Great Product Leaders Win Games

Being a great product leader is hard. Every organization and process is different, and in many cases your are responsible for the outcome without having the authority to enforce decisions. My recent blog post on Being a Great Product Leader was an attempt to capture the specifics of how to lead a great, cross-functional software team.

To scale a great team, however, you need more than just a list of roles and responsibilities. How you onboard new talent is as important for the long term health of your team as how you identify and hire them in the first place.

The Trials of Being a New Coach

When a sports team gets a new coach, there is some authority that comes with the role. You can immediately set standards for behavior & strategy – how the team is going to practice, what plays the team is going to run. That authority, however, tends to be short -lived. Before you know it, the team begins to focus on one thing: are we winning games?

Joining a new team as a product manager has the same dynamic. At most of the companies I’ve been a part of, there is this false sense of security that comes from process and organization. Sure, if you are technically fulfilling the role and responsibilities of a product manager, there is a certain amount of respect and authority initially. However, in the long term, teams want to win games, and in software that means products that people are proud of and products that move the needle.

So is there a pattern of behavior for new product managers that ensures long term success? I’ll argue yes, and for my new hires I boil it down to three phases:
2 weeks, 2 months, and 2 quarters.

Two Weeks

The first two weeks of a product manager are critical, because this is the window where a new leader can establish the most important aspect of the role: what game are we playing, and how do we keep score.

As a result, the first thing I lay out for new product manager is:

  • The company culture and organizational philosophy of the team. Why the company matters. Product/engineering partnership. Results oriented performance.
  • The current strategic frame for how their product fits into the overall strategy of the company.
  • The current metrics and milestones for the product they are taking over.
  • A set of frameworks for the roles & responsibilities of product managers. These include posts on being a great product leader, product prioritization, finding heat in design, etc.

In the first two weeks, a new product manager is expected to:

  • Thoroughly challenge and finalize the strategic frame for the area. Does the existing frame make sense, or is there a better game to be playing?
  • Thoroughly understand the existing product metrics, and identify new or different metrics needed to properly assess the success of the area (max: 3)
  • Reprioritize all existing and future ideas & concepts based on the above, a.k.a. the product roadmap.

In addition, the first two weeks is the time when a new product manager can physically sit down and meet all the other key product and engineering leaders in overlapping areas, to help them both have context for their product and more importantly establish communication channels across the company with other key leaders. Great product managers very often serve as efficient people routers, and knowing who to talk to is often as important as knowing what to do.

Two Months

Like medicine, theoretical knowledge will only get you so far as a product manager. At some point, you learn by doing. A team will tolerate theoretical discussion for a short while, but in the end, a new product manager needs to get their hands dirty.

Two months is too short a time to significantly move the needle, but it is enough time to run through a few release cycles. In the first two months, it’s crucial for a product manager to actually be responsible for something released to users. In addition, the first two months is the typical time frame for a new product manager to flesh out the “best idea” from the team on how to win.

Two months is enough time to:

  • Have identified key outstanding bugs or minor feature fixes that matter.
  • Led the design / specification of solutions to those issues, and see them go live.
  • Write their first product specification for a larger, more significant milestone for their area. This should be their highest priority project to “move the needle” as they’ve defined it for the team.

The first two months are crucial, because not only does it help the new team execute together and coalesce, but also put their stake in the ground on what their next big evolution will be. By leading the effort to place that bet, a product manager sets the team up for the type of success that hopefully will provide long term momentum for that product team.

Two Quarters

Six months is the window to get a cross-functional team into the positive, reinforcing cycle of ongoing success. At this point, the team has released both small and large features, and has meaningfully “moved the needle.”

This doesn’t mean, by the way, that the product manager led the launch of a single, monolithic all-or-nothing feature. In fact, what it most likely means is that the team launched a combination of iterative efforts to test out their theories and push through changes that in the aggregate validated the strategy and prioritization that had been put in place.

