Will Your Product-Led Transformation be a Successful One?

Transformation is not easy. The success rate speaks for itself, only 35% succeed!

The most successful transformations that I've experienced have excelled in aligning people, process and culture around solving customer problems in a way that delivers both business and customer value in a sustainable way.

One formula strongly aligned to these elements is taking a “product-led” approach to transformation.  What do I mean by a “product-led” approach?  This path places value on the customer, people and the way solutions are designed and delivered for customers.  Taking a product-led approach is characterised by a relentless focus on understanding and solving customer problems, designing and delivering solutions iteratively and placing attention on measurable outcomes (vs. outputs).

Having participated in both success and failure in business transformations, I thought it worth sharing with you some of the things to watch out for as a part of your own product-led transformation.

I'll focus on 5 key questions you should be asking yourself and your leadership. The sequence of each question is important as the decisions you make in response to each one progressively compound to help (or hinder) in generating greater influence, trust and empowerment of your product team to successfully drive change.

From bottom to top, these five areas are as follows:

1. What is your level of readiness in adopting a product-led approach to transformation?

This is a question that I’d recommend you ask early and review periodically to ensure you have the right capabilities, resources and investment required to influence change and realistically fulfill your transformation ambitions.

One way of doing this is to get a view of your base-line product management capability and maturity. To maximise buy-in for the outcome of the assessment, I would recommend using a ‘self-assessment’ vs. an ‘expert led’ assessment. No one likes being preached to by someone who thinks they know better. However, if you’re reporting back to how people rated themselves, it changes the  conversation and encourages a greater willingness to play an active role in uplifting skills and performance.

For a comprehensive view of product management capability and maturity, it’s important the self-assessment include not only those involved in the day-to-day execution activity, e.g. product managers and associated stakeholders, but also involve those responsible for defining organisational strategy, including the executive leadership team.

There are several product management maturity assessment models available, examples include, Association of Product Professionals Proficiency Framework, Product Coalition, and Mind the product.

An example of the criteria I’ve used as part of this assessment is outlined below.

2.What is your ambition level?

“You’re screwed if you don’t and can’t survive without digitally transforming. But you’re at risk if you do, because you know that the probabilities are not in your favour.” Patrick Forth, BCG

To maximise the success of your product-led transformation efforts, I highly recommend you take the time to gauge and align around the level of ambition for change as part of the transformation.

This involves gaining clarity and alignment around not only what the transformation vision and objectives are, but also, how much disruption you’re willing to withstand and for how long.

All transformation involves uncertainty, and it’s important to acknowledge up-front where the uncertainty exists, how significant the uncertainty is, and how much you are willing to tolerate.

A core practice within product management is to define your riskiest assumptions up-front, which helps to set clear and compelling priorities.

One way to build trust and have the support of senior execs in tackling these priorities (especially among conservative organisations), is to adopt a stage-gate approach that provides specific milestones to stop, reflect and recalibrate around the pace, impact and ambition for change.

When things get difficult (and they will!), it’s important that you have the aircover to withstand the challenges and setbacks that will inevitably occur as part of embedding product management more deeply into the DNA of your organisation.

By adopting these two useful practices, focusing on your riskiest assumptions, combined with using stage-gates, should reinforce and environment that supports healthy discussion and debate and foster greater trust in your team to fulfill your transformation ambitions.

3.What is the business model design that underpins your product vision and strategy?

Strong product strategies and roadmaps go hand-in-hand with strong business models. It’s important that your product teams build the discipline of continually investing the time to understand, evaluate and refine assumptions around your business model.

Critical to the success of product teams is the ability to influence a wide range of stakeholders.  One key area of influence is demonstrating strong business acumen.  This includes not only intimate knowledge around your customer segments, their problems and associated solutions, but having a practical understanding of the economics, distribution and measures of success associated with your business and products.

There are lots of tools available to help unpack, understand and validate your business model including the business model canvas, lean canvas, BMI lab canvas. The key thing I’ve found is to adopt a version that aligns to your situation and to treat every element of the business model as an assumption that requires ongoing validation and refinement.

4.What is the underlying product management framework?

The way that product and non-product professionals work together and the level of trust they share is underpinned by process, people and the underlying culture. This is where your product management framework plays an important role in determining, what, why, who, how and when various activities take place.

Important to note, your product management framework does not operate in a bubble!  When setting it up, it's critical you consider the broad environment you operate within.

The diagram below illustrates how a product management framework is but one component of the larger operating model.  Your product team's ability to execute effectively is one cog in the organisation's machine.  The more your framework is set up to compliment and work synergistically with other processes, operation models and governance, the more likely you'll experience less pain and greater success.

With a clearly defined, aligned and implemented product management framework, the probability of influencing leadership and stakeholders increases significantly. Sure, there are a range of predefined frameworks available, examples include ones by Steve Haines, Roman Pichler, Intercom, Amazon. However, I’ve found the best product management frameworks are the ones that teams continually refine based on ongoing application, feedback and refinement to suit your unique situation.

Understanding roles and responsibilities

One critical part of defining your product management framework is to have the uncomfortable conversations around roles and responsibilities early in the process.

This should include discussion and debate around the level of collaboration and decision rights across roles such as product managers, product owners, product designers, delivery teams, product marketers, and other areas of the business. As paradoxical as it may seem, I’ve witnessed some of the most empowered and efficient working environments emerge based on clearly defining and agreeing on the the decision rights and phasing of activity across the strategy, delivery and ongoing optimisation of your products.

One model that I’ve used maps the various roles involved across phases of the product management framework. Below is a high level example of this.

This high level view accompanied by a more detailed breakdown of each role and associated responsibilities, helps to enable greater trust, collaboration and commitment of all involved in across the product management framework, and ultimately, empowerment of your team.

5.How will you measure success?

Once you have progressed through assessing your organisational and team readiness, defining your ambition, gaining a shared understanding around your business model and aligning your product management framework, the final piece of the puzzle is how you measure the performance and effectiveness of your efforts. Below are a few key areas to consider:

  • Define supporting core metrics with clear owners (these should include leading and lagging indicators)
  • Set goals against each metric you want to focus on
  • Create and distribute dashboards that provide a transparent view of success and failure
  • Agree on a regular cadence to review progress including progress to achieving your “north star” metric and reassessing your product management maturity score

Having the data and evidence available is important to not only course correct as you progress on your transformation journey, but to provide a steady stream of feedback to stakeholders, team members, executive leadership and board to ensure you have their ongoing support and runway to fulfill your transformation objectives.

My hope is these questions and the supporting tips will help you on your product-led transformation journey to enable and enhance your product management practice. Ultimately, like the products you develop, things will always change. To avoid becoming yet another statistic among the 65% who’ve failed at transformation, embrace a learning mindset and take the time to continually monitor and adjust course to maximise the chance of success.

About the Author​

Michael Sribney
Mike is a product professional who’s experience spans multiple industries including education, finance, travel and professional services.  Mike is both a hands-on practitioner of product management as well as a team leader who has built several teams from scratch as part of leading product-led digital transformations.  Mike’s passion for product management also extends to volunteering as a Council Lead at the Association of Product Professionals and as a mentor at the start-up incubator, Stone & Chalk. Additionally, to help progress the career aspirations of those looking to enter the product management space, Michael is a part time instructor of product management.

Why I Joined APP

I joined APP as an opportunity to build relationships across the diverse and global membership base of the association.  Additionally, it’s a rare opportunity to contribute to build an association from the ground-up as a council member.  It’s a humbling experience to be working alongside such a talented and passionate group of individuals to help advance the growth and adoption of the practice of product management globally.

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