I believe the future of product management is product thinking. And product coaching is how we get there.
I have worked with in product for most of my career. Building products for big corporates, small startups and scale-ups. Mostly I have been on the consulting side, meaning I have always had to hand over what I have built to someone else. What I have seen, is that both startups and big corporates have issues in understanding how to be more product-led without the right mindset and framework. Just adding more product managers, is not the answer. We are a nuanced bunch and I don’t think this is going to scale in the future
In 2015, Martin Eriksson wrote an article about the history of product management. He said:
This may, in time, require fewer people called product managers in a company, but it puts even more emphasis on the importance of the craft of product management.
Our understanding of our craft has come a long way since 2015. I believe that it is now a good time to evolve product management into product thinking. A philosophy, mindset, a common knowledge. But primarily, something that can be acquired by anyone in the organisation.
The people in charge and at the forefront of this change will be product coaches. They will be the custodians of product thinking within an organisation, and tasked with getting people, teams, and organisations to become more product led through product thinking.
In summary; product management will become product thinking, product managers will become product coaches, and this will lead to organisations being more product led.
Design, UX, Agile Have Already Done the Hard Work
I spend a lot of time looking at other industries for inspiration in how I can evolve my craft. We can learn from our peers and communities that have already made such a transition. The design, user experience, and agile communities have all evolved from a role and a skillset to something bigger.
Design became design thinking through the great work of IDEO, creating a framework and mindset that can be used by everyone.
User experience has gone from being a job to a requirement for any product. It’s now a measurement for how good a product is and of how well we do our jobs from a service, design, and product perspective.
Agile jumped directly into claiming it was more than a way of working into a mindset, creating frameworks that have completely changed how we operate as teams and as organisations. Being agile is now also something not just a handful of developers can be, but a state that every organisation and team aspires to be. Even if they don’t fully understand it, they all want a piece of it.
I see a big opportunity for product management to learn from these communities. Product management can become a “thinking” and a methodology that will be so intertwined with how we run businesses that it will be impossible to avoid.
I have given a first go at defining what product thinking is and what I believe product coaching is, and the role it will play in the future of product management.
First Part of the Hypothesis: Build the Right Thing, the Right way
At Founders Factory, I’ve started to focus on giving businesses tools to try themselves and iterate, rather than holding their hands all the time. This means having more than just the founder involved in learning what product thinking is and becoming more product led. I want the definition of product thinking to encompass more than being the glue that keeps everything together. It should include both the hard skills of creating a strategy and understanding user experience and the soft skills of how to get the best out of a team and stakeholder management.
My first stab at a definition is a set of core principles that I believe incorporates these criteria:
– Being outcome-focused instead of output-focused
– Focus on value creation for my business and for our customers
– Thriving in uncertainty through problem-solving
– Focus on creating a happy and empowered team and organisation
Or it could be put in a sentence:
“Thriving in uncertainty and problem solving to achieve business and customer value through scalable solutions and continuous delivery with an empowered and happy team.”
Or maybe just something simple like:
“Build the right thing, the right way.”
This is my first version of a definition of what product thinking could be – a set of principles and a simple way to explain it. It needs to evolve from here, and that’s where our community of product people comes in. It should be a living thing, something we all can sign off on and evolve together!
Second Part of the Hypothesis: Product Coaching
For our craft to evolve and become more scalable, I foresee an organisation where product covers more borders than it does now. Not as a function, but as roaming experts in product thinking, helping everyone to think like product managers and whole organisations becoming more product led.
My Coaching Framework
At Founders Factory I work with all types of founders and different types and sizes of businesses. I’ve had to put together thoughts and frameworks for myself to scale my support as we grow our portfolio and grow the business. I have therefore created a coaching framework that I work with for every startup at the Factory.
The framework consists of three main parts:
Uncertainty – for you Thrive in and for People to Embrace
At the outset, I try to map the team’s knowledge of product thinking as a whole. This helps me to figure out how much time and what tools to give a founder and a business in order to be as efficient as possible in my job, but also to create a coaching plan for the company.
We product managers have always prided ourselves in mastering the ability to thrive in uncertainty. However, how do we get whole teams and organisations to embrace it? Luckily my teacher girlfriend has books and research on getting pupils from the known to the unknown.
