A Product Leader’s Tripod

A simple framework aka a mental hack to keep the focus amidst the chaos.

A role of a Product Leader (PL) in an organization is much like that of a circus acrobat or a trapeze artist that choreographs the whole show, while being IN the show himself/herself. Or a person that plans his/her own wedding all the way. Can you imagine show/wedding day?

Let us take the circus analogy a little further. You are the choreographer. It is a grand show that someone else will experience, but it is yours to make happen, and with a number of people that you did not hire or have a lot of control over. You are not even sure what skills some of these people come with. You even discover that a lot of them will be learning the moves for the first time. Yet, the show must go on and all the artists must play together, in harmony. They must trust you enough to take that extra leap. They must trust each other and all be committed to doing whatever it takes to get it right for show time.

As a Product Leader, I always see the my struggles as an incremental choreography towards a grand show, filled with stars that are yet to discover their own potential. I have so little control over everyone and everything, yet, if there is anyone that can make this product a success, it is me.

What a strange paradox, this Product Management life is.

The Origin of the Tripod

I won’t lie. This continuous balancing act is my favorite part of my job and the tripod is my mental hack to manage all the chaos. The tripod helps me balance the most critical aspects that truly matter.

6 years ago, I was product lead and CEO role at my startup MeMeTales. I was challenged with fundraising, hiring, building and shipping my apps and talking to the users…all at the same time. My time at BlogHer took me through a precious stage of building a product ground up for a rich community of influencers/content creators. It was thrilling to have access to thousands of users who truly loved us on one hand and a leadership team that kept it all together on the other hand. There were millions of precious data points and we had a wonderful tech team. Yet, we were a startup heading towards an acquisition and that meant carefully balancing the strategic and the “insanely useful” parts of the platform we were building out. Post acquisition by SheKnows, we have had an amazing challenge of bringing the businesses together and delivering to our clients and community as one company and one space while re-architecting virtually every part of our tech to set us up for rapid innovation and scale. My tried and tested “tripod” is a result of this very chaotic but wonderful journey.

The Tripod

A Product Leader’s Tripod consists of 3 things that need to be balanced at all times to allow companies and teams to be shipping great product at all times. NOTE: Unlike what most people would think, these 3 things are not in a hierarchy or a “step” in the whole process. Balancing them is a continuous, iterative and everyday process.

  1. Vision mapping or mapping company vision to the product vision Simplifying the vision of the company and translating it for the team/s is perhaps my single most important task as a product leader. This is why the most innovative tech companies have incredibly strong product leaders or have CEOs that act like the ultimate product leader. Sundar Pichai has long been known to be one of the best PMs at Google and it was no surprise that he rose to CEO. A good product leader has a strong grasp of where the revenue and growth opportunities lie for the company, what the competitive landscape looks like and the path the company should take internally to get from today to a desired point in the future. At the leadership level, this is a story on strategy, growth and product evolution. It is a story about how the products the company builds will help them stand out in a crowded market and help them retain and grow market share. To the teams working on the products or product areas, it is about seeing a map of their journey forward so everyone understands where they are now and which way they are heading. When all the teams have a uniform understanding of not just the vision of the company but HOW the company is going to get there, they can just focus on the work and not spend time being confused. At a tactical level, having a clear vision mapping helps maintain a strong alignment between business units and across product orgs. At a global level, having a strong vision mapping is what helps a company to pull along a workforce through big pivots and direction changes. It is the single biggest driver in bottom up innovation.
  2. Metrics Mapping or mapping KPIs and driving a data driven culture — A team that is excited about a company vision is an excited and united team. In order to really empower the team to execute and move ahead in a fail fast mode, they need to have a very clear understanding of their KPIs and how the KPIs will translate into scale/revenues for the company. What is the user impact and metrics we want to improve and track? Netflix is the company best known for their intense focus on data and driving innovation with data. PMs at Netflix are supported by world class data teams because data and metrics are THAT important. It is a critical job of a Product Leader to build the culture of finding, sharing and questioning metrics to track and build towards. A break in the metrics translation is a big fail. A team working on community features tracks engagement can mean everything at the community level, but unless the team understands how community really contributes to the bottom line, the community engagement metrics become meaningless. Step in and whiteboard with the team, always question your hypothesis, always be listening to the user, depend on the numbers but always doubt them and continually re-evaluate the KPIs with an eye on the future. At a tactical level, this step involves driving metrics and goals are being ingrained into the fabric of the system. At a strategic level, this is all about building an excellent product culture within the org.
  3. Shipping and the feedback loop — If there is one thing product teams should care about every single day, it is about shipping. In order to ensure that the teams are able to ship, a Product Leader’s job is to ensure that the teams have absolutely no blockers in their way. Elon Musk starts out every day looking at the “critical path” and seeing what he can do to unblock any of his companies. He walks the factory floors every single time he is at Space X. Starting from the communicated “blockers” in daily stand ups to lack of resources, access to a tool …, unblocking and resourcing is really the problem of the PM. Every minute a team member is worrying is a minute that he/she could have been focussed on shipping. What is needed to get work done? There is never enough resources, but how do we keep moving? How does a lack of resources impact the over all product timelines? This is a negotiation that should be brought to the table sooner than later. At a tactical level “shipping” means doing just about anything to get your product shipped. At a strategic level, this means committing to ship an excellent product every single day, creating a tight qualitative and quantitative feedback loop between the users and the team, so as to inform/shift priorities and even drive leadership to reconsider direction based on what the market is telling them.

That is the tripod — balancing company and product vision, deriving the metrics that matter, shipping and creating a tight feedback loop on data and insights. Every time the tripod is off balance, the team is in danger of inefficiencies and stress, disagreements or burnout.

What frameworks or mental hacks do YOU use to manage the everyday chaos we face as product leaders?