Are your product management processes creating more problems than they solve?

by Mike Fishbein in Best practices
April 7, 2017

Insights from interviews with product leaders from Intercom, Drift, InsightSquared, and Betterment

Building a product is a cross-functional endeavor. The problem is that, as Martin Eriksson recently and definitively concluded, the product manager is “ultimately responsible for the success or failure of a product” but doesn’t have authority over any of the people involved in the collective effort. To be effective, product managers must align their teams by being leaders rather than commanders, and they must make careful use of the most powerful weapon in their arsenal: process.

A product management process is something that a team intentionally does at regular intervals in order to facilitate cross-functional communication and execution. As one example, Objectives & Key Results (OKRs) is a popular framework that many product teams have adopted to keep them aligned and increase the likelihood of product success. The performance measurement system was invented by Intel and helped companies like Google to grow rapidly.

But some processes are still an open debate. Some product managers create public-facing roadmaps to align their team and internal stakeholders, and to keep customers informed about priorities. Others hardly believe in roadmaps at all, especially of the public-facing variety.

The fact is that, regardless of company size or industry, some degree of uncertainty is inevitable in product management. It’s human nature to want to replace that uncertainty and chaos with the order that processes promise. The problem is that processes can be hard to change later on. In a world that’s changing so quickly, a process that solved yesterday’s problems can ultimately prevent a team from developing tomorrow’s solutions. So how can product managers identify bad processes and help their teams shift to good processes?

The Symptoms of Bad Processes

It’s important for product managers to recognize the warning signs of a counterproductive process. Think critically about a process when…

1. You have to stretch yourself thin in order to execute it.

Product managers and leaders have a tendency to instill process in order to ensure that something gets done. For example, answering customer support tickets can help product teams build empathy. While that’s proven to be beneficial especially during periods of relative calm, there may come a point when there are higher value activities and opportunities to pursue. When you have a key customer thinking about switching to a competitor, you may need all hands-on-deck to figure out why and how to keep them.

Further, your team may even find more efficient and effective ways to gain insights and empathy anyway, such as one-on-one customer interviews. In these cases, instilling a customer support process, rather than focusing on the end goal of developing empathy, may actually prevent the team from achieving that objective.

2. It requires more planning and execution than it’s worth

Sometimes, it’s easy to underestimate the time and cost of executing a process when you’re not the one actually doing it. For example, requiring a team to produce comprehensive analytics reports on a frequent basis may help you make informed decisions, but it may come at the expense of your team doing any actual work (rendering the data and your decisions pretty obsolete).

While it’s certainly important to generate data to inform product decisions, product managers should also consider the time it takes to compile data, make fancy reports, and get stakeholders together for meetings.

3. Your process needs more process to work

Imagine that you decided that your team should use Trello as a Kanban board to manage new feature requests. While it seemed like a great way to track progress, you realize after a few weeks that no one on your team is keeping the board updated. So you create a daily stand-up to remind everyone to update Trello. And maybe an automated Slackbot too. Before you know, your office is a Dilbert comic strip.

You get the idea. When your process requires more process for your team to adopt it, that’s a red flag. Of course, some useful processes may take time for your team to ultimately embrace, but the benefits should generally be so obvious that they don’t need constant reminders.

How to Institute Processes That Work

Given how some processes have the potential to become counterproductive, you might sympathize with those who distrust virtually all process. When I interviewed David Cancel, CEO of Drift and former Chief Product Officer of Hubspot, he explained how he encourages each member of the product team to act autonomously. He even enables his engineers to talk directly to customers when they need to learn something, which would basically cause heads to roll at a traditional Fortune 500 company.

While I personally prefer to work in such an environment, I certainly understand the benefits of some processes, particularly within complex organizations. In these cases, however, it’s important for product managers to take necessary steps to ensure the processes are productive towards the end goal of building great products.

