Shifting gears: teaching product teams to fish

I’ve been working away from my home in London for the past month on site in Doha with the beIN Media Group.

Last year I designed and led the development and delivery of a new content distribution platform and refreshed mobile/TV apps. This year it’s about fully exploiting this Core Platform: developing new tools and strategies to monetise beIN’s first class content. Some exciting developments on the entertainment front, too!

Part of my individual mission is to teach colleagues to do what I do: take business (marketing, sales, editorial) requirements and turn them into product requirement documents (PRDs) or similar specifications. But the principle I’m really trying to teach is how to make decisive choices supported by data within a set of constraints.

That’s the real trick!

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Shifting gears: teaching product teams to fish

What it takes to be a consultant

As I prepare to launch a new phase of my career, I’m mindful of this thoughtful summary of precisely what it takes to be a great consultant by Matt Gemmell. Essential reading for anyone looking to up his/her game in business.

Today is my final working day with Perform and this paragraph sums up what I hope I’ve achieved over the past several years – and hope to do long into the future :

Being a consultant is about diplomacy. It’s about being a fact-finder for the client’s issues, and an interpreter for their wishes and business goals, and a translator between the domain of a difficulty, and the necessary steps to solve it. It’s also always about being an ambassador for the real stakeholders, which are usually the customers.

What it takes to be a consultant

So how do you know if you’re doing a good job? After all, when you really look at what’s being decided on one end and produced on the other, it might look like a PM is doing nothing at all. In most cases, this invisibility is a good sign. There are a few other tells.

“A big one is that the founders ping you directly without CC’ing other people. They just trust you to follow through and they know your team trusts you to be a good channel of information back and forth,” Jackson says. Communication skills are paramount. ‘One sign of a great PM is that other people get quiet when they start talking. A lot of PMs talk too much and spend time on things that aren’t important until people start tuning them out. If you see a PM talking and everyone else stops talking and listens, you know they are pretty good.’

You’re also a good PM if your absence is noticed by the best engineers on your team. “You want them to ask ‘What would that PM do or say if she was here?’ You want the best people to value your opinion that much and know you have the technical prowess to meaningfully contribute.”

Top Hacks from a PM Behind Two of Tech’s Hottest Products – It’s exactly what I’ve always looked for in a project manager and what I bring to the projects and teams I’ve led directly.
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What every great project manager should know

In the course of giving advice to a recent graduate, he asked me to describe exactly what a great project manager does. My response was that a project manager always knows:

  • What is happening, always
  • Understands where we are on the overall project timeline
  • Communicates this regularly – and on demand – to any and every person connected to the project.

We make apps, sites and services that communicate messages on behalf of our clients and a great project manager must be exceptionally skilled at briefing stakeholders appropriate to the stakeholders’ level of knowledge and interest.

As I’ve written before, tell me the story of what’s going on, where we are and where we need to go in order to succeed.

What every great project manager should know

“What do I want?” – the first question in product development (and life)

As an actor, the most powerful question to ask oneself is “what does my character want?” Every subsequent choice the character makes flows from the answer. If an actor is lost in a scene, returning to this question will quickly focus one’s performance on something specific and vital.

The same guiding question applies to finding a new job, working with clients, negotiation and sales or product development. Knowing what a client or customer wants focusses everything that follows on making a genuinely useful and commercially successful product. Muddled decisions that delight no one and frustrate everyone result from not clearly understanding what one wants.

User-centred design returns again and again to “what does the user want?” To orient myself when reviewing a wireframe, design or piece of development, I chose a persona, “get into character” and ask myself as the user "what do I want?“ Everything – decisions about the onboarding flow, the placement of widgets and controls, the most relevant data to visualise, everything – starts there. 

Do you know what you want – and do you know what your customers want?

“What do I want?” – the first question in product development (and life)

Where should one work? Questions to ask and how to decide

I interview developers and project managers for my own division and occasionally for other teams as well and I am always intrigued by the reasons people give for wanting to work at a particular company.

Many candidates say they’re motivated by the content of the products or the hot prospects of the agency. Some candidates talk about their search for ill-defined “challenges”. The better candidates cite a desire to contribute to the overall success of the organisation, to learn and grow with the company.

My guiding question is : “would I need permission to do amazing work here?”

It’s a notion that usually is framed the other way, as an inspirational exhortation : you don’t need to ask permission to do great stuff!

But many cultures – corporate and otherwise – don’t work like this.

Sometimes managers prefer the status quo or jealously guard their centre of power, no matter how disastrous for the company. Other times, there’s absolutely no incentive to do anything but the bare minimum and outstanding performance would draw more questions than praise. I recently had a conversation where I was told: “I’m judged on X, so I really don’t care if [another product] in this department succeeds or not”.

I once worked for a chap who, when I asked for something new and challenging to work on, replied that “you don’t actually have to work that hard – there’s no real room for growth and everyone else is happy with the level they’re at”. That was the first time in my professional life where I found myself in a situation where I was required to under-perform – and it was devastating.

Ever since that experience, I make it a point to tell the people who work for me that permission is never required to do something useful, something kind, something amazing – those are the requirements of the job, after all.

And when I look around at potential opportunities, my top requirement is: I don’t need anyone’s permission to come in, do a terrific job and make brilliant, profitable things for my company and my clients.

NB : Merlin Mann’s great podcast, Back to Work, helped shape my thinking here. Listen – Back to Work, Episode 63 

Where should one work? Questions to ask and how to decide

Don’t just give me a status report, tell me a story

Last year I took on a new project manager and asked him to prepare a monthly status report. I received a spreadsheet with a long list of work packages and ticket numbers. After reviewing the report several times, I really had no idea what had been accomplished. I went back to the project manager and suggested that a spreadsheet on its own lacks meaning.

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When making apps or sites or anything at all, we link an extraordinary chain of events together and, at the end, we have a product. Like any good story there’s a beginning, middle and end to the process. When I speak with clients or colleagues about a project, I’m really telling them a story – constructing a narrative of things being planned, worked on at the moment and what we aspire to deliver in the near future.

Whenever I return to the office after a few days of holiday, my first question to the team is – “tell me what’s going on and what we’re trying to achieve. Tell me the story of how we get there.”

Don’t just give me a status report, tell me a story