Should I accept an internal product management role?
When you think of product management, you think of solving a need for an external customer. Most examples of product management that you hear about are for externally facing products like apps, websites, APIs, dashboards and more.
But what about product management for internal users?
Two years ago I started my first internal product management role after working on externally facing products my entire career. I won’t lie. In making the shift I was initially deflated: my reach had significantly decreased (from 100000s of external to 100s of internal customers) and my sense of being recognised for my product work was also lower (I’d no longer be able to point to an app or website and say “Yeah, my team built that”).
Reach is not the same as impact
It is true, reach and recognition will likely be reduced in moving to internal product management. However, reach is not the same as impact. The impact you have as a product manager relates to:
- The extent to which you solve a user problem; and
- How large and ambiguous that problem was to solve.
In my role at GoCardless, in order to become better at delivering user impact, I wanted to be able to refine my skills in:
- Performing customer research as an input into my decision-making;
- Leading without authority; and
- Launching products iteratively.
Spoiler alert, as an internal product manager, I was able to hit all three of these goals. I was also able to hit them faster than if I had been product managing externally facing products. How you ask? Read on!
1. Build your customer research chops
As an internal product manager, your users are on your team or at least they work at the same company. This means that you can:
Do more research — your customers are a Slack message away!
- As an internal product manager, it’s easier to access your users. This ease is particularly stark when compared to how hard it can be to access external customers, where you usually have to fight to get funding for research, convince account managers that you’re safe to talk to a customer, or send out surveys that only give you snippets of the user experience.
Improve your research skills faster:
- So you haven’t done card sorting, usability testing, treejacking, shadowing, user interviews or ‘buy a feature’ before? No problem! With internal customers, the stakes are lower (you won’t lose a customer if your research technique isn’t 100% polished). As long as you have prepared for your sessions with a clear research plan and you manage your user expectations, they will be more than happy to be a part of what you’re doing.
Don’t forget, the ideas that ‘internal users are captive users’ and ‘UX doesn’t matter for internal users’ are fallacies. There are many other solutions an internal user could use to avoid using your product, including:
- Creating hacks;
- Using another third party tool covertly;
- Getting your team to do it for them; or
- Avoiding using your product overtly.
Tips for how to build adoption and avoid the pitfalls of a captive user fallacy:
- Shadow your users to get a clear picture of their needs day to day.
- Monitor adoption rates — take the time to ensure your team sets up monitoring of your measures of success (avoid measures that you have to update manually as these inevitably stop being measured).
- Monitor Slack — Slack is a goldmine for user feedback and questions (i.e. where your product is not yet meeting user needs).
2. Influence without authority
As an internal product manager, your stakeholders are often the leaders of your user base. This means that your stakeholders will likely have a good grasp of your product area, and that you will:
- Receive more requests, more frequently; and
- Be expected to be hyper-responsive to these requests, if not just do them.
Without clarifying your team’s purpose, you will spend all of your days in stakeholder meetings, trying fruitlessly to convince your stakeholders why not prioritising their request is the right decision.
If this is something you want to avoid, whilst improving how you influence without authority, here are some useful steps to follow:
Co-create your strategy with your stakeholders
- Involve your key stakeholders in your strategic process. As the PM, you are still accountable, however this doesn’t mean you can’t collaborate with your stakeholders to lay out all of the areas the team could focus on to have impact. After doing this, together confirm which of these areas you will focus on, over a time period (e.g. 1–2 years) and why.
Agree your measures of success that underpin this strategy
- Once you have your strategic pillars, draft your measures of success. Usually for internal product management, you will focus on some combination of speed of change, quality of change, reliability of the product and cost. Draft some back of the envelope sizes to give an order of magnitude of each measure and work with your stakeholders to select the measures you’ll look to move.
Taking this collaborative approach will mean your stakeholders are more bought into your product strategy, and you have an agreed framework to prioritise future requests.
A few tips:
- In stakeholder meetings: empathise, don’t make promises. Listening is often more important than committing to a solution.
- Make it your goal to mention your strategy in every session. Use a visual to show stakeholders where you are currently in the strategy, and where you’re going next.
3. Launch products iteratively
Prior to joining GoCardless, I had worked in organisations where there was an expectation that you would launch a refined product in the first release, with very little validation prior to launch. It is true, sometimes there is a ‘must get right’ element to your product that must be refined before launch, but this does not prevent iterative validation with users.
I wanted to build the habit of releasing solutions iteratively, and validating them ongoing with users (even if we didn’t launch until later).
The great news about internal product management is that you have lower stakes iterations: it’s very unlikely that you’ll damage your external brand and if an iteration isn’t perfect, your users will likely forgive you because you have built social capital with them.
- Establish a set of test users of different experience levels, tenure, and teams to test out your solution iteratively and provide feedback. Don’t forget that showing something unpolished to users will get you more feedback than if it’s totally polished and looks ‘done’.
- Upfront, confirm the single thing, or couple of things that you need to ‘nail’ in order to achieve product-user-fit/build affinity/build trust. This will help your team to know where to spend effort in iterating, versus just making things functional.
- People say ‘fail fast’. Just failing is not the key. Failing and systematically learning from these failures is how you succeed. Keep close eye on your measures of success to test how these are moving with each iteration. After each iteration, you will learn something. Take this learning into your next iteration. Use what you learn to help you figure out what to do next, and how much you’re willing to invest.
If you’re looking to learn a lot in your next role, quickly, rather than achieve huge customer reach and recognition, internal product management will likely be a good next step for you. And don’t hesitate to reach out if you want to discuss!