The South East Asian Product Manager DNA

Part I — Figuring out the maturity of your company’s product practice

The Genesis

Product management as a discipline in South-east Asia remains a vaguely understood and defined role relative to our western product management counterparts. In most organizations in South-east Asia, the product role is pigeon-holed under project management. In the rare cases, startups and organizations understand and acknowledge the need for a product professional to take on the development and growth of a company’s products, these same organizations lack the know-how and understanding of how it is to identify, train and groom product professionals for success.

As a lead product manager in Ninja Van Singapore, I’m faced with this very same dilemma today. Ninja Van has seen an explosion of growth since its inception in 2014, scaling from a handful of employees to several hundreds in a matter of 2–3 years. Ninja Van’s engineering practice, as a result, has scaled correspondingly albeit just a step behind. Exponential growth allows for added bandwidth and a larger throughput from the developers but comes at a price as structures and processes are typically a step behind.

As the engineering team scales, one of my objectives as a product management lead is to drive maturity and process into our product management practice. Establishing such processes don’t happen overnight but require a change in mindset across multiple parties — something that I have set a stretch goal for my team and me.

The Problem To Be Solved (PTBS)

In the pursuit of these objectives, I’ve run into some challenges one of which is that there is no easy or industry accepted way to measure the states of development of the product team as a whole and each member in return. I discussed this challenge with some product counterparts in the industry and this eventually led to the development of a framework for assessment of a product manager’s capability called simply ‘Product Management Capability Matrix’

In this two-part blog post, I will attempt to share with you the approach to addressing this issue, starting with measurement and stock take of existing organization’s PM capabilities followed by a separate post that zooms into the individual PM levels and capabilities. This series will culminate with me sharing the ‘Product Management Capability Matrix’ which was conceptualized in-house to provide a uniform approach to product capability measurement.

My objective in documenting and sharing my approach is to value add to the product management community especially in South East Asia. My hopes are that other organizations that find themselves in similar growth phases find the information and approach shared useful and can be leveraged for their own needs.

The Lay Of The Land

How do you gauge the level/maturity of the product managers as well as the product management practice in your organization? This was the question I sought to answer initially. To begin, I turned to peers and open research which led me to two popular frameworks for consideration:

The Pragmatic Marketing Framework

The first was something called ‘The Pragmatic Marketing Framework’. — This framework appears to be a vendor-specific model used by the Pragmatic Marketing company as the shared basis for many of their seminars and training services. Pragmatic Marketing is the best-known training organization for Product Managers, headquartered in the USA. To date, it has trained 70,000 product management and marketing professionals at 6,000 companies in 23 countries. The course syllabus is based on a product management framework which can be divided into three broad areas of responsibility:

  • Strategic
  • Technical
  • Marketing

These areas of responsibility are grouped by functions/capabilities which span a strategic to executional spectrum. The suggestion here is that these are the functional areas that a PMs should be competent in to be effective in his role specific to the vertical that he is focused on.

I hypothesized leveraging this framework to solve my needs by assessing the organization and individual’s capabilities and skill-sets mapped to individual functions to have a sense of where we were strong and where we might be limited.

Immediately I came across a stumbling block, I found that the framework was more suitable for well-established organizations where the specific functional roles of a PM was extremely well defined and the PM practice itself was mature and well described. Additionally, I felt that the approach was laborious plus was missing critical coverage and measurement of soft skills which I felt was something that should be addressed and considered as opposed to being an after thought or a derivation of the process.

In all fairness, The Pragmatic Marketing Framework is extremely well thought of and detailed process and they do provide a disclaimer that a framework is just that, a framework. It is up to the individual consumer to cherry pick elements of that framework to suit their contextual needs. Nonetheless, I could not easily fit their recommended approach to Ninja Van’s product practice in a way that sung to me.

These limitations and concerns led me to the conclusion that perhaps there was not a well-defined framework or guide for early stage product teams and young organizations finding their product feet. This resulted in my exploration of product maturity models which led me to my next discovery.

The Product Management Maturity Model

The second discovery was a Product Management Maturity Model that was generated by 280group, a strategic consulting firm focused on product and project management processes. The model allowed a company to place themselves into one of three main levels of product management maturity which reflected the current state of product practices. 280 group defined three types of product maturity levels: ‘ad-hoc’, ‘partially defined’ and ‘optimized’, with each state a level above the previous one. As a company matured in their product practice they would naturally increase in product maturity levels.

Further exploration and research brought to my attention many other ‘variants’ of product and project maturity models. One that resonated with me was by a company called Product Focus whose maturity model was aimed to “help companies gauge how well they’re doing compared to best practice i.e. to know what ‘good’ looks like. “ The model consists of 5 enablers and 3 levels of maturity. “The rows represent 5 product management enablers we believe are critical for success. The columns represent 3 levels of product management maturity.”

I found this model sound and suitable for the developing practice of Product Management commonplace for many South-East Asian startups and growing organizations.

As described by Product Focus themselves they “find this model is a useful tool as it moves the discussion on from talking about symptoms i.e. late deliveries or poor product revenues, to looking at what the root causes might be.” — exactly what I was seeking to accomplish.

The Findings

I put this model to the test — or rather, put the company to the model, surveying our product team as an exercise of inward polling to see where we felt we stood against the model’s categories. Although the findings were not surprising — the insights drove perspective and clarity. Looking at the results made it clearer to me as a product lead where we had work to do and where we were treading water and doing ok.

“When we first see companies most rate themselves between levels 1 and 2. In our experience few companies fully achieve level 3 although many find it a useful objective. Also our experience is that a company’s level changes up and down over time and the ‘ups’ often relate to the level of support product management has from the senior management team. — Product Focus”

The information I gathered from the exercise above was an important first step in understanding, defining and acknowledging where we were in terms of an established product management practice.

The next step is the identification of where we wanted to get to as a product team. This required a discussion on our end as a team, identifying the areas we needed further development and areas we agreed were two steps away. In my opinion, there is no right of best ‘position’ to be in as a product group. The considerations should be what or how should we be operating in the best interests of the organization’s needs and business objectives. Being overly structured might hamper a more agile quick pivot environment for early seed stage startups. At the same time, being too ‘flexible’ would lead to difficulty measuring and managing initiatives for the company.

Stay tuned for the next installment of this series, where I will share my next steps. Taking the information obtained above, driving the setting of organizational goals and then decomposing this assessment to each individual contributing member of my product team.