You're missing a piece

So who are we? Why are we here?

2019 New Years reflection

We are trying to offer transformative greatness. We offer this by pointing out that organizations are often simply missing a key piece of the engine. They are a generation behind, trying to keep up. They are smart, savvy, hardworking professionals who are keeping up with all kinds of emerging trends. But some key detail is missing, and they know it. They know they are falling behind, they know it shouldn’t be like this, but they aren’t sure what to do about it.

We hit the same wall several years ago, and in looking around to the larger universe of innovation, were introduced to what has become a standard practice in tech companies that could really help our own limping organization. Product management.

It’s as if the car was invented without a transmission. Everyone used cars and they did a lot of great work – but they maxed out at 20 mph and that was that. And after a certain amount of years, someone invents a transmission, and the people building cars with transmissions are setting new standards for performance. Now highways are constructed and some people are getting places much faster. But along with the transmission, all kinds of other things are being invented, and many companies are failing to pick out which is the thing that is allowing these other cars to cruise at highway speeds. Maybe it’s this, maybe it’s that. And transmissions are complicated, so it’s not the first thing anyone wants to bite off. So they work on other things, they install the power windows, the sound system, the better seats, because none of those things require them to re-engineer significant pieces of the engine.

Well, we can delay no longer. We can’t drive on the highway without a transmission. That means we not only have to figure that out, but potentially tinker with a lot of other pieces of the engine. Ugh.

And to make it even more intimidating, this is a physical metaphor for a people system. What you need is better roles, new remits, and people with the right proclivities and instincts to fit these new roles like a glove. Humans are frustratingly... unique! You can’t google a part number and go to the auto parts store and pick one up.

The transmission in this metaphor represents a product team. A dedicated team of product managers and specialists not to do the wide array of “digital” work required by every organization, but to steer, optimize and educate staff on the customizable tools, their interconnections, and the processes that get value out of these tools. It’s owning the evolving technical strategy, and stewarding the array of efforts needed to bring functional objectives to life, including making sure the staff has what they need to take advantage of the evolving powers that are coming into play.

This is what will allow the organization to shift out of first gear into second, and then, third, and then fourth and fifth and beyond. This is what will allow the same amount of power to push your organization to speeds you once would not have thought possible.

Really? Does that really work like that? How?

First let’s look at how it works without a product team. You have a set list of requirements. You hire or outsource whoever is needed to build tools to meet these requirements. You hire the people needed to do the daily operations and management. You get to work. When problems arise, you fix them.

That’s pretty much it. Doesn’t sound too bad actually.

But that picture doesn’t highlight something else that is inevitably happening. Julie in Customer Service notices after doing a repetitive operation for the 400th time that it’s painfully brainless and in fact she’s putting the same data point in 2 or 3 places separately, and often enough there are typos that lead to mismatches which cause problems, and there should be a better way. In fact many, many people will be noticing things like this every day, and the system isn’t technically “broken”. That’s just how it was set up. Julie mentions her observation to her trusted IT support buddy Jan, and Jan talks to her boss about it, and her boss doesn’t have the slightest interest in reengineering their technical backbone. Does it work? Yes. Use it, don’t complain. Users always complain. Tell them we’re looking at alternative systems and when we’ve done all the analysis we’ll swap out this piece of old crap for a shiny new tool that will do it all.

That doesn’t give your organization a transmission, that’s thinking of your technology like a dishwasher. Get a decent one and replace it when a better one comes along.

A lot of organizations simply don’t want to worry about technology strategy. That's valid! Technology is scary. There are experts throwing around terms and jargon that can leave non-technical staff, including leadership, feeling helpless. You didn’t get into this to be a tech company. Why should we need to be inventing metaphorical transmissions for our technology???

