It’s a new game

Product Management of Online products (PMO) is quite a new profession, and therefore there’s still a lot to lean about how to do it.

To put it in perspective, an accountant has the privilege of learning “accounting principles”, which is the compendium of rules and tasks required to do their job. These rules have been evolving for thousands of years (literally) and, though still evolving, are quite well defined and have good change management (many of the changes require laws to be passed).

The software development profession was born in the 60’s, just 50 years ago and in that time it has evolved from something that only mathematicians did to it’s own profession; from disorderly individualistic work to a coordinated team practice; from an opaque discipline to a transparent and manageable one.

How opaque software development used to be
How opaque software development used to be. Source: The great XKCD

I believe that we’re on the early days of the transformation of Product Management of Online products (PMO) with the arrival of trends like Design Thinking, Lean UX, Dual-trac Agile, etc. But of course, these things take time. For example, the Agile manifesto was written more than 15 years ago and it wasn’t until 2006 (5 years after its creation) that you could call it “widespread”. And I think it’s fair to say that the adoption and the understanding of Agile is not there yet.

So, what’s changing in the Product Management world?

I believe the biggest change in the Product Management world is the increased professionalisation of its processes and principles.

I’ve been a Product Manager myself, and I’ve worked with many great and many not so great product managers, and it always seemed to be down to the individual (much like the cowboy days of Software Development). No two were the same or used the same methodologies:

  • some worked on their ivory towers, some were collaborative;
  • some made multiple iteration on their products, some just switched to the next shiny object;
  • some talked with the customer all the time, some followed the “Jobs way” and said they knew better;
  • some made small experiments, some made huge scope bets;
  • some embraced failure, some didn’t;
  • some had analysis paralysis; some didn’t spend 5 minutes validating a hunch.

Some of those aspects are addressed by Agile processes and principles. The Product Owner is a very important member of an Agile team, and practices like Scrum provide guidelines and rituals that incentivise collaboration, the importance of retrospectives and of a good Definition of Done amongst others.

Furthermore, Agile has at it’s heart a focus on continuous iterative delivery, which spans not only to the software delivery aspect, but also to the product definition. What Agile doesn’t do for the Product Manager is to help her answer questions like: Is this the right thing to build? What are my underlying hypothesis and biases?

Enter “Lean UX”

Lean UX is a concept brought to life by Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden. It feeds from three currents of thinking:

  • Design Thinking: “Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” —Tim Brown, president and CEO Source. Design thinking is about focusing on the big picture of problems, focusing on people and participation instead of on faceless consumers. If you’ve been an entrepreneur and are innovative by nature it just sounds like common sense. If you’re part of a big organisation it can be a good framework to break internal boundaries. If you want to learn more you can start with this TED Talk.
  • Agile Principles: As I indicated above, many of the Agile Manifesto principles extend directly to Product Management.
  • Lean Startup: Lean Startup advocates for the creation of fast prototypes to test assumptions and learn. It uses the “Build-Measure-Learn” framework to minimise project risk. On many start-ups, the company and the product are basically the same thing, so it’s quite clear how this can be taken to the Product Management world.

These three foundational concepts merge very naturally into a sensible and well laid out picture of you should go about doing Product Management.

After having had the chance to listen and talk with Jeff directly on a summit for Product and Technology that we organised some months ago, I’d recommend you have a read at the book.

Lean UX
Lean UX Book. Get the book

What else?

Of course, this is not a Product Management bible, but it’s a very important conceptual cornerstone. Other things that I’d urge you to have a look into, and that I’ll probably talk about in future posts:

  • OKR: Short for “Objective, Key-Results” is a good way to achieve alignment around a specific set of goals. Read more
  • Dual-Track Agile: A more process-oriented approach on how to include the foundational concepts of Product Management (like Lean UX) into the delivery process. Read More