Evolution of the Product Org

Jeremy Vo
LeapMotiv

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A summary of themes (needs and wants) from 75+ interviews with CPOs and VP Sales/Client Success within software product companies along with future considerations for the role.

Written: June 1, 2020

Introduction

In this report, we explore some of the current challenges that CPOs face and identify some of the future considerations of those challenges. These themes and considerations have been gathered from our findings through a series of interviews with senior executives:

  • 61 total participants primarily from the USA, followed by the UK
  • 45 Heads of Product (CPO, VP Product, Head of Product)
  • 16 Heads of Sales or CS (VP Sales, VP Client Success)
  • 90% of the companies are B2B, 10% are B2C
  • Most companies are based in North America and Europe between 51–200 employees
  • Conducted more than 75 interviews total (incl. follow-ups, deep dives)

The format that we used to conduct these interviews were simple qualitative questions that helped us understand the candidate’s priorities, workflow, challenges, and implications. We used a standard interview structure so that we could better compare and contrast to identify current themes that are top of mind as well as future considerations of the CPO.

Findings are for directional guidance only.

Themes

Below is a list of common problem themes that were identified during the research. Under each theme, we give a brief summary followed by direct quotes from participants. For privacy, we are not sharing company names or participant identities.

Theme 1: The knowledge gap

With the average tenure of the tech worker being only 18 months, there are a lot of people coming in all with different backgrounds and experiences. This, coupled with the recent explosion of SaaS tools means it’s getting increasingly difficult to find the information you need. Lost institutional knowledge, lost collaboration, and lost documents are a common problem. It’s impossible to assume that for any given company, the teams have the same understanding of the market, customer, and product; yet, we are expected to come to the same conclusions with regards to product strategy and tactics.

Sales and client success teams who interact with customers on a daily basis have an excellent understanding of what the current customers want and need. Product teams tend to take a longer-term view looking beyond 1 or 2 quarters guided by a set of strategic objectives. This can create a significant amount of tension and frustration as product teams, and commercial teams may not have the same context, leading to misalignment, poor decision-making, and loss of productivity.

Top Anecdotes:

  • “Biggest frustration between people setting the strategy and people executing the story — can’t see each others’ context.
  • “How do you connect the system that salespeople use to the execution layer and show engineers why this EPIC is the way it is.”
  • “CPO couldn’t tell you who the top 3 competitors are or the basics of what’s happening in the market.”
  • “CPO believes PMs should be speaking with customers more instead of order-taking.”
  • “If PMs didn’t have to spend so much time clarifying requests, they could spend much more time on strategy and with customers.”

Theme 2: Curating ‘the why’ for non-product people

A common complaint from product people is that salespeople always give them the feature — not the problem. Ironically, what product people give back to the sales team is the same thing — a list of features that are part of the release and the release notes. Across the board, teams lack context or a good understanding of what the product team is doing and how it will impact the customer and the company goals. This has significant implications for productivity and more importantly, morale across all teams — especially customer-facing teams.

Top Anecdotes:

  • “Team is hungry and ravenous for how the roadmap ties into customer stories — the whole customer piece is missing. Salespeople are hungry to know ‘the why’ and getting that communicated in a way that’s clear.”
  • “How do you keep the entire team up to speed in an easy to understand format? What is in a current sprint, what does that mean to the business, what’s coming down the road, does everyone have a chance to weigh in on those 1 or 2 upcoming sprints?”
  • “What’s missing is ‘How do I link all of these things to company or corporate objectives and make all of the work visible to non-technical audiences?’ ”
  • “I want to correlate strategy all the way down to story and there is currently no way to do that.”
  • “Product team missing deadlines; feels like org is complacent → not communicating when things are slipping // lack of shared info between teams.”
  • “The Product and Engineering teams don’t do their jobs as well. With a more complete customer understanding and no loss in the fidelity, we would have better use cases, testing, software, etc.”
  • “Lack of alignment manifests at the board/founder level in an inefficient organization; they can’t see it, they can’t understand it.”

Theme 3: I want problems, not solutions

Almost every CPO we spoke to listed “getting everyone aligned on product strategy and roadmap” as a top priority and are investing a significant amount of time doing so; yet, it doesn’t seem to be sticking, as many inside and outside the product teams expressed frustration in the level of understanding across the board. Product teams tend to communicate with solutions and features, rather than problems and outcomes. From a non-product perspective, this makes it more difficult to internalize and remember.

As a result, they don’t understand it and more importantly aren’t able to articulate it to others either externally or internally. This is most acutely felt in commercial roles however has broader implications including both marketing and engineering.

Top Anecdotes:

  • “We were doing training for this new release that was coming out, and not once did we see a customer example and how it would be used in the wild… it was just: here’s the product, and it does X, Y, Z — there’s no backstory and context.”
  • “If engineers, designers, data scientists, etc. are not bought into the vision, going to have issues with only building for short-term and not long-term. Gives engineers a reason to come to work.”
  • “Story is different for who you talk to (i.e. features for user and strategy for buyers); sharing roadmap PPT and vision with customers during the year in review or renewal timeframe or new leadership comes in.”
  • “Spreadsheet is not really a way to get traction; it is an afterthought.”
  • “Wants to communicate product vision and product themes on a roadmap externally to clients → has to show value and relate to what they’re doing and what they’re trying to achieve.”
  • “Product team keeps building new user stories that aren’t contextualized”
  • “Problem with sales engineers is that they will solution upfront and say ‘this client wants a competitor feature’ — they have trouble articulating the customer use cases.”

