Building Product Management from Scratch

The fine people at Sequent Learning reached out to me to “tell my product management story.”  There are many, but I felt like this one offered me many important lessons, which I get to use to this day.  One of the key things about how I approach creating or improving product management (or any other function) at a company is that it cannot be “one size fits all.”  Not every company can operate the way your last company did things, even if you and the company were very successful doing things that way.  You have to take your “best practices” and adapt them to the situation.  STart making changes and see how they stick.  It’s very similar to the lean startup philosophy, really – do something, get feedback, pivot or iterate.

Building Product Management from Scratch – the orignal article on Sequent Learning

The first presentation I gave the Executive team

Introduction

Years ago, I was brought into a technology firm with the mandate to create a Product Management organization. Both the industry and specific technology were new to me. How was I going to get buy-in?

The Story

My new employer had been successful in the fast-growing market for online advertising tools, but the time had come to introduce more structure to their startup organization. They’d been working on a new software platform for nearly two years and, having recently been acquired by a more established firm that had a Product Management organization, they were motivated to make a change.

Before my joining the firm, Product Management responsibilities had been viewed from a functional perspective and parceled out accordingly. Operations addressed requirements relating to the user experience, Marketing handled pricing and positioning, and since Development controlled the code, they were in a particularly powerful position. There was no cohesive process for setting priorities, and since Development wasn’t a market-facing organization, convenient shortcuts were often taken at the customer’s expense.

I knew what the text books said about Product Management best practices, but I realized that I’d need to adapt those guidelines to the “state on the ground.” So I set about learning both the organization and the market, conducting internal interviews and accompanying Sales on customer calls. I actually shadowed customer teams that were running ad campaigns so that I could understand the workarounds they were being forced to make. I studied competitor tools, and spent time with our own Director of Operations to understand how an ad flowed through our system.

At the same time, I established a product council, comprised of senior management across the functions. Many of them had never worked at any other company, so I walked them through Product Management 101. We began talking about goals for the new organization, and I explained how I wanted to interact with their teams.

I developed a framework for the key Product Management processes we’d need, then began consulting members of the different departments to flesh out the details. As they helped to define new ways of working together, I was able to get their buy-in. This really wasn’t that difficult, because most of them had been frustrated by the status quo. They felt that their ideas weren’t valued and that information wasn’t being shared, so they welcomed my consensus-building approach.

The greatest resistance that I encountered was from a “command and control” executive who had a habit of hoarding information so that he could appear to be the expert. I tried to win him over by treating him as a trusted source and confidante, but the concept of getting agreement on a freely communicated product roadmap made him too uncomfortable. Eventually he chose to leave the company.

Meanwhile, I was building my team. In every company, there are individuals who provide the “glue,” who are well liked, trusted and attuned to the pulse of the organization. Such a person was my first recruit, and once he signed on, others followed.

Although it took about six months for the new processes to become completely operational, we had some notable successes along the way, which we celebrated internally and which helped to build momentum. We were able to meet previously unattainable software integration schedules, enabling us to establish several strategically important business partnerships.

I also staged an “innovation contest,” which was open to the entire company. Suggested improvements to our platform were assessed by the new product council, and the top three choices were rewarded with an iPad. It got everyone in the habit of thinking differently and illustrated that their opinions would be actively solicited from now on–something that had been missing in the past.

I’ve now moved to another firm, where I’m using what I learned from this experience to turn around an existing Product Management organization. I continue to read extensively about best practices, because the business environment is in constant flux, and I’m determined to build a team that’s equipped to meet new challenges.



What I Learned

Change is hard. While having executive support is essential, it’s a lot easier if you can build buy-in from the ground up, as well.
Concentrate on getting some quick wins to show that your changes are having a positive effect.
Be willing to adapt as your corporate and competitive situation changes. Don’t become too invested in your initial ideas.
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