating model is how the team runs in order to achieve the overarching digital or business strategy. But product management teams never exist in a vacuum. Factors influencing how well a product team is running can be external to the team as well as internal. And some factors are easier to control and influence than others.
Leaders must have a grasp on all of these factors to determine how the team should be designed and how it should run. To begin assessing how effective your product management team is, it is useful to think of the team like a machine.
Teams as Machines
Machines exist to create value — this is their outcome. A machine does this by taking a controlled input and operating a defined activity to produce the desired output.
A car takes fuel and explodes it to move pistons, turn cogs and create rotary motion. The value created is the ability to travel great distances faster than on horseback.
What are the inputs, processes, outputs and outcomes of an effective product team?
The input is intelligence. Intelligence includes the overarching digital or business strategy, user insight, technical capabilities and as much data as you can lay your hands on.
The activity is discovery. This includes mechanisms for framing, investigating, categorising, planning, prioritising and communicating ideas.
The output is a clear product direction. This means a healthy roadmap based around a clear product strategy and the ability to make better choices.
The outcome is commercial value. This includes ROI, reducing risk in delivery as well as insight, value, motivation and excitement across the organisation.
You should have a rough intuition about how healthy your inputs, activities, outputs and outcomes are today. Identifying issues here will give you a list of symptoms. But what’s really important is figuring out the causes. Is the cough, just a cough?
In order to make a diagnosis — and ultimately decide on treatment — you need a health check. Performing this health check involves an investigation into the Three Ps of product management teams.
The Three Ps of Product Management Teams
There are three main areas which need to be investigated, understood and assessed to build a full picture of the strengths and opportunities of a product management team. These are its Purpose, People and Processes. The three Ps help lead the enquiry into the state of today and also help teams articulate where they want to be.
Each of the three Ps is equally important:
To understand each of the three Ps you need to ask specific questions and answer them honestly. Here are some example questions for each (this is not an exhaustive list):
- Why do we as a team exist within the organisation? Does everyone agree?
- What unfair advantages are we leveraging?
- What weaknesses are we mitigating?
- What distinguishes us as unique?
- What preoccupies people (management and teams)?
Most successful teams will cite clear team and product strategies as the reason why they are able to operate effectively. When everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet, the music is sweeter. Good team and product strategies empower individuals to excel.
Sidenote: That said, it is crucially important that the team and product strategy are rooted in something bigger. The overarching digital and/or business strategy needs to set the ultimate direction and help teams understand how they contribute to the bigger picture. Without a clear digital or business strategy, a product management team will be without the anchor they need to know if they are effective, or just busy.
There is a big difference between a team which ‘just’ delivers features, and a product management team who is empowered to define solutions to problems with cross-discipline discovery. The context in which the product management team operates determines how far along this maturity scale the team needs to be and therefore what their immediate purpose is.
- How is the team structured and divided?
- Where are the interfaces and handoffs?
- Where is the centre of gravity for decision making?
- What are the daily activities that people use to get the required jobs done?
- What software do we use to produce and document information?
The devil is most definitely in the detail. The day-to-day activities of a team are central to how effective they are. Some of the most important and most neglected factors here are actually external because the quality of your input is so important. Ensuring you get good input and have the right support will set you on the right path.
Only ideas which have been validated by the user, business and IT should make it onto the roadmap. The processes that teams use to validate or dismiss ideas can make or break a product. Bad ideas based which are driven by uninformed assumptions or by pressure to deliver something sacrifices outcome for the sake of output. Controls must be in place to prevent this.
- What is leadership’s style?
- What motivates teams?
- How do we develop people?
- What is our product culture?
- What crucial operation skills do we have — and not have — competency in?
In highly empowered (and therefore highly motivated) teams, leaders have the unenviable task of balancing an atmosphere of safety with ensuring individuals are held to high standards. Constant development is critical to high-performing teams and understanding skill gaps prevents dangerous blindspots. This culture of ‘fail-fast’ is important for successful teams.
How teams make decisions is a great indicator of maturity. Decision making is a great example of how purpose, people and processes are interlinked. If leadership empowers teams to make decisions, then the purpose of the team, the way that they work and therefore the product they build will be very different from a leadership-driven product.
Now that we understand the importance of the Three Ps of product management teams, how do we apply this?
Defining a Path to the Target Operating Model
Understating your current operating model and your target operating model is as simple as answering the above questions, twice. Once for the reality of today and once for setting the future aspiration for the team.
To support this process, a useful model is the ‘double diamond’ made popular by effective design teams. The double diamond describes four phases from problem to solution. These phases diverge and converge throughout the process.
