Ops: How do you establish an effective product management team?

Tips on ceding product management to dedicated product managers, and creating the culture for the product to thrive – from the 2019 series of Threads discussions.

Discussion host: Jock Busuttil – Freelance Head of Product, Founder, Author & Conference Speaker.


Product management must have a voice that’s listened to at board level, during all stages of your company’s growth. If this seems strange, consider how important it is to your revenues that your product is a success!

Jock says: In larger organisations with multiple products, there should be a Chief Product Officer with a seat on the board, peered with the others in the C-suite. In smaller (or flatter) organisations, there still needs to be an equivalent senior product manager responsible for the product strategy (the ‘what’ and ‘why’), the product team (the ‘who’) and the product discipline (the ‘how’).

Suggested reading: Product Leadership by Richard Banfield, Martin Eriksson and Nate Walkingshaw

A driver to appoint a product manager – be they employed, contracted or outsourced – usually arrives organically, when the founders become too operationally focused to effectively evolve the product.

A product manager operates at the heart of your business. As a generalist, they may not have all the tools, or answers, but will have the right questions and people skills to understand and collaborate with those who do.

Jock says: A good product manager should have an good appreciation of diverse skills ranging from design to development to marketing, and everything else needed to make a product successful. The goal is not for the product manager to be an expert in all these disciplines, but to understand enough about each to have a sensible conversation with an expert in each field.

After all, it would be practically difficult to gain 10-15 years’ experience as a dedicated developer, then again as a designer, then as a user researcher and so on! A product manager is a generalist who draws on the expertise of their team of specialists.

Suggested reading: The Practitioner’s Guide To Product Management by Jock Busuttil.

The principles of technology product management

Product management isn’t just a person or function. It is a set of principles.

Jock says: The principles that underlie product management don’t dictate a rigid process, but instead guide the individual towards the right approach. There is no definitive list, but mine would include:

  • Put users first
  • Be human and ethical
  • Understand the problem before trying to solve it
  • Put yourself in their shoes
  • Serve, don’t lead
  • Have just enough process / documentation / meetings to get by (but no more)
  • Show, don’t tell
  • Face-to-face communication for the win
  • No finger pointing
  • No ego
  • You are not representative of your users’ needs
  • Use data and evidence to inform and guide (but not dictate) decision-making

Appointing your first product manager

The tipping point to appoint a product manager often arrives after angel or series A funding, where founders have little headspace for fresh thinking. Too-busy founders risk becoming out of touch with user needs, arriving at an opaque understanding of current and emerging trends.

If you’ve never appointed or hired a product manager, get an experienced adviser to support the selection process; together you can identify the right skills and attributes for your product aims and weed out the obvious non-starter candidates.

Jock says: The same goes when hiring any discipline that’s new to your business. Whether you’re hiring your first product manager, designer, user researcher, devops engineer, or whatever, you need someone who knows what good looks like (and who can call out b**ls**t) to interview them on a technical basis, in addition to your ‘cultural-fit’ interviewing.

There isn’t yet a trade body that speaks for all product management professionals. A range of qualifications and certifications exist internationally, each offering certain merit and varying methodologies.

It’s best to appoint someone in who brings a collection of relevant skills, tools and methodologies that suit the values, aims, stage and markets of your business. Explore how well the principles are understood by each candidate and how they apply a pragmatic and flexible approach.

Jock says: Often people make the mistake of thinking that product management is a variation of project management. There are many certifications and training courses that dictate a particular rigid process or framework to follow to create a successful product. This creates a similar problem to a handyman whose only tool is a hammer – every solution to every problem becomes the same. Instead, a good product manager should have multiple approaches (tools) available to them, and can choose the most appropriate approach given the circumstances.

Think of the differences in approach needed between:

  • managing a new product in its early growth versus a declining product
  • operating a product in an emerging market sector (e.g. autonomous vehicles) versus an established one (e.g. insurance)
  • working in a startup with 15 people in one room versus a multinational group company structure

One of the tricky things about product management is that what is considered best practice has evolved rapidly over the last 20 years. It’s gone from being a process-heavy set of sequential steps, influenced heavily by traditional project management and marketing practices, to being a much more human-centric, fluid, adaptable and process-agnostic discipline. Certification syllabuses haven’t really kept up with the times, so even a relatively recent certification in product management may still mean out-of-date practices.

Characteristics of an effective product manager

It’s best to ‘hire for characteristics’, as a good product manager will soon get to grips with the issues and opportunities in your domain.

Arguably, unless you are operating in a deeply technical or specialist domain, hiring for prior domain expertise can become an unnecessary blocker to appointing someone who brings a fresh perspective, missing out on cross-fertilisation of ideas and successes from other domains.

You’re looking to appoint someone who has a lack of ego, a curious and investigative mind, resourcefulness, and an evidence-led and data-driven approach. Creativity and experimentation are important, but must be backed by an analytical approach.

You’re looking for someone who listens well. Someone who coerces potentially reluctant people into a cohesive direction.

You will likely appoint a ‘T-shaped’ person – someone who brings a depth of expertise around one particular area, perhaps reflecting the individual’s background in technology / user experience / the commercial aspects – with a supplementary appreciation of all the other disciplines needed to create and deliver a successful product (marketing, sales, digital, delivery, project management etc.).

