Saturday, December 31, 2011

Aligning Strategy

Without a doubt the most stressful in any organization is  "Strategy Time" - the annual strategy process that culminates in a key presentation to the CEO and/or board of directors. The idea is to define the overall organizational strategy for the next year - where to place the bets, what markers to go after, etc.

There are many reasons why this process is so stressful, but primarily the goals of the process are misunderstood;  too many people focus on unveiling the smartest/best/most clever strategy.  The mistake here is that strategy must be presented with organizational alignment to be successful, and stakeholders must be brought along on the journey.

Good strategists understand that they must bring the organization along on the strategy journey and determine all the stakeholders needed - they go into the final meeting with everyone in alignment, ready to move to the execution phase.  In many cases you'll need to be an amateur psychologist as you 'herd the cats'.  As an example, you'll need to include elements of competing strategies to align certain stakeholders - good strategists are pragmatic and know which elements matter, and which to let go.

Although I hate to use the term, this can be mapped to "politics" and also to our basic human needs to interact at a social level. For politics, remember that there are good and bad politics (although the definition may change at the hands of who wields the influence), and they are a part of every organization.  I like the Wikipedia definition:

Politics (from Greek πολιτικός, "of, for, or relating to citizens") is a process by which groups of people make collective decisions. The term is generally applied to the art or science of running governmental or state affairs, including behavior within civil governments, but also applies to institutions, fields, and special interest groups such as the corporateacademic, and religious segments of society. It consists of "social relations involving authority or power"[1] and refers to the regulation of public affairs within a political unit,[2] and to the methods and tactics used to formulate and applypolicy.[3]

When the CEO receives the presentation they'll monitor the body language of the other attendees and immediately know the degree of alignment.  Disagreements and arguments in the presentation will lead the CEO to see the strategy as "half-baked", or the presenter as lacking preparation or leadership.  Behind the scenes the CEO will also reach out to key stakeholders behind the scenes and ask for their opinions  e.g. key technical staff often have a say in many software companies. And in many cases the CEO keeps their observations and conclusions private.

If you read this, roll your eyes, and think that this is a bureaucratic process only needed in large organizations - you'd be wrong.  All organizations, big or small, agile or waterfall, have to be aligned to move forward towards a goal.  Failure to align leads to implementation failures and missteps.

Similarly, when organizations are dictated a top-down strategy they often reject it if certain elements don't make sense or feel a lack of disempowerment.  So an tops-down strategy goes through a similar (inverted) process of alignment or eventual rejection. In Steve Job's  recent biography the claim is made that his reports often ignored his directions if they felt it didn't make sense.  I call this the "passive/agressive" organization where everyone nods in agreement, but as soon as the meeting ends they ignore the strategy and follow their own directions.

The worst outcome is an organization without alignment - nothing is more poisonous or counter productive.  I've seen the outcome here in both startups and big companies, and it's always ugly - you end up back at step one trying to find a strategy  where alignment can be achieved.

The bottom line is that any technology company is a social organization and successful organizations are aligned and work together on a single, well understood strategy.  The process to get to this point is often difficult and time consuming, but the outcome is well worthwhile.

Never present something important (like organizational strategy) unless you've put in the hard work to align the stakeholders and know the outcome.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Management Styles and SciFi Movies

(Note:  This post may not make sense unless you have seen the movies "Independence Day" and "Battle: LA").

A recent alien invasion movie, Battle:LA, is quite different to traditional alien invasion movies such as Independence Day.  While the overall theme of invasion stays the same, the difference is how the problem is approached and how the day is saved.  These movies draw a great analogy to contrast how large companies operate.

Independence Day is the traditional "top down" movie, where the president himself decides the strategy, along with an elite top scientist, and work out a plan to stop the aliens.  The people at the top also join the fight, and the president even jumps in an F18 fighter to join the final attack on the alien mother-ship.  The movie very much focuses that that the day was saved by the people at the top doing almost everything themselves, from the strategy to the execution.

