Discover more from Michael Goitein's Upstream, Full-Stack Journal
How "The Product Gap" Has Already Doomed Your Transformation To Failure
Why putting busy managers with zero Product experience into Product roles spells trouble for the entire organization
Thanks for reading Michael Goitein's Upstream, Full-Stack Journal! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Imagine for a moment you’re a busy front desk receptionist in a thriving medical practice.
You’re busy all day answering the phones, making and changing appointments, dealing with insurance companies and pharmacies, and coordinating care for the practice’s patients.
Now suddenly, you’ve been asked to also take over the doctor role, alongside your receptionist responsibilities. Surprise! You’re now accountable for a full-time patient caseload.
Never mind that you’ve never been to medical school or seen a patient in your life.
Starting today, you need to diagnose illness, prescribe the right medications, and see they get the right tests. If necessary, you’ll need to refer them to the right specialist for follow-up care.
What would be your chances of success?
How well will you now be able to do your original front receptionist desk job? And what quality of care and health outcomes can you expect for your patients?
If this seems hard to imagine, it happens every day when busy professionals are asked to take on another critical but little-understood role.
The promises and challenges of Transformation
I’ve been part of multiple major Agile and Product Transformations, including 3 over just the past 5 years.
With few exceptions over that time, I’ve seen work break down at the Team level.
Teams are stuck not knowing what to build, how to build it, don’t have requirements to work from, nor have any idea what they should be building next. It’s not because the people aren’t working hard enough. Pushing them to do more, or “try harder” won’t solve the problem long-term.
If we’re ready to move from putting band-aids on the symptoms, to addressing the true underlying cause, we come back to “The Product Gap,” a fundamental lack of awareness of the Product role’s central importance.
A few simple missed decisions start with a key leadership miss that creates a rolling set of impacts that set everyone up to fail, and prevent organizations from getting any hoped-for transformation benefits.
Playing a new role
These smart, experienced, capable business people put in the Product role are frequently unable to succeed for three key reasons:
They simply don’t have the time available
They don’t have the necessary background or skills
The manager that put them in the role isn’t able to coach them to higher performance
These three factors together create the “Product Gap.”
The “lucky” ones multi-task their way through the Certified Scrum Product Owner (“CSPO”) training. And after two days, they may understand what a PO does on a Scrum team.
But it won’t give them the tools they’ll need to succeed in Product Management.
Product Owner or Product Manager?
While they may be playing a “Product Owner” role on a Scrum team, they’ve officially embarked on a Product Management career.
Many managers put in these roles have achieved their current rank in the corporate hierarchy by succeeding in traditional, top-down industrial approaches to IT management.
But succeeding in modern software Product development requires a radically different set of mindsets, skills and capabilities.
Why is the Product role so consistently misunderstood?
Leaders in many organizations undergoing transformation see Product as nothing more than a “part-time” management responsibility.
Rightly or wrongly, these senior leaders feel their own trusted direct report is in the best position to make Product decisions with their needs in mind. And surely they wouldn’t mind “taking on just a little bit more work.”
Now, there may indeed be very valid business reasons behind this decision.
Perhaps the organization isn’t sure they want to fully commit to the transformation, preferring to try it out at a low level, first.
But because neither is aware of everything the role requires, they think they can have it all — keep their managers going in their old “Business as Usual” (“BAU”) roles, as well as managing the Product.
Who’s Who in the “Product Gap”
The Dynamics of the Missed Product Role
Executive Leader responsible for hiring for the Product role:
Not sure what the Product role entails, but it sounds kind of “manager-y” to me
I’ve got just the right trusted person to put in the role.
Already-Busy Senior VP:
Not exactly sure what this is about, but I’ll give it a shot
I like coming through for my leadership
We’re waiting for Product guidance and leadership
So many decisions to make
What do we do first?
The team tries to cover the Product Gap
Sometimes, another experienced person on the team can step up and bridge the gap.
Perhaps a Business Analyst (“BA”) can support the Product role by writing requirements, or facilitating Refinement sessions with the team. In other cases, an Engineer, Designer, or Scrum Master can help out.
But this now creates a cascading set of challenges for everyone else and the roles they were already supposed to be covering.
Not knowing what they don’t know
But no one ever learns about the sacrifices that need to be made or corners that have to be cut because it’s rare anyone on the team says anything. When they do, it’s seen as a form of complaining.
And so the absentee Product person has no idea what kind of pressure they’re putting their team under. Despite their years of knowledge and experience, neither they, nor their manager understands the key things Product people are expected to handle. As a result, they only see their teams as stuck, but have no idea how they’ve contributed to the breakdown.