1. Make it iterative

As Anthony Schrauth grew Betterment from 4 to 224 people, his views on product management processes developed in tandem. As the company’s Chief Innovation Officer, I asked Anthony what advice he would give to his younger self about scaling his company. Interestingly, he urged younger Anthony to be more flexible about process:

“The processes that you follow and that you instill in the team are constantly changing. What was working 6 months ago – or even 3 months ago – may not work anymore based on how the company is changing – how different stakeholders are involved, and how big the team is and how you need to communicate with them. You always need to be evolving that.”

Executing a process simply because it exists contradicts the very reason the process was instituted in the first place. A process should be maintained and executed if, and only if, it’s helping you achieve results. You should question whether it’s doing so regularly.

If you focus on the objective of the process, it’s far more likely that you’ll revise the process to achieve the objective over time. So instead of creating a stand-up, make sure the emphasis is on the team being on the same page. You may realize later on that there are better ways to keep everyone updated than by huddling together at a set time every morning.

2. Make sure it’s high impact

It’s easy for new processes to creep into a team’s workflow over time – all it takes is one stakeholder with a new idea and suddenly you’ll have processes around executing it. While the idea may be a good one, if it’s not the most important thing for the team to be working on, it can easily prevent the team from accomplishing their ultimate goal: building a great product.

When I interviewed Samuel Clemens, Chief Product Officer of InsightSquared, he explained how each of his company’s product managers are required to visit a customer at their office once per month. At first, that seemed to me to be an intense process, but Samuel argued for the impact it has:

“You have to know your customer very well and in particular, gain this knowledge through on-premises customer visits. I stress the on-premises part. You need to be at the customer location to see the animal in their native habitat…

“You can’t just do surveys. You can’t just do phone calls. You have to get out of the building and visit customers. So, one of the processes for my product team is mandatory, once-a-month, on-premises customer visits for all of my PMs.”

The objective for InsightSquared is clear: get to know customers very well. In this particular instance, you can imagine how, without process, a team would resort to easier but less impactful methods (e.g. surveys). This process is stringent but not too intrusive, and ultimately enables product teams to build great products.

3. Don’t forget about the people

Every individual has unique preferences and every team has a different dynamic. Some people need process in order to be effective, while others have difficulty being creative in highly structured environments.

When deciding what processes to institute, it’s important to balance your objective with the nuances of your team. Just like when developing a new product or feature, processes must be tested and continually iterated upon based on feedback. Your customer in this case, however, is the team.

When I interviewed Brian Donohue, Group Product Manager at Intercom, he talked about applying lean methodologies to instituting processes:

“For process, you’ve got to start small and just say ‘what’s the least amount we can do that helps us a be a little more effective,’ rather than trying to figure out ‘hey, here’s our new productive development process. It’s 12 steps! And here you can see all the dependencies’…

“…[Process] justifies itself by organically staying alive rather than artificially needing injections of ‘hey do this thing.’”

Let qualitative feedback from stakeholders, as well as metrics from productivity to customer satisfaction, tell you what’s best for your team and your product. If after instituting a process, your team is making better product decisions, well, then you have your answer. Otherwise, grab the axe.

Build on a Strong Foundation

Process is a double-edged sword. Good processes can help teams operate effectively, but bad processes can cripple an already effective team. Product managers must remain critical of existing processes and be cautious when instituting new ones.

While process is perhaps the most powerful weapon in the product manager’s arsenal, it’s not a panacea for other problems, and shouldn’t be used as a band-aid to fix them. Don’t rely on process as an alternative to hiring the right people and building a great culture.

Beyond that, just have reasonable expectations. Product management is inherently chaotic, and trying to artificially create order can backfire painfully. I want to leave you with this quote from my interview with Brian:

“We have this expectation that it shouldn’t be a mess, but actually if you’re trying to build something of impact – if you’re trying something that needs creativity, you have to expect it to be chaotic and messy. Messiness is actually a defining characteristic of modern, impactful companies.”

If you’re not comfortable living with some chaos, you’ll only unintentionally create more of it over time. However, with the right team, a focus on the right objectives, and the willingness to iterate, you can replace inertia with meaningful execution.

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