Technology usually proves to be the easy bit, because – while you can make technology do the wrong thing – you are dealing with knowns. The spanner in the works is usually the many people involved: their misconceptions and reluctance to change. A good product manager identifies the unknowns, evidences the user needs and options, and works with their team of specialists to identify, test and deliver solutions to user problems.

Don’t be afraid to hire someone who is quite different from you, and who is healthily different from the team. Diversity of thought and approach is an important asset for a distinguished product.

Onboarding your newly hired product manager

It’s reasonable to expect your new product manager to get up to speed on your company, market and domain within a month – even with little prior domain knowledge. They will need your backing, and exposure to all aspects of your business, its users and markets (but don’t let the Sales team accompany them during the initial research).

Your new product manager should be asking beautifully simple questions, ‘why does the emperor have no clothes on?‘. Their newness and naivety is an asset that can challenge outdated working practices, received wisdom and other ingrained bad business habits.

Helping product managers succeed

It’s important that your product manager/people keep things fresh – not least themselves – also their approach, the people they work alongside and the methods used. Change the seating plans occasionally, operating in multidisciplinary teams. Switch them between different products every two or three years.

Suggested reading: Social Physics by Alex Pentland and Building Successful Communities Of Practice by Emily Webber. Don’t silo your people away from each other. Get your people to spark off each other, sharing perspectives across different disciplines.

Your product manager should be away from their desk 75% of the time; conducting research with users, visiting prospective customers, getting to grips with the market, and collaborating across multidisciplinary teams and partners.

It can be useful to seat your product manager near the coffee point, for easy ideas swapping and information exchange. They will likely get to know when you take your tea break, for five minutes of your time to exchange ideas and knowledge.

Getting to grips with your market

A product manager who was previously dispassionate about your domain usually brings fewer prejudices. They won’t have to suppress their personal views while synthesising the fresh evidence before them. You can always pair them with domain experts later while you test the new thinking.

A product manager abstract the dynamics of the market, building and refining and mental map.

Jock says: There are a handful of established market models that broadly exhibit similar characteristics and dynamics, regardless of the market sector.

Marketplace products that connect buyers and sellers behave broadly the same regardless of whether the goods being bought or sold are second-hand cars or financial derivatives.

Products showcasing and monetising user-generated content will again follow similar patterns of behaviour whether the content is videos or long-form writing. And so on.

You may wish to believe that your product and market are unique, but everything is always a variation on an existing theme, even if modernised with new technology.

Suggested reading: Lean Analytics by Alistair Croll and Ben Yoskovitz

A product manager has an appetite for continual learning.

Jock says: Everything is continually changing and evolving. User needs become more sophisticated as the bar is raised for them by other products; markets grow, mature and decline; new technologies become available; new approaches to product delivery fall in and out of favour.

A good product manager keeps abreast of the major advancements that will have a bearing on their product, market or team. This means they are continually learning and enjoy doing so. Product managers are excited by the potential of new things, but temper that excitement through objectivity and practical evaluation of suitability.

You don’t want your first product manager to be learning the trade (as a product manager) while also getting to grips with being the first product manager in your organisation. It’s best to appoint an experienced person first – perhaps contracted or outsourced – to identify the strategy and establish the product management function. You can always pair them with an up-and-coming team member, to grow the function.

Jock says: This way, the product management practices themselves should not be in question, leaving the product manager to get on with the already tricky task of establishing a new product function in your company.

If considering internal candidates for a trial in product management role, look for someone who is already lobbying on behalf of the product or users and working well across different departments. This person will likely be multiskilled, displaying attributes of curiosity, experimentation and an evidence-based approach.

Multidisciplinary teams, sharing diverse viewpoints and strengths are an excellent way to collaborate productively. You can effectively seat together up to 12 people in a cluster of desks. It gets a bit unwieldy beyond this.

Jock says: More about multidisciplinary teams here: I Manage Products – Assemble the Right Product Team by Jock Busuttil

Product management tools and plans

Encourage the use of visual aids, whiteboards and collaborative working spaces, illustrating the ‘now, next and later later’ plans, (also known as your product roadmap) and UX feedback. Promote face-to-face conversation and ideas exchange. Your digital or project management system mustn’t dictate the way people work.

Publish your UX research and product plans visually at tea/coffee/water points. Work visibly and openly, so that others can chip in their own findings and perspectives.

Establish a culture of a weekly show and tell, at a regular fixed time in the calendar and lasting 45 mins maximum, with five minute talks followed by five minutes of Q&A each. Foster a culture where attendance is habit and everyone is welcome (not just techies). Someone from (if not all of) the leadership team must attend to set a good example and gain valuable insights. Ban PowerPoints – it makes preparation too onerous, and never fits into five minutes. Encourage ‘showing the thing’ instead.

Working with a remote product manager

An entirely remote product manager can work effectively, provided the communication tools and culture of working with remote workers is already in place. It can be more of a challenge if your product manager is entirely remote in a culture where everyone else is physically together and not used to accommodating remote colleagues.

Jock says: A good case study in wholly remote teams is available at 18F. 18F is broadly equivalent to the UK’s Government Digital Services: 18F’s best practices for making distributed teams work

Your technical support team should work closely with the product team. These colleagues have excellent user and product insights, and a holistic view.

Published by Andrew Gifford

Co-organiser of Threads South West. Founder/MD and people person at techfolk. Interested in the people aspects of running a progressive business.

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