Note: This article was originally published by the 280 Group and in Product Management Today.
Dean, How and why did you break into Product Management?
I didn’t so much break into product management as I curiously wandered in through the side door.
As a software engineer with a not-so-secret past life as an opera singer, I found myself always curious about the story arc of the product or initiative to which I was assigned. Simultaneously, I dove into learning more about user experience, learning that, similar to how one builds a character role for the theater, understanding the user and buyer personas was essential to shaping what to build. Having learned the value of simplicity through my electronic music composition teacher, I found myself continually negotiating from the stance that “less is more.”
Having been coached by theatric geniuses such as Janet Bookspan and Edgar Loessin, I was at ease in situations where I was presenting to large audiences. The same goes for talking to end users, shaping a product vision around a pain point, and helping coach my teams to do likewise. This is also why it made sense for me to make a career pivot when an individual from marketing suggested I consider moving into product management, emphasizing, “You’re pretty much already doing that job anyway.”
What are some experiences you can share working with notable products and companies?
Working at CDSI as the lead engineer for the INS Accelerated Passenger Service System (INSPASS), I was challenged by political appointees who insisted on a pilot program that supported two biometric identification methods and five different data formats on a single, smart card. I argued hard for a simpler ‘proof of life’ that only included a single biometric and card-readable data format. There, I learned the value of increasing the chances of success by negotiating for tiny acts of validation.
Building on this success, I took a similar approach as a principal engineer at Westat for the CDC’s National Health & Nutrition Examination Survey (NHanes), where I coupled my approach to discovery with a new-found interest in user experience. While I was tasked with connecting devices that measured various specimens from study participants, I continued to lobby against complexity for both the platform and design.
Later, leading product at SchoolDude, I had opportunities to improve the sales and retention of products such as FacilitiesDirect and TripDirect. The former by introducing analytics to help reduce churn, the latter by refocusing target segment and product vision away from depots and routing towards satisfying the unmet needs of curriculum and scheduling.
At McClatchy, I led the initiative to bring mobile engineering in-house after a few failed experiences with vendors. We fielded 120 mobile apps in 8 months by working incrementally in tiny batches. The most fun was the initial exploration as I learned more about fishing for salmon and panning for gold as we ran our MVP via the great folks producing and reading ‘Idaho Outdoors.’ It was also there I started my fascination with natural language processing.
Aprimo was an awesome experience as a great team of other product professionals and I did the hard work of ‘feature hostage negotiation’ required to transition to a SaaS offering from 92 individual on-prem builds for their Agile marketing workflow product. It was also there that I expanded my understanding of how to validate hypotheses at speed and scale through a combination of quantitative data contextualized via qualitative research.
What is something that a Product Manager can start doing today to be more strategic?
First, we need to understand that strategy is the river we take to get from point A to Z. Unfortunately, our addiction to activities has us all too often focused on the tactical boat we take to traverse these waters. The result is predicted as far back as 450 BC when Sun Tzu wrote, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory, and tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”
Second, product managers must understand that our customers, stakeholders, and engineering teams usually communicate with us in “solution speak.” It is our job as product managers to transform and transport these dialogs into the problem space to help reframe these conversations away from building some solution right to building the right thing at the right time. The classic example of this is when you’re asked to deliver “a ¼” drill bit.” Product managers need to ask those “5 Why’s” that focus on the hole that’s being drilled.
What can a Product leader start doing now to up-level their team?
It starts with understanding what true “servant leadership” means. Leaders who understand scale through culture recognize that this means helping ordinary people by empowering them to do extraordinary things through daily acts of service. It means having the patience and mindset of a mentor and a coach. If there are weaknesses on your team, help people up their game by getting them the training they need, both individually and collectively.
For managers who find themselves spending all their time firefighting tactics and activities, or worse, playing the part of the HiPPO, I’d recommend they recognize that they are likely the biggest obstacle to growth. The need to understand the people working for them are not senior system psychics and look to you for the clarity of vision, articulation of strategy, and protection of psychological safety common among successful product organizations. One place to start is by crisply conveying the desired business outcomes so your product people can figure out how to shape the right product outcomes.
What’s your best advice for a Product Management organization?
Job one is to be intentional and focused. Understand that if you aim for nothing, you’ll surely hit it; and that if you aim for everything, you’re aiming at nothing. As a product team, fight hard to understand and agree to the hundreds of things you’ll collectively say “no” to so you can focus on the two or three things that matter most.
Then, root out and discourage toxic behaviors. I’ve seen too many product management organizations falter either because of top-down ‘Taylorism’ or Darwinian ‘Hunger Games’ like attitudes. Anti-team mindsets like these create miserable workplace experiences resulting in feature factories or self-serving silos. In either case, A players leave, and rarely is customer value delivered … though no one notices until it’s too late because everyone is so busy being busy.
Instead, celebrate learning. Understand that a diverse product team can become a very powerful amplifier when we are encouraged to share our strengths to cover the weaknesses of others. For example, I would encourage any product management organization to support a healthy mix of business and technically-minded product people. Similarly, I’d teach a mix of how to run experiments to validate the unlimited opportunities that challenge an organization’s limited resources.
Most importantly, be willing to change. Figure out how to stop thinking of a product organization not as a machine but as a living organism, where the latter is empowered with cells that know how to replicate what works. With a healthy cultural DNA, a product organization will enjoy and excel at growing as it can rapidly scale and replicate this corpus of great decision-makers.
Currently, as a Principal Consultant and Trainer at the 280 Group, I’m hoping to help other organizations grow and scale in this more organic way of work. If you’re interested in having me provide training, please reach out to the 280 Group and ask how featured consultants such as myself can help your organization excel at optimal product management, digital product management, and my favorite, Agile product management.