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Product Managers Discuss the Importance of Innovation in a Volatile Economy

In an economy full of mixed messages, leading a product team is becoming more complicated than ever. Getting a grasp of the needs and wants of a market is becoming a herculean task, all while some budgets and headcounts are getting cut. While all of this is happening, successfully building and launching digital products remains a focal point for all businesses and industries. How are leaders handling this shift?

Recently Tech in Motion assembled a panel of product management experts to lead us through a discussion on how recent market shifts have led to huge disruptions, and how leading teams are adapting to stay competitive and innovating during times of economic uncertainty.

  • Tony Shawver, National Agile Practice Lead, Director @ Motion Consulting Group (Panel Moderator)
  • Ka-Fung Koo, Platform Program Management, Presales Acceleration @ Okta
  • John Hurney, Product Management Leader
  • Vish Srivastava, Director, Product Management @ Evidation
  • Product-Innovation-Video-Sign-Up
  • Below are some of the highlights of the panel:

Shawver: The economy is crazy. Lately, those swings are only accelerating. Lots of negative conditions. What is the impact of economic conditions, during these uncertain times with product innovation?

Koo: It’s been nothing short of a sea change. This has changed how we do road mapping and planning, using feedback information back to R&D, not just for the moment but aligning ourselves with the customer's long-term strategy.

Srivastava: What applies to teams across disciplines is to do more with less. Efficiency is an important goal for any leader across functions. For example, ChatGPT has come across at a perfect time. Our product teams now can write first drafts of user stories and briefs in half the time.

On some level, clarity is fuzzy as ever. How to get to the bottom line? The path is unclear. We have to create processes and team culture in alignment.

Hurney: I have never gotten better by doing easy things. The climate makes you think about how you need to evolve and improve to get better. What product management is supposed to do is evolve. This economy really calls into question what you are doing to address shifting customer tastes, to set up for success. It’s a litmus test for organizations and a call to action to improve.

Shawver: Given these conditions, how has your approach to go-to-market strategy changed?

Koo: To solve problems with customers it comes back to a solution or value creation approach. It is a pervasive creation that starts with a realization of value. How do we change our vision from the event horizon of a moment or a quarter to a more broad-based multi-year strategy? How can you build me a roadmap that has an interlocking theme across all entities? As far as go-to-market, the right feedback loops are built, and information is sent back to R&D centers in a timely and effective fashion. More of a faster cycle in terms of product innovation testing, rapid kill, rapid analysis of features that will create that pervasive roadmap.

Read More: 3 Trends Product Managers Need to Care About to Succeed

Shawver: We all know margin is required to survive. How do you balance revenue target markets with investment in innovation and solving customer needs? How has that changed?

Koo: This is a super important question. Product teams are the connective tissue between business goals and roadmap. We all have finite resources, especially engineering, to allocate and these are bets we allocate across business goals. These are all front and center.

Two places we get things wrong when it comes to margin. You can’t increase pricing or decrease cost if you don’t improve value for customers. Delighting customers is how you derive sustainable margins. You have to talk directly to customers to get that.

Another place product leadership gets translated into margin is that goals have to be made trackable. With OKRs or KPIs or any other framework metric to create sharply defined metrics and targets, you have to disaggregate a big hairy problem like our margins need to be protected or our revenue needs to grow, into very specific numbers.

For us, we have three different product-empowered squads (engineering, product, and design), and every quarter we ask them to write up their OKRs. These are the specific outcomes we are looking for, whether its sales leads in the pipeline, or operational efficiency as taken by hours required to finish a product, and making it concrete so each piece of the roadmap moves a particular piece of the needle in our overall set up metrics, that then ladder up to margin.

Srivastava: Best practices are as they always have been, but specific goals have changed. Instead of a revenue increase in five years, we now see that must happen in one year when that goal has come down from the board.

Shawver: What does changing market conditions do to a product roadmap and where products are headed?

Hurney: It’s very contextual. In a mature product organization, product management organizations are actually doing product management. Others are not so mature. What I mean is that a lot of organizations set up scrum teams and say, "Now we are agile."

We now have someone who we call a product owner means we are now doing product. It sounds really simple on paper to say, "Understand the customer and produce innovative solutions that delight the customer."

