Guest Post by: Terri Boshoff (Mentee, Session 9, The Product Mentor) [Paired with Mentor, Nis Frome]
When I joined Wetu in 2014, I was the 7th employee, we had just over 100 companies using our software, we were exclusively available in Africa, and the product was already 5 years old. Since then we have grown to over 100 employees, we have more than 800 companies using our software, and we have expanded globally.
This has been challenging to navigate as there are not many resources available on how to manage not only a maturing product but the changes that come with rapid organisational growth. As the first and most senior PM, I recognized the need to clarify vision, formalize processes, and set a proactive agenda moving forward.
Start at the Top
A major challenge faced as a company scales is the transition the executive team needs to make. The founders have filled the role of product manager since the company was conceived and it is difficult for them to hand that management over. They need to shift their focus to leveraging teams to execute their vision and it is up to you to help with this transition. The products are their children and you need them to trust you to take over and own the product.
In most companies, this process is ongoing. You will need to continuously prove that you are the right person to be owning the product and that you have not only the business but client’s best interests in mind. Don’t get me wrong, this does not mean doing everything the client or the executives ask you to do! But it does mean owning decisions and having frameworks to get them the results they need.
I have found that an incredibly critical step to gaining and maintaining trust, is to be on the same page as the executives. This is achieved through aligning vision and strategy and communicating that alignment relentlessly. Without alignment on these, you will not have a true direction to work towards and although you can work around this, it will consistently come up when trying to prioritize and motivate on how to move forward.
With Great Responsibility, Comes No Power
It takes a village to successfully manage a product and as a product manager, you will become the central hub within your company for a lot of critical information about your products, market, clients, competitors and prospects. You will need to learn how best to handle this for you and your company; this comes with some trial and error.
As the central hub, there are processes that you will need to implement to ensure that the company understands what you are building and, most importantly, why. Without much formal authority, you will need to get teams to rally behind your vision and you can do this through leading by influence and example, through motivating, guiding and keeping teams focused.
Which leads me to one of the biggest changes you need to overcome with growth: you cannot build everything you are asked for as you need to stay focused. Some requests might undermine your strategic objectives for the product or derail what is currently being developed, so it is up to you to take all those requests and validate them with a wider audience.
With growth, you never want people to feel like their suggestions or ideas have been forgotten about, lost in the backlog abyss, as you are not providing feedback or new/updated products as quickly as you could before. Defining a discovery process will help immensely with the validation and feedback loop! This process will empower you to focus on the problem the client has and equip you to determine if it is something that your company should be solving. It will also allow you to test assumptions through experiments and potential beta testing (even if this is just as simple as wireframe prototype you have some users to engage with).
To keep track of what has been validated for delivery and development, a roadmap is your best tool. Product managers are often tasked with improving an existing roadmap — but sometimes you will need to create one from scratch. Again, this is where having an alignment of strategy at the company and product levels is useful. When it comes to your roadmap and a scaling company, there are two important things that you need to become comfortable with doing. Firstly, saying no. The key to becoming more comfortable with saying no and with others accepting your no, will be in your ability to articulate why you cannot accommodate the request. The more strategic and backed by evidence you can make your roadmap, the more likely your team are to understand when you need to say no.
Secondly, you have to be a ruthless prioritizer. Regardless of your company’s size or budget, you will always face limited resources for your product development. That means you will always need to prioritize, and continually weigh the competing factors of your objectives for your products, your company’s limited resources, and demands on your team.
As you make changes to your roadmap, you will need to get feedback from stakeholders for your product. This includes your C-levels, management team, staff, clients and prospects. When you are doing this, position the information, data and reasons for the change or introduction of the product with the perspective of the audience you are presenting to. Your management team will be interested in different information to clients, for example. Once finalized, these changes should be communicated to the wider company to ensure everyone is on the same page. With growth, that communication and updating across the company will help with your credibility as everyone will feel involved.
Get the Details Right
Ideas that have been validated should be added as a story on your roadmap and will make their way to development. As teams get bigger and your time is stretched further, it is important to continue to work closely with development to make sure the right thing gets built. You can do this by immersing yourself in their processes and taking part in sprint planning, reviews, retrospectives and demos.
Doing this will position you to be there to help them understand the bigger picture, including who the clients and users are, what value the product creates for them, what makes the product stand out, and how it benefits the business. In addition, you will be there to help them solve problems that may arise by filling in the gaps or removing obstacles. This will not only lead to better technical decisions and a better product, but it also eases your workload: understanding the bigger picture allows the team to be more self-sufficient!
As the developers of the product, the development team should understand and support important product decisions. The best way to achieve strong buy-in is involving the team members in the decision-making throughout the discovery and delivery process. This also leverages their creativity and knowledge and is likely to lead to better decisions.
To win the hearts of your development team, and ensure your projects stay on schedule, is to become the buffer. Place yourself between the developers and the rest of the world to help avoid urgent/chaotic/irrational interrupts but ensure relevant information filters to them.
Finally, once the development piece of the delivery process is complete, you will need to validate it again to ensure it is a product that is solving your client’s problems. That is done with tracking and continual improvement. It is easy to get excited by the next feature or product on your roadmap and want to move on without thinking about what you have delivered, but to be reputable and for your team to continue to have faith in your decisions, you need to prove to them that you made the right call.
Be the Change
As changes happen through your growth and the company’s growth, the intricacies of the above processes for discovery and delivery will need to adapted to accommodate your team and the results you are trying to achieve. Problems come in different shapes, and not all need the same process. The process that shipped the last product is unlikely to be the one that you need for the next.
There will always be a high degree of change and ambiguity as this is a natural consequence in the pursuit of innovation. Continuing to be curious and wanting to solve problems will naturally lead you to evolve your processes and be there to consistently helps others, providing clarity and assurance wherever possible.
This point is probably the most important bit to keep in mind as the product manager and as part of a growing company. Be gentle and show empathy for people: clients, prospects, stakeholders, staff, etc. Unless you step back and realise that all steps of the product discovery and delivery chain include real people and you need to keep a balance among them, then it’s almost impossible to hit your goal as Product Manager, which is getting results through other people.
Terri is the Product Manager at Wetu, a rapidly expanding software provider to the travel industry. Her first love was technology, which led her to study software engineering at UCT. As a natural innovator and out-of-the-box creative, Terri found her happy place in product management. She lives in Cape Town with her boyfriend and their two adorable dogs.
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
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The Product Guy