How Product Managers Influence Organization Culture

Image courtesy Technical.ly
Image courtesy Technical.ly

Among many others, maximizing value and ensuring ROI are primary responsibilities associated with a Product Manager role. These include activities around market research, customer interaction and much more. All Product Management activities are split across 2 broad categories; strategic and tactical. These activities take away the majority of the Product Manager’s time with limited or no time in hand for the team solving the problem.

A Product Manager’s engagement with their stakeholders highlights a very distinct gap. This gap is caused by the approach driven by local optimization where customer’s priority is about market expectation and their need for new features, management which is concerned about timelines and cost and teams that are about stress and impact of changing business landscape. In a nutshell, each interaction deals with local problems without much attention paid to common business goals and objectives and the missing alignment.

When it comes to development teams, the kind of engagement a Product Manager is able to develop impacts how the team performs. Here are some Product Manager attributes that impact team culture:

Shared Product Vision – Developing a good Product Vision can be difficult. A lot of market data and research goes into understanding what you need to build and why. Knowing the vision of the product can greatly impact the behavior of the team. It is imperative that the people involved in building the product buy into it. A lack of it can cause the team member to be demotivated or follow their own goals which make it harder to achieve product success. An inspiring vision that is able to articulate the positive change it will bring can go a long way in how teams think, engage and innovate.

A vision also helps in guiding the decisions of the team. A team member who will be able to challenge a Product Manager on a decision that deviates from the vision is typically a motivated team member.

A Product Manager should bring in the team together every once in a while and have them articulate the product vision to ensure shared understanding.

Product Strategy – The next step is to have a product strategy. A strategy is developed taking into consideration market and customer needs, key product differentiators and focused outcomes. While Product Managers own the strategy, an inclusive approach where the team gets to influence strategic decisions based on their understanding of business and product helps builds a culture of trust.

Focus on the problem – It is commonly said and understood that while Product Managers focus on the “WHAT” and “WHY” of the problem, they should trust the team to come up with the “HOW”. Many Product Managers indulge in influencing decisions about the “HOW” suggesting lack of ability in the team to solve problems.

While organizations invest heavily in hiring people with the right skills and talent, Product Manager trying to force solutions may suggest their lack of faith in team’s ability and skills. Product Managers and other team members must have mutual respect for each others knowledge and contributions to the team. A Product Manager who shares a problem and trusts the team to find a solution build a culture of collective ownership.

Acknowledge unknowns and need for experimentation – Just like all business solutions may not be successful, technical solutions can fail too. Expecting development teams to be first time right can kill the creative capabilities and limit the team from taking risks.

Product Managers should encourage the team to experiment and take risks towards building next generation solutions while staying aligned with the latest technology and industry trends. Technology teams understand market and business constraints and should be trusted to provide solutions that work around the constraints and provide business value. This will also lead to building a culture of celebrating failure.

Allow technology to drive value – We live in the era of technology innovation where the biggest businesses have been successful by leveraging technology to solve the most common problems. Most successful enterprises are creating a “playground” for exploration to explore new technologies cause disruption.

Driving business value is crucial for Product Managers but the most innovative outcomes are produced by allowing technology to remain on the forefront of problem-solving. This needs to have a mindset and culture of collaborative ideation and problem solving to use to best of both worlds to create competitive advantage and create a culture of innovation.

Wrap Up: The most successful enterprises are using joint business and technology portfolio to innovate and create the most innovative product offering. Product Managers can play a critical role in practicing this at the team level by putting the above-mentioned behaviors in practice.

If you are a Product Manager and you have other ideas that can help transform organization cultures, please leave a comment.

Questions to ask to Kickstart Agile Adoption – Part II of II

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Continuing from part 1 of this 2 part series, here are some additional questions based on observed failure patterns which when discussed up front lead to creating agreements, building trust and setting the stage for a successful agile adoption:

Beyond Process Change Agile is beyond processes. Are we open to changing our practices, mindset, culture, and structures? Most people have a perception that agile is only limited to process change. While the adoption does lead to process improvements but a big part of the improvements needs change across mindset, culture, and structures. To experience the impact of agility, organizations have to be open to changes associated with processes, people, practices, leadership styles, structures, safety, relationships and much more. This is precisely why an incremental approach to agile adoption becomes critical to making the adoption successful.Screen Shot 2018-03-22 at 11.08.40 AM

A common approach to agility that is a recipe for failure is a leader asking the whole organization to adopt agile without a clear understanding of “why”, leading to a siloed local optimization across various functions of the organization with the focus on survival and risk mitigation.

 

Agile Adoption Strategy and RoadmapHow do you want to roll out the adoption of agile? “All aboard the fail boat”. Because of the reasons mentioned earlier and how agile adoption demands change across multiple aspects in the organization, it becomes imperative that the approach to adopt agile is understood. While a big bang approach is not ideal, organizations might still have reason to pursue the approach which should be analyzed and discussed up front.

Measuring SuccessHow do you plan to measure success with agile? Once the vision for agile adoption has been established and understood, the next step is to create agreement on how progress towards the vision will be measured. Many aspects contribute to measuring success with agile but most organizations look at agile as a way to get things done faster. While that may be achievable, it will not be possible without effective leadership, business engagement and alignment across leadership, business, and engineering.

Measuring success with agile includes measuring leading measures (team or projects metrics), which when improved should lead to improvements in the lagging metrics (customer satisfaction or increase in revenue etc…). Both engineering/team and business metrics should be accounted for to measure success.

