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5 things to expect if you’re new to product management

5 things to expect if you’re new to product management
By Regan Bosch Checcio
Practice Lead, Digital Product
Regan Bosch Checcio's Recent Articles
The product management advantage in government
Feb 9, 2023

Product management is an emerging trend in the federal space that covers various best practices borrowed from commercial organizations. It blends the art of problem-solving with the science of developing and delivering successful products or services.

Product managers must be able to analyze customer needs, create product specifications and campaigns, collaborate with engineering teams, and track progress to keep everyone focused on building the right thing in the right way to achieve mission outcomes. Doing so involves bringing domain and customer experience (CX) experts into the process from the start and motivating the team to work towards consensus-driven decisions that are grounded in customer needs and beneficial to all stakeholders.

Adding product management practices to Agile is more than just a mindset change—you’ll see and feel key differences in how the work is approached, too. Part of the beauty of Agile is its adaptability, so incorporating these practices as a complement to your current delivery approach will easily fit into your existing project management without an overhaul of your core practices or workflow.

Ready to embark on your product management venture?

Make sure you take these five key points into consideration for a successful journey.

1. A product-centric approach makes dedicated space to work towards optimal product health.

While value to users and organizations are primary drivers of work, if you only focus on the task immediately at hand and how you can make it smaller and leaner, you end up with a stripped-down product that can’t adapt when a new opportunity or use case arises. Thoughtfully incorporating new tech, like automation, will help ensure everyone is free to tackle new problems and opportunities, rather than simply maintaining legacy systems and ignoring known limitations—which will end up taking a lot of time to fix later anyway. With product management, a small portion of the team’s time will be consistently set aside to address tech debt and innovate indirectly related tasks.

Likewise, dedicating a small fraction of the team’s time and focus to prototype small "moonshot" ideas in a low-risk setting, both for user-facing concepts and technical innovations, will make the team nimbler and advance the product. This keeps the team engaged and energized while giving you tangible ideas for new work and the ability to pull out just the right solution, already informed and viable, at just the right moment.

2. The lens of work will zoom in and out.

In a product-centric approach, the product strategists or owners, UX leads, or solution architects will bring the team larger, more cohesive batches of work. This solves for two forms of “bad Agile.” One is chaotic Agile: You're doing a lot of work, fast and frequently, but it doesn't feel like you're going anywhere important quickly. The other is waterfall Agile: You apply Agile only to the parts your developers and engineers can churn out but spend months deciding the requirements and details. Neither of these solve what Agile was meant to solve—and, most importantly, neither consistently delivers a valuable and viable product efficiently. 

Instead, there should be a balance, but how do you find it? A good rule of thumb is that if it takes longer or more effort to refine, design, or feel confident about the decision than it would take to build it, you have a gap in your process.

3. Product management measures outcomes over outputs by explaining “why” more often.
There will be a lot of talk up front, before starting a new batch of work, about the scope, outcomes, value, and how they will be measured and proven. It may be uncomfortable at first and feel like the work needs to be justified, but these conversations let stakeholders and the team look at the different angles of value and go forward more logically about prioritization and sequence decisions. They ensure that once something is prioritized, the key stakeholders know why that work matters most right now and can confidently communicate to wider circles that the time will be well spent on work that benefits the mission.

4. Product management empowers teams to make decisions closer to where value is delivered by narrowing the product’s reason for existence.

Boil down big projects or ideas into simple statements you can point to often and use to check yourself. These core product statements are the product’s DNA, and if the product needs to evolve, those statements should evolve with it so everyone surrounding the product knows the purpose of the work, what matters, and what doesn't. Just as key points of the Agile manifesto or Scrum guide are repeated when a team is stuck or finds themselves in workflow anti-patterns, a top-level product vision statement keeps people centered and headed in the same direction.

5. Roles will work at different horizons.
Thanks to the roadmap provided by product management, the UX team and others, like analytics and content experts, can focus on shaping the package of work rather than zeroing in on a small slice within a sprint (as in chaotic Agile) or getting overly specific (as in waterfall Agile). They aren’t disconnected from the sprint—they’re still around the developers and engineers, contributing to a release, available for support and urgent requests—but they can work on their own priorities within their own timeline, which leads to better and more thoughtful system-level UX designs and less rework of problems.

3 activities you can do now to start your product journey

1. Bring in the right roles

Incorporating sound product management practices at the right levels for your organization requires trained resources on the team to support the shift and get the pieces in place. In the long run, this will save both time and money while creating a better product. Include a product lead who is certified or trained as a product owner or product manager. They will complement your staff’s work and give you the information you need to make choices that will take you to your long-term goals while seeing those choices through the team’s process.

Pro tip: Spotting a good product owner or product manager is about more than just product certification. Look for a T-shaped background—someone who has a broad but shallow knowledge of every aspect of your industry, and in-depth knowledge and experience in one particular aspect of it, such as business strategy or human-centered design.

2. Find a knowledgeable partner

The last few years have seen an explosion in technology advancement and availability, but implementing it responsibly is complex, and pressures from different directions make it challenging to find balance and feel empowered. Choosing the right team to partner with—one with the ability to balance these forces, keep you informed, and bring in contributors with deep expertise in all these domains—is a key step towards product centricity and buy-in for the partnership at all levels.

Pro tip: Share decision-making around what to build and what the scope should be with two-way communication. Contractor teams with these practices in place will adopt your goals as their own and invest in the long-term success of your product. If you supply the “why,” they should own the “how” and “what” with many informed checkpoints along the way.

3. Recognize product management is a journey, not a destination

Shifting to product-centricity is an opportunity to examine what’s really working for you and your teams. With your newfound ability to see and summarize things clearly, you and your staff may discover that some of the ways you have been working are not just inefficient, but actually harming the product. Be open first to this realization, and then to trying new ways to get to the intended benefit. But keep in mind: Skills learned from product-centricity may change the way you think about everything!

Pro tip: If you think your organization needs extra support to shift to product-centricity, explore ways to bring in coaches and experts to tailor best practices to your context. ICF supports digital modernization work across the federal government and has skilled product leaders who can teach and implement the principles needed to manage this work effectively.

Meet the author
  1. Regan Bosch Checcio, Practice Lead, Digital Product

    Regan is a product strategy expert with more than a decade of experience in improving outcomes for government agencies and private clients. View bio

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