Monthly Archives: April 2013

Is a Product Manager sitting between all chairs or leading?

 

If you want to formulate it positively, you might describe the role of a Product Manager as a central one. Working at the intersection of many disciplines. Making sure, the products of your company are viable, feasible and desirable.

But: a Product Manager can very quickly be in a situation where she/he has no real decision power. All the stakeholders expect certain things and one doesn´t have the time to think through everything. And not only that: a Product Manager needs to show the way into uncertainty. And is speaking a foreign language. Lost in translation so to say…

There are also other roles that are pretty central and where people are involved into kind of everything that is going on in a company: project managers, executive assistants etc. Would you see them as the leaders into uncertain areas? You might, but this is not what you will think about first when talking about this type of roles.

So, as a Product Manager you need to assume your leadership role. You need to feel comfortable with showing the way. And especially also to executives. In case this works out, you are in the pole position for an executive role yourself…

Digital blurs the distinction between product and service

 

For my preparation for the Services Major @HEC I have read some interesting stuff about service blueprinting. What I find really interesting is the fact that digital can be seen as the replacement of front line employees. Or, in other words: the “physical” product is kind of “dissolved” into a service. And this fits very well into the product management concept of finding solutions for user problems on the one hand side and on the other hand side the border between marketing / branding (e.g. intangible assets) is becoming more and more unclear…

In some circumstances, it makes sense to modify the traditional blueprint. For example, when blueprinting an Internet or kiosk-based service that does not have any onstage contact employee activities, it could be beneficial to remove the onstage contact employee action row and replace it with an onstage technology row that would capture how customers interact with the company’s technology (p. 12 “Service Blueprinting: A Practical Technique for Service Innovation” by Bitner, Ostrom & Morgan).

If a company is really serious about providing great service, everything needs to be thought from the customer. In Bitner & Co. framework, this would be Physical Evidence / Customer Interactions layer. This is very close to design thinking. There are also interesting case studies to be read about companies who have become successful due to a radical change in their thinking: from executive level to frontline employees. It is great, not to feel too lonely as a Product Manager and to get support from academic folks in the US (https://twitter.com/WPCCSL) with great reputation. In that sense, I am really looking forward to our Services Major @ The Center for Services Leadership (CSL) in Phoenix, Arizona next month!

About the gap between hands-on product management and company strategy

 

During the last couple of months I have been asking myself again and again why there is such a big gap between a product owner and the company strategy. You might say: “wait, there is no gap there. How can you claim this?” I have had a couple of interesting discussions with people on different levels (from a startup CEO to C-Level executives). In many cases one gets to hear: “our company vision, strategy, business plan & top level product roadmap are done already. Now we need a CPO to execute it.” Well, at this point, I ask how did you guys come to this roadmap? Here are typical answers:

  • We have identified our competitors so we know what features we need
  • Don´t worry about this. Just make sure to execute
  • We need to achieve our business KPIs and this is what needs to be done to achieve them
  • We don´t want you to restart this discussion. We have no time to lose!
  • etc. etc.

So either these companies already have great product management (and therefore won´t need senior level support) or they need senior product management (but aren´t aware of it). In my opinion this comes back to a misperception of the Product Manager´s role. If we believe that there is a shortcut to understanding the problems of our users by iteratively building and testing potential solutions we are wrong.

Just read today an interesting chapter of the book “Services Marketing” by Zeithaml, Bitner & Gremler. It also discussed the impact on technology on services (along with their framework of four customer to provider gaps). The paths to get closer to what matters most to customers have changed fundamentally. Please keep in mind that technology is not an end in itself.

Therefore the Product Manager is definitely not the “tech guy” (I have already received this feedback after a discussion: “you are a very technical person” - those engineers who know me will be surprised about this kind of feedback, I am sure). A Product Manager should be the “glue” between all of these aspects.

As @BrianSolis has put it in a 60 second video (SXSW in 60 seconds): 2013 is all about making technology serve us instead of technology chase us. This is the moment of great product management. And believe me, these requirements will push companies to undergo transformation. Believing the Product Managers will only have impact on their nice little “feature sandboxes” would be like perceiving them as harmless paper tigers. If they are like that, it is time to fire them!

 

How to recognize a truly “digital” company

 

All discussions around “digital” and the trending role of a CDO don´t really elaborate on one point: what does it take to become digital? As posted earlier, a lot of emphasis seems to be put on Marketing. Plus, one must not forget that digital isn’t about simply being online, this is history. Companies need to use technology to solve customer problems better than others. I would like to focus on a couple of aspects in this post.

  1. SOCIAL: it is all about social. Social in the sense that it is all about human interactions making your digital products more relevant & efficient. This means dynamic (and not static) products. And, please, LISTEN to your users on social media. Listen to what they say, what they really care about, what they promote, what they ignore. Make sure, your mission has a credible purpose (yes, this is getting into the area of branding).
  2. (BIG) DATA: it is all about being able to compute large amount of data and to use it for more relevant & efficient experiences. Also this results in dynamic (and not static) products.
  3. OPEN: consider your destination website to go away latest in a couple of years. Users simply won’t go back to www.yourproduct.com. Think carefully about what really is your core asset and don’t try to market your destination site. Let users interact with your content, build dynamic and information that can be truly shared. But also let application developers build products based on your data. Build a “virtual product team”.
  4. MULTIPLE SCREENS: this is not about building your destination site for PC, laptop, tablet & smartphone. It is much more about 1.-3. Build experiences that are fluid and adapt. Product solutions are only up to date if they address a particular user problem. And, guess what: users are more and more getting the power of technology. They expect more and more and their behavior is changing rapidly.
  5. USER CENTRICITY: with all the potential of technology and design as described above you will go no where if don’t seriously change the way how you build your products. Focus on the problems of your customers that are worth to be solved. And then iteratively find a viable & scalable solution. Don´t fall into the “business trap” aka you believe you do understand the market by counting competitor´s features and calculation market shares. Take the extra product development mile. Either you do it now or later. But you will have to do it or you will die.  And: this is NOT a marketing task.

