Wednesday, November 29, 2023
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Shifting to a Product Way of Working

From Project thinking to Product thinking

As a product manager you represent the voice of the customer and are accountable for great products that deliver value. In order to do so, you develop a product vision, build products, launch and market them and support products until they die.

Great to know what you do as a product manager, but in order to do this you also require something special. Let’s call this the special sauce, aka a Product Way of Working (product WoW)

What is product thinking

A Product WoW is all about product thinking. Product thinking helps you build the products that genuinely add value to your customers/users. This means that you step out of your micro world of features and capabilities, and start thinking about the macro problem your customer is facing, and how you can address these. In other words, they help customers/users to solve a specific problem or deal with a challenge. Product thinking does not just look at creating new things, no, the customer’s problem is not just solved when a solution is provided, he/she will start using your product and you are going to support the entire journey when the product is in use.  You build it, you run it. 

For many companies the concept of ‘product’ is obvious – Iphone > solves the problem of me not being connected to the world. Airplane > solves the problem of me needing to go to India to engage with my team (MS-Teams also does a pretty good job here). Product Managers apply product thinking to everything they do.  It’s not just an iphone or airplane. A product can also be an online calculator that helps users understand how much money they can lend, an API that allows customer systems to engage with your platform, or a training program on cyber security that reduces the risk of being hacked by cyberninjas. A product finally can also be a successful performance at a conference resulting in a positive spin to your brand. 

Product thinking versus Project thinking

Thinking product means you are considering the overall ‘problem’ the customer is facing. What are the jobs the customer wants to get done, and what is your product going to do to achieve this – how are you going to deliver the ‘outcome’  the customer is expecting.

When running projects, your mindset is typically different and not outcome oriented. Your job is to implement the LMS within 100 days after signing a contract, or your job is to build an API that connects the CRM with the company email system. In other words, you are working towards a delivery, and are creating ‘output’. Generating Output is essential for achieving Outcomes (see this blog) – but just keep in mind that output should not drive your strategy, they are supporting you in achieving your goals. 

Customer problem > vision / strategy > goals > activities > projects

Why product thinking

Agile principles state the highest priority is to satisfy the customer. Lean says the focus should be directed towards delivering value in the most efficient possible way. Maximizing value for your customer means that you need to make sure that all your activities generate value, and that no effort should be spent on non-value adding activities. Product thinking implies you create a vision and strategy around solving customer problems, and execute on them (capturing your goals, activities in OKRs). 

When talking to product managers I learned that focus, and figuring out the right things to do is the most challenging part of the role. It’s easy to be the voice of the customer and talk to teams every day. Similarly it’s easy to focus on dealing with customer problems and product issues all day – don’t you love to be a firefighter all the time. Thinking holistically about the problem and building an approach to deal with this challenge helps to drive the clarity that defines your activities. A product thinking approach will make it a lot easier to dedicate enough time to strategizing, building, marketing, launching, and supporting products that meet your customers needs.

Other good reads:

HBR  – 2020

Product Coalition – product versus project thinking

CIO – shifting to product based IT



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