Products are developed, provided, and enhanced by people, and effectively leading them is crucial to achieve product success. But leading stakeholders and development teams requires overcoming six product leadership challenges that range from lacking transactional power to guiding self-organising teams. The description of the challenges below is an extract from my new book How to Lead in Product Management.
Unlike a line manager, you are not the boss, as the person in charge of the product. You don’t manage the development team and stakeholders, and the individuals usually don’t report to you. You consequently don’t have any transactional power: You cannot tell the group members what to do; you cannot assign tasks to them; and you are typically not in a position to offer a bonus, pay raise, or other incentives.
At the same time, you rely on their work. For example, the individuals may design, implement, market, sell, and support the product. Additionally, some of the people you lead might be more senior than you. They might have worked longer for the company, and they might be very influential and well connected.
The group you lead can be large and heterogeneous. The development team is typically cross-functional: The members have different backgrounds and skills, including design, software development, and testing. Add the stakeholders to the mix who come from different business units—for example, marketing, sales, support, and service for a commercial product—and you will end up with a diverse group that can easily comprise fifteen people. Understanding the group members’ different perspectives and needs and effectively guiding everyone can therefore be challenging.
While you should try to get the right people on board, you can’t always choose who the team members and stakeholders are, and you are typically not in a position to hand-pick people. Instead, you often rely on line management to staff the development team and to select representatives from the business units as stakeholders—no matter how likeable you find the individuals and how well you get on with them. Likewise, you usually don’t have control over how long people will work with you: While it’s beneficial to form a stable group whose members work with you on a continued basis, people might leave or join the group based on shifting business needs.
While guiding people can be challenging on its own, you also have to actively contribute to reaching the shared goals and achieving product success. In this sense, you play a dual role: You are leader and contributor.
The former involves ensuring that the various workstreams, such as designing and building the product, preparing its release, and supporting it, are aligned—for instance, by encouraging key stakeholders to participate in sprint review meetings. It also comprises regularly assessing product performance and monitoring progress against the product roadmap.
Additionally, you may have to coach or mentor some of the individuals and help them acquire the relevant product knowledge so that they can do a great job. As if this were not enough, you also have to help progress the product—for instance, by observing and interviewing users, analysing user feedback and data, revising the product strategy, adapting the product roadmap, prioritising the product backlog, and creating new user stories.
Guiding the development team and stakeholders towards product success requires leadership at three levels: vision, strategy, and tactics. As the person in charge of the product, you should shape the vision of your product; you should lead the effort to create, validate, and evolve an effective strategy; you should guide the development of a product roadmap; and you should work with the development team on the product backlog to determine, capture, refine, and prioritise its items.
This ensures that leadership and decision-making are consistent: The vision should guide the strategy, and the strategy should direct the tactics. At the same time, insights gained on the tactical level—for example, by testing prototypes or product increment with users—should inform the strategy, which in turn might impact the vision.
Products can grow too big for one person to provide guidance at all three levels. A common way to share product ownership is to have one person in charge of the overall product and individuals owning product parts, like features and components. You may therefore end up with an overall product owner or manager who closely works with feature and component owners.
Another approach, made popular by the scaling framework SAFe, is to split strategic and tactical responsibilities. This results in employing a person making strategic product decisions and one or more individuals looking after the tactical work and managing the product backlog. This option, however, is only recommendable in my experience for mature, stable products whose strategy is unlikely to change significantly.
Most digital products are developed using an agile development framework like Scrum or Kanban. An agile process puts requirements on your interaction with the development team and, to a certain extent, the stakeholders. For example, an agile team is self-organising. This includes the right to determine the appropriate workload, reject work items if they exceed the team’s capacity, and only work on what has been agreed for a sprint or what is within the agreed work in progress (WIP) limits.
These rules increase productivity and create a healthy, sustainable work environment. But they mean that you can’t push work on to the team or interfere with the work during a sprint. Instead, the development team pulls work from the product backlog. Additionally, you have to make yourself available to the dev team, jointly work on the product backlog, participate in meetings like sprint planning and sprint review, answer questions, and provide feedback on done pieces of work.
You can learn more about the six leadership challenges and hlw to best address them by reading my book How to Lead in Product Management. It covers a range of leadership practices including the following ones:
"Roman has done it again, delivering a practical book for the product management community that appeals to both heart and mind. How to Lead in Product Management is packed with concise, direct, and practical advice that addresses the deeper, personal aspects of the product leadership. Roman's book shares wisdom on topics including goals, healthy interactions with stakeholders, handling conflict, effective conversations, decision-making, having a growth mindset, and self-care. It is a must read for both new and experienced product people."
- Ellen Gottesdiener, Product Coach at EBG Consulting