And please don’t make the mistake to believe that Facebook & Co. will go away. Yes, their usage is kind of declining in some markets. I remember a discussion with someone pretty senior in my previous company who literally said: “Jörg, don´t worry too much about social. Facebook is just a fashion. It will go away.” Even if Facebook went away, the points above won´t. Is your company really up to the digital challenge? As a CEO you have to care…

When ignoring design thinking destroys company value

 

When employees don’t want to see the limitations of their mindset, it becomes dangerous for their companies. Even more if they are in executive or leadership positions. Not only the diversity of thinking is at risk, but also critical competencies can be missing. But what to do if there is a completely blind spot? If the responsible managers simply are not aware of their open flanks? This can happen even to the brightest people. With great experience and superior thinking. Suddenly they might intuitively feel challenged on a very fundamental basis. A challenge that questions everything they do and have done so far. And believe me, consequences arising from this type of challenge on a very personal level can be really irrational. I have experienced such situations at least twice in my career.

And then comes the moment of truth: how do they react? Do they let this threatening thing happen (for the best of their business) or do they fight it back (for the best of their self affirmation)? Times have changed: technology enables customers to do things that have never been conceivable before. It is time to change perspective and really build great products for them. Which companies will see and use those opportunities? Not those with employees and executives who won´t let go.

Designful companies will outperform the others. It is just a question of time…

 

Stories from the search for fresh digital blood | Russell Reynolds Associates.

Very interesting article about the role of digital leadership in established boards and companies. As a headhunter has put it when I met him on Wednesday: “you are surfing on the right wave, your moment will come for sure”. But one thing cannot be learned with a MBA program: leadership. You need to get experienced with real transformation situations in larger corporations (e.g. in the media and/or telecommunications area). But the more experienced you get in those areas the less entrepreneurial you might become. This explains why those candidate profiles are pretty rare out there…

Leading by vision

 

In interviews one is often asked “how do you lead people?”. Leading your own team is relatively easy. What do you do if you “have to make people listen to you who don’t have to?” (as one NOKIA HR Manager has always put it). I strongly believe that this is the moment to become serious about the content. You cannot solely lead by KPIs or by driving process milestones. Now imagine a situation where you have to lead really strong people like founders or senior engineers. What makes people listen to your ideas?

During the first ten years of my career I believed it was all about money and job titles. You could buy the loyalty of your employees without having to satisfy their demand for great stuff to work on. You could get any UX person if you just offer a nice title and a decent salary. This was the type of arrogance of people wearing suits and owning the P&L. I was so wrong. I found myself in situations where I had to sell the role to an interesting candidate – and had nothing to say.

When talking about “leading by vision” I don´t mean the fluffy high flying vague kind of thing. I mean the concrete and tangible artifact. At my previous company we identified so called “north stars” aka products that would guide us the way. We built a vision type to illustrate the concept as concretely as possible. It is hard and sometimes almost impossible. But you have to try. If you get this right, no, let´s say exciting for your (potential) followers then they will listen. The rest is empowerment and  excellent management. Don´t let go. Also monitor progress and ruthlessly push for the execution of the vision.

No need to be afraid of R&D

 

When I was put in front of engineers for the very first time, I really didn´t know how to deal with them. Quickly I realized that my leadership style didn´t work out anymore. Please don´t get me wrong: I was an experienced manager with almost ten years of leadership experience. Until that point in time I was pretty successful in my roles. My strategy to get myself over this point was to put pressure. “We need to have feature A released by June, otherwise we won´t achieve our business target and our investors won´t like it…” I said. And you know what: my R&D colleagues simply didn´t care. Instead they asked me what to do, how to build it etc. I was not able to answer questions about the product itself and was caught waffling in many cases.

More than that: I always felt uncomfortable to talk about the product to be built. Even tried to avoid talking about it. Incredible, isn’t it? On top of that, I tried to avoid exposure to the teams in charge. Wanted to “manage” it top down.

The result was poor. We launched a product that more or less completely failed. But even worse: I had lost my reputation with my R&D team. They simply didn’t take me seriously anymore. My behavior had increased the gap between “business” and “engineering”.

Now after a couple of years later I understand why. I had to learn it the hard way how to collaborate with my R&D colleagues. But not without having gone to the other extreme: having lost my connection with my stakeholders. Only in the recent years I have been able to balance the needs better. And actually got a lot of satisfaction out of this. Starting with a product vision and then going through technical but also design and customer iterations is something extremely exciting.

The most important thing you need to bear with: accept that you don´t know much. You don’t need to be the one knowing everything and also not the one with the best ideas. In the contrary: the more you step back the more successful you will become. One team gave me a nickname after I had left – “Il Padrino” – the guy behind the scenes but in charge…