Battle:LA offers a totally different perspective, where the story is told completely from the perspective of a marine platoon on the ground.  The platoon is made up of a diverse group of individuals who are very flawed in many ways - the main character is trying to leave the marine corps as the movie starts as his body is starting to slow down with age (which I can relate to :-)).  There are no generals or politicians in the movie, and the focus is on the platoon going about the mission they have been given.  However, as circumstances unfold, the platoon sees an opportunity to defeat the enemy, and without being told, they take the opportunity.  The platoon shows intense teamwork - everyone knows their role, and they come together to surmount incredible odds.

These two movies provide a contrast in how companies operate:

Independence Day companies:

  • Define the strategy at the top
  • Hire star players at the highest level
  • Operate the company from the top down
  • Lower level teams constantly ask permission and are monitored closely
  • Execs step in and define tactics plus get involved in execution

Battle: LA companies

  • Define the strategy at the top
  • Hire star players at all levels of the company, from the bottom up
  • Focus on building great teams at the execution level
  • Operate the company from the bottom up
  • Execs keep away from tactical execution and let the lower level teams win.

Without a doubt Battle:LA offers a more realistic way to operate a large company - company executives  define the overall strategy and then get out of the way and let lower level teams win.  We are living in an extremely dynamic and turbulent time, and no single person at the top can understand all the factors affecting outcomes.

When lower level teams are giving the freedom and space to execute they can achieve truly amazing results. Many of my most productive and successful times at large companies have been when I was working on products that lacked executive visibility.  We knew the overall company mission, and were able to execute with small teams - the lack of interference gave us the ability to focus and deliver.

If you haven't seen Battle:LA then sit through the movie and consider how much the platoon achieves and how this applies to your company. Great companies enable their lower level teams to go out and win.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Product Management Defined

Without a doubt this has been a very difficult post to write - every organization has a slightly different perspective on how Product Management is defined and executed. However, there are some elements that are truly universal.

Critical to the success of every Product Manager is to understand the organizational expectations i.e. the true scope of the role.  While some information can be gained from published duty statements and job specifications, often the best source is interviewing long term employees and if possible finding someone willing to act as a mentor.

Product Management is essentially a business alignment function between market requirements and development resources. This is often expressed as "delivering the right product to market", but in reality what Product Management does is align the development side of the business to meet market requirements - it's that simple.
Product Managers ensure that product(s) meet business objectives (normally revenue targets) but include other measurements such as market share, number of users, downloads etc. The main way that Product Managers achieve defined goals is through influencing other parts of the organization, such as Marketing, Sales, and Engineering - Product Managers typically have no authority over these parts of the organization.

A commonly used definition of Product Management - the "product CEO" - is completely false and not useful.  The term "CEO" implies direct control of resources, but product managers do their job strictly by influencing other groups, especially development.  One of my colleagues, Shin Nishizawa, says it well:

"I agree. The "product management is the CEO of his/her product line" statement is a load of horse-shit. Being able to achieve your means by influencing others is the most important skill for a product manager in a large, multi-product organization. My current company offers hundreds of different products so I find myself spending more time influencing my executives (as to why my business needs more investment and incremental funding) and my sales leadership (as to why their sales teams should be selling my product and making loads of money rather than selling something else) more than I spend influencing my engineering team why they should build something. Fortunately, I enjoy a good relationship with my engineering leadership which affords me the luxury to influence elsewhere."
The most visible aspect of Product Management is defining the product roadmap - by a deep understanding of many factors including the marketplace, competitors, core competencies, customer needs, partners, and so on. However, a roadmap is useless without an understanding of how the release fits into the overall product business plan and how to achieve market success i.e. Product Managers must lead by aligning the organization around a common product vision and strategy.
Equally important for Product Managers is working with non-development areas of the organization, such as as marketing and sales. Without product managers driving effective communication the other parts of product success can become disjointed or siloed, damping down success.

