The Future of Product Management
With Rosemary King
How has product management evolved as a skill-set over the last 5-10 years?
I think you’re going to see product managers take on a lot more of the design capacity, product managers who are strong product people in a business side and you’re going to see cross-functional teams emerge with product very much driving the centre of them.
You’ll see the concept of a full stack product manager continue to emerge as they start understanding the different skill-sets they can acquire and really drive towards the ones that they’re most passionate about.
What advice would you give to help product people manage stakeholders?
It’s really important to make sure that you have open lines of communication with stakeholders at a regular cadence. A lesson I learned recently was that silence from your stakeholders in the business does not necessarily equal a “yes” or an affirmation for your vision. It can mean that they’re delaying a “no” so it means that you’re building up a risk if you’re leaving the silence too long.
One of the things that I try to make sure that I do is weekly touch points with groups of stakeholders in the same room where you’re checking in on the goals and making sure that people feel satisfied with the direction that the project is going. Also making sure that nothing has changed in terms of someone’s outlook.
If you can’t get your group of stakeholders in the same room then make sure that you’re doing a weekly email with three to five bullet points highlighting what you’re working on that week, what’s changed, when you expect to release certain things. Make sure that you’re getting that in front of people’s faces as often as possible because then if they disagree at least you can say “well I told you a while ago”, which is helpful!
How do you audit a product and a team in a short period of time?
There’s a tool in a process that I really like to employ when I’m coming into an organization. I call them “stakeholder interviews” which is a fancy name for just talking to all of people in the organization and getting a sense of what their goals are for the next six months, what their challenges are, what they feel that the organization is doing well, what their vision for the product roadmap is.
If you do that with various people from different departments and people on the product team you’re going to start seeing patterns emerge in answers and it’s going to give you a nice gauge of where the organization is, how people are communicating with each other and where some challenges and pain points.
These are things you may want to keep an eye on. It also helps spread people across the chessboard that product managers need to keep their eyes on because most problems that product managers encounter are usually of a political variety as opposed to the product variety. Therefore it’s helpful to start establishing relationships with people in the organization early.
“By a magnitude of almost 12%, the number one answer to “what’s your biggest challenge as PM was ‘stakeholder communication and management’”
How do you best introduce change to a product organisation?
I think one of the ways in which you can best introduce change is by showing that you’re creating value or that you are having small successes. If you’re looking to implement a change in the process of a product team, one of the ways that I found to be helpful is to try to introduce small projects that allow value to emerge quickly.
Try to get a gauge of the different KPIs or metrics that the team is attempting to drive towards because if you can show success, you can show value and that opens the team up to change a little bit more readily than if you’re saying “okay we’re just going to overhaul everything” without necessarily showing that it works.When a team is shown a situation where what’s been implemented is working, then it’s hard for them to deny that it works.
Certain consultancies like Pivotal Labs use this very well, in that they immerse their clients in an office where every team around them is working in that way and they get to see daily examples of stand-ups, retrospectives, feedback sessions, user research, synthesis, and of rapid prototyping and it’s exciting. There’s a lot of energy in that and it can be a helpful way of opening people’s minds.
What advice would you give to someone looking to get into product?
Try to immerse yourself in the product management field. People approach me and say “I’m really only interested in working with health products” or “I’m really only interested in working on mobile apps” and that’s fine but you’re limiting yourself in terms of the perspectives that you’re going to be exposed to.
I always encourage the participants of my workshops to start following people on Twitter who look interesting, make sure you’ve got a bead on five to ten blogs that you’re checking regularly, ask people about the books that they love or that they keep with them. Buy those books, read, highlight, make notes in the margins and definitely try to find one or two meetups that you like going to.
It’s the community around you that’s going to be most important as you are looking for your first job or as you’re in your first, third, second job. It’s also important when you’re struggling, to be able to call up a mate who’s a product manager and say “what would you do in this circumstance”, “how should we structure this meeting” or “I can’t get the stakeholder to pay attention to me”.
That’s when you really want to make sure that you’ve got a solid community around you so that you can ask questions. Every single job I’ve gotten has come through a friend or a network connection or someone I’ve met personally. It’s a really important thing for career advancement and progression to make sure that you’re investing in the community and being an organic part of it.
What kind of framework do you apply to small businesses or small/medium start-ups?
I think that the thought process of hypothesis and validation is important for product managers to have. Any time somebody comes to me and says “this is 100% the solution” it’s definitely not going to be the solution.
You have to be open to being wrong, so coming up with things that are framed as “I would bet” or “I’m going to guess” and then figuring out how you go about proving that is a very very valuable thing for product managers to do.
It decreases risk it which means that you’re not investing six months of time into something that you’re sure is correct but have never bothered to check. It’s all about having a thousand little experiments a week and then being able to continue to move forward to the vision, while adjusting for change.
How do you encourage leaders to let go and empower team?
It can be one of the most difficult parts of organizational transformation as it’s very difficult for leaders to let go. They’re used to having to be the ones to make the decision so one of the things that I found to be really helpful is, as opposed to telling leaders “you have to trust and empower your team”, help them orient their perspective to listening to users.
If you become an organization that has introduced the user voice as part of the decision-making process, that’s a big step towards them letting go of having to be the one that’s right and making the decision all the time. The user voice is coming to this leader through a product manager, designer or the product team.
That then means that they’re inherently having to sort of orient themselves to hearing other people and it can be a nice way of helping them open themselves up to different opinions, ideas and allowing their decisions to be influenced by things outside of their direct control.
What have you learned since starting with Mind the Product?
We were able to delve into some of the surveys that Mind the Product has collected over the last couple of years and one of them had around 1200 responses from product managers from all over Europe.
I was able to take a pretty big sample and analyse the results around one particular question which I was really interested in the answer, and it was “what’s your biggest challenge as a p.m.”. By a magnitude of almost 12 percentage points, the number one answer was ‘stakeholder communication and management’.
So the biggest challenge that product managers are experiencing is not implementing a product or building something on a technical stack or figuring out how to roll out or problems with figuring out what the user wants. Their biggest challenge is getting the organization to support them in this process.
I think for me, that was a big eye-opener in terms of how Mind the Product can serve our customers is to try to help give them the tools to communicate their role and how the role is bringing value to an organization.
Hopefully that will help them navigate the political waters that are preventing them from being successful so I would love to see us be able to build a couple of trainings that really address that need.
Rosemary is an experienced product manager who has specialized in software development, agile enablement and lean methodologies for the past seven years. She has worked across diverse domains including government, finance, retail and enterprise.
After starting her tech career in the New York City start-up scene, she moved into consulting and has spent time with ThoughtWorks and Pivotal Labs London.
She has done freelance consulting and training with incubator programs like start-up bootcamp, done UX research on four continents and likes cold water surfing. You can usually find her at monthly ProductTanks in London.
Rosemary currently works with the global Mind the Product community to leverage seven years of best-in-class content, insights, and case studies and create a global training platform.