Lean Product Management is Agile for Business

Product managers are often described as a mini-CEO. I find that this analogy sends the wrong signal about the organizational structure. I believe it is more effective to think of product management as the brain stem of the organization.

For those of you who don’t remember anatomy 101, the brain stem is a small part of the base of the brain that is connected to the spinal cord and controls the flow of messages between the brain and the rest of the body. It also regulates basic body functions such as breathing, swallowing, heart rate, blood pressure and consciousness. Though small, the brain stem is an extremely important part of the brain, as the nerve connections from the motor and sensory systems of the cortex pass through the brain stem to communicate with the peripheral nervous system.

Product managers are the conduit between company strategy and execution. They make sure that different business functions, including engineering, marketing, sales and customer success are all working together, interpreting signals coming from throughout the organization.

A brain stem stroke, which occurs when the blood supply is interrupted, can result in death or severe health issues, since the damaged brain stem can no longer control the body’s vital functions. Symptoms may include decreased breathing capacity, which is important for speech; difficulty with organization/perception of the environment; limited movement capacity and insomnia.

When a product manager isn’t performing, the organization’s health will suffer. Marketing messages may get garbled, without clear product direction, articulation of benefits and value proposition. The company’s understanding of the competitive environment and ability to respond to threats will be limited. The capacity to move the product forward, ability to deliver new features and respond to customer needs will be severely impacted. A lot of people across the company are likely to lose sleep over these problems.

For a long time, there has been a disconnect between various functions in the organization, and it is up to product managers, as the primary conduit, to address this.

Most technology companies, and increasingly non-tech companies that rely heavily on IT, have run at some point into issues of alignment between the engineering organization responsible for building and operating products on one side and the customer-facing functions such as customer success and sales on the other.

One of the sources for this disconnect has been the adoption of agile development methodologies. While these methodologies were created to improve engineers’ ability to respond to changing internal or external constraints, at many companies they are often perceived as lack of accountability and a way for the product organization to shirk on making commitments.

Sales and marketing teams would like to get better visibility and influence into this process. However, this is a software development process, not a business process. Agile terminology, such as scrum, sprint or epic, makes no sense to an outsider, further impeding the flow of information.

One of the key functions of a high-performing product manager is to provide translation between market needs and product features. In order to do this, it is critical to get everyone in the organization on common ground.

That common framework is something that a few of us have been calling Lean Product Management, loosely based on Eric Ries’ Lean Startup. The key concept is that lean product management is a way to apply some of the principles behind agile development to the overall company’s business. More pithily: lean product management is agile for business.

I’ve written elsewhere that searching for product-market fit is a continuous process, not a one-time milestone. The role of the product manager is to drive the Lean Product Management process by which the whole company can get involved in achieving and maintaining product-market fit.

Take, for instance, the classic case of a hard-charging, highly motivated account executive who is working on closing a key account, only to be faced with objections from the customer about gaps in the current product. Back in the office, the account executive descends on the PM and insists that feature X, as loosely described by the customer, be implemented ASAP and expects a precise date for its availability.

The PM may be inclined to “provide visibility” (can you see the air quotes?) into the agile process, by describing how this can go into a new epic that will get prioritized into some future sprint… but the account executive will just hear “I won’t commit to a delivery date.” He may go as far as making a commitment to the customer, as a way to put pressure on the product team. If left unchecked, this can result in mutual distrust that can become toxic for the company, besides creating customer satisfaction problems.

To address this, product managers must make the shift from following a software development process (agile) to driving a business process that everyone at the company can understand and in which they can become active participants (lean product management). The goal isn’t so much to explain but to engage, resulting in buy-in from the various functional areas. It’s not consensus building, it’s co-creation.

In the example above, the product manager can enroll the account executive as well as representatives from customer success, sales engineering and marketing into a cross-functional virtual team to help identify multiple prospects that will benefit from feature X, fully understand their needs, validate assumptions about priorities by having frequent contact with early adopters, working through post-sales processes, etc. As the product or feature begins to take shape, it can then be factored into sales forecasts.

The engineering lead and UX designer should be involved as early as possible as well. Early mocks and wireframes can be shared with the team and with pilot customers even before development begins. As facets of the feature or product are implemented and become available, through advanced agile techniques like continuous integration and selective deployment, they can be tested in the field to ensure alignment. If something isn’t right, then there’s time to make course corrections or even scrap the effort before making a large investment.

If this sounds like a lot of work, it is. What’s more, these are processes that historically have not been part of the work load for sales and marketing teams, who saw this as purely a product role. Therefore, this is a process that must be endorsed and sponsored by the executive team, and ideally championed by the CEO.

The primary goal of Lean Product Management is to turn the organization into a well-oiled machine that is optimized for achieving and sustaining product-market fit.

As an outside product manager at my consulting company, Axzo Digital, as well as an inside product manager at firms ranging from early stage startups to large public technology companies, I have seen both sides of this issue. Embracing lean product management can be hard for established companies used to waterfall software development, planned releases and a wall separating product and engineering from sales and other customer-facing functions.

Axzo Digital provides a full range of consulting services for digital media and technology companies looking to develop innovative products, pursue new business opportunities and accelerate growth.

It takes an outstanding product manager to break through these ingrained expectations, using influence rather than authority to help drive engagement from all corners of the organization. The process requires formulating hypotheses about customer needs, market segments, price points, functionality, etc. and then validating them through experiments that may range from 1:1 interviews with users to online surveys or pre-release programs. By getting the whole company involved, the product organization can ensure internal as well as external alignment.

In a future article I will go deeper into specific methodologies for Lean Product Management.