Episode 4 of Good Product Management brought to you by Scott Colfer.
Previously on good product management: we uncovered principles for ‘product-thinking’ that can be used by anyone to improve the values of their products and services; found out how I learned the most important principle is being passionate about problems and flexible on solutions; then defined what it means to be a product manager. In this episode we uncover:
Skills of Good Product Managers
Product Management Skills 1.0
2015-ish. Cabinet Office asks the Treasury if it can pay attractive salaries for ‘digital’ folk. Treasury says ‘yes’, but ‘you need to show the roles exist in the market, and the people in them have specialist skills. Or words to that effect. The Cabinet Office’s ‘Government Digital Service’ had to define the ‘specialist digital’ roles needed by the Civil Service, prove that they exist in the marketplace already, and justify the need to pay them more than a traditional Civil Service salary. All according to someone involved in the project.
This sounded promising so I got involved. Go back in time to 2015 and there was no career pathway for product managers in the Civil Service. Use of the role was inconsistent. It was difficult to get promotion beyond Product Manager. Senior Product Managers were contractors, for the most part. Lead Product Manager roles were rare. Head of Product was new in the few organisations that had one. Here was an opportunity to work with peers from across the Civil Service and improve things. Awesome.
There was an attempt to do this late 2015/early 2016 but it petered out. Then it restarted in the Summer of 2016, this time with an external organisation leading it. We had a deadline of December 2016. Things got moving. So it was that I found myself meeting a regular cast of peers every few weeks in the second half of 2016. Zoe, Alex, Will, Ross, and myself, and others. Facilitated by an external organisation. Led by GDS. We defined the skills required of product managers in government . . . but first we had to agree our role title.
Product Owner or Product Manager?
The perennial question ‘product owner or product manager?’ came up early on. The answer was swift: we agreed the role is ‘product manager’. Product owner is a narrow version of product management within the Scrum framework. It focuses on the tactics of helping a technology team to develop software. Product management is the broad role in which we’re responsible for every aspect of a product needed to meet the needs of users, and our organisation. This discussion helped to align our thinking about the scope of the role, and to define the skills needed.
We received a final draft of the skills, pretty close to what you see below, at the end of 2016. I started using them from January 2017 and they were a huge improvement on what went before. I had greater confident in our recruitment. I could open our first campaign for permanent Senior Product Managers. This was open to internal candidates, providing the first chance for promotion.
The skills we defined remain online and in use as part of the UK government’s ‘digital, data, and technology capability framework’. They are:
- Agile working. You know about agile methodology and can apply an agile mindset to all aspects of your work. You can work in a fast-paced, evolving environment and use an iterative method and flexible approach to enable rapid delivery. You are unafraid to take risks, willing to learn from mistakes and appreciate the importance of agile project delivery for digital projects in government. You can ensure the team knows what each other is working on and how this relates to practical government objectives and user needs.
- DDaT perspective. You can demonstrate an understanding of user-centered design, technology and data perspectives. You understand the range of available technology choices and can make informed decisions based on user need and value for money. You understand the variety and complexities of digital contexts and can design services to meet them. You have knowledge of the wider digital economy and advances in technology.
- Experience of working within constraints. You understand and can work within given constraints (including but not limited to technology and policy, and regulatory, financial and legal constraints). You know how to challenge constraints that can be changed. You can ensure compliance against constraints by adapting products and services where needed.
- Financial ownership. You can secure funding for agile delivery through a business case and through delivering a good pitch in government. You can prioritise spending based on return on investment (ROI) and strategic intent: this may include contract ownership and accountability for realisation of benefits.
- Life-cycle perspective. You understand the different phases of product delivery and can contribute to, plan or run these. You can maintain a product or process through the delivery phases, into live and then into retirement. You know how to lead a team through the different phases of the delivery product life cycle. You can maintain and iterate a product over time to continuously meet user needs. You understand incident management and service support so that products are built effectively.
- Operational management. You can manage the operational process of designing and running a product or service throughout its entire product life cycle. You know how to implement best practice in new product or service development and know how to plan and put into operation the stages of new product or service development. You can overcome operational constraints to deliver a successful product or service. You know how to work closely with other operational delivery teams.
- Problem ownership. You can understand and identify problems, analysing and helping to identify the appropriate solution. You can classify and prioritise problems, document their causes and implement remedies.
- Product ownership. You know how to use a range of product management principles and approaches. You can capture and translate user needs into deliverables. You know how to define the minimum viable product and make decisions about priorities. You can write user stories and acceptance criteria. You know how to work with a range of specialists in multidisciplinary teams.
- Strategic ownership. You can focus on outcomes, not solutions. You are bold and can develop ambitious visions and strategies. You know how to get the organisation and team to buy in. You can translate the vision into prioritised deliverable goals.
- User focus. You understand users and can identify who they are and what their needs are, based on evidence. You can translate user stories and propose design approaches or services to meet these needs. You can engage in meaningful interactions and relationships with users.You put users first and can manage competing priorities.
We should always learn and improve. I’ve used these skills to recruit dozens, interview hundreds, and sift 1,000+ product managers. I review and retrospect following each campaign and have incrementally tweaked how I use the skills. Here’s how I personally define the skills after 3-4 years of iterations.
Product Management Skills 2.0
The two core skills are product strategy and product tactics. They’re called ‘strategic ownership’ and ‘product ownership’ in our original definitions. All the other skills are facets of these two.
