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Product Director Becky Yelland wonders if it’s time to stop the product management obsession with frameworks and methodologies – are they over-complicating the work and alienating product teams from the rest of the business? 

I’ve noticed an interesting connection recently – between the development of the product industry to support the huge growth in product management roles and the impact that this industry has on product managers.

By product industry I mean the methodologies, the “science of product” that has developed to support people working as product managers.

Let’s call it ProductTech ….and it is BOOMING.

There are now so many businesses offering product technology and tools, courses and qualifications in product methodologies. Then there’s the growing number of product roles, from product ops all the way up to CPO, that didn’t exist a few years ago. Today, over one third of Fortune 100 companies have a Chief Product Officer, while over 2,000 CPO jobs are currently open on LinkedIn, according to Product School’s report, The Future of Product Management.

The number of people now carving out careers as product coaches, thought leaders, fractional leaders, consultants and so on has also gone up dramatically. They’re using the science of product, with its theories and methodologies, as a way to create new roles and services. Some of these are incredibly insightful, even functional, but some just create noise and confusion.

Now, I am not suggesting that this growth is a bad thing, in fact it’s great. Who doesn’t love a new methodology, a new way to think about things, or tackle problems? As those of us who’ve been in product management for a while collectively agreed years ago – there is absolutely not ONE way to “DO product”. It’s up to individuals and teams to find the right approach that best fits their context, industry, tech stack and customer type.

Who doesn’t love a new way to think about things, or tackle problems? (Image: Shutterstock)

How did the ProductTech industry develop?

ProductTech has grown with the number of people working in product management. There are over 200,000 product management jobs currently open on LinkedIn, according to Product School’s The Future of Product Management report. Senior Product Manager and Product Manager are, respectively, the second and fourth most popular job titles for companies looking to hire.

In a way it was inevitable that ProductTech evolved this way. In the early days of product management we created communities, methodologies, meetups and conferences to deliver a consistent approach and to support product people who didn’t always feel valued. We locked arms to ensure that our partners in tech, marketing, commercial and the exec would know what to expect when they collaborated or engaged with us. We created phrases and ways of working that are now just a part of tech language and mean we can adapt known processes, tools and methodologies to best fit our situations, and to solve the problem at hand.

The risk of making product TOO complicated

The numbers and types of product roles have exploded over the last decade. For example, ancillary or supporting roles such as product ops now ensure that the product management function achieves the outcomes it’s been hired for, that it grows and transforms while functioning effectively and efficiently. And product people are no longer the first out the door when cost cutting is needed.

I think we can agree there was a need to create a supporting network for this explosion and the meteoric rise of the product function. But maybe it’s been left unchecked and unquestioned, and maybe we’ve made it too complicated?

I currently mentor several people, from product managers in blue chips in huge teams, solo operators in pre-seeded start-ups to first-time VPs in scale-ups. Time and again I see that both my mentees and the teams I lead feel coerced or pressured to overthink HOW they do things. Through my discussions with them I try to help them discover more pragmatic approaches. For example sometimes, all you need to do is be REALLY clear on your trade-off decisions, and hours of pain and anguish on creating complex RICE / prioritisation rubrics can be wonderfully avoided.

Over-complicating product can lead the rest of  the organisation to become disenfranchised from the product teams. I’ve certainly come into teams only to hear: “We tend to avoid looping in product as they over-complicate everything.” In one case I was told by a marketing department: “We’ve just hired our own analysts to define our A/B testing requirements and submitted those straight into the tech team.”  Sales teams have told me: “We just go straight to the squads to ask if XX feature is possible, it’s quicker than involving product managers.”

Maybe colleagues take these perceived short cuts because we don’t always make our work easy for them to understand.  Perhaps they’re discouraged by our convoluted approaches? You could argue that we have begun to over-complicate processes because we either don’t believe that we have the right to approach it in a more pragmatic way, or because we don’t really feel confident that we have the right level of understanding. As Einstein said: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

There is a risk that product will become marginalised once more. If we don’t incentivise our partners and stakeholders to work with us we run the risk of losing them and devaluing the product function. It’s earned the right to be at the epicentre, to be the intersection of the entire business. Remember Martin Eriksson’s Venn diagram? Well now it’s more like this:

The impact on product people

What about the impact on us as product people? How do WE feel about this complex landscape we find ourselves in?

