Are You Working For A Product-Led Organisation?

I’ve had the pleasure to work with dozens of product teams.

I’ve worked with hundreds of Product Professionals in my career as a Head of Product, Executive Product Coach, and Trainer/Teacher. I am humbled by the intellect, empathy, grit and passion I see in the talented people we attract into our ranks. Yet, I also hear much frustration and role dissatisfaction in even the most seasoned. 

After years of honing their craft – “learning by doing” from the challenges of developing and launching products, building relationships and collaborating across an organization, and successfully driving outcomes for their customers and business – they report feeling trapped by ever-increasing expectations yet overly constrained from within from achieving them. 

Commonly I hear of:

  • Unclear strategy or vision, or changing objectives,
  • Misaligned stakeholders each trying to guide initiatives in different directions,
  • Prescribed solutions lacking context, data, or rationale,
  • A well-intended but highly misplaced management desire to create a sense of urgency or accelerate delivery, by setting aggressive deadlines,
  • No time for the important, consumed only by the urgent execution tasks at hand.

The aspirational idea of what a Product Manager is and does can be woefully disconnected to the way our organizations, stakeholders and managers, actually “enable” us to do our jobs. This commonly leads to a sense of disempowerment. With too much friction in the way of getting the job done, these can trigger a spiral of lack of mutual trust resulting in lower output, half-hearted product outcomes, and slower progress.

This is not, however, universal – and therein lies why I am optimistic. I do observe Product organizations humming and when I do, I can usually pinpoint two common factors foundational to highly motivated and high-functioning product teams.

The first factor is a deep appreciation for what a product team does, the capabilities required, and how to go about performing the role. Not just high-level concepts, such as “understand and address customer needs” or “create market and business value”, important as they are.

I mean deeply understanding and agreeing on a common set of practices, skills, and attributes that make their product teams tick. These will typically be documented. Perhaps called a career-ladder, though the better ones tend to emphasize personal growth and competencies, over responsibilities and advancement.

They’ll include mastery of the obvious internal or tactical skills, but also set expectations on the strategic [such as establishing vision, active market engagement and discovery] and the “softer” [such as communication, collaboration, leadership and evangelism]. There’ll be training, coaching and evaluation against objective criteria. They might have well established processes and templates to help navigate through. And ultimately it all just becomes natural, cultural and self-reinforcing.

That is – leading me to the second factor – if, and only if, the organization at large respects and creates space for Product teams to do all those things!

Scaling the first factor: a common set of practices, skills, and attributes

If almost every organization has invented or recreated a career ladder of sorts, why then can’t/shouldn't we settle on one we can all adopt? Three reasons why we can, and an objection.

  1. I much prefer leveraging off-the-shelf tools and tech so I can focus on investing in those areas I can truly differentiate my product. Same goes for building my team… why reinvent the ‘skills wheel’? So much better to take something tried and true, roll it out to my organization, and focus my efforts instead on developing talent.
  2. A common set of skills and practices are more transferable between organizations. When you hire you can be more certain they’ll have the chops to do the job. You can more reliably assess talent, especially as shared tools are created and adopted, helping you pinpoint areas of individual development and relative strengths compared to others. And when you train, you’ll more readily find resources aligned to what you need because they’ll have been designed to scale across the profession to teach exactly what everyone needs.
  3. It makes it a lot, lot easier to have conversations when you’re all using the same language. We do ourselves a disservice when we obfuscate what a product manager is and does by choosing to use slightly different language or omit a skill that might not be as highly valued by ourselves. A common lexicon will help us talk convincingly to our stakeholders, to our teams, and across the industry. It adds credibility. It speeds comprehension and understanding. There’s safety in numbers!

The objection I hear most: “My company is in a unique industry / structure / environment / product-line that we couldn’t possibly adopt a common set of practices.

I like to think I’m special too. But, I’m probably not. We product managers have much, much more in common than we don’t. I do agree there are many flavors of PMs and types of products meaning we might need and value certain skills over others. While we might need to tweak some things here and there, 80% of it is and should be the same. A wholesale different set of skills just for your company or industry in effect reduces Product Management down to a loosely federated, arbitrary function. 

For example, while you might require domain expertise (knowledge) in fintech or gaming applications, the ability to perform market analysis, gather insights and do customer research are skills that any product professional requires regardless of industry. Even if how you go about doing these differs, you don’t need a whole new skills map to accommodate.

As an anecdote, I have almost never needed to change my coaching programs by industry other than tailoring examples and exercises to be more relevant. The underlying skills are the same. However, I do find certain companies wanting to change up the coaching program in response to their specific culture or limited perspective of what they think a Product Manager should be – which leads me to…

Solving the second: encouraging organizations to respect and create space for a common set of practices

Organizations split into three buckets. Those that are there, those that aspire to be there, and those that don’t know where there is. 

I love working with the first – they seek to mold outstanding talent and allow them to thrive. They’ve embraced, more or less, a similar set of common expectations of product people and invest in skilling them up. (Which is where us coaches come in.) There’s still some frustration, gaps, and interpersonal shenanigans of course – we are people after all. But they have the foundation in place.

I can work with the second – they’re ready to learn and adapt. They’ll be open to new ways of working, even if it takes a few tries before we feel progress.

It sure is hard working with the last. Often they haven’t recognized they’re creating the problem; specifically the executives or departmental leaders. They believe Product is failing them, not the other way round. Perhaps they’re right, but responding with the behaviors mentioned at the start of this article is not the solution.

So how do we encourage organizations such as the latter to accept a set of common Product practices, to lead with trust and empowerment, and to value learning (even if that means allowing the team to make mistakes). I can tell you what doesn’t work – trying to “educate” them.

They’ve seen and read a lot of the same things, but they don’t think it applies to their environment. In theory empowering Product to drive prioritization sounds great until the next deal opportunity arrives. Customer Discovery seems like a lovely idea so long as Product reaches the same conclusions as we already have and they get building asap.

What works? Prove the value. A concerted effort to show how embracing a set of common practices turn Product teams into overdrive. What it can do to the top and bottom line, and improve customer and employee retention. Let’s study the organizations that excel at this and those that are rapidly improving. Analyze the practices and show how they connect to superior business outcomes. When the third bucket of organizations who resist see they’re being left behind, I believe they’ll rapidly adapt. 

Which bucket would you want to be in?


About the Author​

Ken Sandy
Author, The Influential Product Manager
Ken Sandy is a 20+ years veteran in Technology Product Management. He pioneered and teaches the first Product Management course offered in the Engineering school at UC Berkeley, which has over 400 PM alumni practising in the industry.

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