“What’s the biggest thing that’s in demand right now? Even higher than data scientists, it’s Product Managers. We’ve gone through a period of not knowing who they were, to being the most indispensable job,” according to Richard Linstead.
Product Management is growing up. And at the same time, it’s still struggling for legitimacy in parts of the Australian business ecosystem.
In August 2017, Brainmates brought together ten Product Leaders and held a round table discussion about the state of Product Management in Australia.
In this post, we explore what the future holds for Product Management and the critical issues to address in order to build the profession.
The panelists were:
Richard Linstead, Lead Entrepreneur in Residence, Westpac Group
Paz Saavedra, Group Product Manager, Scentre Group
Mark Robinson, Director of Product at Yahoo7
Agnes Schliebitz-Ponthus, Director Product Management, Fluent Retail
Jason Prowd, Product, Morningstar
Nada Tielu, Senior Product Manager, The Iconic
Adrienne Tan, Founder and Principal Consultant, Brainmates
Nick Coster, Founder and Head of Training, Brainmates
Sarah Mitchell, Product Manager Leading the Product, Brainmates
The moderator was: Jen Marshall, CEO, Brainmates
Product Managers must be more commercial
If there’s one thing that must change, according to the panel, it’s the time, effort and expertise Product Managers put into understanding business value.
“I guess that financial understanding is something that I think is missing in Product Management, and the more we get the Product Managers to be conscious and be educated around impact, understanding that each release has a cost,” said Agnes Schliebitz-Ponthus.
“I really agree with that. I think where we’ve struggled within my company, is that consequence of delay. How do you get to your team to understand that there is a consequence if you miss a release for two weeks, that actually has a material impact on the business,” added Mark Robinson.
The Product Leaders observed significant adoption of Agile practices, with some unintended consequences.
“We have this feature factory because we’re good at Agile, we’re good at it… We find that teams are great at Agile, but the problem is they don’t know what they put through that Agile process,” said Adrienne Tan.
“People say, how do you measure the cost of an Agile team? It is actually really easy. You go on fixed time, fixed resources, count the heads, count the money. You’ve got a block of money that gets burned every two weeks. Now how do you work out the benefit of that every two weeks? How do you make sure you that you spent $50,000 every fortnight and getting $150,000 or more for revenue stream,” said Nick Coster.
Jason Prowd agreed: “You want to have a sense. You know your team costs $250K a month, you can probably sense check that against what you’ve delivered.”
The solution will come as Product Managers develop a deeper understanding of their role, along with the financial capabilities to support that mindset. But their companies will also have to change, according to Jason Prowd:
“They [Product Managers] are not paid to get it. Right? I kind of think actions follow incentives and often people aren’t… paid to be concerned about that. If you’re KPI’d are to deliver stuff you’ll deliver stuff.”
“I think organisations often dismiss how valuable incentives are,” Jason added
Product skillsets need to evolve
Business value is not the only area where there’s a need for a skills evolution for Product people.
“It’s about bringing that people aspect to our discipline, that psychology, behavioural science… we know how to run a road map, we know how to do delivery, but our challenge is now how to manage the people to be able to do that going forward,” said Adrienne Tan.
“I think there’s an immense opportunity with the fact everything is actually data these days and we don’t do much with it yet,” said Agnes Schliebitz-Ponthus.
“Just like we talk about, user experience. UX is fundamental to Product… well, data is fundamental to product. If anything, data is fundamental to product. I do think that we just need to embrace it and learn it and not be scared about it and not just hire data scientists, but become data scientists ourselves,” she added.
Agnes was also keen to see Product Managers to take a holistic view around the whole experience:
“We are delivering software, but what about the support? What about the documentation?… What about the operation team being able to answer a call that is going through. What about your sales guys? Do they know what they actually sell now? It is a lot, it is this full experience and if you think as a [mini] CEO you actually have to think about all these things and you are launching way more than the outcome of the delivery pipeline.”
More writing, more thinking
“People have forgotten how to write, they put everything on a post it note, on a canvas. As a consultant I see the problems that that creates, because there’s missed communication,” said Adrienne Tan.
Jason Prowd agreed: “I support that, like I used to recruit and train and coach analysts, researching companies, and they’d always ask, why do I have to write up this idea that’s going to go nowhere? 95% of an analyst’s job is writing stuff and you have to explain to them the process gets you thinking.”
“The five minute discussion is very different to a very clear razor sharp 2,000 words on why this is a good idea,” Jason added.
“We talk about storytelling. Well you can’t craft a story on a post it. You’ve got to write it and the only way to write it is to actually sit and reflect and write,” said Adrienne.
“That’s the point, you have to craft a cohesive thousand words on something. You have to work out what the 5,000 words you shouldn’t be saying,” said Jason.
“We’ve been trying the idea of… writing the fake press release… When you get people to do it, they do it the first time and it is terrible. They do it the 10th or 20th time they are like, oh I finally understand the value, like getting it on the page and forcing to be very clear about explaining why you are making all these trade offs,” explained Jason.
Drive to codify Product Management
The ever-present challenge is balancing the constant evolution of the practice with the organisation of Product Management.
In thinking about what needs to happen next, Jason Prowd said: “Codification of Product Management. I feel like we are still on a massive journey of what does it mean to be a Product Manager.”
And that codification relates to individuals and teams, as well as tools and processes.
“For us it is starting to work out how do we divide the work and how do we structure our tools to make sure we can continuously deliver value to our customers,” said Paz Saavedra.
“I think in the next five years we’ll see the role become more defined and more understood by people outside of the role which I think is important,” said Nick Coster.
And one of the most important areas to develop that understanding is within the C-suite, according to Richard Linstead:
“The start is having people in executive position to actually understand this. The fundamental problem is there are not enough, with some honourable exceptions, there are not enough executives in senior positions who actually get what the hell we’re really talking about. It just doesn’t happen.”
That leads to the final point, which will help position Product Management in the C-suite.
Product Leaders becoming Senior Leaders
“I think what I’m excited about with Product Management is just the fact that it’s being taken more seriously, but also where it is going to go. For example, my old boss at The Iconic, she was a Product person and now she’s a CTO… I’ve never seen that happen before,” said Nada Tielu.
“I think there might be potentially a shift in the way people view Product, not just around the business, but within Technology as well, I think that is absolutely fascinating,” she added.
“I think you’ll start to see more of the Product Mangers start to move into those more senior roles,” said Mark Robinson.
“As an industry group we are reasonably young, so the maturity cycle and that’s how by virtue of our age and experience we’ll start to push into those roles. With that and we’ll see that shift start to take place within organisations where you get that seat at the table. You see it over in the US, the role of Chief Product Officer and those sorts of things is ubiquitous,” he added.
“I think it’s very important to sit at the same level as your Chief Revenue Officer and Chief Technology Officer, because you give a balanced point of view to the CEO when he is making a decision,” Mark said.