Shipping Lateness?

What comes to mind when you think of a typical day as a Product Manager? Hours spent with engineers and designers, passionately debating interaction paradigms? Prioritising backlog items for your roadmap using Kano? End of sprint demos where you review the latest build and proudly greenlight for release?

Stories about Product Management are dominated by Bay Area startups or engineering giants like Google or Facebook. A case in point is Sara Mauskopf’s reflections on her different experiences as a Product Manager; first at Twitter (ie Big Tech) and then at PostMates (ie a Startup). An excellent post, no doubt, but for many of us Twitter and PostMates are apples and apples. Both are software companies with a product heart. They are Born Digital.

Product Managers in Grown Digital companies — say media, utilities or retailers — face a different set of challenges. The challenge of spending the majority of their time in meetings or trying to keep track of email threads that metastize like the most virulent forms of cancer. The challenge of spending an entire quarter building a feature then finding the Executive have had a change of heart so the whole thing must be rolled back. The challenge of accepting that 80% of their time is taken up by things that are nothing to do with Product Management.

Large organisations have evolved into systems that ensure repeatability and predictability. As there is no precedent or frame of reference for new digital products, the natural inclination is to treat them the same as the existing products or services.

But, thanks to waves of legislation and escalating concerns about information security, reaching the necessary levels of compliance can be a terrifying prospect for anyone trying to ship in an agile manner.

Grown Digital cultures prefer to mitigate risk and reduce the likelihood of failure. This is achieved by disempowering individuals in favour of a complex web of approvals and signoffs that must be followed for anything to ship. I’ve sat on Product Committees that report to other committees that report to the Executive. Lean Startup this was not.

In this environment, Product Managers must develop skills beyond the core (roadmapping, requirements capture, feature prioritisation) that we read about so often.

The most important skill for a Product Manager in a Grown Digital company is patience. Patience and an ability to conceal and master frustration. Trying to move at digital speed when those around you are moving at geological speed takes the patience of a zenmaster.

Facebook ship twice a day to over a billion users. Github are shipping dozens of times a day. But, for many of us, it can be a struggle to ship once… a quarter?

In a large company you are always waiting. Waiting for someone to get back to your email. Waiting for someone to sign off. Waiting…because you can’t make that decision on your own.

In Grown Digital companies, Product Managers must also become superheroes at navigating around minefields of legislative box-checking and internal process to ensure that the team can release fast and often and make crucial decisions in response to market data. They need to be able do this without actually saying ‘No’ to anyone, of course.

Just as language itself can be fraught with complication in Grown Digital environments, expecting to practice Lean Startup and Customer Development principals without moderation will be counter-productive too.

Product Managers in Grown Digital companies must fight for the right to be different whilst deftly co-existing with the established culture. Trying to be a startup within a corporation isn’t about daily standups, MVPs or beer and pizza sessions on a Friday. It’s about convincing the Executive that a light touch legal framework and minimal levels of compliance are essential to digital success.

In the workplace, as in life, it tends to be the things we least expect (and have not planned for) that trip us up. The biggest challenges are often unexpected and surprisingly mundane.

Originally published at on May 3, 2015.

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