Boosting Team Performance By Building PM Capabilities

Boosting Team Performance By Building PM Capabilities

By DIANE SEXTON

Picture this: you are a Product Director, with several Product Managers reporting to you. One of your PMs comes to you for advice as they are struggling to communicate the direction and scope of work to their team, even though they are confident they know it.

Complicating this is that some members of the broader team have also made clear to you that that they’re struggling to understand the team’s direction or scope, and believe the PM hasn’t got a solid story.

The PM has started to question their ability to do their job and is visibly frustrated. You can see that this will impact the team’s outcomes, let alone the personal and professional goals of the individuals involved.

What is the root cause of the problem, and how – as their leader – will you clear a path towards solving it?

Let’s look at some common things that you might hear, and uncover what is the most likely cause.

“It’s not my job.”

Sometimes, you must go back to basics.

As a leader, you should check in on their level of alignment on Roles and Responsibilities. A coordinated, formal workshop usually will get everyone’s thoughts on paper (or Miro), but then you’ll need to provide follow-up support – either directly with your PM or indirectly through the team member’s own line managers – to make sure that the roles and responsibilities model is actually helping the team deliver on their shared outcomes.

This way, the focus is not on the individuals but on capabilities coming together to deliver customer value. There may be handoffs that naturally happen between technical capabilities, but make sure the team knows that work tends to end up where it’s most suited and that the outcomes are on track.

“The scope is unclear.”

Whether this is coming from your PM or a team member, communication is usually the root cause.

By definition, the scope is the combined objectives and requirements needed to complete a project. With stakeholder and technical consultation, it’s up to the Product Manager to determine and communicate the objectives and requirements, then communicate progress.

So, when a team member is still concerned about the scope after the PM has already communicated the objectives and requirements, the problem may lie in agreement that these are the “right” ones, or may lie in a preconception of the time or technical capability needed, without articulating it.

To better support your Product Manager,
don’t race in and redo their work or restate the scope.

Instead, guide them to understand what the team member thinks is unclear or is lacking and then how to communicate what’s needed.

“I’m not the domain expert, so they don’t trust me.”

Being a Product Manager – both in general and in the specifics – is tough.

Should you hire a domain-expert Product Manager (e.g., one who’s moved from data analytics, front-end engineering, or some other technical capability), or should you hire a generalist Product Manager who has a little bit of everything – whose mastery is more demonstrated in their ability to adapt and succeed in any domain, without being able to contribute at the technical level?

In either case, the Product Manager will likely encounter people who doubt their judgement. For example, they could doubt the PM’s decisions because the PM has no technical expertise, or they could doubt the PM’s decisions because they aren’t strategic enough. There is no way to escape that. The Product Manager needs to realise this is not about them personally. As their leader, you can support them by reminding them that they are here for the organisation’s outcomes, which might involve conflict with the team. Remind them that all the skills in a team need to be complementary, and the customers’ needs determine how each skill can contribute.

Product Managers must develop their influence within their team, and this requires them to identify what they can uniquely add beyond the skills and experience that already exist there. Instead of “fitting in” by bringing more technical skills to a team that’s already technically strong, the idea should be to add something above what is there that the team will see as useful. This requires strong observation, influence and relationship management, so look for these as strong areas for development.

How do you make a team hiring decision then? I would say hire for the team’s needs first and the organisation’s needs second. That is, does your team need a strong product thinker? Are they ready for the challenge, but technically they don’t need support? Or does your team need someone who is more “like them”, that would take your product leadership and apply it?

Then, look across the organisation and develop a balance of different types of PMs so that you always have a pool of diverse thinking. Encourage your PMs to communicate with each other about the problems they face and the solutions they have tried. Get them to share, support and safely challenge each other. This builds a strong base of culture and community that will enable your PMs to deliver value.

“How do I become a Product Leader?”

Now that you have a PM who is smoothly running in their team, how do you help them get to the next level?

While it sounds simple, coaching your PM will need some structure and time. You can start by coaching them in organisational culture and structure by getting them in front of more senior stakeholders. You can also coach them in delivery efforts by involving them in technology roadmaps, architecture forums or cyber security reviews.

There are countless ways, but the critical skills needed to level up a Product Manager will centre around adaptive and relationship skills and less around the technical skills they may have had to get here.

Focus on such things as creating trusting relationships with stakeholders and partners using empathy and understanding, or setting conversations up by opening at the appropriate level and keeping things on track. If you are in a meeting with them, later on, ask the PM to analyse the motivations and context of the other people in the room, and discuss how that might change how they present information.

Keep in mind that learning new skills – or levelling-up existing ones – is a task that will take time and some repetition. We all need to do something a few times before the process and outcomes will truly sink in. Some patience from both teacher and student is required, but seeing your people thrive after struggling through a challenge is often the most rewarding aspect of being a leader.

Brainmates has been helping organisations level up their Product Managers since 2004 and can help you level up your team. Our coaching services are designed to support personal or team development across product management practices and career progression – ensuring accelerated skills development and best practices towards your objectives and goals.

Talk to Brainmates today.

Disrupting the Product – Strategy Questions Answered

Disrupting the Product - Strategy Questions Answered

By DIANE SEXTON

Even though periods of decline are a normal part of the economic cycle, there is no denying the enormous pressure these periods place on our organisations. Yet, despite the forces working against us, there are still ways in which we can adapt and even disrupt during periods of economic downturn.

