No need to be afraid of R&D

When I was put in front of engineers for the very first time, I really didn´t know how to deal with them. Quickly I realized that my leadership style didn´t work out anymore. Please don´t get me wrong: I was an experienced manager with almost ten years of leadership experience. Until that point in time I was pretty successful in my roles. My strategy to get myself over this point was to put pressure. “We need to have feature A released by June, otherwise we won´t achieve our business target and our investors won´t like it…” I said. And you know what: my R&D colleagues simply didn´t care. Instead they asked me what to do, how to build it etc. I was not able to answer questions about the product itself and was caught waffling in many cases.

More than that: I always felt uncomfortable to talk about the product to be built. Even tried to avoid talking about it. Incredible, isn’t it? On top of that, I tried to avoid exposure to the teams in charge. Wanted to “manage” it top down.

The result was poor. We launched a product that more or less completely failed. But even worse: I had lost my reputation with my R&D team. They simply didn’t take me seriously anymore. My behavior had increased the gap between “business” and “engineering”.

Now after a couple of years later I understand why. I had to learn it the hard way how to collaborate with my R&D colleagues. But not without having gone to the other extreme: having lost my connection with my stakeholders. Only in the recent years I have been able to balance the needs better. And actually got a lot of satisfaction out of this. Starting with a product vision and then going through technical but also design and customer iterations is something extremely exciting.

The most important thing you need to bear with: accept that you don´t know much. You don’t need to be the one knowing everything and also not the one with the best ideas. In the contrary: the more you step back the more successful you will become. One team gave me a nickname after I had left – “Il Padrino” – the guy behind the scenes but in charge…

Many business people eye away from uncertainty

Learning about all the frameworks in a MBA education and dealing with all the business cases leads to a situation where business people might feel over confident in understanding what is going on in the world. More than that: a lot claim to know better and to have a more strategic view than the Product Managers.

At the same time, the Product Manager is forced to justify his/her proposal in a situation where proof of evidence is simply not existing. And not only that: many assumptions are being made. If you forced design thinkers to prove every single of those assumptions, nothing will ever really happen. It is all about intuition and iteration with real customers. It is about dealing with uncertainty. Really dealing with uncertainty – not just pretending to do so.

“The Designful Company” is a great book. It also describes the situation of the earth not being entirely discovered. Maps would only cover part of the globe, many white areas are still left. There are some people who are attracted by those and who are willing to “fight the dragons”. And others shy away.

Digital has created even more white spaces than ever before. The world is full of new opportunities. So why do many business people don´t conquer them? Well it is because of the uncertainty they would have to admit to be existent.

If you have an idea about your target market and a top level understanding of what product you want to build you still have the challenge to build it. Building it from scratch is hard. You can copy cat similar products or you can just tweak your existing UI – both feel more comfortable than jumping into the cold water.

And now imagine the product visionary coming in with her/his ideas. Not using what is out there already but trying to build new solutions to existing problems. And now try to figure out your own emotions in such a situation. You don´t understand the solution, it is different from what you have experienced before. Would you leave your framework castle to deal with it or shoot it down from behind your safe (business) walls? Up to you to decide!

It is difficult for Product Managers to think business

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Why do founder CEOs with strong product management skills have difficulties when their companies need scaling? Why are product managers often perceived as the guys who don’t understand “business”? Why is is often so frustrating to manage stakeholders if you are a Product Manager?

I have asked myself this type of questions pretty often. Actually, at times I felt so far away from business that I was proud of being an idealistic advocate of our users. I found excitement in challenging the business colleagues by presuming I had the better (because user related) arguments in discussions. And yes, it is true that there are many articles about this topic. One of my employees pretty often asked me to be less “ideologic” and my strategy papers etc. were often perceived as kind of “bible”. Personally I believe this has been and still is a defensive move of the function product. Let´s try to understand the different historical phases of product management:

PHASE I (TACTICAL MARKETING)

Product was simply one of the four p´s in the marketing mix. Product Managers got a list of features they had to build and to release. That´s it.

