Today on Twitter, I stumbled upon the following article: “Beyond Design Thinking” by @kevinmccull.
Interesting to read that the concept of “Design Thinking” might be starting to become out of date. But then I realized that it is increasingly being absorbed within a much more strategic approach “for designers”.
Main learning: don´t believe in buzz words, but find your own way to use frameworks.
My motto is: “Digital Strategy Implementation & Design Thinking”. How about yours?
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…
Have you ever observed a bunch of fans watch a soccer match in a pub? They all seem to know best what strategy to follow, what to do next etc. Now go into a product related meeting with managers at a company and look what is going on there. Listen to the comments people are making, the thoughts they are having and to what extend they are listening to the experts in the room.
I often do experience this. Product management is a little bit like marketing creatives: everyone has an opinion. Even the consumer out there has an opinion. Actually, some executives suggest to run product management by surveys. The majority of asked users decide about the next feature. The rest is project management only. It is as easy as that. Is it as easy as that? For sure not. I do see at least three dimensions where this thinking is falling short:
- Users don´t know what might be the best solution for what they need (you know the story about the faster horses, do you?)
- Listening to users today only partly gives the needed answers for tomorrow´s products. (There is anticipation of technology developments needed. Think of the tablet phenomenon or the touch screen.)
- Users only see their part of the delivery system (aka the user interface). Actually they don´t have to understand the complexity of delivering the service to them. And they shouldn´t. But this doesn´t prevent us from having to go beyond the obvious.Think of a service like a flight. It is much more than the airplane and the stewardess serving us. There is a whole machinery behind delivering the service to customers. (“Nonstop you” is a nice Lufthansa slogan that describes this pretty well.)
So, Product Managers need to make their points in discussions. Going beyond the obvious means elevating the discussions to a different level. Refuse to discuss only visuals for example. A couple of times I experienced situations where people didn´t listen to the results of my qualitative user interviews. They didn´t want to know about the personas created. The mental model was too abstract for them, etc. They only woke up when I started sharing screens. Then suddenly everybody had something to contribute. But they were not able to reference their input back to the framework introduced before. So it became generic without adding any value.
Soccer coaches are typically hired for at least an entire season. And I am sure they don´t always listen to the fans. What counts is coaching a winning team. Let your Product Managers build winning products. Input welcome, but decisions stay with your product coaches.
During the last couple of months and countless inspiring talks with very diverse people, it is becoming more and more obvious that there a many great opportunities for your company. And some of those are around product management and its function in the corporate world. Let´s call out the most important ones:
- Good product management is the answer to your strategic challenge. If you get it right, you will manage your company in a way that it produces the right products. And if you produce the right products, then there is a much higher likelihood of success. Don´t get lost in all those IT and business discussions. Be consequent!
- Don´t make the mistake to believe all product managers are more or less the same. There are huge differences. I think I should write a separate blog post on how to assess the quality of product managers.
- Product Managers listen to customers. And executives should listen to (good) product managers. Why am I writing this? Well, because in most cases there is at least one executive who says: “believe me, I am more senior than you. And I know what needs to be done.” If this person is good at product management (aka listening to customers), then it is ok. If not, your company will get into trouble – sooner or later.
- Product management is the leading function. Why? Because it ensures that your company is building products “customers love” – enabled by IT and by business. It is the function that helps to pave the way into uncertainty and how to deal with it.
- Don´t believe product management is mere tactics. If you do it right then it becomes very strategic. Let me give you an example: changing from a static website to a data driven app (which is increasingly the case) requires not only investments in IT, but also a fundamental rethinking of business modeling. You need to anticipate future user behavior and align your company deliverables to leap frog your competition. This doesn´t happen over night and requires focus of the entire company.
So, when are you prepared to really focus on the needs of your customers? Good Product Managers can help you with that. But you have to give them the empowerment they need. And bet on the right candidates
By Jörg Malang
Disruptions: Mobile Competition Shifts to Software Design – NYTimes.com.
As said, it is time to make technology serve users (and not vice versa)…
Impressions from the Best of Both 2013 in Berlin
Create a new conference format that goes clearly beyond investment pitches by start-ups to get funding. Bring people together who would normally only meet occasionally, but not necessarily discuss with each other about what is really important to them. Hope that they meet on peer level. Hope that they discuss content and go beyond clichés like start ups are faster and bear higher risk.
This is what I would hope for if I organized a conference like this year’s Best of Both in Berlin. Hosted by SWAB, a German foundation focussing on bringing the two worlds together, it gathered more than 200 people from the old and new economy respectively.
A lot of interesting speeches and statements, but beyond “vision, sales and leadership” there was not so much concrete input. On the other hand, the representatives of the new economy also focused on things one would expect them to say (e.g. ” watch out, the social wave is coming” or ” we are just at the beginning”). As very often in similar situations, it felt like them creating fear and leaving behind uncertainty among the more traditional folks. Just as @Ibo put it: “there is a lot of uncertainty around digital. But nearly no one dares to admit it.”
The good news wasn’t discussed: that there are ways to deal with the challenge of transformation. Social or big data are much more than technology. It is a fundamental change of behavior of customers. I was happy to hear Cafer Tosun from SAP Innovation talk about Design Thinking. This focus applies the same way to an old economy company trying to deliver a world class service to its customers as it applies to a startup that is trying to build products that customers love…
Finally, Burkhard Schwenker, the CEO from Roland Berger Consulting was also trying to identify the common ground of old AND new economy: good entrepreneurship. And with that speech the conference ended.
All together this type of content only represented a small share of the whole program. I personally believe this is a missed opportunity for a conference with its legitimate ambition to bring together both worlds that are facing similar challenges. But thank you to SWAB for hosting this event and to Caspar von Gadow & Team for organizing it. Keep it up!