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.

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?