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Finding right product culture for a company

Shahrukh Ikhtear | November 26, 2023 12:00:00

Product Management has seen a meteoric rise in Bangladesh as a profession of choice for many, but how many companies are pursuing the right things instead of chasing trends in an unstructured way remains a moot question. A product manager's (PM) role definition is murky because a lot of companies have their brand of product management. This creates a certain degree of ambiguity which leads to substandard processes. These processes, in turn, lead to flawed product launches, delayed timelines, frustrated employees, and unhappy customers.

There are quintessential aspects that companies have to get right to foster an effective product culture:

DEFINING PRODUCT ROLES AND HIRING THE RIGHT PEOPLE: Let's start by identifying what product manager is supposed to do on a broad level. Product managers are expected to be interface between customers and the company stakeholders, namely management and engineering. A PM's role revolves around capturing customer-pain points in the context of their products and then identifying which ones are the most impactful to address. PMs will then engage in exploring new products or feature potential to mitigate those pain points. This is done, actual engineering effort is discussed and prioritised while aligning the work with the strategic vision of the company. The PM concerned then validates engineering work by comparing what is expected by the customer and what has been delivered by the team. Apart from this, PMs have to own the product roadmap and understand what needs to be delivered over the span of multiple quarters. PMs are also incredibly influential on team culture as their approach can either motivate or demotivate their stakeholders.

Many companies might be tempted to tack on these responsibilities to multiple departments. However, dividing product-management responsibilities across multiple roles dilutes focus and accountability, as no single advocate is dedicated to the product's strategy and success. Those handling PM duties part-time have competing priorities that can cause product needs to get lost. They also lack the specialised skills-trained product managers possess around discovery, prioritisation, roadmapping, and being the authoritative voice representing the customer. Consolidating PM under dedicated roles provides clear ownership, singular focus on the product, and the proper expertise.

The concept of PM being CEO of the product is misleading. The CEO has authority and a position of power. PMs have to influence other stakeholders without that power. Product managers often find themselves at the intersection of competing priorities between management and engineering teams, and customers. This demands strong people management to communicate effectively, synthesise perspectives, and handle tense situations with diplomacy. New graduates in particular may struggle without the experience to navigate these challenges.

PMs also have to be in tune with engineering discussions to validate work. While PMs do not direct or micromanage engineering work, they guide the conversation so that engineering teams can come to the best solution. This is why PMs have to be somewhat technically savvy as well to understand these conversations.

PREVENTING OVERRIDING AND MICROMANAGING: A lot of companies suffer from boardroom discussions being dominated by HiPPOs or Highest Paid Person's Opinions. Suffice to say that such interventions are detrimental to a product's success as the most authoritative voice in the room is seldom the best voice to guide such discussions unless, of course, they are using that voice to advocate for real, actionable insights.

When establishing an effective product culture, leaders need to relinquish some of their authority in directing and focus more on enabling others to do their best work. The concept of a servant leader is widely heard across trailblazing organisations. Product managers, engineers, and other stakeholders need to be empowered and trusted to make the right decisions for the product's success. They are the ones most in touch with customers, and hence, the best equipped to lead conversations. Management must also trust well-articulated resource requests from their teams.

Leaders can of course intervene in case of a major course-correction requirement where product strategy is completely unaligned with what the other teams are doing. However, if the product strategy and vision are well-defined, understood, and owned by all the teams involved, this would rarely be a problem. Having regular dialogue with stakeholders and encouraging a process of continuous feedback is the key.

To encourage more experimentation and iteration, leaders need to hold back when addressing mistakes and errors. This instils confidence in the teams to test and try new solutions to truly push the boundaries of innovation.

MOVING AWAY FROM WATERFALL AND ADOPTING THE AGILE: This is when companies start moving away from workflows based on stringent requirements and start adopting an iterative and flexible approach. The Agile principles were made to ensure that software development does not get limited by traditional management ideologies. It encourages open conversations, more customer collaboration, working iterations, and less bureaucracy in processes.

In the Agile way of work, cross-functional teams are made where there is constant communication to ensure that work is progressing at a healthy pace, and blockers are being addressed quickly. Members who are working on one product do not work in silos but in close proximity with each other to reduce waste as much as possible. Multiple methodologies have originated out of Agile such as Scrum and Kanban. What you choose to adopt depends on your product and how it fits into your organisational context.

In Agile methodology, customer feedback is gathered often and work is delivered iteratively. This allows teams to quickly course-correct and adapt to changing marketing conditions. Many times we have seen products that have been committed to but, by the time they release, customer preferences have either changed or there has been a new competitor that went to market faster.

Agile action allows faster time to market by encouraging the concept of high-value delivery. In Agile methodologies, backlogs are prioritised according to the impact that the work will have on customers. Thus, Agile teams can choose to deliver the high-impact features first, and then work on the rest.

Building a product culture is a matter of time, feedback, and constant improvements. When starting, processes will break, there will be multiple questions, and people will be a bit jarred. It is imperative to understand and empathise with teams instead of pushing for change in a short timeline. Being open to constructive criticism and feedback is key to finding the right product culture for your company.

Shahrukh Ikhtear is a seasoned product manager who has worked in both B2B and B2C. He is

currently working as a product manager in Optimizely's commerce team. www.linkedin.com/in/srikhtear/

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