Lead on Purpose

Promoting Leadership Principles in Product Management


Developing high-performance product teams

It’s difficult (if not impossible) to quantify what it takes to develop a productive and successful product team. Every product is unique, and every company does things differently. From a distance it may seem that there’s no process or methodology to create a high-performing product team.

Developing great products entails teams of people working together. With the proliferation of product roles in recent years it has become more important for product teams to function well together and collaborate effectively with other teams and individuals in the organization. Increased focus on building great teams is desperately needed in today’s fast-evolving technology world, yet for too many companies it’s not a high priority.

What does it take to develop a group of disparate individuals into a high-performing product team?

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How to create product vision

One of the key elements of a successful product management organization is creating the vision for your products—the ‘why’ that drives their purchase and the factors that make them successful in their markets. When you nail the product vision, you’re well on your way to business success.

So how do you create product vision?

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Guest Post: 3 Steps to Magnetic Leadership

By Alan E. Shelton

Perhaps one of the thorniest problems in business today, is how to create quality output without being specifically in charge. Product managers in coalition organizations know this all too well. How do you drive your goals when you are not in a line on an organizational chart?

My largest client is in the apparel industry with a multiplicity of brand names. As a result, their organizational structure is not dependent on the normal hierarchal approach. Instead, product and brand managers are organized into coalitions that serve as a resource one to another. So, how does leadership really play out in this type of non-hierarchical organization? In my experience, there are three major competencies that when developed, create a magnetic leadership style.

1. Authenticity

In order to be seen as an authentic leader you must actually be authentic. Sounds obvious, right? Yet so many of us show up at work each day shedding the truth of what’s really occurring in our lives and how that effects our interactions and performance.

Everyone knows the maddening experience of watching someone’s temper erupt in the middle of a business meeting. What’s more maddening is when we see this behavior in ourselves. This is normally labeled as reactive behavior – because it happens by itself. It is personal behavior triggered by an event over which we have no control.

When a leader must draw his followers to him, then his own reactive behaviors must not come into play. For when this happens, there is an immediate sense that in some way the leader does not possess the authenticity to command his own outcomes. In order to deal with this there are many tools available which will identify and isolate your unconscious behaviors. An investment of time to unearth these behaviors is critical when leading in a nonhierarchical space.

2. Transparency

In modern leadership conversations we hear the term transparency bandied about with regularity. Even though we speak of transparency, it still is not a commonly found behavior in the corporate world. But when you’re not in charge, transparency might be the only card you have to play. So how does one become transparent?

Once again this is a personal development issue. In early learning we have become accustomed to believing that we have something to lose. It is this belief that creates a personal strategy that utilizes the manipulation of what others see. If they see the right things they will act in the right way. And if they don’t see what one might keep hidden, they simply can’t respond. But when you don’t possess the ability to control your team members, what do you have? You have who you are. And if that is all you have, it’s imperative that you are transparent in reflecting that to those you lead. Once again an investment in reframing your understanding of what there is to lose is critical to your own transparency. When you are not in charge, rarely are there chips on the table. And it is this insight that allows you to act in a transparent manner.

3. It’s in the conversation

Finally, let’s talk about the narrative approach. Simply put, this is the use of your own personal stories in order to engender leadership outcomes. At face value, this sounds as though you are using your personal stories. But the experience of the authentic and transparent leader is not manipulative in any way.

Think for a moment about the wise old executives that you have learned from along the way. Most often what you will remember is their incredible stories. In fact, although the stories are theirs you feel in your heart of hearts that you have lived them for yourself. This is the narrative approach. It takes authenticity and transparency to even attempt this style of leadership. By understanding that your story is the doorway through which somebody can stand in your experience you will open a new possibility. Every story that you tell will now become an invitation to those who see you and respect you as an executive thought leader.

In this approach there is no need to manipulate or create rewards. You simply offer yourself up, warts and all, for what you are. A visionary, yet human being with the horsepower to hold the space for those that would magnetically draw themselves near. When you think about it this is the highest form of leadership anyway. But in situations where no obvious control has been given to you, you can up your game. Through your own personal development and maturity you can offer your own experience as the playing field upon which successful outcomes occur.

ALAN E. SHELTON is a leadership coach, speaker, blogger, and author. His groundbreaking book, Awakened Leadership: Beyond Self-Mastery, integrates the corporate leadership and spiritual worlds through his message that awakening is the felt sense that your actions seamlessly reside in who you really are and move in a perfect flow. You can follow Alan on Twitter, like his Facebook page, and learn more about him at his website, www.AlanShelton.com

The Product Management Perspective: Authenticity and transparency are key traits of successful product managers. Because you work with other teams (that you do not manage or control), your ability to communicate effectively and promote the right actions on behalf of your products is imperative. Be the visionary for your product and you will lead your products to success.