However, it’s a lot more complicated than that because product is not an individual thing, it is a team sport. If you are an individual product owner who is receiving scope from the organization, you are really driving the product roadmap. This is probably a nightmare scenario, where everything you have been preparing for to deliver over the next 3 to 12 months is completely off the table to feed that beast of the agile delivery team.

Whereas if you are in a mature product organization that has a high-level enterprise strategy, that will translate into a product strategy, which translates into a product investment roadmap, that turns into an orderly plan. 

It’s really contextual. For some people this is going to be a difficult notion to adopt, I had to adjust to do that.


Shawver: How do product delivery teams need to work differently, maybe from a project delivery, or agile delivery approach, to be successful in delivering these products?

Srivastava: The classic framing is waterfall versus agile. But instead of thinking a bit more about project management methodology, we should be talking about true product-driven delivery thinking, and that comes down to things like if we are organized around keeping teams accountable for outcomes or outputs. Are we doing project reviews that are all around timelines and resources and status (outputs), or are they about what are the outcomes we are looking for (e.g. consumer business outcomes like 60-day retention or signup conversion, or b2b outcomes like repeat business), and what is the outcome and empowering teams to make context decisions to deliver the outcomes?

In project teams you will typically have a single project manager who is tasked with collecting outputs, making decisions, and in product teams, everyone is responsible for what tasks am I working on, what is the critical path we are working on, and what are the roadblocks I need to overcome to achieve them to get to the outcome that we are all responsible for. It’s a totally different way that empowers individuals around outcomes.

Shawver: Even agile teams can get myopically focused on a set of features, or a set of customer problems or solving those problems before they are validated. How can engagement with go to market cycle accelerate these product development cycles?

Koo: It’s a change in culture and how we approach product development. Cross-functional alignment is really at the crux of what we are talking about here.

Cross-functional collaboration either feels close or very far apart. In so much as you can build a better cross-functional council of interlocking agreements on entry and exit level criteria, that allows you to surface those key variables or decision points or data sets necessary to drive that decision, which is something you will see prevail more so moving forward.

Shawver: What needs to happen to existing product discovery and delivery today? Is it more focused on things we have done, or something different?

Hurney: Often people don’t have an understanding of what a product is. I am a big fan of the idea that a customer is hiring your product to solve a problem. Many organizations look at things myopically in terms of, "What do we want to accomplish to address our bottom line."

We often operate in very complex organizations and in order to operate we create silos. We break things down in terms of process, application, and functional areas. Individuals don’t need to be well-rounded, but teams need to be well-rounded. However, often our teams are built around the traditional HR structure of functional expertise. The product manager is typically not an expert in legal, or compliance, sometimes not an expert in IT, but they have to ingest all of that.

So, when I look at how we are needing to evolve, it’s really the creation of T-shaped leaders that sit on the team. It's not enough to have deep functional expertise, you have to have cross-functional skills that you can communicate with others who have that deep expertise. And the more you can pull some of that over in order to ensure that the basic elements of product discovery are met - Is the product going to be valuable? Feasible? Viable? Is it going to be used? The better you know these answers the better the outcomes.

Often times with project management, the outcome is just abandoned to the project manager. In a healthy product-led organization, we are not here to optimize project management. We are not here to optimize IT, legal, or risk, we are here to optimize the product. Every individual has to be equally committed as well as a product manager to drive that goal. It’s important not to put those product teams out on an island to drive discovery by themselves, otherwise, you are going to end up with some limited views and continuing disruption.

Read More: Innovation is Key to a Company's Growth. Here are 6 Ways to Avoid Stagnation

Shawver:   One of my favorite words in responsiveness. How can teams stay nimble in this environment while being forced to do more with less?

Srivastava: This totally relates to the discussion about cross-functional teams. As product teams and product managers, we are trying to make good decisions quickly and we need to take in all the inputs, both directly from customers and internal voices as well. Not making a decision is making a decision to keep the status quo. Ultimately that’s what it means to be responsive. It’s about making responsive decisions with incomplete information. That’s the name of the game when it comes to being a PM.

