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Axiom: A product is made by people betting on priorities following an agreed-upon process.
In reality, the three factors contained in this axiom are essential to succeed in any management role. This article zooms in on product development, as I will focus on real-life experiences and typical situations in the product management world.
Product managers at the individual contributor level (including Apprentice Product Managers) are both players (in the product team, usually via the triad/trifecta of product/eng/UX) and managers. They have a lot of influence on people (their team) and processes, while their primary responsibility is prioritizing the team’s efforts.
At more advanced levels, the prioritization efforts take precedence. The product leader manages direct and indirect reports and is responsible for more and more team outcomes. However, the People, Priority, Process model remains usable and valid at any level of seniority as a mental framework.
Here is a Venn diagram representation of the three concepts: People, Priority, and Process.
I sincerely believe this is the most critical predictor of success for any team. Having the right people in the right seat is especially vital for product teams that rely on a loosely coupled matrix of individuals reporting to different managers (Product, UX, Engineering).
To succeed, you don’t need geniuses, Ph.Ds, and 10X folks. You need the right people in the right seat.
To ensure your team is well-appointed, here are the most common tools you can use:
The priority component is the one closely associated with the product manager’s craft. In general, the product organization is responsible for the prioritization efforts—such as the roadmap, betting table, 6 week cycles, et cetera.
While it sounds simple on paper, real life is usually much messier because the ability to prioritize depends greatly on the strategy and business context, such as the stock trajectory, funding events, pandemic, economic downturn, and the multitude of other factors that play a role. Lots of these are outside of the control zone of product managers.
From personal experience:
A team without priorities behaves erratically and has almost no impact. Why? Because every player is playing for its benefit (local optimization) and is ignoring the big picture (global optimization). Citing my former CEO Karen Baker here:
Nothing is worse than a team running around like chickens with no head.
While this is a bloody analogy, I believe it makes a lot of sense.
As a Product Manager/Leader, this is your core responsibility! You have to make every effort to accomplish something meaningful for the business at the global level. Your primary tool to align teams is the prioritization of efforts.
In the world of Agile, processes have bad press and are perceived as negative/unnecessary. If you work in such an organization, don’t despair: focus on the rituals. Rituals can be seen as a function to implement a process. Change your viewpoint and language, then go improve your rituals!
Processes can be documented or undocumented. They can also be deeply ingrained at the organizational level—at this point, we just call them “culture.” They are notoriously hard to change globally without using authority, and even then, it will take a long time to have everyone adopt a new process. However, they are quite easy to change locally.
If you have no authority on other crafts or teams (which is the case for most product managers), your primary way to change a process is to propose changes as an experiment within your direct team. Lead by example and demonstrate the value of the processes you own so that others can now trust you to help them improve the processes they are responsible for. Think locally so that you can have a global impact via a series of successful experiments.
I would argue here that you should always work your way through the pyramid in this order:
This approach relies on two well-known frameworks:
In my experience, having a conflictual relationship with a report that lasts for more than 3 months will consume most of your energy, prevent you and your team from having a significant impact and negatively impact all your other reports, as you will be less available and negatively impacted by the situation.
You have to get each of your reports on the right seat, both for them and for the company. This is hard emotional work that you must work on as soon as you get into a management position. Trying to shy away from it will only lead to disaster, regret, and terrible outcomes for all the involved parties.
If you manage managers or if you depend on other managers (say UX and Engineering), then you have a similar problem whether or not this individual is your direct report. Product management is a team sport, not an individual gig.
Consider a sports team analogy: multiple coaches are responsible for different aspects of the game. For instance, in rugby, you have a lot of coaches: a forward coach, a back coach, an offensive coach, a defensive coach, a kicking coach, a mental coach, etc. However, even with all these resources available, a people problem can derail the best possible team! It is your responsibility as a manager (especially as you become more senior) to do something about it and ensure that everyone on your product team(s) is the right person in the right seat—no exceptions.
Once you have decided that this person is a problem and is not in the right seat, use the feedback loops that most organizations have built: impact review, 360 reviews, and solicited or unsolicited feedback. In other words, express yourself and signal what you consider a significant “people problem” to this person’s manager. This is especially important if it hinders the team’s performance. The same is true if you receive complaints about your reports!
If you can not establish a vision/mission for your team and then get it endorsed by your organization’s CEO, trying to change the processes in a meaningful way will bear little benefits to your team(s).
Why? If a few HIPPO are calling all the shots, this is the process. Changing this process requires alignment with the stakeholders to come up with a different prioritization framework. Start at the root cause of the problem, not on the consequences.
You will need to do extra work to reach a point where you get strong alignment and trust from the HIPPO—this is high-leverage and high-impact work. Don’t hire a consultant, don’t try to outsource this, but instead use your product knowledge and leadership to get there as fast as you can.
At a certain point, if you can not define measurable, clear-cut priorities, and if the HIPPO process is the one in use, I would argue that the product management function is not required. In Marty Cagan terminology, this is a “feature factory,” and a wind that you can not measure decides where the team is going next. You should either implement a prioritization process, or find another company.
This simple framework (Product = People + Priority + Process) is quite robust and works at any seniority level. It will help you elevate the debate and identify at which level you or your team are experiencing problems. It is especially useful:
The proposed approach will also help you avoid typical mistakes like:
By applying the People-Priority-Process framework consistently, you will have a unique point of view that enables you to have dispassionate conversations about any problem you want to fix at any level—with your teammates, stakeholders, leads and up to the CEO.