Understanding People and Processes, to create better Products
Simplify your technology decisions and boost your product outcomes by optimising your organisational foundations
When people ask me what I do, I sometimes find it hard to come up with a satisfactory answer. 'Product Manager' isn’t a universally understood term, and trying to describe all the elements of this role without the inquisitor’s eyes glazing over can be a challenge.
I often end up saying I work in IT just because it's something people can generally understand. That's fine, but the frustrating thing for me is it only gives people an understanding that I work with technology, when actually it's how technology interacts with people, and the processes they work within, that truly fascinates and inspires me.
As product managers, I believe we can significantly boost our chances of success by making assessments and driving action across People, Process and Tech - examining the environment around you and your organisation to deliver maximum impact.
What do you mean, People/Process/Tech?
“The people do the work. Processes make this work more efficient. Technology helps people do their tasks and also helps automate the processes.”
Aditya Khanduri for Plutora
What I like and find interesting about this definition is that it frames technology as an enabler, and not the solution itself.
If we start by considering people (who’s going to set the direction, who’s going to work towards our outcomes, who do we need sign off from?) and the optimal processes to support those people to do their best work and make good decisions, our technology decisions all of a sudden start to look after themselves. Only technology that supports those people and those processes is worth considering, developing and ultimately releasing.
All of the elements that make a great product are only as good as the surrounding environment allows them to be. You can build the best technology product or portfolio in the world - the most intuitive UI you’ve ever experienced, cheap to build and scale, lagging indicators from early user testing off the charts - but if your organisation isn’t working in harmony to support it, your business will be working at a disadvantage. You’ll never reach that other holy trinity of Feasibility, Desirability and Viability.
OK, makes sense on paper. Can you give me an example?
Data products are a classic example of where People, Process and Technology must come together to work in harmony.
Consider you work for an organisation where you have bought or built all of the data collection, analysis and reporting technologies and capabilities you could ever need, but data requests are coming through sporadically, prioritisation lacks scientific rigour, there is no structure for ownership of data quality, and so on. In other words there is no data strategy, and no process to support this strategy.
Under these circumstances, you can be fairly certain that the following will be true:
Outputs over outcomes - with no process to validate business requirements, people will naturally tend towards prescribing what they want and labelling it urgent, bypassing any proper discovery or consideration for whether outcomes are being met in an optimal way
Proliferation of insights - numerous reports are produced trying to tell the same story but with different methodologies, and potentially even conflicting data sources
Lack of trust in the numbers - if the data isn’t trusted or is known to be unreliable, the most beautiful interface with the most useful features will still not give the business the right insights. In fact, they will tell a misleading story and decision makers may well be better off simply trusting their gut and experience
Under these circumstances, ploughing ahead with a roadmap of new reports, new dashboards and new features & functionality is simply throwing good money and time after bad. As product managers facing this situation we need to advocate for going slow in order to speed up - pivot to get the organisational foundations right, and the rest can follow.
Of course, this is just one example but imagine a platform product which is surrounded by red tape, making it inaccessible to its end users; or a digital twin product for a physical publication, where editors can’t easily upload their latest articles; or any product focused entirely on its own goals and self fulfillment, without laddering up to the organisational strategy and vision. The list of potential examples is endless - in fact, I’d argue that any product can only be successful with adequate process to integrate it into the business and support its ongoing optimisation, and a culture that enables its production and promotion.
Fair play. So what should I do?
Whether you’re managing an existing product or about to embark on a discovery, it’s likely to be extremely beneficial in the long term to invest some serious time up front in understanding the organisation and systems your product will be operating within.
Map out your dependencies, and think about how you might overcome them - homing in on the processes that might help or hinder your product goals, and the areas you’ll need to look to influence in order to set you and your team up for success.
Consider also that your dependencies might not just be technical constraints, or budgetary ones. They could also be people - the senior management team you need buy-in from, the end users you need to adopt the product, detractors in the business who think company resources should be focused elsewhere. All of these people will likely have an influence on the success of your product.
Once you have this picture, take stock and carefully plot out your next step(s) such that you create a situation where the organisation is enabling your product’s success, and vice versa.
Nice! Can you summarise the key takeaways for me?
As product managers we need to invest as much time assessing the people and processes that our technology, and what changes we might need to facilitate for wider success, as we do in product execution or strategy.
Ideally we’d do this up front, and in a human-centred way - dedicating time in our schedules and plans to truly understanding the wider conext our product operates within, or should operate within in, before committing too heavily to a specific technology driven roadmap and backlog.
By taking this moment to zoom out and consider our wider context we can enable truly transformational change, even in challenging environments, solving the problems our business or users truly face and making a tangible impact - rather than just shipping tech for tech’s sake.
Finding Product Breaks valuable? Please consider sharing it with friends - or subscribe if you haven’t already