Interview with Tim Herbig, Product Director, entrepreneur and author.

I’ve been a fan of Tim for while, I thoroughly enjoy his newsletters and writing, and in this interview we had the opportunity to talk about Impact Mapping, the difference between managing products in small and large companies and what running his own company taught him about empathy. This interview is full of great advice and practical recommendations. Enjoy!

Sofia: Tim, why don’t you tell us a bit about yourself, how did you get started in product management. Also, you’ve been recently speaking at some of the best product conferences out there, can you tell us a bit about that too.

Tim: Sure. Since last year, I’m the Director at iridion. Iridion is a tool for conversion management — essentially bringing structure to the conversion optimization efforts of marketeers out there. Iridion originally started as a passion project at one of Germany’s biggest conversion agencies, Web Arts. It was as an internal tool but we got a lot of positive feedback from clients about it and decided to turn it into its own business. It’s primarily my job to grow the product and the business. We’ve hired a dedicated product team that works in a completely distributed fashion. I am based in Hamburg but we have folks located in other parts of Germany and some developers abroad as well.

As we grow, my personal tasks seem to get a bit smaller, which is great. Currently, I don’t have to do much on a day-to-day basis that is directly related to the product. Right now my primary goal is to keep the company aligned to our quarterly focus topics — the epics we’re working on to define our objectives and key results. Also, I have to keep our stakeholders aligned and check in with different departments on a regular basis to see if there are any problems I can help resolve. From time to time, I have some of my own projects within the company. Currently, I’m looking at pricing models and offline events.

I’ve been doing product management for about eight years. I started out in a small marketing agency doing product on an internal tool. Then I switched industries and started working at a large publishing house in Germany where I was responsible for the mobile app of a very big news site.

From there, I tried to build a mobile platform for dog owners. It was called MyGassi — Gassi in German means taking your dog for a walk. It was super fun. We worked in a small apartment in the middle of Hamburg, trying to get this app out the door and scale it. Ultimately we failed but it was still a great experience because I learnt so much about the development process — a bit of design, a bit of tech, a bit of marketing. It was really cool.

Then I decided I wanted to step into a professional product management environment again to get a bit more knowledge and to structure my skills. That’s why I joined Xing. Xing is basically LinkedIn for German speaking regions. For two and half years, I was the product manager for premium membership there, responsible for the monetization efforts of the whole company. It was a great time. I made a lot of product management connections and friendships during and leveled up my product management skills a lot. Then, after a brief stint at a small digital transformation consultancy in Hamburg, I decided to take over a product of my own again by joining Iridion.

Sofia: Amazing. What a journey! One of the exciting things that happens when you have your breadth of experience is that you start to find these common denominators to making a business successful. Based on your years of experience, for anyone trying to succeed in product management, what do you think is crucial to know and do?

Tim: When I started out, product management wasn’t as professional as it is now, so I found myself looking for structure and fancy guidelines on how to do it. I worked with lots of different product management frameworks only to realize that it’s not about frameworks!

I need to be able to orchestrate certain tool sets like user research or doing product discovery or how to break down complex concepts into user stories for the backlog. You need to be aware of a lot of these tools but the most important thing is to be very adaptable.

It won’t matter that you’ve been practicing for three years and have become a total designs print master, if you’re tasked with breaking down a complex concept into a tangible outcomes and you can’t do that you are not going to make progress.

By stepping away from trying to master a lot of frameworks, you’ll recognize the underlying mechanics of them instead and realize that, frankly, they’re always the same — there’s a user centered approach and an iterative approach. So, I’d rather say be aware of the tools out there and make sure that you have a broad set of tools to deploy.

Sofia: So it’s more about the process, the thinking behind it, than a specific tool kit. I completely agree. What are you excited about right now? I know you’re touring with all these different talks and conferences, which I love. What are you currently sharing with the community?

Tim: This year, a lot of my talks revolve around the topic of lateral leadership, which means influencing people around you without formal authority. There are two reasons for that. Firstly, I put out a very short blog post last year on this topic and got a huge response from my audience. I thought, “Okay, there’s probably something in there”, so I decided to write a book about lateral leadership, which I’m about to complete. It’s a short business book and it’s being published in collaboration with Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden, who founded their own publishing platform.

This obviously led me to dig a lot deeper into this topic and try to think about underlying soft skills. Lateral leadership is primarily about soft skills. It’s for product leaders or pretty much anybody who needs to manage a team without formal authority and that’s a lot of people who don’t even realize it.

It’s a huge topic so I decided to turn parts of the book into a talk and I got a lot of positive response from the market.

I think the biggest problem is that most people don’t realize that they’re already lateral leaders so, for me, the book is about raising awareness of this leadership situation and about providing hands on guidance on how to deal with it because most people in lateral leadership positions have not been put there in a very explicit way.

Sofia: I feel that you develop leadership skills by dealing with really tough situations, messing up due to your insecurities, bias, personal agenda and then learning from those mistakes. Do you think people can learn techniques that help them avoid making all these mistakes? How much can you really learn if you’ve never put yourself in the firing line?

Tim: There are two key skills that are important for mastering the lateral leadership skill puzzle. One is alignment. Alignment is a very deep topic so I don’t want to go into it too much here. The other one is empathy.