A strategy is a goal (expressed with a clear outcome) along with a plan for how to achieve it. Product management is about improving the value of a product for its users and your organisation. Product strategy is the outcomes you want for your users and your organisation through your product, along with a plan for how to achieve it.
Tactics are the specific steps we take to achieve our strategy. Product tactics are the individual hypotheses we have for improving the value of our product, taking us closer to achieving our strategy.
Strategy has no value if it’s not brought to life for the people who will actually put it in place. Likewise, a tactical team that can ‘get shit done’ but doesn’t have a strategy will become a feature-factory. Product managers must be strategic and tactical. To go with some broad stereotypes (apologies), what I’ve noticed is:
- People coming from backgrounds like consultancy or policy might excel at product strategy in the abstract but need to back-fill their ability to develop the strategy collaboratively, and to sit in the team implementing it and bring it to life for them
- People coming from Scrum or operational backgrounds might excel at product tactics but need to back-fill their ability to own their product’s strategy.
Some product managers wish to embed in a software development team and prioritise and accept features. On the flip side, some product managers want to work with ‘the business’, and hand-off to a product owner who works with the people building the thing. Both of these approaches are valid and work in many situations. In government we’re looking for the type of product manager who can lead both strategy and tactics, so that we can reduce hand-offs and make decisions.
There are important facets of product strategy and tactics that it’s useful to pull out. Over time, I’ve refined and conflated the original skills.
We should be passionate about problems but flexible on solutions. People talk about problems through solutions. We can fall in love with solutions. Product managers need the ability to flip-this. Focusing on your users’ problems gives you the flexibility to make useful changes to your products and services. It’s OK to have organisational goals as long as we understand that they’ll only be achieved when they also solve users’ problems. If we find a problem we need to find out if it’s urgent enough, pervasive enough, and valuable enough to be worth solving.
This is an aspect of problem-focus. But in 2020 it remains important that ‘user-focus’ is an explicit skill. We’re still sometimes challenged that user research is an expensive, ‘nice to have’. We can be pressured to skip it. One aspect of the skill is an ability to commission and support research to understand users. And use insights from this research to improve the value of the product for users and the organisation. Another aspect of the skill is the ability to ensure research happens despite hostility towards it.
Understanding the whole product lifecycle
I’m largely to blame for this one. I made the case for this skill because it seemed the largest gap in product managers’ abilities. This remains the same in 2020 in my experience. Based on sifting and interviewing candidates from all sectors, it’s the skill that most people struggle with. Understanding the point of each phase of the product lifecycle. What ‘success’ looks like. How we know when we’re ready for the next phase. And what this change will mean for us, our strategy, and our team.
Product management expertise can be skewed towards developing the new. Sometimes we need to improve the mature. There’s a skill to prioritising new product features against new features of the service wrapper, paying down technical debt, and looking for new opportunities for growth. Incidents will happen and need resolution. All whilst you have a user group with much higher expectations of your product. This is a subset of product lifecycle but useful to pull out on its own.
Working with agility
This is interesting to me. This was included to check that all ‘digital’ specialists were working in a particular way.
I’m going to stick my neck out and say that, for me, working with agility means two things. One: focus on outcomes over outputs and release stuff early and often to check you’re getting the outcomes you want. Two: empower colocated, multidisciplinary teams to do this. One is led by product managers and two is led by delivery managers. Following this chain of logic, half of working with agility is covered by being a product manager. The other half we’d expect to be led by a delivery manager.
The way I’ve found this to be useful is as a space to test the skill of understanding how to work with others. Can a product manager create a bank of hypotheses for improving the value of the product but support and empower the team to figure out how to test the prioritised hypothesis? Can the product manager focus on product strategy and work with a delivery manager who leads workflow strategy (team performance, constraints, dependencies)? Can the product manager help a team to release improvements to our products early and often, to check that we’re getting the value we expect? And do this through iterative cycles of collaboration, delivery, reflection, and improvement? This provides space to learn how the product manager works in context and in relation to others, rather than assessing them in isolation.
Some original skills don’t appear in my suggested improvements. They were already classed as ‘desirable’ rather than ‘essential’ and I’ve found further reason why they’re already covered elsewhere:
- ‘DDaT perspective’ makes sense to very few people. It was meant to mean ‘has the person got the expertise required to work effectively within a co-located, multi-disciplinary, user-centred team that’s working with agility’. Looking at the intention, you can see that other skills uncover this. That’s been my experience. So I’ve found it’s not required as a discrete skill to assess on its own at interview because it’s uncovered through other skills.
- Experience of working within constraints is another that’s covered by the other skills and not needed on its own
- Financial ownership is about responsibility for budget and ‘benefits realisation’, which is synonymous with ‘value’. This is core to the entire role. In every skill we’re keen to know how actions taken by the product manager improved value. This is of particular focus in product strategy.
I hope these skills are useful for you. I’m aware that I’ve barely scratched the surface of talking about them but equally aware that this episode is long. So a future episode will go into more detail on the core skills of product strategy and product tactics, jumping off to touch on the supplementary skills too. Before that, I’m going to talk about behaviours of product managers. Stay subscribed for both.
Let me know - do you have your own set of skills you use? - do you have experience of using the government skills list above and have opinions about them? - do you think there’s an important skill that’s overlooked? - do you have tips on how to use skills like this to make them more helpful?
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