At all stages, the three Ps form the backbone of the activities and give you a consistent thread from start to finish.
First, we converge on the symptoms we have identified. What is the problem we are trying to solve?
Maybe the team is unsatisfied with their day-to-day, or perhaps the management is feeling uncomfortable with the team’s outputs. It may be that the team itself feels the inputs are insufficient and are hampering their efforts to deliver decent outputs and therefore outcomes.
The problem must be framed clearly and articulated in a way that everyone agrees with and understands. There may be more than one problem and that’s fine.
Sidenote: You can use the Three Ps to probe and contextualise the initial problem or problems. Are we just focusing on Purpose or are there also problems across Processes and People?
The next step within the ‘discover’ phase is to diverge with deep research across the problems or symptoms. When do they occur? How do they manifest? Does everyone agree on these points or are there different viewpoints which need to be considered?
This activity can be conducted in many different ways, and each organisation and team will have its favourite method. For example, you might favour the Six Sigma Fishbone, Toyota’s 5 Whys or just good old-fashioned conversations. The important thing is detail, depth and honesty.
Discovery phase output:
- Initial problems framed (symptoms)
- Deep research documentation
- Symptom themes distilled
Now you have reams and reams of research, and you should have a good mental picture of what the key themes are across the symptoms. You may well have discovered some symptoms and causes which you hadn’t initially realised were there.
It’s now time to converge on the key issues to help us define the opportunities we need to focus on.
‘How Might We’ (HMW) exercises are useful for framing issues as opportunities in a positive and collaborative way. So for example, if you have identified an issue that the external teams feel a lack of visibility on the product management team’s activities, then your opportunity can be framed like this:
‘How might we better report and communicate our roadmap to the business?’
You can have as many HMWs as is necessary to fully describe the biggest opportunities today.
Using these opportunities, you can use each of the three Ps — purpose, processes and people — to describe the current operating model. This is as simple as writing a few short written statements describing the honest state of today.
To use our previous example, here’s how you might write a section of the current operating model under ‘process’:
‘We have a roadmap which is internal to the team but which external teams do not have visibility of. Having to deal with multiple questions and requests is time-consuming and sometimes conflicting information is provided to different teams.’
The completed current operating model will describe the whole picture across all of the Three Ps. This gives a clear starting point for developing potential solutions.
Define phase output:
- Current operating model
The mirror image of the current operating model is the target operating model.
Using your current operating model as your main point of reference, ask yourself, “what would this look like in an ideal world?”. Going through this process for all of the points covered, you will create your target operating model and in doing so, diverge on a broad vision for the future of the team.
Again, all that is necessary here is a series of short statements which describe a future world, where the problems identified in the research are solved.
Use our roadmap example, here’s how you might write a section of the target operating model under ‘process’:
We keep a public roadmap available for anyone in the business to view and critique. This means that everyone is up to date and can see a single source of truth for what we are working on. It saves us time too.
The completed target operating model will describe the whole picture across all of the Three Ps.
Develop phase output:
- Target operating model
Your target operating model describes product management utopia. But how do you actually deliver it?
You need an implementation plan which converges on the specific actions that you and the team (and potentially other teams) need to do to achieve the target operating model. These are your solutions. Each solution needs to be specific and have a clear timeline, owner and measure of success.
It’s important to get alignment on this implementation plan from everyone who will be affected. This includes external stakeholders. Without buy-in, the crucial traction you need to make a meaningful change will not be missing.
Deliver phase output:
- Gap analysis of current vs. target operating model
- Implementation plan to close gaps
So you implemented all your actions and the team is now much more awesome than it was. The outcomes are better, the processes are slick, the outputs are consistent and you are getting the right inputs.
Do it again. This exercise needn’t be laborious and once it’s done once, can become a healthy habit to get into. We hold our products to high standards. We run loops of build, measure, learn and iterate. Why would we not hold our teams to the same standards?
Quarterly or even monthly reviews of a target operating model can ensure that teams remain competitive, sharp, motivated and effective. Take the time and invest in making your team as awesome as your product.
- Product management teams need to do two fundamental things, extremely well (Define a clear, value-based product strategy and create and manage a healthy roadmap) but fundamental doesn’t equal easy.
- Product management teams can be thought of as machines. Input: Intelligence. Activity: Discovery. Output: Clear product direction. Outcome: Commercial value.
- The three Ps of product management help you identify causes to the symptoms: Purpose, People, Processes.
- Use the double diamond model to understand causes and make a treatment plan: define, discover, develop and deliver.
- Don’t stop there, keep following this process to iterate your team, not just your product.