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Author Q&A on the Book Product Takeoff

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Key Takeaways

  • Product management needs to be reframed for the modern world
  • Some engineers are able to be great product managers, and it requires a significant mindset shift 
  • Technical debt is an overwhelming problem for companies large and small
  • Many people have been forced-fitted into roles that they are not suited for and do not enjoy, this is demotivational and results in poor product decisions

Navjot (Nav) Singh and Kamal Manglani have written a book on The Art of Innovative Product Management. Titled Product Takeoff the book explores through examples, stories and practical exercises what it takes to bring a new product from concept to launch, and beyond.

The book can be purchased here and InfoQ readers can access a sample chapter here.

The authors spoke to InfoQ about the book.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book - what is the problem you are addressing?

We want to provide people with enough knowledge through real case studies to reframe what they know about Product Management in the modern world. Even today, many teams perceive the role to be majorly composed of the one person whose neck is on the line for producing a good backlog with well crafted user stories. While this is one aspect of the job we have really missed the boat on curating the mindset needed to be a great product team. With our only focus on the tactics of writing good user stories, we have missed the boat on the following:

  1. Lack of clarity on the big picture and Why is it even needed? What is the one thing we will improve for our customers. This requires a mindset change.
  2. A tsunami of technical debt has taken over large and small companies causing a paralysis.
  3. It is still an us versus them mindset when it comes to different functions of an agile team. One often hears statements like the product management team will need to tell us, or the design team didn't do a good job.
  4. An agile team and in general agile transformation takes a very long time to deploy in a large enterprise.

InfoQ: Who is the book for - who should read it?

  1. Engineers who want to get into product management or understand it. We know many engineers who have become fantastic product managers. Elon Musk who is a engineer is one of the best product thinkers of this time.
  2. Product Managers (new and experienced): this book will help reframe and build differentiating skills for them to excel in their job.
  3. People working in technology companies, including startups of various sizes.
  4. Team leaders and executives who are making a lot of top decisions and need to bring in good product thinking. Many a times great product managers simply walk away from the company in a disempowered environment. It is really important to see what differentiating skills are needed when hiring and the environment needed for people with these product skills to thrive!
  5. Basically anyone dealing with solving a really hard problem. We believe any professional dealing with a complex situation in this VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) world should have these skills. It is no longer about process but about the true mindset needed to unlearn, relearn and accelerate your transformation.

InfoQ: What is the difference between product management and product ownership?

During a talk at the Agile Conference, Ahmed Sidky explained that people in many companies were forced into roles that did not fit their skill sets and desires; individuals got demotivated and deprioritized some important responsibilities. There was a swing towards too much reliance on individual leaders such as product owners, versus a cross-functional team approach. This limited not only the wisdom of the crowd, but growth opportunities for exploring new roles, and an overall sense of collective ownership.

The deceptive term, “product owner,” was problematic. It implied sole ownership, which ran counter to the idea that teams held collective ownership.

And, we saw this problem in many many companies.

Job titles in our subject area are frequently debated by enterprises large and small. You might wonder, and it’s important to clarify: What is a Product Owner? Why don’t we call them Product Managers? Different teams answer this question in different ways. Generally, for smaller teams, these roles are played by the same person. Organizations refer to this as PO = PM, where PM is the Product Manager from the job function of Product Management.

Not all Product Owners have to be from Product Management. For example, on technical teams, we might find that the right person to play Product Owner comes from engineering.

The word Product Owner emerged from the Scrum Framework. So, if your organization uses Scrum, there’s a high likelihood you’ll hear both PO and PM. Simply put, PO is the role on the team, and PM is the title. It isn’t necessary that the PO on your team will be from Product Management.

In short, let your organization design these roles that help you figure out the roles and the responsibilities within a team, and then choose the most fitting role name. Many companies are moving to newer role names for this function. For example, Menlo Innovations calls these employees, “High Tech Anthropologists,” because their organization design is focused on customer centric problems and need identification. Companies may choose to combine elements of UX and Product Management to produce a hybrid role under Product Management. There’s no set standard and outcomes depend on the organization’s context.

Let's also look at the role of business analyst (BAs). Some organizations confuse this role with Product Management, as BAs share certain responsibilities, i.e., they develop requirements and test software developed by the team. In a few scenarios—like one to-one platform migration or platform upgrades—BAs play a critical role and are more suited to the job than a Product Manager.

Product Managers often have a far greater level of responsibility and require a more expansive mindset than many PO or BA roles. Product managers have to look beyond the feature set to consider all aspects of the business and answer questions such as: are we targeting the correct segment of the market, is the market growing, will users pay or adopt our solution, can we create a defensible position either through our technology, intellectual property, or business model?