Great Product Leaders Win Games

Once teams have victories under their belt, in hyper-growth companies they gain both the desire to win again, and the confidence to execute on that desire. Creating that momentum is one of the hardest, and yet most valuable elements of cross-functional leadership.

This pattern has proven reliably consistent for my own product leadership efforts, as well as in differentiating the long term success of product managers I’ve hired and mentored.

In some ways, it’s really simple: great teams like winning, and great leaders reliably lead teams to great victories.

Now go out and win games.

Be a Great Product Leader

People who know me professionally know that I’m passionate about Product Management.  I truly believe that, done properly, a strong product leader acts as a force multiplier that can help a cross-functional team of great technologies and designers do their best work.

Unfortunately, the job description of a product manager tends to either be overly vague (you are responsible for the product) or overly specific (you write product specifications).  Neither, as it turns out, is it effective in helping people become great product managers.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out a way to communicate the value of a product manager in a way that both transparently tells cross-functional partners what they should expect (or demand) from their product leaders, and also communicates to new product managers what the actual expectations of their job are.  Over the years, I reduced that communication to just three sets of responsibilities: Strategy, Prioritization & Execution.

Responsibility #1: Product Strategy

They teach entire courses on strategy at top tier business schools.  I doubt, however, that you’ll hear Product Strategy discussed in this way in any of them.

Quite simply, it’s the product manager’s job to articulate two simple things:

  • What game are we playing?
  • How do we keep score?

Do these two things right, and all of a sudden a collection of brilliant individual contributors with talents in engineering, operations, quality, design and marketing will start running in the same direction.  Without it, no amount of prioritization or execution management will save you.  Building great software requires a variety of talents, and key innovative ideas can come from anywhere.  Clearly describing the game your playing and the metrics you use to judge success allows the team, independent of the product manager, to sort through different ideas and decide which ones are worth acting on.

Clearly defining what game you are playing includes your vision for the product, the value you provide your customer, and your differentiated advantage over competitors.  More importantly, however, is that it clearly articulates the way that your team is going to win in the market.  Assuming you pick your metrics appropriately, everyone on the team should have a clear idea of what winning means.

You should be able to ask any product manager who has been on the job for two weeks these questions, and get not just a crisp, but a compelling answer to these two questions.

The result: aligned effort, better motivation, innovative ideas, and products that move the needle.

Responsibility #2: Prioritization

Once the team knows what game they are playing and how to keep score, it tends to make prioritization much easier.  This is the second set of responsibilities for a product manager – ensuring that their initial work on their strategy and metrics is carried through to the phasing of projects / features to work on.

At any company with great talent, there will be a surplus of good ideas.  This actually doesn’t get better with scale, because as you add more people to a company they tend to bring even more ideas about what is and isn’t possible.  As a result, brutal prioritization is a fact of life.

The question isn’t what is the best list of ideas you can come up with for the business – the question is what are the next three things the team is going to execute on and nail.

Phasing is a crucial part of any entrepreneurial endeavor – most products and companies fail not for lack of great ideas, but based on mistaking which ones are critical to execute on first, and which can wait until later.

Personally, I don’t believe linear prioritization is effective in the long term.  I’ve written a separate post on product prioritization called The Three Buckets that explains the process that I advocate.

You should be able to ask any product manager who has been on the job for two weeks for a prioritized list of the projects their team is working on, with a clear rationale for prioritization that the entire team understands and supports.

Responsibility #3: Execution

Product managers, in practice, actually do hundreds of different things.

In the end, product managers ship, and that means that product managers cover whatever gaps in the process that need to be covered.  Sometimes they author content.  Sometimes they cover holes in design.  Sometimes they are QA.  Sometimes they do PR.  Anything that needs to be done to make the product successful they do, within the limits of human capability.

