Why are product processes so poorly executed?

NOTE: This was originally posted at https://www.transformationlabs.io/blog.

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When I work with companies, one of the questions I often ask the Product teams is:

Of all the product-related processes you participate in, which one works the best?

The two most common answers are:

  1. “Process? We don’t have process. We just get sh*t done.”
  2. “The Agile process with Engineering.”

Now both of these are rather troubling answers to be honest.

The “We don’t have process” answer is obviously problematic. Some people are just anti-process; process is something to be avoided in their minds. “No process” only works in small companies where there is strong and constant communication and a high-level of trust amongst staff or team members. Things break down very quickly and painfully if either of those (communication or trust) are missing.

But it indicates to me a clear lack of maturity in management. Without some process, you can’t scale or become more efficient. Without process, success is tied to individual heroics and that’s definitely not scalable nor repeatable for very long.

The “Agile process” answer is actually more troubling. It means there is process in the company, but just not much in the Product Management team. This response is most often cited by mid-sized to larger companies, but also comes from smaller companies and startups. When they answer “Agile”, I ask why?

Why is the Agile process with Engineering the one that works best?

After some discussion, the answer comes out. It’s because they (the Engineering org) put it in place (at some point) and they have gotten trained on it and they focus on having a good process and trying to improve it.

So my next question (I ask a lot of questions), is:

Why hasn’t Product Management put their own processes in place so that Product Management can be efficient and scalable and improve over time? You know, things like research and discovery, business planning, strategy and roadmapping, analytics and measurement etc.

Now things get interesting. This is not a question many product managers have thought about. Usually, they’ve just accepted the status quo at their company. The processes aren’t typically documented. They are typically ad-hoc and passed on to new hires by shadowing an existing employee. This is the first problem. And process-guru Edward Deming has some advice here.

Want some advice? Try to document the processes. That sentence has two words that put a lot of people to sleep: “document” and “processes”. But bear with me. Lightly document the processes. Is that better?

Why?

Because the act of trying to document them will help define them, and that is the first step to improving and even optimizing over time. As part of documenting them, identify who should participate in them, who should lead them, and ideally how you’d measure success (i.e. metrics) in that process. Keep it lightweight. Now compare this to the reality of what’s happening in your company. The contrast may surprise you!

Often Product Managers don’t even participate in areas such as business planning and strategy. And as for research, many don’t have direct access to customers, and even if they do, they often don’t have the time or the skills to do it effectively. Many product managers live in a reactive world of managing “tickets”, handling inbound requests and “fire fighting”. This is not what Product Management should be focused on.

And why is that the case? Often, it’s because the product leadership team (VP Product Management, Head of Product, CTO etc.) themselves don’t have a strong background in Product Management or aren’t familiar with how to formally do these things. This is not a criticism, but simply a statement of the reality in many companies.

If any other department — Engineering, Sales, Marketing etc. — functioned in this ad-hoc or reactive way, we’d all be up in arms. So why don’t WE as product leaders hold ourselves accountable to the same standard? i.e. define and manage processes to drive success for our teams.

And here’s Deming with more choice words of advice:

People need to know what they need to do, and how to do it, and then expend the necessary effort. Simply working hard and “getting sh*t done” is not the path to success.

Why don’t we as product leaders implement efficient, scalable processes, train our staff appropriately and have ways to measure progress and success? Isn’t that something EVERY executive should focus on? Other departments do that. Why not Product Management?

And here’s one more nugget from Deming on the topic.

We hire good people right? Some of us claim we only hire “the best”. So why do we put systematic barriers in their way to prevent them from being successful?

Now, I’m sure some of you are saying:

“That’s not us. We send our people for product management training. We’ve spent a lot of money on those 3-day classes over the years. And they taught us a methodology that we use.”

Now, if that’s the case, that’s great. But that’s just the starting point. Here are a few more questions to ask yourself:

  • How long ago did your team members have that training?
  • How much training has your team had THIS YEAR to stay current and improve their skills?
  • Have they had formal training in customer research, defining product strategy, creating strong roadmaps etc.?
  • Do they have formal training in negotiation, stakeholder management, communication and presentation?
  • If you’re using product analytics tools, how well-versed is your team in data literacy, data quality, analysis and visualization?
  • How are you (as a product leader) measuring their skills and creating clear plans for skills improvement?
  • How are you measuring the success of the processes your teams follow? i.e. what metrics (if any) do YOU track?
  • Do you have any kind of continuous improvement plan to make these processes better over time?

These are important questions to think about, because, unlike other orgs — e.g. Eng, Sales, Marketing — Product Management teams are small, and yet they have a very large mandate that directly impacts the success of the company. Given the small size and large mandate, they need to operate even MORE efficiently than other groups.

The MISSING INGREDIENTS, in most companies, that prevent the product management teams from having maximum impact are the lack of documented, lightweight, and measurable processes for research, planning, strategy, roadmaps, launch etc. and the skills to execute them. Train your staff to become proficient in them and then measure their success and improvement over time.

If you’re a startup founder, a CEO, CPO, VP of Product etc. understand that company success is predicated on product success. And product success is the fundamental objective of Product Management. Equip your product teams with the right skills and ensure their processes are well defined and well run. You’ll see the results very clearly across your company and on your balance sheet.

Saeed

And yes, we do offer services and workshops to help companies address these problems.

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About the Author

Saeed Khan is a founder of Transformation Labs and has worked for over 20 years in high-technology companies building and managing market leading products. He speaks regularly at industry events on the topic of product management and product leadership. You can contact him via Twitter @saeedwkhan or via the Contact Uspage.

Product Consultant. Contact me for help in building great products, processes and people. http://www.transformationlabs.io