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The Power of Ownership

I still remember the first sentence in my product management book at business school. A product manager is a general manager without the powers of one.

Having done product management for many years now I realize the truth in that statement more and more. Influence without authority is a Product Manager’s single most important skill. Keeping engineers motivated, designers focused and well… just about everyone else happy all with influence that comes from knowledge, experience and above all, ownership of the product.

Product management is the core of a successful organization. This role is probably closest to the role of a founder in a startup, just at a product level. A product manager is responsible for not just for conceptualizing and building the product but driving the distribution, marketing, monetization and just about everything else that relates to their product. If product management fails, the product fails and so does the business….

The failure in product is often not in the idea but the execution. The gap between the vision and what gets built is often the cause of failure. That’s where product managers come in. A product manager takes a product from vision to conceptualization of features, user flows, design, development and testing making trade offs at every step without compromising the core concept. That’s why a single person needs to own the product (or a product feature) from concept to launch. The product manager is the general manger of the product and needs to be closely involved with the product at every step of the process.

Considering product management plays such a big role in the success or failure of a product, here are some things that organizations can do to build successful product teams.

Hire the right people

This one seems like a cliche but product managers have to have the founder like personalities where they can take many different inputs and convert those into product features. Successful Product Managers come from all backgrounds such as design, engineering, marketing  and sometimes directly from business schools. The important thing is there ability to be good at 10 different things and understand each one at a conceptual level rather than an overwhelming focus on one. A superstar engineer or the most creative designer and can be a really bad product manager. A product manager has to be a good General Manager.

Product organization should be flat

Flat organizations work well in all streams but in product organization all the more. Remember product mangers are general managers. A general manager managing another general manager is not very meaningful. In startup world, often the hierarchy is created to attract talent. When levels are created without enough difference in roles, it gives rise to all sorts of negative behavior like unhealthy competition and lack of information sharing.

And the ownership has to be absolutely clear

This is really important for a successful product organization. Ownership is a very powerful tool. It works pretty much in every sphere of life. From a kid successfully completing his homework everyday to a CEO running a successful company, it’s the ownership that drives. With ownership comes accountability and that drives the results. Where there is clear ownership, there is drive to succeed at any cost. Ownership is also about allowing people to make mistakes and learn from it. When parents make mistakes in raising their child, the ownership does not change (except in extreme circumstances) and the ownership remains. Most parents learn from their own mistakes and become better at it over time.

Ownership for product managers is about having clear defined set of features or products they are responsible for, which ideally should be independent businesses with measurable success. In many cases product organizations are made up of more than one Product professionals with different levels of experience. Each person can own different parts or features of the product depending upon experience and skill but its important to have clear ownership. A starting level PM could handle a small feature and own it from concept to launch. This will bring commitment, accountability, happy product managers and successful products. A Product manager should be the general manager of the product with the powers of one.




Add comment May 13th, 2013

The Sugar Coated Truth

When I first started working US, 9 years ago, I started to believe I asked really good questions! It took me a few weeks to realize that the phrase ‘good question’ had nothing to with the question being good! It was just a nicer way of saying, I don’t know the answer to your question or more often I don’t want to answer.

Very soon, I started to realize that other similar phrases had nothing to do with their literal meaning.  A ‘good conversation’ often meant we talked for an hour without coming to any conclusions or taking any decisions. !!

And my favorite one…  my son’s soccer coach saying  ‘good effort’ to his team when the team lost a match by 12 goals!!

‘Amazing’, ‘fabulous’, ‘awesome’ and similar such phrases, which I had read in books and seldom, heard, were part of everyday vocabulary. My little guy got used to an ‘awesome’ with a smiley face for drawing few lines with a crayon and ‘good’ was not good enough anymore. (Getting a ‘GOOD’ on an assignment where I went to school was a big deal. ‘Fair’ and ‘OK’ were generally the best you could get.)

So what’s going on?

We say Yes, but…. when we want to say  ‘NO’ and we send ‘Thank You’ emails for projects which are launched 3 months late with 50% of the scope! There is no punishment for bad behavior and low quality work.

We, as a society and as organizations have mastered the art of  ‘mediocrity reinforcement’.

It has its advantages. Keeps Morales high.  Gives some decent short terms results. And reduces conflicts.

Lets talk about what it does not do…

First, by calling a mediocre performance ‘amazing’ we take away the opportunity for true excellence. And more importantly, there is no good way to communicate when you do occasionally see amazing performance in a project, assignment or a game.  Basically the differentiation between something amazing and something mediocre starts to blur and the result… more mediocrity.

Also, in our influential roles as managers, teachers and coaches, one important part of training we need to provide is ability to understand and handle failure.  By holding back negative feedback, we are not doing this very important part of our jobs because it’s an unpopular thing to do.

In organizations this a bigger challenge, where ‘ likeability’ and being ‘popular’ is a big part of your performance as a manager and as a peer.

If you look back though, a lot of us would realize that the person who taught you the important lessons of life was often the unpopular teacher or the more disciplinary parent whom you hated at some point, but today value the lessons they taught you.

So how does one maintain this very delicate balance of providing very important negative feedback without sugar coating and at the same time maintain the likeability to some extent?

Here are some things that I practice both at work and at home that seem to work really well.These help improve deliverables and the same time keeps your credibility as a manager and a parent.

Be short and objective – Quick, one sentence feedback on a task or assignment is received much better than long repetitive criticism.

Explain why its not good enough but don’t ask why it wasn’t done better – Be sure to explain why a certain assignment, design or architecture is not good enough and facilitate how it can be made better. Provide examples or pointers and set clear expectations. Digging into history of why it wasn’t done sounds like blaming and serves no purpose.

Keep the emotion out – This one is most challenging and requires a lot of self-control.  Make sure you don’t sound angry, disappointed or frustrated. The message often gets lost in the emotional outbursts.

Focus on task at hand – Never make generic statements like ‘ how come the sprint tasks are never done on time?’ Minor variations in language such as ‘ this design is not meeting the use case’ vs. ‘you didn’t design for this use case’ can go a long way in sending the right message. Criticize the task, not the person. The difference is subtle but important.

Instant feedback – Provides instant results and helps in avoiding build up of emotions on either side. Negative feedback if held back often comes out in the form of angry burst outs. The emotion takes over the objectivity of the conversation.

So next time you see a mediocre task, a mediocre performance, don’t hold back. Make sure to point what was missing and how it can be made better…. But say it with a smile. It helps!

Saying ‘NO’ when you want to say NO is not being negative, its just being honest.




Add comment January 7th, 2013


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