Lessons in Product
Interview with Adam Warburton, Head of Product at The Co-op.
How do you define a competitive product?
You must understand the competitive landscape that the product operates within.
If you take Ford for example, you could look at the competitive set and you could say it was other car manufacturers such as Mercedes or BMW. However, if you consider Ford and look at the job that Ford’s doing, Ford is moving people from one place to another place, so then you begin to look at other competitors like trains, planes, walking or cycling.
When you begin to understand the competitive landscape a little bit wider like that, then all of a sudden what it means to be competitive is very different.
What it means to be competitive against other cars versus what it means to be competitive against rail or aeroplanes. I think it’s key to understand the whole of the competitive landscape, and then you can begin to build out KPI’s based on the outcomes of customer want from using your product.
If we take Ford against other cars, we might look at fuel economy and other metrics like that. But against planes and rail, we begin to look at the time of the overall journey, or we might want to look at comfort and things like that.
To understand a competitive product, you must first understand the competitive landscape.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had and how did you overcome it?
I think the biggest challenge that I’ve had is probably over interested stakeholders.
Every product manager wants interested stakeholders. But it can go too far sometimes, you can have over interested stakeholders, who want to control every element of the product, they want to look at copy and button colours and the layouts and things like that.
I think the best way that we’ve overcome that is by two things.
First, is just managing expectations. There’s a reason that people are in different roles, it’s because they have different skills in different areas. For example, the reason that we have a copywriter is to provide the copy, but that doesn’t mean that everyone should have a say.
I think the key is moving stakeholders away from talking about solutions and away from saying that button should be green or blue, or we should do push notifications, or this-and-that feature. Instead, push stakeholders to start talking about customer problems and the problems that we’re beginning to address.
Suddenly, that just shifts the dynamics of the group, and you begin to talk about problems that you can solve, and that gives the product team the air cover that they need to go and do the work that they can do with design and engineering teams.
What’s a good product culture and how do you grow it?
I think it’s important in product culture to have a challenging culture.
A culture where challenge is encouraged, embraced and we all want to push one another. Ultimately, one product manager is one product manager, and as we discussed before, their thinking can be constrained by biases and other environmental factors.
Creating a culture where you’re challenged by other people readily, pushes the product to the next level. All of a sudden it’s not one person’s view, you’re being challenged across a range of different people.
It also makes you think through your product decisions even more, because you know that you’re going to be challenged by other people. Suddenly, you don’t make sloppy decisions, they’re all thought through because you know that your peers are going to challenge you on what you’re doing.
The key to do this, is transparency. You must make sure that everything that people are doing is made transparent. The products that people are working on, the decisions that are being made, and that can then really drive that transparency.
Through transparency, you can then drive the challenge. People can only challenge what they know, if you have a lack of transparency then you can’t really drive a challenging culture.
What makes a good product manager?
They’re going to be working with engineering, design, commercial and marketing functions, and a person must be able to tie all those functions together. You must be able to talk tech, and then translate that back to the business teams without bamboozling them with confusing jargon.
Then you need to take all the input from the business and commercial teams and translate that back to the design and engineering teams. So, I always think of a product manager as someone that can speak a number of different languages. They are the person that ties the rest of the functions together.
You’re going to need to be very well-balanced as you’re likely to be working with several different stakeholders and teams across an organization.
Ultimately a product manager runs the day-to-day running of the team, they’re involved stand-ups, and sprint planning, writing stories, fire-fighting and dealing with all sorts of issues. This can be intense, challenging work and a product manager has to be able to pull themselves out that detail and give themselves some headspace to be able just to think through; “what’s the vision of the product?”, “where are we going?” and even down to “what are we doing next week and next month”, and you must be able to do that, all whilst being in the same office, in the same environment with the same people. The ability to operate at different altitudes at different times, depending on who you’re working with is absolutely key.
How do you see the skill-set evolving?
For me, I think product and design address very similar problems.
They’re both concerned with the customer, with the customer experience and with a product experience. I think we’ll begin to see and product and design functionally align.
At Travelex that’s the move that we’re now bringing our product teams and our design teams into the same function. We will see skill-sets align between the two. We’re already seeing the advent of the product designer (designers that aren’t specifically on the design team, they’re embedded in product teams they understand product requirements).
We will likely see product managers beginning to wireframe and have some grounding in UX. I think we’ll probably see a merger of the two roles.
I know that some organizations in London now have a product designer who is the product manager and the UX designer as a singular role, who will then work with a UI designer to give you the full end-to-end product and design spectrum.
Ultimately the product skill-set will have to expand to incorporate elements of design.
How do you define your KPI’s?
