Hey Seattle, where have all the ProdMans gone?

I started Grafted Management with the goal of having a broader impact on the technology community in Seattle and around the Pacific Northwest, then could be afforded by focusing down on one specific domain or company.  By instead building a partner for companies, focusing on helping others build amazing software products and engaging digital experiences, I can apply my background and accumulated skills.  I can share my knowledge with more folks across more projects and products.  While there are quite a few consultancies and contract shops around the area that will step in and help you get your project or product architected and coded up, there aren’t many that understand product strategy and execution, and can step into your shoes at the product level – to help with product strategy, design, and tactical execution across the full product lifecycle.

This is pretty unfortunate.

We have seen an incredible arc of change in how we organize, build, deploy, and support our software products.  We have optimized and decomposed how software developers do what they do, moving from long, insular development cycles to a general acceptance of short-cycle, iterative delivery, usually managed with Atlassian’s tools.  We’ve optimized IT operations as well, with most companies getting out of the tactics of hosting and into the cloud, and instead investing their in-house talent into “DevOps”, allowing the whole thing to work together, from development and into the customer’s hands.  Features can now flow into production with unprecedented speed.

But what is driving those features?  How do we know they are the right ones?  How do we know that we are thinking about the problem the right way?  How do we handle conflict that can arise when stakeholders don’t agree?  Heck, who are my stakeholders?

It is my experience that companies, particularly early to mid-stage companies, frequently neglect these aspects of product development.  Sure, they may have an amazing architect and development team, and thanks to Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and others, they now have access to the most sophisticated hosting infrastructure imaginable, but they don’t have product management.  Often product management happens by committee, with perhaps a lead developer, development manager, or engineering executive arguing with Sales about what the next release should have in it.  It amazes me how organizations are willing to spend millions of dollars on software projects that have had no real up front, structured consideration as to business value, value-based feature prioritization, or even modest customer discovery.

Some of the more advanced, and strategically driven companies in the area have recognized this gap and have invested in product management, perhaps even introducing a Chief Product Officer role to their executive ranks.  You will also find people roaming the halls of Microsoft and Amazon, Seattle’s largest technology providers, with the title of Product Manager, Director of Product Management, and the like.  Unfortunately, Both of these companies do a very specific kind of product management, and probably not the kind of product management that is well aligned with what most companies actually need in the startup and mid-stage, from a practical product management perspective.

I was talking with a fellow Seattle based product leader recently, and he was sharing with me how seemingly unprepared Seattle product managers are.  He felt that the supply of local product managers were not really prepared for their jobs.  Either they were coming straight out of academia and simply didn’t know what they didn’t know, or they grew up with the large players in the region and have a really skewed view of what it means to be a product manager.  Where the focus is more about the narrow feature or implementation details, and not so much about getting really close and empathetic with your customers.  They can also be challenged with understanding what is going on across the product lifecycle, outside of the narrow, traditional PM world of gathering and managing requirements for a small set of capabilities.

They can struggle with understanding the big picture business value, and context.  How does my product relate and contribute to the broader business?  How do individual feature decisions impact business value?  Can I deliver more value to the organization by prioritizing capabilities that help Sales advance more deals?  Once my products are built, how are they going to be priced, marketed, and sold?  What user experience attributes help to best support the metrics most important to the business?

These questions can only be answered when companies understand the need for product management, and start looking beyond the “product management by committee” approach. They also require product managers and product management practices that center on driving and delivering business value over other potential motivators.  Product managers must take it upon themselves to learn, understand, and own the full lifecycle of their product across the business.  Top to bottom, no excuses.  For those organizations that have more narrowly focused product managers, the same applies at the feature set level.  It is still all about understanding and driving business value.

More and more Seattle based technology companies are recognizing the need for sound product management as a driver of business value, and as a requirement for maximizing the value returned from their investment in software development projects.  This is something that Silicon Valley companies of all sizes have understood for some time, and they have a rich product community as a result.  I believe Seattle will get there as well, as those SV companies invade north, and as more companies experience the great benefit of embracing a formal, but pragmatic, approach to product management that puts customer value at the center.

REPOST: Transforming Healthcare with Technology

The following is a repost of a blog post that originally was written for, and appeared on, http://www.datstat.com/blog.

Transformation of industries, and particularly widespread adoption of technological innovation, doesn’t happen spontaneously or without reason. There is too much resistance to overcome, too much love for the status quo. There has to be a precipitating circumstance, or root cause, driving the change.

Technological Disruption in the Legal Industry

For legal, that percipient was government-led investigations into corporate wrongdoings (thanks, Enron). An industry with more experience being the butt of a joke than the center of technological disruption, these investigations inadvertently led to a need for lawyers to adopt new technology.

Up to this point, the legal discovery process involved paper documents only. However, the vast trove of content within emails and other electronic files suddenly became important pieces of evidence for these investigations. The volume of content that had to be extracted, analyzed, and produced to opposing counsel was on a scale they simply weren’t ready for.

