Having learned about maturity levels of supply chain management in organizations during our lectures @HEC, I thought it might be interesting to assess the maturity levels of product management.
- The lowest level can be simply described as “Absence of Product Management”. This means, in that company there is not even the function product management. Please keep in mind that we are not talking about product management in a marketing context. We are defining product management as defining and building digital products for customers.
- The second lowest level can be described as “Alibi Product Management”. In this type of organization there is at least one Product Manager. But the person is not working as a state of the art Product Manager, but much more as a project manager or coordinator. His/her responsibilities don´t include understanding the needs of users and defining the roadmap of the IT teams. The Product Manager in this organization is of low skill level and is typically driven by decisions of executives and/or shareholders.
- “Tactical Product Management” is the maturity level or organizations who have installed product management on a tactical level. The responsibility remains with the upper organizational levels of the company, but the Product Managers are enabled to steer product development on a daily basis. A typical characteristic of this type of company would be that the Product Manager has to ask for approval before launching features and for his/her product roadmap from people who are not Product Managers.
- Organizations who have established product management on executive level can be named “CPO level Product Management”. Here, the most senior Product Manager is reporting into the CEO and is member of the management team. Product Managers in these organizations are having a sponsor on the highest management level and an enabled product management organization. Please note that having a CPO might be possible without being on this maturity level. Sometimes the job title “CPO” is misleading. Criteria must be an enabled product management organization as described in the three lower levels above.
- The most mature level is “Strategic Product Management”. Organizations of this type have a clear product vision and product strategy that have been defined by a Product Manager based on e.g. Design Thinking. A product management organization is supporting the Product Manager on Executive level to deliver products customers will love. The CDO/CPO/VP Product will support the CEO and the CXO suite to align towards this vision and will have major influence on the direction of the company.
Most companies I have seen or I have had interviews with during the last months are on levels 2. and 3. Very few seem to understand the need to establish the product function on CXO level and to see product management as strategic discipline. In the light of the upcoming digital challenges and increasingly changing customer behaviors I consider this as reckless. Without a sufficiently skilled Product Manager on the top of your organization you will fail.
If you take a look into the different MBA syllabuses you will rarely find content that is related to product management or to design thinking. I have found an interesting article by Sameer Kamat recently here. It talks about content that Product Managers need to learn.
An MBA is by its nature a business degree. So it seems to add the “business” side to more design or technology oriented people. I don´t believe this is the complete picture. It must also go the other direction: business thinkers need to reach out to design thinkers. There is a gap between both.
A while ago I have read an article about the usage of brain when working on different tasks. Also the brain activity of highly strategic people have been analyzed. Interestingly those very good at strategic thinking have shown high brain activity in the right hand side brain hemisphere and in the left hand side brain hemisphere. In other words, people good at strategy also use their creativity, emotion and intuition to come to new findings.
I found this really fascinating: if you leave the ground of immediate actions and focus on longer term thinking, you will be the more better the more “intuitive” you get. Listening to users and understanding them is also very intuitive. Anticipating their behaviors of the future is even more highly intuitive.
Business thinking and design ambition meet if both come with a reasonable portion of right hand side brain thinking. Whether a MBA helps this process might depend more on the individual than one might think beforehand. But it is definitely more than a “business blessing” for Product Managers with career ambitions.
In this week´s session about Information Systems and outsourcing @HEC we have discussed what to think about when considering outsourcing. One quote was “don´t outsource the problem, but outsource the solution”. This is interesting from a Product Manager´s point of view.
One thing I keep talking about, is that one should refrain from jumping to solutions too quickly. Before that step, a Product Manager needs to understand the problem to be solved for the users. And this requires going deep on the needs of users and thinking about their mental model. So, if you are thinking all day long about potential solutions you might start on the wrong foot. Actually, you might even consider not to outsource your product development at all nor to trust your own product development teams to come up with the right solutions.
I am sure that some readers of this post will even doubt the necessity to understand the needs of the users. This is a core competence and not peripheral. Outsourcing the solution is legitimate, but outsourcing your problem (aka understanding the needs of your users) is not an option.
If you see your own product development team as a vendor, what are you doing to direct them? What is the “contract” between you and them? Do they know enough about the problem to be solved so that they can operate on their own? Considering your own product development teams as “external vendors” might help you refrain from micro managing the solutions they come up with. You need to focus on your core competency: understanding the “problem space”.
“Show me the product, I will decide to give it a go or not!” – this is a more than a legitimate request from an Executive. There is nothing wrong about it. But in reality, the very same person might be saying something like this: “Show me that you have invented something really new. Something that outperforms everything I have seen so far. Something that obviously will be very successful. I don´t want to take any risk, you know. If it doesn´t convince me now, you have done a bad job, I am afraid.”
And later, in another discussion, she/he might say something like this: “They showed me their ideas. It went no where. It is good that we are not pushing too hard into this new direction. I could have told you before. Why are we even exploring this direction?”
In product management we name the one solution that nails it the “Silver Bullet”. Unfortunately they rarely exist. Especially in digital. And sometimes, people might have it in front of them – and they literally don´t see it. It is as if you showed a car with a fuel consumption of only 1 litre per 100 km, and the reaction would be: “Well, this is nothing new. It has wheels and doors.”
I believe, there are two main reasons for this attitude: one is avoiding risk and uncertainty and the other one is not looking beyond the obvious. Both are common on Executive level. Those not only following, but also really driving change are a marginal species. Only very few embrace the opportunities and don´t shy away from risk. Getting the Silver Bullet means no risk. It is as simple as that. One could start printing money on a Silver Bullet concept. How often are we in situations like this?
The other one is more subtle. Looking beyond the obvious requires unbiased thinking. Requires abstraction from one´s own character and learning curve. The more experienced we get, the more we believe we “do know already”. Do we really? How about the digital transformation – do we have a clear feel for what it means for my company?
I frankly admit that I don´t know much. But I am curious and do have tools at hand how to tackle the challenge. Welcome to our joint journey…