Worse, they have no idea what kind of impact this creates across the organization as more teams struggle with the same leadership gap.
Transformations won’t work here
So after months of little to no value delivery, leadership pronounces the “transformation” a failure.
They fire all the consultants and any new people hired, and move their trusted managers back to their previous roles.
“Agile” (or “Product”) just doesn’t work here”
they say, and go back to exactly what they were doing before, typically some form of PMO (“Project Management Office”)-dominated model.
A different approach to time management
Many IT managers put in the Product role bring their traditional corporate hierarchical approach focused on managing politics upwards with their leadership.
Also from the same playbook, they either boss their teams around, or ignore them.
While traditional IT managers may spend much of their day in meetings with leadership, success in the Product role will requires dividing time between:
As well as understanding Stakeholder needs and constraints
Why? To understand this, it’s important to understand two key concepts in software development: The Product Trio, and The Four Big Risks.
The Trio And The Risks
The Product Trio…
Taking a step back, successful software Products are created and sustained by leadership and collaboration across three key perspectives:
Product — Responsible for seeing that the team consistently delivers maximum customer-centric and business value
UX — Responsible for seeing that the team creates easy-to-use interfaces and flows
Tech Lead/Architect — Work from the Product and UX perspectives and make them come to life as working, tested software.
Ideally, there would be experienced, full-time people in each of those roles.
But as long as these perspectives are covered across the team, they don’t have to be individual people.
In some cases, someone may take on more than one of these. And some have Product represented by different but related role (See AirBnB’s Product Marketer role.) In others, two people can cover one of the Trio roles.
But regardless how they’re represented, you’ll need all three perspectives if you want to have any hope of addressing… the Four Big Risks.
The Four Big Risks
Years ago, Marty Cagan brilliantly summed up The Four Big Risks every collaborative software effort faces, which I’ve reframed here:
Value Risk: Does the user find this piece of software valuable, and do they want to use it and continue using it?
Usability Risk: Can the user find the feature, and can they easily use it to accomplish what they’re trying to do?
Feasibility Risk: Can you build what we want to build, with the people and tech stack we have, within the timeframe we have available?
Viability Risk: Does the solution make money? Is it ethical, and does it work for the business?
And this is how the Product Trio takes on the Four Big Risks:
Note the Product role is responsible for the two greatest risks:
Business Viability Risk
And if these risks aren’t continuously attended to, cracks will start to appear.
The “Product Gap” Starts to Widen
Dynamics of not addressing the missed Product role
A few weeks or months in, problems start to become apparent.
Executive Leader responsible for hiring for the Product role:
Not sure why we’re not getting much in the way of results
I always believe in my trusted person
Already-Busy Senior VP:
As far as my leader knows, I’m handling both roles fine
We’ll try to pitch in and help cover the gaps where we can
But we’re still waiting for experienced Product guidance and leadership
Transformation Isn’t the Goal
In this dynamic, executive leadership may not be operating in their own best interests, ultimately putting their own agenda at risk.
When done well, Product Management translates higher-level organizational strategy into the greatest client-centric value with the least engineering effort.
The goal isn’t to transform. It’s to become a nimbler, more effective organization that can support and accelerate that value delivery.
The “Product Gap” prevents that from happening.
Takeaways for Organizations in Transformation
Many senior leaders may not fully appreciate the Product role’s fundamental importance to the success of their strategy.
If you’re in an Agile or Product transformation, understand the threat of The Four Big Risks to everything on your Roadmap. Nothing is safe.
And remember the central role Product plays as a crucial leadership role within the Product Trio.
Strong Product Management is the only way to reduce your two greatest risks: Value and Business Viability.
For Leaders in Transformation
Organizations that may already find themselves in this mess can focus on the following three keys, in order of importance:
Hire experienced Product people. Leaders making these hiring decisions can start by ideally filling Product roles with the right people who already have the right skills. If this is impossible for whatever valid business or budgeting reasons, then two other important choices need to be made.
Dedicate them Full-Time. Make sure whoever you decide to make your Product Manager is given enough time in their schedule to fully devote to the role.
Put in the Time & Resources to Train & Up-Skill Them. Make sure they continuously get the training and coaching they need to get to a strong level of competency, and continue to improve, so they can, in turn, mentor other less-experienced Product people.
For New Product People
If you’re new to the Product role, discuss with your manager how to start moving responsibilities off your workload so you can increase and eventually fully focus on the role.
And proactively reach out to get the training and coaching you need to get quickly up to speed.
Your organization is simply making too much of an investment to succeed in transformation.
Like it or not, your role is too crucial to success to attempt to do it any other way.