As Chief Technology Officer at EED , I was on the front lines reshaping this process. We built systems that processed unstructured data and could scale to handle the unimaginable volume of content that needed to be collected and reviewed. I saw technology averse professionals embrace software as the only answer to a very real, and seemingly insurmountable obstacle to their success.

Today, the need to aggregate information from multiple sources to drive insights and outcomes is widespread. Unlike the disruption for the legal sector, these information, or big data, initiatives are focused on creating exceptional consumer experiences and saving lives.

Disrupting Healthcare: History Repeats Itself

I can’t help but draw parallels between the challenges faced in legal and the challenges we face in healthcare. Another industry resistant to change, for one reason or another; an industry where the stakes are extremely high, and where trillions of dollars, are at stake.

The healthcare landscape has changed dramatically over the last half century. The bulk of care has transitioned from the treatment of acute / infectious disease to the treatment and management of chronic illness. According to the CDC, almost 86% of today’s healthcare costs are associated with caring for those with chronic conditions.

While the need has transitioned, on the whole, the approach to care (and paying for it!) has not. The current system was built around the concept of curing a specific disease and acute condition. These are episodic moments of care, resulting in a few data points around one specific detail of a patient’s health.

Chronic Diseases: A Different Set of Challenges

Chronic diseases pose a completely different set of challenges to the system. These conditions are complex beasts, with no discernible beginning, and no determinable end. They have no single, identifiable cause, no targeted treatment course, and they are influenced by complex internal and external factors.

According to the CDC, almost half of Americans suffer from at least one chronic disease. Patients 65 and over show an even more startling trend with over half of them suffering from multiple chronic conditions. The costs associated with caring for a person with chronic conditions is estimated at 3 times higher than someone without.

[Tweet “The costs associated w/ caring for a patient with #chronicdiseases is ~3x higher.”]

You can see the problem here: a massive aging population, rampant growth in the rate of chronic illness and a healthcare system that was constructed to solve a completely different problem set.

Improving Outcomes Begins with Measurement

The healthcare system and providers need to begin understanding these conditions on a granular level. This means measurement and gathering more information on patients. It means beginning to identify questions that need answers and the outcomes that need to be continuously measured to answer those questions. With more information and data points, providers can understand their patients’ chronic conditions better. They can make better informed, data-driven decisions and begin personalizing care treatments.

>Similar to the legal sector’s need to mine data from emails and other electronic content, healthcare needs to begin thinking seriously about how they’re going to capture data from non-traditional sources outside of the clinic. They need to begin thinking how to move from paper to electronic mediums. A technological disruption, as witnessed in industries across the board, can help them accomplish this.

The healthcare system as it lives and breathes today is fragmented and unprepared for the tsunami already reaching its shores. It is improperly constructed to handle the majority of patients and cases it will see day in and day out. It is unprepared to begin gathering the data needed to improve the outcomes of these patients.

Please don’t get me wrong, the system is filled with passionate, caring, and well-intentioned individuals who head to work every day looking to positively impact the lives of their patients. It isn’t their fault that the system is constructed as it is. It is simply the existing framework – a framework which constrains them.

Know your business blindspots

When you purchase a new car, you may find yourself on the lookout for blind spots, or areas where your visibility is reduced to the point of introducing risk into your driving experience.  If you know where the car’s blindspots are, you can often work around them, taking special care and attention to take precautions that help to round out your perspective on the surrounding environment, and hopefully, reduce or eliminate the risk associated with that blindspot.

As humans we are no different.  We all carry with us our own blindspots, or areas of weakness that we can’t see.  These blindspots can hinder our growth, and can cause us to make bad or misguided business decisions.  The trick is being aware of our blindspots, so that you can take steps to hedge against them.  But if we are blind to these areas of weakness, how can we sniff them out?  That is where others come in.  Often others see things in us that we don’t see.  Getting some outside perspective from someone you trust, can go a long way in helping identify where you might not be seeing the world, or yourself, accurately.

You might be asking yourself, “That sounds great, but who can I really turn to?”

As an entrepreneur or business leader, it is important to develop a network of people that have an interest in your personal and professional growth and development.  This can include managers, colleagues, or subordinates (yes, even subordinates) that you have worked with, or currently work with.  As you develop this network, make sure to take the time to explicitly help them understand what you are asking from them: that you want to better understand yourself by seeing yourself from their point of view, warts and all.

Be prepared.  You could be surprised at what they have to say, and if they are being truly forthcoming, what they have to say just may sting.  Don’t let those emotions keep you from receiving the information.  Be willing to be vulnerable, be willing to really hear the feedback, and be willing to ask hard questions.  Repeat back to them what you think you hear them saying.  Ensuring you have a shared understanding of their feedback is important to realizing the impact and value of this exercise.

If you are not ready to have start having these hard conversations just yet, other options for self-examination are available.  Personality tests like the DISC, the Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram test can provide you with a solid foundational understanding of how you tend to view, process, and interact with the world around you.  These tools can also provide a jumping off point for those future professional development conversations.

We all have blindspots that are holding us back.  Do you have the courage to find yours?