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Communicating product vision

Communication has changed significantly in the past several years. Twitter, Facebook and other social media have driven personal interaction to short, succinct statements that force us to be brief and to the point. One of my colleagues on the engineering team recently told me “if you can’t write your spec in 140 characters, I can’t implement it.” Though I’m sure he said it in jest, he got me to thinking about effective communication. Effective communication is the key to creating great products (and services).

One of the best books on creating great products is Inspired: How to Create Products Customers Love by Marty Cagan. He covers pretty much every aspect of product management with compelling stories and examples. One of my favorite chapters is Reinventing the Product Spec; the subtitle is R.I.P. PRD (product requirements document). Cagan points out that “most specs take too long to write, they are seldom read, and they don’t provide the necessary detail, don’t address the difficult questions, nor contain the critical information they need to.” He further states that a product spec (specification) can serve as a false indicator to management and the product team that everything is proceeding to plan.

Cagan states (and I agree) that “the central responsibility of the product manager is to make sure that you deliver to the engineering team a product spec that describes a product that will be successful.” The spec must not only communicate the product vision but also the details of how to build the successful product. Cagan asserts that the only form of ‘spec’ that can deliver everything required is a high-fidelity prototype. While I agree that a high-fidelity prototype is the preferred method to communicate the product vision, most product teams do not have the time or resources to create complete, high-fidelity prototypes for every product.

Recognizing that the old-style PRD is largely ineffective in today’s agile world, but that a prototype is also out of reach for most product teams, here are four attributes that will help you communicate product vision in your specs:

  1. Visual: In the absence of a high-fidelity prototype, at a minimum your product spec must have high-resolution images (mock-ups or screen shots) of how the pages in the product will look. These images need to be written in a way that UI developers can create “pixel perfect” pages in the product that identically match the spec images. The ideal scenario is to have a user experience (UX) designer (or team of designers) that creates these images.
  2. Clear: Your product spec should link the visual representations to descriptions that detail what needs to happen. The spec needs to tell a story. I’ve started using a simple HTML template that shows the descriptions on the left pane with an indicator that points to the high-res images on the right. I attach the spec(s) to the applicable story in the dev sprint.
  3. Simple: Keep to the main points. Never add elements in your product spec that are not necessary to creating your product. Be clear and concise in your descriptions and visuals.
  4. Complete: Your spec needs to completely describe the new product (or version) the engineering team will build. It needs to describe the full user experience. It needs to represent the behavior of the software your engineering team will build. Keep it clear and simple, but make sure it’s complete.

Creating effective product specs requires a lot of work. You will have to iterate frequently and keep an open line of communication with the team. If you keep your specs visual, clear, simple and complete, you can communicate your product vision effectively and create great products.

The Product Management Perspective: Cagan makes the following statement: “The central responsibility of the product manager is to make sure that you deliver to the engineering team a product spec that describes the product that will be successful.” Take a look at your current processes and determine what you can do to improve the way you communicate your successful product to the engineering team.

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Embrace and apply

Think about the last training or career development session you attended…how long did it take to put into practice the things you learned? Conversely, how long did it take to forget the details of the information conveyed in the training?

No matter how good a training session or how compelling the information conveyed, if you do not agree with what you’ve learned, or you do not have a way to apply it, you will not gain the true benefits promised. The dual concepts of embrace and apply are critical to the practical application of any training or educational programs. To convince participants to embrace the subject matter taught in a training session, it must be compelling and applicable to their daily lives. The presenter must establish credibility with the attendees and deliver the content effectively, thus creating a need for them to adopt it.

Once participants have embraced the concepts it is essential they apply them; the more quickly the better. If possible the company or people responsible for the training should have a follow-up mechanism through which they can provide additional services and direction. Many companies are skilled at delivering compelling training, but lack the resources or abilities to help their customers implement the training they have received. In such cases the participants are left to their own to implement what they have learned, or they find another company/person who can help them implement it. Helping others implement what they have learned presents a great opportunity forindividuals and services companies to increase the value of the training.

The Product Management Perspective: Product managers play a key role in helping their teams to embrace product vision and direction. In many cases they also have to help executives do the same. They must learn to present their roadmaps with passion and work to convince their teams they’re headed in the right direction. When the teams are on board they will apply their efforts to creating and launching successful products.