Is Africa doing product “wrong”?
The best African PMs I know are frustrated about how we do Product here.
If you’re working as a Product Manager in most of Africa, you probably feel your boss isn’t letting you do your job. Your day-to-day work probably looks nothing like what you were taught to expect. All the courses, podcasts, books, and articles said you own the product. You set the strategy. You prioritise the features and set the roadmap.
But is that REALLY how it works at your startup in Lagos, Nairobi, or Kigali?
In my career journey, I’ve worked in and led product teams in both small startups and large corporations in Nigeria. One of the few common threads across most of my jobs has been the product team’s struggle to have a say in product strategy. We won some, and lost some. And as I shared my victories and frustrations with other PMs across the Continent, I heard similar stories to mine. It seems that the African tech space nurtures the same deviations from textbook Product Management.
If you’re a PM in Africa, your founder/CEO probably makes the strategic product decisions. This causes two main frustrations for you as a PM.
First, it takes the most stimulating and creative parts of your job away from you.
Second, it often leads to bad product. Your boss probably isn’t trained to think like a Product Manager. They don’t live everyday like you do with the intricacies of “delivering on customer needs aligned with the business strategy, while understanding technical constraints” (as Roger Norton describes Product). They couldn’t possibly because they also have to pay attention to all the other parts of running a business. This means your boss often doesn’t have the experience, insights, skillset, and bandwidth to make the best product strategy decisions.
But try telling them that. As you’ve probably found out, there will be a lot of pushback. CEOs will insist on making product strategy decisions for lots of reasons:
- They see product strategy as their domain because all strategy is their domain. They want to decide what gets built to solve what problems, what features it has, and when they’re released. And they get their way because, well, they’re the boss.
- “Oga” Culture. In many West and East African countries, startup culture still functions like the broader corporate culture, which discourages disagreeing with the boss. This is borrowed from the wider African culture, which emphasises respect for elders and seniority, in a way that crosses into deference. The working relationship between the founder/CEO and employees is less collaboration and more command. This often translates to the boss refusing to delegate decision-making.
- Product Strategy is fun! There’s a reason why Oga Culture isn’t stopping your boss from delegating payroll to the CFO. It’s the same reason why even though they’ve taken over control of the roadmap, you’re still the one shepherding sprints and shuffling tickets on Jira. And that’s why your boss takes all the stimulating, product management parts of your job, and leaves you with the dreary, repetitive, project management parts.
So that’s the pain point for many African PMs: their bosses won’t let them be full PMs. But is there a solution? If you were to ask most PMs how they handle it, their solutions would probably fall into one of two buckets: Flight or Fight:
- Flight: Find a job where the PM owns product strategy. Of course, these aren’t easy to come by in our ecosystem. At Founders Factory Africa, where I’m a Product Lead, a key part of the support we give our portfolio companies is an understanding of Product best practices. We’re investing in companies that value Product Thinking and Product Management. But there aren’t that many FFA alumni startups out there. Yet. It’s really tough finding a startup in Africa that has textbook Product Culture. So, those jobs are very competitive.
- Fight: Get your boss to leave product strategy decisions to you. This is difficult, and those of us who’ve managed it in the past have the battle scars to prove it. It’s often a long process, of building trust in areas where you’re empowered to deliver. It also calls for a lot of pushing back on decisions. But even that pushback is a delicate affair. “Oga Culture” often comes with sensitivity to criticism. Lots of PMs working in these conditions talk about high anxiety about meetings, fear of getting fired, annoyance about endless back-and-forth disagreements, and resentment over feeling they need to prove themselves with even the smallest task.
So if Flight has bad odds and Fight is high stress, is there another bucket of better solutions for PMs facing the Oga Culture problem? That’s the question I get the most from younger PMs I’m mentoring. And when I ask the happiest PMs, they mostly seem to have settled into a compromise:
- Influence your boss to make the product decisions you would make.
Many effective and satisfied PMs seem to have accepted not having direct power to set strategy and direction as part of the job in Africa. They instead do it indirectly, by influencing their bosses’ decisions. I’ve often done this myself: influence upwards without authority. And who better than a PM to do this? We already have a lot of experience influencing sideways: getting cross-functional teams of engineers, designers, growth marketers, and researchers to buy into a unified vision, and execute it. What I’m describing here is applying the same mindset and skills vertically.
In the corporate world, there’s already a lot of talk about “managing up” and “influencing up”. Maybe Product Managers in Africa can apply these principles to our unique situation. Looking back to times I’ve needed to do this, I call the techniques I used “Producting Up”. In my next article, I’ll share some Producting Up strategies that have worked for me, or that I’ve seen work.
Obviously, there’s no magic bullet. Building trust and influencing a decision-maker are hard. But trying to change culture is harder. We definitely need to push for more companies to give Product the power to work. But that battle won’t be won overnight. So in the short term, will PMs in Africa feel more job satisfaction by letting the founder/CEO make the decisions while being their strongest influence?