Building a product culture

Inflexion has been running a series of webinars to help share best practice across our portfolio and from our Network so that the companies we partner with can benefit from hearing about others’ experiences, share ideas and initiatives, and support each other.

Inflexion’s Alex Mathers speaks about building a product culture with Tanya Cordrey, Partner at AKF Partners, former Chief Digital Officer at Guardian News & Media and Product Director at eBay.

Why is taking a ‘product-centric’ approach different to other ways of building technology, and why is this important?

At the heart of the ‘product-centric’ approach is the principle that we focus on outcomes, not outputs.

This sounds simple – but is fundamentally different to a more traditional project management style of working. Focussing on outcomes acknowledges that we might not know at the outset the best way of delivering these outcomes (for example we can’t precisely define the output) – but that we are aligned on what we’re trying to achieve, and we’re going to go through a process (often called ‘discovery’) to identify the best way of delivering these outcomes, within the constraints of both technical feasibility and what works for the rest of our business.

Why do companies often find this so painful?

It is true that it’s not unusual for the product manager to feel like the most unpopular person in the company! But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – the role of the product manager is about balancing business needs and user needs – so if you’re making everyone happy all the time, you’re probably not doing your job right!

It’s also true though that when the rest of the company starts to understand the implications of building a strong product function, friction can start to occur – and this needs to be spotted early and handled sensitively. It’s vital to take the organisation with you – other teams might feel threatened (if they feel some responsibilities are being taken away from them), or not understand how the product function relates to their area.

Partnering with your sales team is particularly important – especially in a B2B context, where the ‘users’ and the ‘buyers’ are often different, so collaborating with your sales team is vital to help you bring the buyers with you. Equally, sometimes the product team isn’t responsible for the ‘true’ product – for example when I was at the Guardian, our team was all about amplifying the product – but the core product was the journalism.

It’s also worth remembering that for people in many companies, their main interaction with technology is with IT helpdesks, and therefore they’re accustomed to a model of ‘you ask and you get’ – and so moving to an iterative and collaborative product-centric approach is a major change.

How would you advise product and technology leaders to build engagement and buy-in with their executive colleagues and boards?

I think it’s very important to focus on two key messages – and no more.

Firstly, it’s vital that you talk about how product & technology create value – whether that’s in revenue or margin – rather than talk about process. The single most powerful thing is demonstrating how you’ve added value, and as a product leader you need to be doing this weekly and monthly, not just a few times a year.

Secondly, it’s also important to be very clear on how you articulate your vision – I often think about a formulation like ‘we will achieve X through Y by Z’ – and show how this helps achieve the overall objectives for the company.

When I was at eBay we were all super clear on which part of the profit equation our work was impacting, and therefore how our work created value for the business as a whole – and that was incredibly powerful.

What are some common challenges and mistakes you’ve seen?

As I mentioned, I think talking too much about process / frameworks is a common issue – whilst these are clearly helpful, they should be a guide rather than the solution in themselves – you need to beware of becoming a ‘framework fanatic’! Always coming back to value creation helps avoid this trap.

Coupled to this is that in an attempt to retain alignment, some businesses rapidly end up with bloated teams – keeping the core team small is important in order to be able to move fast.

Finally, I’ve never come across a product team with a shortage of ideas – but a good idea isn’t the same as a great opportunity. As a result, it’s important to be mindful of clogging up your plans with lots of ideas, and be ruthless about ensuring you focus on the value they deliver.

What would be your main piece of advice?

The most important part of the role of the product leader is communication, communication, communication – it’s key to getting company-wide buy-in, and probably the quickest and cheapest thing you can do to have an impact.