ManoMano Tech team
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ManoMano Tech team

Is a CPO still useful in a decentralized product organization?

Once the CPO (Chief Product Officer) has set up a strong product-centric organization (step 1), once this org is fully decentralized and rooted in the company with senior product profiles (step 2), what becomes the CPO’s role in the company? Does the CPO even remain useful? If he (I am using He for writing simplicity) does, what should he be doing?

In a nutshell, the answer is yes (but perhaps not necessarily in the C-suite). 5 key missions should fill the daily life of the CPO:

  • Product influence inside the company (eg. carrying out the user voice, evangelizing employees…) to strengthen user-centricity

This question of the role of the CPO was raised at ManoMano when after 2 years and a half, the product organization was up and running with a good level of decentralization. Of course there remains a lot of room for improvements! Note that this article also works with “VP Product” or “Head of Product” instead of CPO.

Mission 1: inside-the-company product influence, to strengthen user-centricity

The CPO is the key agent to influence the company from the inside to make it more user-centric. It can be achieved in two ways, by:

  1. Advocating for the users’ interest within the company

First, by advocating for the users’ interest within the company. Depending on your company DNA, this mission may be of varying level of criticality. At Amazon, it is at the heart of the company. Most of the time it isn’t, so there is a need for a voice carrying the interests of the users in every strategic decision, especially in the C-suite. Marketing could take this role (and does), but I think it is greater to have a Product person being the voice of the users. It requires the CPO to play an active role in the User Research and to talk to a lot of different users so that he can have a very good understanding of the problems they face. Having anecdotes from users to feed discussions is very powerful, especially during Executive Committees.

Then, converting as much employees as possible to a user-centric approach is also critical. CPO can play an important role (but he cannot be the only one) to foster this culture. Two key moments can be identified: onboarding and recurring product events.

Employees onboarding is a unique moment where you can have the full attention of all new employees. At ManoMano, we take advantage from the situation through:

  • Product onboarding that includes a quiz to explain product and user-centricity

During the regular life of the company, we created product routines to maintain this user-centricity:

  • Quarterly “tech roadshow” where teams demonstrate their main outcomes always starting by user problems

Mission 2: outside-the-company product influence, to attract talents

Outside the company, the CPO will be the main ambassador of the company’s product culture and is the one responsible for the employer branding in the product area. Since product talents are rare, these two elements are critical to attract talents. Main tasks may include blogging (many candidates will make up their mind about company’s product maturity through blog articles) or talks at Product events (La Product Conf, Mind The Product, Product Management Festival). Talks allow you to raise awareness about your company while blogging will keep the momentum. It requires the CPO to be senior both to have a solid network and experience to talk about product management.

Developing one’s network can be achieved by participating into product groups or by attending trainings (Thiga Head of Product training, Insead Product Management Executive Program…).

Mission 3: product team management, to create a strong and lively product community

The product team is usually highly distributed, members spending most of their time with their product team. So creating a real product community internally is a challenge in which the CPO has a strong role to play.

First through recruiting. I think that this is the main “power” a CPO should have, having the final call on every product recruitment. At ManoMano the CPO interviews every candidate arriving at the last step of the process. It guarantees the homogeneity of the recruitments and of the team mindset. CPO should also guarantee a good balance in terms of gender, diversity, culture, personalities. At some point, the product team was mainly made of male engineers, we tried to add more women and more marketing backgrounds.

Giving the CPO full power on the recruitment of his team makes sense because at the end, the CPO will be judged on the quality of his team.

Then by animating the team. As the team manager, the CPO has to be able to create a real product life living together with the distributed organization. You can achieve this objective by:

  • Creating recurring dedicated team slot (for instance half a day) filled with trainings, challenges…

And finally by helping the team grow. I am personally convinced that growing PMs requires to favor mobilities so that they can face as many different business issues as possible. It also requires to provide young PMs with the right product toolbox (see this article if you want some examples of artefacts we use), reading recommendations (I personally love this list of blog articles from Sebastien Phlix, Senior PM at Typeform, thanks to Emmanuel Hosanski for sharing it within ManoMano). Also help your team know what you expect them to learn by writing a clear career path (here are some ideas of qualities that matter to be a good PM). The CPO should be the one always raising the bar, during meetings he attends for instance. And leverage your network by hosting great speakers (for instance your peers, many thanks to Arthur Rougier from JobTeaser, Rémi Guyot from BlaBlaCar, Fabrice Des Mazeries from Thiga, Rémi Bardoux ex Kapten…).

Mission 4: Product playbook key principles, to create a common DNA among all teams

A product playbook should list the team product habits and principles. Even if the CPO is not the only one to contribute to it, he is clearly the owner of this document. He should coordinate, animate and make it live within the team. In a decentralized organization, each team can (and should) develop their own way of doing. So there is a good balance to find between a total lack of centralization and an excess of centralized processes. What could be centralized include:

  • Principles to make decisions (like simplicity, pragmatism, early delivery…)

They are more guidelines than must-do. For instance if you read this article about our organization you can see that they provide teams with guidelines but still leave room for customization within each team.

The CPO is responsible for setting up the best environment for his/her team to be in the best conditions to ship the best products.

Mission 5: Portfolio management and product strategy guidelines, to have shared product strategy principles

How can a CPO influence over the product strategy? Each team has a better knowledge of the problem space than he will ever have. The Product Directors have a better vision on the tribe. Asking teams to implement a feature is both counter productive in term of management and in terms of business as when complexity grows, “good ideas” might turn into bad solutions on the field… So is the CPO useless as regard to the Product Strategy? I think he can play a key role as regards to the following topics: company goals setting, product teams organization and resources allocation.

1/ Company goals settings. Focus starts at the top of the company and the CPO is responsible for deciding with the C-suite the key areas where to focus on the mid-to-long run (perhaps in a totally decentralized company it would be different but these companies are still very rare). Of course, each team remains responsible for its own strategy to contribute the most to the company goals. These goals at ManoMano are usually set at the end of year N-1 (Q4) and are reviewed yearly. They are proposed within what we call gears (kind of mini executive committees, we have 3 of them in 2020: Sellers, Visitors and Buyers gears), then consolidated and validated in Executive Committee.

2/ Team organizations. Once the main areas of focus have been agreed within the company, the CPO should align the organization (for instance the tribes) along with the company goals. It is not mandatory and some will argue it could be counterproductive but I find it more efficient in terms of steering to have a product organization mirroring the company goals (at least a company goal being owned by no more than one tribe). Ownership is more clearly distributed. Since company goals are usually yearly, this change does not happen too often and is not a total big bang in general.

3/ Resources allocation. One risk that I have experienced when letting team live autonomously might be their portfolio split between the different typologies of projects we set at ManoMano

  • Must-do (legal requirements, major business launch…)

Teams will often be stuck into a majority of must-do and tactical projects. So it might be necessary to “force” teams to allocate a share of their bandwidth to debt-killing or strategic projects, whatever they want. CPO could be the ones setting this guidelines (along with the C-suite because it is very structuring as a choice). We do not check precisely the share of project typologies, it is more a sanity check before each quarter (only through the big rocks) to assess the share of resources allocated to each typology.

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Pierre FOURNIER

Tech entrepreneur, Coach, Trainer | Founder @WILL, ex-CPO (Chief Product Officer) at ManoMano, ex Founding Partner at Artefact