Theme 4: An evolution of tools

The current suite of product management tools focuses on ‘the how’ and collaboration between product and engineer teams and largely ignores non-product teams, resulting in a breakdown in information gathering and sharing. Asking sales and client success people to access information in confluence, Aha, or JIRA does not work. As a result, non-product teams members may struggle to understand when and how they should contribute to customer learning. They may discuss it with a product manager in person, but then are unsure what, if anything, happens to that anecdote.

Top Anecdotes:

  • “Product management tools are too focused on PM and not enough on sales and CSM who are linked partners.”
  • “No central place to store product information that is easily accessible to customer-facing (non-product teams).”
  • “Ability to reach in and curate information in the repository as a non-product manager as a means to remove the bottleneck in the product team.”
  • “Where is the link between Salesforce and JIRA.”
  • “Empty suit sales” and CSM people (not understanding the value of the product) selling sales decks and demo and solution.”
  • “Business units are promising things to customers that aren’t being delivered.”
  • “Sales/customer teams lose incentives to share feedback if they don’t see any progress.”

Future Considerations for the CPO

Many of the CPO’s we interviewed touched on how they see their roles changing in the coming years. We have summarized those future considerations below.

Consideration 1: Design for customer context

Providing all stakeholders with the appropriate context is critical for building trust, focus, and alignment between teams. Non-product teams including executive teams need to have a clear understanding of why the product is doing what they are doing, who for and what outcomes are expected. CPOs realize that these foundations are critical for understanding.

To do this effectively, CPOs need to:

  • Ensure there is a clearly articulated vision, mission, values, target customer, problem, and company goals defined. In many cases, this is sitting down with the founders or executive team and extracting what’s in their heads and getting it down on paper.
  • Present ‘‘problem and outcome roadmaps” vs traditional feature-based roadmaps to spoon feed “the why” to all teams and stakeholders to ensure everyone understands.
  • Create a culture that encourages questions like ‘‘why are we doing this particular thing in this particular way?” Most organizations view these types of questions as inefficient, however leading CPO’s see questions as the engine of intellect and show that the employees are engaged and curious.
  • Communicate prioritization principles so people understand why you choose one path vs another. People outside of product organizations may not appreciate everything that you could do. This context is important. Making your prioritization criteria clear will help align the group on what you are doing and why.
  • Define and provide around-the-clock access to a dedicated space to capture, store, structure and present customer problems in order to ensure people have the information when they need it and can consume it at their own pace.
  • Hold the product team accountable to outcomes, not activities. This is critical. To build trust throughout the organization, the product team needs to define the outcomes for each initiative that are clearly connected to specific definitions of customers and company outcomes so that they can keep the rest of the company up to date on that progress — both successes and failures.

Providing this context builds trust amongst the internal organization and is more relevant today in our post-COVID world than ever before as organizations have fewer opportunities for lunchroom conversations or drive bys. CPOs need to foster systems and ways of communicating that enable other people, not just themselves, to be able to illustrate “this is what we are building and why we are choosing to do this.”

Consideration 2: Problems are the starting point of innovation

Asking the right questions and identifying the right problems is a critical skill for organizations, especially product-led companies. Most great products and product companies have started from asking the right questions and identifying the right problems however few companies encourage this, providing no training, policies, best practices, or guidelines.

Leading CPOs are battling old entrenched product practices and tools that focus on implementation and building solutions in lean and agile ways vs ensuring they are solving the right problems. They realize that since asking the right questions and identifying the right problems is the starting point of innovation, they are actively training people to do this and are creating systems and environments to capture, store, synthesize and present customer problems so nothing falls through the cracks.

Consideration 3: Optimize for creativity, not just workflow

Building truly great and differentiated products happen when every part of the organization deeply understands the customer and their problems. By thinking deeply about their customer, they can internalize their priorities, workflows, needs and wants, and develop the intuition to get to that ‘aha moment.’ Organizations have more confidence to take risks, make investments, and accept failures.

Great products are not built by optimizing the workflow of feature requests to tickets. In this scenario, the best you can expect is small incremental improvements.

It is the role of all executives, including the CPO to unlock creativity across teams by providing an environment where they can think deeply about the customer and their problem.

To do this, the CPO needs to be thoughtful in the preparation, curation, and presentation of the customer, how they work, and the problems they have. A place where customer problems live and can be mapped to the initiatives taken by Product. We’re not talking about personas, but rather a dedicated place where teams can go to study real customers, built from the ground up with the stories that they have told us.

With this structure in place, lightbulb moments will come from all functions and can be captured and validated through the product organization.

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Jeremy Vo
LeapMotiv

Partner @ LeapMotiv - Helping to launch new companies.