PHASE II (STRATEGIC MARKETING)

Marketing became more and more a philosophy for companies to be truly consumer centric. It is the moment where marketing started to ask for seats at the executive table.

PHASE III (R&D COMPLEXITY)

Latest with the arrival of digital, products became too complex to be built based on top down specification. The introduction of agile methodologies has changed they way R&D needs to be led.

PHASE IV (STRATEGIC PRODUCT MANAGEMENT)

With all the agile teams led by Product Managers a new level of organizational challenge arrived: how to make sure all teams are working towards the same goal? Traditional general managers often fail to manage R&D because they are not seasoned Product Managers. They need “help” in steering those teams. The only way to inspire those teams is to have a clear product vision instead of asking for simple features to be built. There is translation needed. Otherwise there will be no real link between general management and R&D and the company will not be successful.

So, if you experience Product Managers not embracing your corporate strategy, this might be due to the fact that she/he is not willing and/or able to challenge it. It might be a comfort zone related issue. On the other hand side, it is always hard to leave the area of your own functional expertise and to broaden your view. It is like a nail that has been driven into a plank and then needs to expand in order to make a real hole…

Broadening_Business_Ambition

 

A big question remains open: how to broaden your view as a Product Manager? I have chosen to do a MBA for this. But if you have colleagues with a solid consulting background and openness towards design thinking this might also be very valuable.

Why good product management helps sustainability

During a lunch with Erik we have had a discussion about sustainability. This inspired me to write this post. Good product management means focusing on serving user needs best with special focus on creating tangible benefits. Starting with a problem that is worthwhile solving from the user´s point of view, the emphasis is to iteratively come up with solutions that get users excited. There is no waffling, but pure product in the hands of potential and hopefully future consumers.

Consequent design thinking ensures that no “waste” is being produced. This also avoids that products are being built which serve only one purpose: maximizing the profit of the building company – not the one of its customers.

Real sustainability emerges if the ingredients viability, desirability and feasibility come together. A good product manager focuses on all three and is therefore compliant with sustainability standards.

So, dear product managers: now you have another very strong argument in discussions about how important design thinking is. Think long term, help to improve sustainability!

It is time to clean up the mess between CMO and CDO

BeforeDigitalPush

Yesterday I read an article about the CMO transitioning to a CDO by Ray. It is only one in a series of articles about this topic. In my opinion this is not showing the complete story.

In simple words: many people believe that digital has created the need to make (analog) CMOs transition to (digital) CDOs. As running (digital) promotions has a strong technology impact, the CIO is also put into the play as she/he is the only one to really understand big data & co.

This jumps too short. Let´s take a step back and clarify the different disciplines involved. In “old” times, it was marketing only. They defined the products to be built, they ran the promotions and built the brand. Marketing was perceived as an overarching philosophy about understanding and serving customer needs. R&D was the department to build products based on marketing requirements. “Our market research has shown that customers want their washing powder come as little red balls, so you guys build our washing powder as little red balls.”

This has changed due to the digital push. The complexity of products has exploded. Building the right product solutions has become an iterative and design resp. technology driven process. Now a quote like the one above would look like this: “In intense individual customer interviews we have found that we able to build the big green boxes that customers love to use as their washing powder.”

AfterDigitalPushAt the same time branding is still playing a major role as it deals with the intangible assets of products (that are by definition neither digital nor analog). There is a need for all three areas. Now you could discuss who should “own” the customer. Or one could agree on applying an overarching philosophy (all have the customer in mind with everything they do).

So, where does the CDO come in? Is this the person to ensure that a “digital” philosophy is being applied? This would require to address ALL functions. Today´s discussions around CDOs seem to limit its role to tactical marketing (aka selling products digitally).  In my opinion, this jumps far too short and does harm to the standing of a CDO in a company.