I was compelled to write this piece because I kept hearing product people doubt themselves. I hear:

I can’t keep up with the latest trends, terminologies, I feel out of touch, it takes a huge effort to keep up with everything and stay relevant. Product Manager

I’ve been in product for over 10 years and I am now doubting my right to lead. Head of Product

I can’t carve out time in my day to keep up with the latest thinking, so I have to spend evenings and weekends doing that.VP Product

The complexities in the product world, the endless maze, makes me feel inadequate and question what I know from over 10 years in product. Senior Product Manager

We shouldn’t ignore so much tangible fear and anxiety. Which leads me to ask if ProductTech is actually serving the best needs of product people?

What about the positives?

Let’s step back a moment (one of our favourite phrases!) and examine the positives from the rise of ProductTech and growth of the product industry.

  • There are more jobs, more opportunities
  • We can move around and shift industries, I’ve found while some areas such as HealthTech can still insist on industry experience, we no longer have to argue that the role is Industry agnostic (This was a real issue only a few years ago)
  • We no longer have to explain what we do and why we add value to the people we work with
  • And…. There are so many of us that the tech industry and start-up world have evolved to adapt to our presence and impact

Have we over-adjusted?

Product people used to have to regularly explain what they did, why it wasn’t project management, and justify their existence alongside tech people who had actual qualifications to bring to their roles. So it made sense to do something to ensure we got to stay and play. We adjusted and ensured that product became an essential part of getting software (or hardware) out to market.

But have we gone TOO FAR?

Did we create too many terms? Principles over process, The Art of Product Sense, Problem Discovery vs Solution Discovery, Product Led, Customer Led  – arguing how these are the same or how they are different. And the age old…. Product Owner vs Product Manager

Have we over-engineered how to do the simplest of things? OKR Coaching, Agile Coaching, Prioritisation Rubrics from RICE to Kano to CoD,

But why does all of this matter? Surely more options are better, as they give us more choice?

But remember back to the fear and anxiety ProductTech is causing.

Consider how much time a busy product person has to commit outside their working day to keep up with the latest thinking. The books, blogs and thought-leader posts on LinkedIn they need to read. It’s a lot to ask. Especially when we also look to protect our mental health and wellbeing and look for work/life balance. We may not expect all product professionals to know it all,  but I think there’s a prevailing sentiment that if you’re not fully abreast of all the different approaches and terminologies, then you’re not really a “producty product person”?

Does anyone else feel this way? Or do you all accept this is how things are and don’t think it creates unnecessary pressure or expectations?

What’s the alternative?

Is there a viable alternative to trying to navigate the complex world of ProductTech?

I think there is:

  • Just focus on doing what you need to do to deliver amazing products that make your customers’ lives better
  • Approach every decision on what/how with a significant level of pragmatism
  • Don’t overthink, over-engineer or over-complicate the process
  • JFDI – have a bias for action
  • Be continually mindful of transparency and be excellent at internal communication and talking to customers

One final thought

Numerous conversations from mentoring discussions and networking chats have shown me that there is a rise in people with a misplaced imposter syndrome. I’ve talked to product people who have been happily “getting on” with their careers, and who feel as though they are subjected to the latest wave of ProductTech speak and vernacular, and pressured by expectations to keep up. I can hear and see how they are struggling…. Which IMHO does not seem right – it does not seem right at all.

So if you’ve begun to feel like you don’t belong, or are losing confidence, remember this: it’s rarely how you do something that enables the growth and success of a product strategy but what you deliver.  As a product’s growth and success comes from the outcomes it achieves for your customer. Your customers care little for your robust and scalable processes, just the difference you make in their lives.

Do you agree with Becky? Are you overwhelmed by the latest trends and terminologies and the pressure to keep up? Let us know in the comments!

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