To help with uncertainty I stole a theory called the Zone of Proximal Development, or “scaffolding” as introduced by Wood, Bruner, and Ross (1976) from the teaching profession. For some reason, there seems to be synergy in the behaviour of 12-year-olds and startup teams.
It’s simple. You map out the known, let’s say “I know how to make a lasagne” and what is unknown to you – “how to make the best lasagne in the world”. The Zone of Proximal Development is the area where you need guidance to reach the skills you desire. Or if you are a startup founder and you have reached a plateau and need to understand how to achieve better momentum, you might need guidance, or, in this case, product coaching.
Empathy – How to Show and use More Understanding, and Install it in Your Team and Business
Being empathetic is one thing, but how do you use empathy as part of your product practice? For me, it involves acquiring more knowledge about your business and your customers from a human perspective than one purely based on data. You can also use this to generate more empathy within your organisation as well, for your stakeholders, teams, investors, and so on.
I use two main activities:
– Empathy Mapping
– Product Radical Listening
Empathy Mapping is used widely in the design industry as a way to form a clearer picture of what we believe is in our customers’ minds
Using the map, you can form an understanding of what customers say, feel, think, etc, and then map your product to meet those needs. You can also use it internally, mapping your team, your stakeholders, your investors, maybe your whole organisation. If your team was a person, how would they think, what would they say, and how can you help with their needs? It’s an excellent way to give everyone – you, the team, customers – a better understanding of each other in business.
Product Radical Listening is a straightforward activity that over time can give excellent results. Built on Marshall Rosenberg’s theory about non-interruptive sessions – how to use it is explained in this blog post – you can practise this internally with stakeholders or team members who you feel need to show or have more empathy for what you’re trying to achieve.
Set up a weekly meeting with the person you have in mind. You gather data from your team in the form of one-to-ones. This data together with data from customers in whatever way it takes (preferably comments, or interview answers). You then present this data to the person, and don’t allow them to interrupt or talk back. Over time, you will see a change in manner, leadership, and decisions, based on this activity happening continuously. Working with startup founders, this is something I see working very often. Founders are notoriously busy, but also working hard at fundraising, meaning there is little time to get a full understanding of everything happening in the business. Spending an hour doing this repeatedly has helped plenty of businesses and founders I’ve worked with to make better decisions.
Building empathy takes many forms. A framework and a few activities will help you to get started and will lead to the whole organisation making better more product lead decisions. It can be as easy as having all team members exposed to customer data and access to stakeholders in the business to understand business goals.
Resilience – Being and Creating More Resilient Businesses
If you haven’t realised already, getting teams and businesses to become more product led is a repetitive and lengthy process. The best framework I’ve come across is similar to when you create self-organising teams, where the long-term goal is clear and the way to get there is by structured smaller tasks.
If we go back to the lasagne, we have mapped out that your Zone of Proximal Development is that you need guidance to reach the skills of making the best lasagne. We need to break it into manageable items for you to get there, maybe watching three Jamie Oliver videos a week or signing up for a cookery course.
Long-term goals and smaller tasks in a repeated fashion are how you create more resilience for yourself and for people you coach. For example, as I mentioned earlier, at work I try to get startups into a better place of momentum. Activities for reaching that goal can include playing with the cadence of your development. It might feel you’re moving more quickly if you work to a weekly schedule, while actually you can be more productive working fortnightly. Regular more transparent data sharing with the team and setting regular indicators and metrics are also great ways to create a sense of momentum in teams.
Over time, the coaching effort will decrease as product thinking increases. The goal being you not having to be involved at all in the day to day, as they grow their knowledge and you can move your efforts and focus to other parts and people of the business.
This is, ultimately, how we scale product management. Becoming an integral part in how to build the best businesses that will create more value for customers. By moving product management to product thinking, product managers to become product coaches and this leads businesses to become more product led.
My ask of you
I want us as a community to build on the knowledge we have to evolve into what I believe is the most scalable solution to the future of product management.
Consider this the start and a hypothesis that will need to be validated, by us, and the businesses and customers we represent. The first step is to define what we believe product thinking is and how we can share it in a way that makes businesses excited by the prospect of being more product led.