Commitment to ChangeAre you willing to have an engaged workforce to impact change? images-7Agile adoption needs a committed workforce that understands the principles of agility and is able to influence change is achieve the vision and objectives of the adoption. This includes organization leaders, senior and middle management, down to the team members. Lack of such commitment results in a conflict of interest for people engaged in the adoption. Additionally, lack of commitment is also a form a resistance which should be discussed and addressed.

Comfortable Being Vulnerable and make Uncomfortable Changes Are you comfortable with exposing problems, being vulnerable and potential temporary slow down? images-6The biggest reality associated with agile adoption is the fact that it exposes problems before they can be fixed. This can make people at different level very uncomfortable and exhibit behavior which impedes a successful agile adoption. Additionally, changes in multiple levels (roles, people, practices, processes etc…) may also cause a temporary slow down in the amount of work or value that can be produced.

In cases where the environment is not suitable for exposing problems and slow down, there might be a tendency to pursue the change without the commitment of making it successful. These expectations should be set up front and the data may also be used to help decision making about selecting the right products/initiatives/teams for adoption.

Wrap up – Agile adoption in most organizations is taking place for some nonconvincing reasons including “because the new CIO wants it” or because the competition is doing it. While these reasons will not go away, the leaders driving adoption or the consultants impacting the change should ensure that these difficult questions are asked and the emerging data used to assess readiness and willingness to be agile.

 

 

Questions to ask to Kick Start Agile Adoption – Part I of II

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As a consultant coach, each client engagement is a learning experience and a great opportunity to gather these learnings and come up with an improved and effective way of providing enhanced value. While each client is unique in many ways, there are questions that need to be asked at the front end of an engagement to help the client in better decision making.

This checklist is based purely on my personal experience and the application of these suggestions should be done on a case by case basis. For me personally, this checklist should be looked at very early, in some cases before signing a contract to helps build trust and sets the stage for a more engaging partnership. So, here you go:

Establish Vision and Create Alignment – Is there a clear vision for the impact we are trying to create with the move to agile? Alignment is a term mentioned in almost all of the posts that I have written so far and it continues to be the single most important aspect of any successful initiative. One of the most important questions for me to ask the client as I walk in is “Why agile? What problem are we trying to solve with agile?”. It is important that the expectation is clearly understood. In some cases, a facilitated conversation can help the client come up with an answer. Geese-iStock-small

The timing of this discussion is important too. If a consulting engagement starts without the objectives or intent, the partnership can turn sour pretty fast. A shared understanding of the vision can go a long way in building trust and lead to meaningful conversations and articulating of a roadmap to get there.

Inspire change, top-down How will leadership INSPIRE and ENABLE agility? Almost every single time during my first few interactions with the client (someone who is going to pay for my services), there is a feeling about the manager highlighting the need for agility for a certain part of the organization. At no point have I heard a client start with asking a question “How can I partner in enabling agility?”. It comes across as agility being something that is expected but not practiced.

Inspire-LogopngPeter Block in his book titled Flawless Consulting talks extensively about contracts. I treat it more as “terms of agreement” where I like to encourage the client to have some skin in the game in order to become catalysts and enablers of agility. This agreement is extremely important to arrive as early as possible.

A symptom where the leaders/managers check themselves out from training or workshops or are not involved in the earlier adoption activities is an early warning sign that the leader is looking at agility to be limited to the team or it may also be a sigh of resistance towards change.

The fact that leadership is enabling and driving agility and is creating an environment where the teams can afford to experiment and fail, helps creates an ideal environment for change.

Let Business Drive Agility Does the business understand agility and what this change will mean for them?  Business agility drives success or failure of every agile adoption effort. The ability of a Product Owner to think strategically and support through collaborative tactical activities makes the role indispensable.

6a0133f5884316970b019b0006ad3e970dThe biggest beneficiary of every agile adoption is business and its customers. An agile setup that works for a business that lacks vision, strategy and a roadmap to achieve the end goal is a meaningless setup. It is critical for a business to drive agility by creating business alignment and ensuring all interested parties understand what is achievable in the short and long term. A business that is able to create an interest in a problem and a passion to develop a solution and, ensures value delivery in changing market conditions through the right engagement of all stakeholders (business and engineering) becomes an enabler for organizational agility. The absence of business agility will lead to frustrated customers, value deprived outcomes and, non-motivated team members.

Structural ChangesAre we open to structural changes (feature teams, roles, management, business etc..)? A common pattern that eliminates the impact of the agile way of working or specifically using Scrum is the resistance to make any structural changes. This results in organizations trying to force fit the new process into existing structures resulting in the process losing its impact.

round_hole_square_peg_6617There is a reason why agile produces best results for organizations that are less complicated, have self-organizing and cross-functional feature teams that can own and deliver incremental business capabilities. By not committing to making the needed structural changes, it is pretty much like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Having a clear understanding of structural changes are possible or not, will help organizations avoid the effort of making agility work on a nonagile setup.

Partial Agility is no AgilityHow are we planning to provide the supporting structures that encourage and enable agility? A common impediment in the way of teams that are trying to adapt to agile methods are the surrounding nonagile aspects of the organization. These include (but are not limited to) project planning and funding methods, hiring and sourcing practices, progress tracking, management and leadership styles and more. Trying to exist in such nonagile environment, a team will end up getting distracted leading to frustration and ultimately getting into the “this will not work for us” mindset.

Special attention needs to be paid to certain critical organizational aspects that will act as a support system to implement the change and show an incremental success. This may lead to some parts to support two distinct working models but this is generally a temporary state with handsome payback in the long run.

In the next part, we will look at some more powerful questions that should be asked at the front end of any agile adoption. Until then, be agile….