The Product Leader’s Book of Problems — Problem II: One Product Approach Does Not Fit All

Curtis Savage
7 min readMar 27, 2020

TL;DR: No single product approach fits all organizations. Product Leaders must treat their company like a customer and spend time discovering, collaborating and crafting the right product approach to foster a high-performance culture and environment.

Welcome to the second chapter of the Product Leader’s Book of Problems.

For those new to the series, each week I walk you through your next big problem as a Product Leader. Based on over a decade of experience managing and leading product teams, I start with the big universal problems that exist at every organization and move on to the more nuanced and stage-specific problems that rear their ugly heads as a company evolves from startup to enterprise. I walk you through a snapshot — a crystal ball of sorts — of the problems your future-self will be dealing with as a Product Leader while you pursue your product vision, navigating treacherous waters, slaying dragons, evoking awe, disbelief, respect and glory from developers to CEOs alike…

It can be a challenging leap to go from being an individual contributor to Product Leader, shifting from managing products to leading people managing products. You need to be a people-first communicator who can rally everyone behind a shared vision. And this is not without its challenges. As discussed in last week’s post, Product Leaders have very little formal authority in their organizations. As a result, they must work extra hard to gain influence by developing strong leadership and soft skills.

Once you’ve wrapped your head around that problem and committed to levelling up the required skills, you’re ready to tackle your next big problem: One Product Approach Does Not Fit All.

Problem: One Product Approach Does Not Fit All

Let’s be honest, there is definitely no shortage of product management frameworks, methodologies, tools, techniques, tips or tricks. From manifestos to books to blogs to podcasts to late-night twitter rants, the flood of information can feel overwhelming at times. And there is definitely no shortage of self-proclaimed pundits competing for your time and attention (wait, why are you looking at me?!).

Apart from sorting through the noise, your next big problem is understanding what type of product management and leadership your organization needs. This is your product approach. It is what will shape your product culture and environment and ultimately determine the success of your team, your product, your organization (no pressure). If that wasn’t enough, here’s the tricky part: there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Not all companies need the same approach. In fact, it’s more accurate to say every company is unique and, therefore, every company requires a unique approach.

So how do you select the best product approach? Every good Product Leader understands the need to be customer-focused and iterative, but many are not quite sure what that looks like from a day-to-day point of view. What kind of product principles should you instil in your team? How should you structure your team? How much autonomy should you give them? What kind of guardrails should you put in place? What discovery and delivery frameworks should you implement? Should you use Agile, Lean, Scrum, Kanban? Who are the key stakeholders and how do you need to communicate with them? How do you prioritize features? How do you measure success?

These are just some of the key considerations that define your product approach which will subsequently shape your product environment, product culture, and product success. As a new Product Leader, trying to determine all of this can be utterly dizzying your first time around.

The Solution:

Discovering Your Organization

Well, the good news is you’re a bonified product ninja so you just have to treat this like any other product problem. Your first step should be discovery.

One key piece of advice I give to all Product Leaders responsible for developing a product approach is to spend as much time learning about your organization as you would learning about the customer problem. In many ways, the organization is your customer in this context and you need to understand what kinds of problems you’re helping them solve. Each organization will have industry and stage-specific nuances that you can’t know from the outside. A solid discovery process helps you think through issues facing the organization before changing or disrupting the current product approach.

Fundamental considerations like how to structure your team or how much process is needed will largely depend on the goals of the business and the culture of the organization. Other key factors such as the stage of the business, the level of product management maturity, the experience of the team, and the nature of the market should be considered as well.

As an example, for a smaller, highly-experienced and highly-skilled team working in a startup environment, a loosely defined process may suffice. For a larger organization with a high churn rate among team members, a bulletproof framework for shipping product may be necessary.

In short, become a sponge and learn as much as you can about the organization and environmental factors in your first two weeks before even thinking about how you are going to approach organizational design for the product group. Like any good product manager, make sure you understand the problems and needs before trying to craft your solution.

In other words, avoid the classic pitfall of building a solution in search of a problem.

Crafting Your Product Approach

Once you’ve spent ample time understanding your organization, stakeholders, team, product, and market, you’re now ready to start defining your product approach. Remember, we aren’t talking about product features here. We’re talking about what type of product leadership and management you want to foster at your organization and the overarching framework you want to implement to build a high-performing product environment and culture.

Your responses to the questions below will become the foundation of your product approach. Similar to other product management processes, you want to avoid working alone in a vacuum by yourself. Ideally, you should try to answer these questions in a collaborative, incremental, and iterative manner. If you recall from last week’s post, you have no formal authority, so it’s important to get buy-in and develop strong relationships with your team and key stakeholders from the get-go.

Try to collaborate and incorporate feedback from all levels of the organization as much as possible. This will go a long way. It helps build trust, shows everyone you’re a team player, and gives you an opportunity to exhibit your leadership skills.

Some Key Questions to Get You Started

Here are some of the key questions you and your team should work towards answering. Please note, this is not an exhaustive list but should be enough to get you started:

  • What product principles should guide the team?
  • What type of product culture do I want to create?
  • How should the team be structured?
  • How autonomous will the team be to make product decisions?
  • What guardrails will be put in place to guide autonomous teams? (i.e. Principles, Vision, Goals)
  • What performance management system will be used to measure team performance? (i.e. OKRs)
  • How is the business strategy translated into product strategy?
  • How is product strategy translated into a product roadmap?
  • How does the vision get communicated regularly to ensure we are aligned and purpose-driven?
  • What is our prioritization methodology and how are decisions communicated to the team?
  • What kind of discovery, delivery, and validation frameworks should be put in place to guide product development?
  • Who are the key stakeholders and when/what/how do we communicate to them?
  • How do we measure product success and demonstrate this to the wider organization?

An Important Consideration

As discussed previously, it’s important to reiterate that your approach will differ based on the stage of the company. If you’re joining a startup, then you will have a blank canvas to work with but you need to be cognizant that startups require less formal process so your approach will be more lightweight. On the other hand, if you are joining an enterprise organization, an existing approach will be in place so you need to determine what should be optimized and how to diplomatically navigate and implement any proposed changes with collective buy-in.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, your primary concern as a new Product Leader should be establishing the right product approach for your organization; one that fosters a high-performance product environment and culture. The bottom line is that there simply is no right process or single methodology that covers every permutation of product, team, organization, and market. However, by ensuring you spend ample time discovering your organization, asking the right questions, and collaborating with key stakeholders, you will increase the likelihood that you set yourself, your team, your product and your company up for success by architecting the right product approach for your unique situation.