I recently was involved in a panel discussion on ‘Disrupting the Product: Strategies for Success’ hosted by DiUS, where we shared proactive strategies for disrupting the product that prioritised tech innovations, operational efficiencies and customer experiences.

I love sharing a bit of product management wisdom whenever I can – especially if I’ve had to learn it the hard way. This was a great discussion – that you can watch in full via the link above – but there were many follow-up questions that we just didn’t get time to answer on the day. By picking out some that I’ve been itching to share my thoughts on, hopefully I might be able to pre-emptively answer some of the questions that might come up the next time you’re looking to be a disrupter in product management, and have to cope with an unpredictable world.

'Recession-Proof' Strategies

In our current economic climate with fears around a tech recession, what are some of the strategies you’ve seen work well that have helped ‘recession-proof’ a product or organisation?

I believe the best strategy is to really go back to your roots.

What is the vision that you started with? Is it still true? Does it need to be revised?

From there, confirm your market fit. Are your target customers still the same? Do you need to refine your target market?

Once you have the confirmation you’re after, ensure you have a solid strategy to execute on that confirmed vision and target market.

It’s important to remember that things change over time. You’re deluded if you think that the strategy you had in flush years will still work in lean ones. Look out for the signals that tell you there is a problem. These might be external signals, but also pay attention for any internal signals as well. These can be sign posts to tell you if you are still tracking to your intended goals.

Shifting Mindsets on 'Scaling Down'

Disruption in the external environment leads to ‘Scaling down’. This has a generally negative connotation attached to it – especially when compared to ‘scaling up’. How can leaders focus on shifting mindsets and boosting the morale of the team on the ground?

Scaling down should always be done with a good reason, and a sense of humanity. First up you must honestly own your new strategy – the one that will take you through the lean times. Then, make selections for role redundancies based on how the role delivers or doesn’t, based on your new strategy. You can’t treat people like numbers. By being open about the strategy and the changed business model you show that you respect your people even, or especially, when you have to make hard decisions.

Also, be mindful that the team who are left will find themselves with a case of survivor guilt. This is unavoidable, so what you want to do is be honest that you are resetting your strategy to one that will manage through the tough period and keep the company alive till things change.

Be really open with your team about the fact that you are unable to operate the same way as before, and make sure you never say “do more with less”, or even “do less with less”. This kind of language doesn’t help anyone. Refer back to your vision and strategy, and remind your team about what has stayed the same before going through the things that have changed – and why you got there.

Measuring Strategic Disruption Success

How do you measure the success of a disruptive product strategy, especially in its early stages?

One thing that you can easily track is whether or not you have gone from 0 to 1 with your (disruptive) value prop intact. Sticking with that same vision and value prop to go from 1 to 2 to 10 is a challenge, but if you can stick to your original vision and add more paying customers, that’s success.

Also don’t forget to look outside – if your competitors are talking the same talk as you, or if you start seeing imitators you definitely will know you are onto something.

Re-evaluating Strategies

When it comes to re-evaluating a pre-recession strategy, what time horizon we should be looking at? Next quarter, next year, or the next five years?

You should first check in on your vision. Are you still confident you’ve identified the market need? How about the benefits?

Is your target customer still the same? Are they still able to pay for your product? Can they pay for it now – and if not, then when?

Then if that’s still true, you should set up a couple of alternate strategies that will allow you to adapt as time goes one. Create an optimistic strategy, but also pessimistic and realistic versions as well. Give your organisation the chance to explore the upside if there is a slight uptick, but realistically you should be investing in your pessimistic strategy more consistently. Always look at all those time horizons! But the further out, the more pessimistic you should be.

Fresh Ideas

Often the most innovative (disruptive) ideas come from outside the immediate teams within the business. How do you ensure you don’t miss out on fresh ideas?

I ask my stakeholders what have I missed, or what keeps them up at night. I ask the stakeholders of my stakeholders the same questions.

As well as talking to customers and reading the room, I always recommend keeping up with market publications or following influential folks in your domain.

Emerging Technologies and AI

Are digital twins, blockchain and other emerging technologies disrupting product management? What about AI?

My short answer is no.

My long answer: These technologies are here, and can be used to deliver customer value if you can find the right value prop and execute on it. AI is already being used in customer service (sometimes well, sometimes poorly!) and to generate LinkedIn content, for example.

Product thinking doesn’t change regardless of the cool new tech that is used to try to deliver customer value. The root is always “what is the problem and who am I solving it for, and how do I know they will pay me for it”. Our challenge is to use the technology responsibly, ethically and morally, without waiting for regulation to step in once bad stuff starts happening.

Read Man Made by Tracey Spicer for a great take on this.

 

Currently AI is seen as more of a risk than an opportunity in the product space. What can the average PO/PM do to change that narrative within Product Leadership groups?

It’s not all about the cool new tech. It has to solve a problem that delivers customer and business benefit. So put the effort in to prove the business reasons why AI investment is worth it.

What is it that your leadership will have to show to their leadership to get the money? Provide that confidence, don’t just expect the buzz words to sway investment decisions.

Folks – change is inevitable and has been around forever. As PMs, adapting to change is part of our core capability. I’ll sum it up with this quote:

“So what do we do? Anything. Something. So long as we just don’t just sit there. If we screw it up, start over. Try something else. If we wait until we’ve satisfied all the uncertainties, it may be too late.” – Lee Iacocca.

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