So, either the CDOs are up to the real challenge or they leave the ground to product managers, marketers and brand specialists.

By Jörg Malang

You cannot discuss finance when you are too optimistic

In today´s lecture this quote was made by the finance professor @HECParis. Again, there is this perception that there is a kind of “solid” world ruled by careful and risk averse people. On the other side stand the “dreamers” that don’t see the upcoming dark clouds.

We have gone through a case study of a very profitable company in a heavy growth situation running out of cash due to the increase of working capital. The founder and his wife were still owning >50% of their company but they had to look for either for new shareholders or to borrow more money. The conclusion was that for the founder it would be best to buy himself some time by borrowing money and to use the won time to sell his company.

Let´s imagine this founder was a product driven person (actually his company was in the software business). Let´s further imagine that all his fantasy doesn’t really help his company in the light of the upcoming cash bottleneck. A fantasy about great new products finding many users who are willing to pay. But the original product visionary is busy optimizing his cash cycle. He can´t build great products. Would this be the moment to hire a Product Manager?

In other words: does the CEO have to be careful by nature and the Product Manager is the optimist by definition? How do they come to conclusions? What is best for the company?

The only way to avoid this kind of situation is to plan very far ahead. Observe carefully early signs of issues and react appropriately. And don’t listen too much to the optimists (aka the Product Managers  ) in your company…

By Jörg Malang

Branding is about thinking big

In a great presentation by Jean-Noel Kapferer yesterday @HECParis, I was really inspired to rethink my stereotypes about branding.

First of all it is important to note that “a brand is much more than just a name on a product“. Brands also go far beyond driving sales. I don´t know why all the Marketing people I have talked to during my career were not able to make this point to me yet.

If more people recommend a brand than those who are actually purchasing the product, this is a clear signal of a strong brand. The opposite is that some companies have to pay money to be present in films. Jean-Noel calls them “desperate”. There is some magic in putting a crocodile on a shirt despite the fact that this animal is commonly not very much liked.

Second, social media activity is a very good indicator of the value of a brand (“If your brand is not talked about on the web you are not a brand”). Until yesterday, I have thought that counting followers on Facebook is just a way for non-digital Marketers to measure their awareness success (without understanding anything). Now I see that active user participation around brand makes a big difference.

Third, brands can only be authentic if they are considered strategic. It is NOT about driving sales, but much more about building products / companies with a purpose. This purpose lives beyond sales and awareness . This purpose is something that makes our world a bit more worth living. Without leaving “a dent in the universe” there is no real purpose. Product Management is such an exciting place to be in as it helps to build brands. Brands that exist beyond the Marketing department

Thank you, Jean-Noel, for this great inspiration!

By Jörg Malang

How does a MBA help Product Managers not to be roadmap monkeys?

Achieving to build great products means extensive stakeholder management on the one hand. On the other hand, the Product Manager needs to create an environment where she/he can build those products. This environment needs to be based on clear strategic choices of the company.

I am sure many of you know this graph (taken from IDEO).

Viability_etc

Especially in the area of viability there is immediately the  ”business question” coming up. How will the company make money out of your product? What is your expected growth? A Product Manager is in the situation where she/he has to not only do design thinking but also to discuss company strategy.

As product management involves nearly all functions in a company more or less directly, you could consider the role of a Product Manager as a general management role. Sure, you can argue that there is an overlap with the CEO and the senior management respectively.

But: don’t forget that the Product Manager is the one who should be able to do the design thinking (who else?). Design thinking is the necessary but not sufficient skill of a Product Manager. She/he needs to be able to defend strategic positions from a general management point of view as well (on executive level).

We all know what happens if this is not the case: the Product Manager becomes what I would call a “roadmap monkey”. What could prepare one better for this challenge than a MBA? It´s “business ambition” combined with “design thinking” what makes a Product Manager deliver unique value to the company…

By Jörg Malang