InfoQ: In the book you present a process for innovation - is it really that simple or is there a secret sauce which teams need to have as well? What are some of the key elements of the innovation process.

George Edward Pelham Box a British statistician, wrote "all models are wrong, but some are useful". We strongly believe this is even more true in VUCA world where it is really difficult to come up with a one size fits all approach. The objective for any innovation team is to come up with a process that works for them to unlearn, relearn and execute rapidly. Now there are universal elements which are needed in most contexts and we have described these as team, rapid learning, strategy and vision.

Vision: A clear need identified for the customers. We do not recommend understanding the vision from reading pages of documentation but by first hand seeing the customers in their real environment to start reframing what you already know.

Strategy: A simple but powerful strategy, an awesome example is when facebook saw their new user retention rate declining.The company’s vision is connecting all the people in the world and they had a strategy to pursue growth of their user base because they understood the power of the network effect to fend off competition.So growth is a strategic pillar, they track growth, and they see new user retention trailing off. They worked on changes to simplify the new user onboarding experience which reduced all sorts of facebook feeds for new users until the user had connected to their first 10 friends. This strategy demonstrates simplicity and a hack that allowed the team to learn rapidly.

Rapid learning: Fast experimentation, your strategy may need several pivots until you can arrive at some thing that works and is scale worthy. You will only get there by learning rapidly.

Team: A group that perseveres every day to get closer to the vision and shares a common grounding of principles.

InfoQ: What are the differentiating skills that a good product manager needs?

In the book we devote multiple sections on this topic:

  1. How to be a product manager like Elon Musk:

Elon took an idea to improve the Tesla charging stations based on a tweet from one of the customers to delivery in 6 days. This demonstrates an urgency and ultimate agility as a leader for a company(team tesla). His approach to engineering problems with a first principles mindset that helps him reframe problems. He is doing this not just in Tesla and SpaceX but taking on really big problems of preventing blackouts in a large part of Australia. You need to be someone with the resilience, focus and ability to think with your hands. His ability to ask Socratic questions like “how do I know this to be true?” He has brilliantly reorganized the electric car value stream to deliver the best value to his customers.

  1. Differentiating skills for a product manager:

Now you may challenge, hey I am not as powerful as Elon Musk, nor a C level executive. In this part we provide you with some more differentiating skills that one could apply safely to accelerate a teams learning process.How a product manager can bring their team together to build a bold vision that is inspirational, improve experimentation to rapidly learn and constantly look at the customer journey to build hypotheses and solutions that solve problems by leaps rather than incremental solutions.

InfoQ: Is innovation the realm of the lone genius, or is it a team activity, what are the key competencies needed to be successful?

Steve Jobs needed Steve Wozniak and other Apple team members to build a revolutionary product.

Elon provides the space needed to build a great team, gives them the inspiration of a hard problem. At every spaceX launch you see the entire control room light up in a moment of joy, that's also the time you see them as a high performing team. This was true even when they had failed in their launch.

So innovation may have been branded as you need a Steve or Elon to be innovative, but Silicon Valley has proven time and again, It is a safe environment (safety) that counts and allows people or teams to fail. If there is no failure there is no learning. Don’t mistake safety as counter to holding people accountable. In innovative agile teams the members of the team hold each other to a high bar for quality and delighting their customer. Rather than focus on the key competencies we have focused on the environment that great companies create to allow failure to happen, celebrate failure and promote the ability to learn rapidly for their innovation powerhouses that are also known as agile teams. Joshua Kerievsky, CEO of Industrial logic has popularized the new modern agile principles. These are essential secret sauce for agile innovation teams and companies need today. The foundational principle is to have Safety as a prerequisite for an innovative agile team.

InfoQ: Can you give us an example of how this process has played out and the resultant product?

Ability to change is based on the powerful questions one can ask. To simplify this for what would Elon do in this scenario. There are lots of examples available out there but the one thing we want to leave you with is to follow the first principles thinking on whatever you choose to do, you will be able to learn at an exponential pace and truly create the new customer. The goal has alway been to create a new customer based on new learning (sometimes this is achieved by creating a new product but this is only a means). The idea of first principles exists in every great product because it helps you reframe all hard problems and assumptions that get in your way.

About the Authors

Kamal Manglani’s passion is building great products. Kamal coaches product executives & product teams on Lean Startup, Design Thinking and Agile principles to help them learn more about their customers quickly!

Navjot Singh's entrepreneur spirit and vast experience in marketing and product management has helped many startups and large corporations to create new products and achieve tremendous scalability in a very short period of time.

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