I do want to make a distinction between being responsible or nimble and pivoting. Pivoting is common for companies with pre-market fit when you need to have to make big bold decisions. "We didn’t find a market fit with this thing, let’s try the other thing." Airbnb is a great example of that. If you pivot too often that either means there is a true existential threat, and you have to make bold decisions, or it can be a red flag because that means there could be a lack of focus.

There is a fine line with being nimble. Being nimble means you have achieved market fit, and you are taking signals from customers from both qualitative and quantitative inputs to efficiently make those decisions differently from what is in the roadmap. But then how do you create incrementally more value, but not be about changing your focus?

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Shawver:  Culture is super important for any of this. What are some culture changes you have seen that have had a positive impact on your product development efforts?

Koo: I think a big win has been on cross-functional focus on what it means to deliver an outcome. It’s easy to think of the outcome as your property line, as the boundary of my outcome and share of product development. What I am seeing is increased awareness of what that shared means beyond the launch of a product, to supporting the product in an expanded model. How are we creating value across the entire organization? This is a massive win across the board because you see organizations within a company rallying and working together. This is a marked change from years past.

Srivastava: We are really talking about team culture, and we are all feeling the pressure because the risks are higher. As product leaders, it is essential to model team behavior and protect team culture so it's sustainable. I think more Ted Lasso than Succession- how do we promote empathy and transparency and what makes work sustainable?

Hurney: Do we have a culture by choice or by chance? Every company has a culture in two dimensions. Is it a positive or negative culture, and how resilient is it? You can have a negative culture that is almost impossible to shift because of how much it is embedded. You can also have a positive culture that is very weak. And can become unsettled by simply removing a leader.

How committed to a culture is the company? If you don’t have a commitment to the culture then people don’t feel safe, they are not going to take a risk and you are not going to have innovation without risk-taking. People lack the psychological safety to be able to fail.

Shawver:   What is mission-driven leadership mean to you and what are its impacts?

Srivastava: Obsession about who you are building for and that what you are building makes their lives meaningfully better. It makes better products and more profitable products because it anchors you to value. It keeps me going, team morale high, and customer success.

Hurney: Many product organizations talk about customer obsession, then when you look at a roadmap all you see is a lot of stuff. A lot of organizations have a tough time delivering this on a daily basis. Often product managers don’t have the skillsets necessary to understand the customer and translate that customer to the teams.

If you are buying a broom, what you really want is a clean floor. Put stripes or fancy tassels on the broom and you are not going to encourage me to buy that broom. No one likes a toaster, but they want it for toasting bread or warming up a waffle, but improving the way that toaster looks is impactful, because people keep their toaster on the counter so there is an aesthetic element as well. But you wouldn’t get to that level of understanding if you didn’t know how the customer was using it.

As product managers, it is easy to substitute your own view for that of the customer. Everybody operates in their own unique market. Understanding how to segment that customer not by demographics but by what job are they intending the product to do. This is fundamental to good product management. It requires us to set aside part of ourselves to work collaboratively with cross-functional teams to come up with a solution that I might not even know is a solution.

Read More: 5 Reasons Tech Product Assessments Fail and the Ways to Fix Them

Shawver:   What are qualitative and quantitative measurements you guys use on a daily basis to approach breaking down “the big rock?”

Srivastava: Outcomes versus outputs thinking. Breaking the big rock down into smaller events. Mini-experiments that we are going to ship every two weeks. Every time we ship, we are going to look and see if we are moving the needle on what we care about, and if we didn’t, we try something else. Do we have the right instruments and dashboards in place, or if it is a qualitative thing we care about do we talk to customers each time? Did we drive the outcomes we wanted?

Koo: Understanding the intent of why we are building the product. Breaking it down to smaller logical blocks de-risks the event of each of them into a logical order of operation.

Shawver:   What is PM’s role in selecting technology and keeping it in check?

Hurney: The traditional role of PM is in choosing ‘what and why’ and the team decides ‘who and how’ and I think what is lost in there, there is an obligation in being able to defend your decision. As a PM you can choose what to work on but that doesn’t mean that you operate by fiat and the rest of the organization should not be in a position to credibly challenge it. In my experience, the very best PMs don’t need to be technical, in terms of ability to code, but they need to be technologists. Intelligent consumers of technology and at times step in and challenge the technical team and pressure test the solutions. Often that challenge leads to a better outcome. Iron sharpens iron.