The good news is that it isn’t actually THAT hard. It’s more about recognizing the need, setting it up smartly, finding the folks who are naturally suited for this kind of work (they’re all over the place, actually wishing they could do more of it!), drawing some clear lines in the sand to protect this team’s ability to focus on what they need to focus on, and building up staff to dedicate resources and focus to it. We can help, but you can do it. Really.

Ok, it’s not just add water. And it can cost more than you’d want it to. But the fact is, if you don’t have something like this in place, you are hemorrhaging money on inefficiencies already, and losing opportunities left and right to get more out of your staff muscle than you ever imagined.

And it is strategic, so that means decisions you make are consequential. Good decisions lead to good results and bad decisions lead to bad results. And of all the strategic decisions you make, if you don’t feel particularly adept in technology, you might not want to add tech strategy to your list of things to worry about. But the fact is, that’s a strategic choice right there. You are choosing nothing, to let the forces of nature run their course. Or maybe you’re burying it in someone’s already full plate, without the resources to focus on it sufficiently. That will have major consequences. Perhaps those are the consequences you are feeling right now.

It is possible that some tech company will create a solution that is an exact, comprehensive fit for your organization, and you just need to wait and keep an eye out for it. But guess what, you’ll still need someone who comprehensively understands your technical needs and a pretty hefty lift to shift systems and help your users shift from the old to the new. And once that system is in place, opportunities for improvement will not go away. Evolving systems and processes are the new normal. Who’s going to pay attention to your suite and make the tough and often expensive decisions for you forevermore? Who’s going to make sure that your trainers are armed with the most up to date and relevant updates to functionality?

You need a product team.

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Why do I write this now, on the first work day of the new year?

Because as we are helping our clients interview people with real world product management expertise, in some cases much more practical applied product management experience than us, I ask myself - what is our unique value?

There is a gap, and those who’ve been on the other side of the product management divide - as in, the ones who’ve been doing it for years, might be unaware of what they are getting themselves into. These are potentially highly tuned product professionals walking into old school operations who may or may not be ready for what they have to offer.

When we talked to one job candidate I found myself saying that this guy may know more than me about product management. The fact is, I suspect he does. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that in front of the client. But she asked me if maybe she should get coaching from him instead, and I said, hmm, let’s keep that possibility open. There will be plenty of folks who have stuff to offer and to the level this person’s expertise exceeds ours, we should see if we can coexist or even what they could take over from us. I don’t think that being the ultimate expert in product management is what we’re here for.

We’re going to do what we would do if we felt ownership of the eventual success of this transformation. We are going to pay attention, we are going to talk to a lot of people about what needs to get done, what roadblocks are being hit, oversee plans and see how they progress. We’re going to protect boundaries. We’re going to keep heads level. We’re going to recognize turfiness and silo-think and steer people to communicate and understand where others are coming from. We’re going to roll up our sleeves when needed, but every time with the goal of reducing dependency on us. We want them to function on their own, and we’re going to oversee how it goes, hopefully providing lighter and lighter touch, paying attention to what needs come up, and trying to field the array of needs and potential improvements in a way that allows us to draft up staffing plans and outsourcing requirements in a way that is well considered and includes the people who should be part of the decision-making process.

The organizations we work with are chock full of super impressive people who brought us in because they saw the gap, and saw that our heads were thinking about the very problems they needed to address. We are helping oversee the birth of new divisions and new ways of functioning. They now have a transmission. They now have a transmission!

And now we make sure this new organ isn’t rejected from the body. We stay engaged with a patient eye, paying close attention to all the ins and outs, carefully helping them to notice and steer things that may be missing the mark, and recognizing the victories that so often don’t get the attention they deserve. Saying - hey everyone - this is what greatness looks like!

That greatness is often not what people expect at first. It’s not magic crazy divine intervention, it’s the creation of something that works solidly, perpetually, over and over, thanks to a new team inside the organization made up of thoughtful, highly engaged, problem-solving people offering patient attention to detail, dedicated focus on areas too long neglected, wide-ranging participatory communication, and an unending eye on the future.