Traditionally a product manager might look at KPI’s for their product, and they might look at the outcomes that they’re trying to serve for a customer. They then construct KPI’s to support that, or they might look at the commercial KPI’s that the business has and then build their KPI’s to support that. But actually, businesses also need to take a horizontal look across different products.
If you go back to Sony in 2006, you see that they had very deep verticals in products. They had a Walkman division, a cameras division, a TV’s division, a phones division and a gaming in division. Ultimately, each of those products did the product management classic, “I’m going to design my KPI’s around my own product and how my own product should work”, and ultimately nobody saw that all of those products could be merged into one.
When the iPhone came along, Sony had billions written off its value and thousands of people were made redundant, because of the lack of foresight into that. Whereas if they’d have horizontal KPI’s then that might have been one way that they could have begun to push their thinking around that.
People in the cameras team didn’t care about how many phones were sold and people in the TV’s department didn’t care about that. But if you can create a culture where everybody cares about the business strategy and pushing the business forward, then hopefully you can begin to have a little bit more foresight into how your products play against one another.
People must remember that the product and it’s KPI’s shouldn’t be overly insular, it has to form a part of the wider business strategy and the wider business direction.
What process or methodologies do you use?
At Travelex we try and follow Jobs To Be Done. Before we go too much into Jobs To Be Done, it’s important to note that really an organization shouldn’t have a singular process that it follows for product. Ultimately, you’ll have various products serving different customers with different teams building those products.
That means a singular way of building products or a single process, isn’t going to be fit for purpose and you’re going to end up running products and projects that will struggle because of processes you put in place an overarching level an ideal for the product.
So while we do follow Jobs To Be Done that’s not to say that every product has to follow this, or that we follow it to the book. We really take principles from methodology like Jobs To Be Done, and then just try and apply them in the best way possible that makes sense for the product that we’re working on.
Jobs To Be Done hypothesizes that everybody hires a product to perform a job, so you might hire a car because you want to go from A to B. You hire money in the Travelex context, you hire the product of money because you want to transfer credit from one person to another person. Jobs To Be Done is all about understanding that job that you’re trying to do, and then understanding the outcomes that you want from that specific job. If you can understand the outcomes, and you can identify underserved outcomes, so things that people looking for in products and in the job that’s underserved, and you can really create value.
I think there’s a couple of practical examples and if we look at McDonalds, where they ran a survey on milkshakes at a McDonalds in Phoenix, USA. McDonalds wanted to improve sales of milkshakes, and classically if you went to customers and said how can we improve your milkshake experience, or what do you want from milkshakes, and they will give you the classic things…
They would have said “we want cheaper milkshakes” and “more flavours”. Ultimately those things are things that customers are always going to ask you for, and it’s the classic Henry Ford thing. If Henry Ford would have asked customers what they wanted in the early 1900’s, they would have told him a faster horse. No one would have told him to build a car, because they just couldn’t think beyond the current solution.
The University of Phoenix came in and they worked with McDonald’s to understand the customer needs and the job that a milkshake was going to do. The first data point they took notice of, was that over half of their milkshakes were sold before eight o’clock in the morning, which is interesting data point.
They began to investigate a little bit more, speaking to customers and did some research and insight. Rather than say to customers “what’s the problem with your milkshake?”, or “how can we make your milkshake better?”
What they asked them was “if you didn’t have that milkshake, what other product would you have had in its place?” or “what role is that milkshake serving for you for this morning?”
This unpicked some really interesting outcomes, where they found that customers had a long commute in the morning and they wanted something to occupy their hand. They just had a long drive, the drive was pretty boring so they wanted something to do.
But they also found that customers wanted something that sat on the stomach for a long time and saw them through to lunchtime so that they didn’t snack throughout the day.
What was really interesting in that context, is traditionally they would have thought that Burger King or Dunkin’ Donuts were their milkshake competitors, and they actually found out that their milkshake competitors were a bagel, porridge or a banana. They were other products that were doing the same jobs that the customer wanted them to do.
Ultimately the way that McDonald’s went around improving the milkshake was they made it thicker and that’s why McDonald’s milkshakes today are like blobs of ice cream in a cup that take forever to drink. That’s all because it satisfies the job in that it entertains your hands for longer, and it sits on your stomach because it’s a lot thicker.
When we think about money and currency, we try and understand the job that that money is trying to do, the outcomes that people want from that job, and that’s how we’re really trying to revolutionise how people will send and spend money around the world.
Adam’s fascination with technology led him down the career path of Product Management with a particularly focus on Mobile. His ability to get inside the customer’s head and always challenge the status quo asking ‘why do we do, what we do, in the way that we do it’ has made him an exceptionally strong Product Manager.
His approach and passion for product has enabled him to have a very fast career progression and he’s now become a popular figure in the product community and can often be found on a panel at product, FinTech and mobile conferences.