Guest Post by: Mark Jones (Mentee, Session 6, The Product Mentor) [Paired with Mentor, Shelley Iocona]
Product people usually like to start with the problem.
One problem many are familiar with is being the requirements resource. You know the scenario; “Oh, we need a BA to figure out how these two internal tools should integrate, and you’re great at this, could you give us a hand?” Your first instinct is likely that you don’t have the head-space, let alone the calendar-space, to take on another project that does not touch your products in the slightest. On the flip-side, you know that if you do not come out of this looking like a team-player, the departments involved will be a bit less quick to jump to help you out in the future. So what do you do? Seems like a no-win scenario.
Product management tends to work with most areas of a company, and product managers should spend much of their time focussed outside walls of the company too. So when during each busy day could you possibly help other departments with their responsibilities? I have been learning about the potential to help others along the path to progress without spending hours doing their due diligence personally; by focussing on being an advisor it is possible to guide others to make better decisions for themselves.
When the need arose for any standard business department to operate more efficiently and gain new tools to enable them to do so, I would usually be roped in to figure out exactly what was required. So I would do my product management thing; I’d go and talk with the potential users in-depth, understand their days, create personas, and document needs and workflows. All the while my products suffered abandonment issues. There had to be another way; how could I go on a date without committing?
Less is More
I learned that perhaps I could apply a different approach for these kind of secondment scenarios. There was the potential for me to empower other departments to make qualified analyses and decisions themselves, rather than working out a full assessment for them. By asking them some probing questions about the reasons behind their methods, they could be allowed the chance to figure out their basic needs autonomously. Then by questioning their initial findings further, I could help them get through to the core of what made them tick. So they would have their requirements and processes defined and understood, and be well placed to find the toolset that was really going to solve their problems. In the meantime, I’d remain largely focussed on my regular product responsibilities. By steering rather than driving the requirements gathering process, I could help progress all areas concurrently.
You Have a Particular Set of Skills
Helping other departments in their domains without having to put the time in? Is it arrogant to think we have the ability to do that? Not really, because our mindset and work in product management makes us experts in asking illuminating questions, the ones that really get to the crux of an issue. Of course we do not have the domain expertise those working in the other department have, and maybe that’s a good reason for them to define their own requirements. Since needs-analysis is not their day-to-day, they simply need to be shown where to look to draw out all the expertise they do have.
Back Seat Driver
Leading pockets of thought in this way is a more subtle form of leadership than the stereotypical leading-from-the-front you see in the movies; you can work in this way to help others shine, and have people in other departments move the organisation forward. In product roles it can often help to leave your ego at home, and this is a clear example of a case where you would take personal satisfaction rather than headline acclaim. Thought leadership fits well within the established realm of product management.
Mind the Gap
Unhappy path; the colleagues in the other department are extremely busy, especially as they do not have the tools they really need yet. So what if they never quite get to solidifying what is necessary to find the tool that is their perfect match, and without someone to drive the process forward it does not move quickly enough? Then a different need has been identified, and this time it’s a personnel one. Most medium-sized companies have enough departments with enough different tool needs to warrant employing someone to look after them. By obscuring that gap, you would be perpetually working off the side of your desk to cover what you could, likely without giving it your dedicated attention. Maybe it would be better to highlight the shortfall so that it could be addressed by strengthening the team.
A Gentle Touch
Do not despair next time you are asked to lend a hand that you would not get back for a couple of weeks. By probing rather than pushing to uncover insights, you can give other departments the clarity they need to find the right tools to make their lives easier, without taking significant time away from what is likely to move the needle for your products. Product managers are well-equipped to help other departments find their root causes. Working effectively in the background will not draw commendation, but then product people are used to being unsung heroes. It is possible that after asking the right questions no one will follow-up on the answers, in which case someone should be found to own the tool improvement process end-to-end. Not you though, because once the problem is fully understood, your work there is done.
I’ve worked at tech companies for over a decade, always marrying the business and tech sides. Five years ago I moved from London, England to Vancouver, BC and started working in product. I’ve been reflecting on the experiences I’ve had, while striving to learn more and incorporate that knowledge into my work.
More About The Product Mentor
The Product Mentor is a program designed to pair Product Management Mentors and Mentees around the World, across all industries, from start-up to enterprise, guided by the fundamental goals…
Better Decisions. Better Products. Better Product People.
Each Session of the program runs for 6 months with paired individuals…
- Conducting regular 1-on-1 mentor-mentee chats
- Sharing experiences with the larger Product community
- Participating in live-streamed product management lessons and Q&A
- Mentors and Mentees sharing their product management knowledge with the broader community
Check out the Mentors & Enjoy!
The Product Guy