Product Culture Lea Hickman

Keys To Successful Transformation

By Lea Hickman and Marty Cagan

In the earlier article on Meaningful Transformation, we talked about the steps necessary to effectively transform, and in the following article on Transformation in Action, we gave an example of just what a transformed team and organization is capable of doing.

These articles resulted in a remarkable number of conversations about what’s really involved in these transformations, and the reasons why so many fail.

In this article, we wanted to share what we have come to believe is essential in order for a company to effectively and successfully transform.  

If your company has been trying to transform but has not made the progress you believe is necessary, our hope is that this list will help you to identify and then tackle what’s missing.

1. Senior Leadership Support

While theoretically not impossible, it is extremely difficult to successfully transform without the active support of the most senior leadership.  The remainder of this list will hopefully make clear why this is the case.

And to be clear, when a CEO decides to just designate some senior leader as responsible for “digital transformation” that is not what we are talking about.  That common mistake makes it all too easy for the rest of the company to continue business as usual.

2. The Role of Technology

At its most fundamental, a successful transformation changes the role of technology from a necessary cost, to the core enabler of the business.  This mindset impacts nearly everything, from how technology is funded, to how teams are staffed, and whether technology is considered a core competency, or something that can be outsourced.

3. Understand Impact Beyond Product

A consequence of the first two points is to understand that while product management, product design and engineering may be at the center of this transformation, the impact necessarily goes far beyond the product organization.

It’s not unusual to find that we need fundamental changes to finance, human resources, sales, marketing, customer service/success, business operations and more.

4. Strong Product Leaders

Assuming the necessary support from senior leadership, and that’s a very big assumption, then everything depends on strong product leaders – specifically, the people that lead product management, product design, and engineering.

The importance of this can’t be stressed enough.  These are the people that are responsible and accountable for everything that follows.

You’ll either need to be sure you have experienced leaders that know what strong product organizations look like and how to build them, or at the very least that they have executive coaching to help them through the upcoming work of transformation.

5. True Product Managers

Empowered product teams depend on strong, competent product managers.  For most companies that are trying to transform, this is a new role.  

While they often have many people with the title “product manager,” that is very misleading as true product teams have very different demands on the product manager than the features teams they are replacing.

This is where experienced product leaders are so essential.  They need to determine which people are more suited to roles such as project management, and which have the potential through coaching and training to become the true product managers their designers and engineers need in order to succeed.

To be explicit, the senior leadership team should believe that each product manager is a potential future leader of the company.  This is not a minor role and it requires strong people with a deep understanding of your customers, and the dynamics of your business.

6. Empowered Engineers

The engine that fuels consistent innovation is empowered engineers.  So much of effective transformation is all about enabling and encouraging truly empowered engineers.

Just in case it’s not blatantly obvious, you won’t have empowered engineers if you are outsourcing your engineers.  

Nobody is suggesting that you put your engineers on a pedestal, but you need to get them out of the proverbial basement, and put them front and center on your product teams, and in coming up with solutions to the hardest problems you face.

7. Insights-based Product Strategy

The purpose of your product strategy is to determine the most important problems that need to be solved in order for the company to achieve its objectives.

Most companies that have yet to transform have never created a product strategy before.  That’s because their “strategy” was simply to serve as many of the business stakeholders as they could.  And of course that’s not a strategy at all.

Yet an effective product strategy, based on both quantitative and qualitative insights, is key to not only leveraging the talents of your people, but to getting the most out of your technology investment.

Your product leaders are responsible for this product strategy, and yet another reason why it’s so important to have experienced and strong product leaders.

8. Business Collaboration

One of the most difficult aspects of a successful transformation is redefining the relationship between the product organization and the different parts of the business.

The reason it’s difficult is because it exposes corporate politics and fiefdoms, and it represents a real change for many key stakeholders.  

Fundamentally, transformation involves moving from a model where the technology teams exist to “serve the business” to one where they exist to “serve the customers, in ways that work for the business.”  To be explicit, that means moving from a subservient model to a collaborative model.

Most stakeholders are frustrated with the old way of working, so they’re at least willing to try, but some will likely take the loss of control personally, and the product leaders and product teams need to be sensitive to this. 

It’s essential that the leaders not try to push this change until and unless the product teams are ready to step up and do what they need to, but once they are, they may need the active support of the senior leadership to help the stakeholders through this change to the collaborative model.

It’s important not to sugarcoat this, as it’s a profound change.

9. Continuous Evangelization

Yet another critical responsibility of your product leaders is continuous evangelism.  They need to evangelize the product vision, the product strategy, and the importance of the broader transformation. 

The product vision is the inspiration and motivation for the work and combined efforts of the whole organization.

The product strategy is critically important to evangelize because it makes transparent the rationale and the evidence for what will get done and what won’t.

More generally, product teams are learning every week as they work on product discovery for the problems they are being asked to solve, and it’s important to share the learnings honestly and openly so that the broader company can understand how learning happens and where the innovations are coming from.

10. Corporate Courage

There is no question that successful transformation is difficult.  Hopefully this list helps illuminate specifically why that’s the case, and what needs to be tackled in order to succeed.

However, the list would not be complete without acknowledging that in every case of successful transformation we know of, it required true courage from the senior leaders.

Moving to a fundamentally different model, even when the current model is broken, requires a real leap of faith and that requires courage.  Often the very senior leaders of companies that transform don’t get the recognition for this courage they deserve (although the stock market has rewarded these companies dramatically, so no need to feel sorry for them).  But still, we know many more senior leaders that don’t have the courage and aren’t willing to do what it takes to help their company not just survive, but thrive.

Hopefully these ten keys will help you get a deeper sense of what’s required to successfully and effectively transform your company to empowered product teams.

We will continue to share our learnings and elaborate on these and other lessons related to meaningful transformation.