However, there are parts of execution that are massively important to the team, and without them, execution becomes extremely inefficient:

  • Product specification – the necessary level of detail to ensure clarity about what the team is building.
  • Edge case decisions – very often, unexpected and complicated edge cases come up.  Typically, the product manager is on the line to quickly triage those decisions for potentially ramifications to other parts of the product.
  • Project management – there are always expectations for time / benefit trade-offs with any feature.  A lot of these calls end up being forced during a production cycle, and the product manager has to be a couple steps ahead of potential issues to ensure that the final product strikes the right balance of time to market and success in the market.
  • Analytics – in the end, the team largely depends on the product manager to have run the numbers, and have the detail on what pieces of the feature are critical to hitting the goals for the feature.  They also expect the product manager to have a deep understanding of the performance of existing features (and competitor features), if any.

Make Things Happen

In the end, great product managers make things happen.  Reliably, and without fail, you can always tell when you’ve added a great product manager to a team versus a mediocre one, because very quickly things start happening.  Bug fixes and feature fixes start shipping.  Crisp analysis of the data appears.  Projects are re-prioritized.  And within short order, the key numbers start moving up and to the right.

Be a great product leader.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Guide to Product Planning: Three Feature Buckets

In the spirit of capturing some of the observations that I find myself repeating, I’m adding this one to the mix tonight.  Unlike the previous two, this is really a piece of concrete advice for product managers of consumer software or consumer internet products.  It’s also a more recent observation that I’ve formulated in the past few years.

This advice takes the form of a simple classification framework for the features that you are considering for a product, whether it’s a single “large scale” launch, or a series of product features that are planned out on a roadmap.

Place your feature concepts in one of three buckets:

  • Customer requests. These are features that your customers are actively requesting.  There is no mystery here.  Listen to your customers, and know which features they want to see the most.  You don’t necessarily want to implement every suggestion, but product professionals need to listen to direct requests carefully, with humility and deep consideration.  Nothing irritates customer more that to see you roll out new features that exclude the ones that they have already identified and requested actively.
  • Metrics movers. These are features that will move your target business & product metrics significantly.  In most healthy product organizations, there are specific goals and strategies behind the decision to invest in a product or feature.  Engagement.  Growth.  Revenue.  Typically, very few features are actually metrics movers.  Know which ones they are ahead of time, because in the end, the judgment of whether your product or roadmap succeeded or failed will rest on the evaluation of the metrics.
  • Customer delight. These are features that customers haven’t necessarily asked for, but literally delight them when they see them.  Typically these are features that require several ingredients: listening to customers to understand their pain points, leveraging a knowledge of technology to know what might be possible, and innovative design to come up with an unexpectedly elegant & delightful experience.

Don’t get me wrong – there are some features that can fall in more than one bucket, but it’s a rare feature that actually falls in all three.

I’ve found that categorizing features into these buckets forces product teams to be intellectually honest with why they are implementing a certain feature.  Is it because customers want it?  Or is it because the company wants it (to move metrics)?  Or is it just cool?

For large, monolithic releases of features, optimal success comes from packaging up items from each of these buckets.  The customer requests ensure that your customers see that the time that they are investing in your products is rewarded by a provider who listens and delivers.  Your metrics movers ensure that the business and strategy you are executing on will provide the resources to invest in future iterations.  And your customer delight features highlight your ability to leverage expertise in technology & design to deliver innovative capabilities.

Conversely, if you find yourself without one of these buckets represented, it likely represents a serious hole in either your channels for customer feedback, your product execution, or your innovation capabilities.  These holes will significantly impact both your short term and long term success in this area.

Most consumer internet companies don’t ship monolithic feature redesigns often – instead they release small iterations and additions frequently.  (At LinkedIn, we release every week.)  The logic above, however, can just as easily apply to a series of 1-2 week features executed over the course of a three month roadmap as a large monolithic release.

Take a moment and consider major product releases in the consumer space that you really respect as a product professional.  I think you’ll find that these releases have all three of these buckets well represented.  (iPhone 3.0 is not a bad recent example.)