When I talk about empathy being part of the skill puzzle, I mean become aware of implicit signals that your peers are sending you. I appreciate it’s not something that is easy to learn from a book. I want to raise awareness of empathy for the work and the craft skills of the team you’re working with.

The deeper you go into a mastering a certain craft the more pains and problems you have to go through. For product people, being aware of these pains can drastically improve their relationships with people. This is what I want to emphasize.

Don’t be in your PM bubble and think about all the frameworks you have to deploy, but rather, be aware of what it takes to master the skills of your peers. This is how you form a fully functional, cross functional team. And, ultimately, I think cross functional teams are the future of all companies.

Sofia: This is absolutely true and I wonder how many of these conclusions you’ve drawn are based on your experience as a founder. Experience is so empowering. You learn to understand the complexity of building beyond the product itself. Could you share some insights from your founder experience?

Tim: Definitely a lot of the stuff comes from my time at MyGassi. Like I said, we were such a small team and everybody had to do everything. We had to explore areas of expertise that you wouldn’t be allowed to touch in a larger corporation. For example, I’d send out the newsletter and provide assets for the developers. In a professional environment like Xing, PMs are not allowed to do those things because there are people who are much more experienced in those roles.

I think you learn a lot of empathy from smaller, startup style teams because they often force you to step into roles you’re not originally educated for. Nevertheless, I don’t think people should say they can’t develop empathy for the skills of their peers just because they work in large corporations. They just need to jump on YouTube or Treehouse or take a course in design or development. Try to put up an app or a website yourself, participate in the internal meetings of IOS desks from different departments. Get a feeling for the topics that are discussed, the topics that keep your peers up at night.

Sofia: What would be your advice for a product manager trying to decide whether to nurture their career in a large organization or in a small one? What are the benefits of one over the other?

Tim: It totally depends on your skill level, whether you just graduated or whether you already have a couple of years of experience in a certain job.

The role of the product manager is glorified right now. There’s a huge amount of hype going on. Everyone is looking to hire kick ass PMs but nobody knows where to find them. Some companies are trying to solve the problem by developing in-house product management training programmes.

In Germany, a private startup founder saw a gap in the market and started The CODE University in Berlin. He’s offering a Bachelor degree in design, product, and tech, which is amazing because product management is now being taught to people by real practitioners.

Back in the day, I had the opportunity to get an official certification as a product owner. It was super expensive but I thought it was something I needed to be taken seriously. If I could have given some advice to my younger self, I would have said, “Here’s a top ten list of great product people who put up their wisdom, often for free, on the internet.” That could be people like Jeff Gothelf or Marty Cagan or product people out there who share their thoughts in blogs or newsletters. They even do workshops or e-learning courses sometimes. Teresa Torres just launched a great one about interviewing, for example. I’d really encourage people to follow these kind of people.

Pick one or two workshops and learn from hands-on practitioners instead of looking for official certifications. Coming back to your question, if you want to be successful in a larger, more mature product organization, your readiness to apply certain tools when faced with challenges matters much more than an official certificate. War stories from proven product managers will help you so much more.

Sofia: Every single product, from start through evolution, is always full of challenges. Would you be able to share a story of one that was particularly difficult and how you got through it? It might be helpful for people out there to know that they’re not alone.

Tim: Thankfully I haven’t encountered such huge headaches but the one I remember was when I was part of the discovery team at Xing. One tool that helped us tremendously — I cherish it to this day — was Impact Mapping.

Impact Mapping basically helps you structure and map out specific solutions. You can use it to sanity check solutions and make sure they influence the right product or the KPIs the company needs to focus on. It’s a four-level framework and the good thing is, it can either be seen as a specific workshop tool or as a constant companion throughout, say, a product’s recovery phase.

At the very top you put the big ‘why’ — why are you working everyday? It’s not about this hugely inspiring qualitative thing but more a key metric. Is it 10% revenue growth year over year? Or churn rate? Whatever. Then you go one level down and think about the ‘who’. Who is involved in influencing the metric at the very top? This could be users. It could be sales reps. On the next level, and this is where people start to struggle, you ask which changes of behavior, which impacts, do we need to create for the people from one level above, to achieve the goal at the very top?

In order to name the behavior changes you want to create, you need to understand your users. You need to know what they’re struggling with so that you can decide which change of behavior to bring about.

At the very bottom, you have the ‘what’, the specific solutions. Here you can go into brainstorming mode, do designs and so on. You can use whatever framework suits you to develop specific solutions. You need to be able to say, “We’re building this feature for this audience. We want to change the following behavior so we can maximize our chances of reducing churn by 10% at the very top”.

In my previous consulting role, I used Impact Mapping to point out mismatches in specific features or product ideas, things that were not aligned with the overall company goal.

The top is usually easy. Then, one level down, the ‘who’ is also easy for a lot of people. One level down from that, you need to talk to users and do qualitative and quantitative research in order to lay out the behavior changes you want to implement. Them, at the very bottom, you can list specific features and ideas.

Sofia: That’s super helpful. Thank you. Finally, tell us where we can find you.

Tim: I recommend you go to my website, which is herbigt.com. On the blog you’ll find my recent writing, a link to my newsletter, updates on the book I’m writing and links to pretty much anything else I’m doing. On Twitter I’m @herbigt. Hit me up with any questions. I’m happy to continue the discussion.