Friday, June 06, 2008

ah-ha: product managers lead by following

I recently came across an article titled Aligning Departments with your Strategy. It's sitting behind a registration wall, but everything I needed to know about this article I learned from the abstract:

Product managers are responsible for the creation of product strategy, marketing strategy, and product plans. Securing the buy-in from cross-functional team members in support of the product strategy (or overall corporate strategy) is critical. This article describes some ways to achieve this buy-in.

Oh my. When I read this abstract, I realized I agreed with sentence #2 but strongly disagreed with sentence #1 and its suggestion of product management "ownership" of strategy.

Strategy - put simply - is a statement of shared direction, with a focus on shared. Everyone involved in the pursuit of this strategy needs to see themselves in it, or it is not shared. The only way you can execute dictatorially is if you plan consensually, through the collective exchange of information and attitudes. You either are all rowing in the same direction, or you are not.

In short, strategy is co-owned by everyone you work with. It is not yours. In fact, I believe that if it is perceived as yours, it will fail. A product strategy that reflects the personal "vision" of an individual product manager is not only suspect, but counter-productive.

This is because I as a member of the team can't trust (or believe in) what is stored in your head alone. To buy in to a product strategy, there need to be self-evident proof. The process of exposing these proofs - these discrete inputs - and bringing them forward for shared consideration is at the heart of the product manager's craft.

All of these inputs that product managers rely on serve to highlight the shared ownership of the product strategy. Done correctly, a product strategy comes into being ex nihilo, it seems, as a logical (even if it is daring) conclusion drawn from all of these inputs. Note that the product manager is not the creator of these inputs, just the person who observes them, synthesizes them, and socializes them in pursuit of an outcome.

A product strategy and its tactical embodiments (forward-looking product roadmaps, story backlogs, release schedules and launch plans) will then naturally and consensually serve the corporate strategy. The product manager's job then is simply to execute on the product strategy by keeping all of those forward-looking tactical elements aligned, making sure that the individual departments whose work contributes to the product understand how, where and why their work fits in.

The product manager leads by following, by listening, and by facilitating the creation of a shared product strategy that can be owned by everyone.

We're all guilty of saying "trust me". I'm realizing that it hurts us more than it helps.

And I'm also realizing that in the absence of a corporate strategy that your team can believe in, sacrifice and fight for, many thoughtful product managers step into the gap with a product strategy that they argue is worth believing in, sacrificing and fighting for. This is the source of much of our suffering - we lead when we should be following.

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