Top 10 - How I measure Product Management Success

  1. The single most important criteria is that Product Managers establish a product vision and strategy that fits into the overall company vision.  They are able to explain where their product/feature is heading and how it helps the company win, and can distill this down into a single slide and simple elevator pitch.  Use this pitch at the start of ever meeting to ensure that the team is aligned on where the product/feature is headed.
  2. Have a deep understanding of the market requirements and have close relationships with a number of sales, SEs, partners and customers.  They use hard data from analysts, surveys and not just opinions - Instead of saying "the customer needs this" they say "ABC Corp needs this" or "the data shows that x% of customers need this".
  3. They align resources around them to this vision and create leverage by getting everyone moving in the same direction.  Techniques include a one hour weekly meeting (known as the "Product Action Team (PAT)", and invite Dev, Marketing, Technical Marketing, Sales, Support etc. Product Management closely interlocks with these groups to get through the Product Lifecycle with everyone aligned.  
  4. There is a published roadmap that shows where the product is headed - both internal and external NDA versions. Sales and SEs know where to find this, and know who to speak with if they have questions.
  5. They show product/technology/market leadership in the company and externally using tools such as lunch and learn's, webinars, social media, external blog entries etc.
  6. They solve problems as much as they can, and don't escalate unless they truly need air-cover.  Product Managers speak with the authority of the product and have every right to move across the company solving problems. If a dev is blocked because they need a server, or headcount, etc etc etc , the PM is the one getting it done.  This is the ask forgiveness not permission standpoint - using judgment and swiping the credit card if it must be done to make sure there are no roadblocks.  
  7. They work as a team and learn and listen from their colleagues. 
  8. They relentlessly seek opportunities to improve their skills - technical, presentation, management etc.
  9. As well as their product/feature responsibilities they seek to make surrounding processes better - e.g. they sort out the mailing lists, help with a new feature request system, setup a lunch and learn.
  10. Although Product Management can be an extremely difficult job, great Product Managers are passionate and have fun - when "it's just a job" then it's time for a new career. There is an intrinsic capability of great Product Managers that I call the "GAS" factor ("Give a Shit") - they care passionately about creating and shipping great products that deliver true value to their customers.  The GAS factor can't really be taught, is hard to define, but when it's present truly great things happen.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

What is the "Product" Anyway?

One of the more interesting aspects of Product Management is understanding exactly what is mean by the word "Product".  Believe it or not, many groups within an organization may have different impressions of what the term actually means.  Great Product Managers ensure that the company is united and has a common view of product and what the term means.

Specifically, to many technical oriented folks, the product is just the "bits" or "service" that is delivered to the customer.  Thus, they feel that the product is complete when the bits are completed by engineering (often abbreviated as RTM or "release to manufacturing"). So in their mind the product is ready when R&D is done.

However, the Product is more than just the code - it's really everything that goes around the code to make it successful in the marketplace, such as:

  • pricing, packaging
  • messaging and position
  • training for sales, support, customers and channel
  • technical collateral, including update decks, evaluation guides, FAQs
  • sales collateral, including pitches, battle cards, competitive info
  • PR plan - press releases, analyst briefings, reviewer's guides etc.
Releasing a new product or service without it's supporting material is in essence just "chucking it over the wall" to the field and hoping for the best.  This isn't how to succeed.  Successful companies know that success in the marketplace relies on much more that the code, and focus as much on these aspects as they do on building the product.  Generally, the term when the product is ready is known as "General Availability" (GA), implying that everything is in place in addition to the code, and customers can access.

Great Program Managers are essential to this success, and they must be tightly connected with their engineering Release Management counterparts.  The process to coordinate the complete product success is as complex as coordinating the product, and many individual groups, both inside and outside the company, need to be coordinated.

The quickest success is achieved when a product is released and everyone is ready - trained and has the material - to make it successful in the field.  Otherwise don't complain if it takes 6-12 months for your new product to get traction.