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.
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.
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.