Product Culture Marty Cagan

Product Management Models Part 2

In a recent article (The Best Product Management Model) I discussed the notion that there is no single best product management model, and that the most effective model for a given company depends on a wide range of factors. I received several comments from people asking me to explain more about these factors and their consequences. To cover this I’m going to need a series of several articles, but I thought I’d start with the factors that are most often driving the need for improvement in the first place.

When I typically begin working with a company to help them develop the skills of their product organization, and the techniques to help them become more effective at producing successful products, I begin by asking about the specific challenges they face.

Here’s a list of the top 10 most frequent complaints I find at high-tech companies:

1. Wasted Release Cycles. Probably the single most common frustration that senior management (as well as engineering) has is the feeling that they all work hard but at the end of the year they have little to show for it. They may be Agile and may have released a boatload of new features, but they have very little in terms of results to show for it. More generally, there is the feeling that many releases, often a majority of releases, are wasted cycles in that they fails to meet their objectives. Sometimes things even get worse.

2. Time to Market. Right behind wasted release cycles is the belief that it takes far too long to get from initial concept to successful product. Not simply the time for a release, but rather the total time including however many follow-on releases are necessary to get the product to the point that
it accomplishes what it was originally supposed to do. Even with Scrum teams, they might have an average of 3 or 4 sprints per release, but they
find they need at least three releases to start making any money. All told it’s easy to see how “time to money” can easily be measured in years and not months.

3. Lack of Innovation. Especially in larger companies, but even in startups that hit the year-mark, there is often a feeling that the company has somehow lost the ability to innovate. Yes, they had some great early innovation, but then things seemed to get much harder, and everything that’s done feels like it’s at the margin and not really making an impact, even though the staff is larger than ever.

4. Unhappy Customers. Few consumer-facing companies survive long with unhappy customers (there’s a self-correcting mechanism built right in), but for many business software companies, they can continue for quite some time with unhappy customers, especially since switching costs are often very high, combined with the fact that often the people that make the purchase decision have little to do with those that use and depend on the product. But companies with serious customer satisfaction issues are no fun for anyone.

5. Replicating Success. Many companies out there had one good product at their start, and then struggle for years to replicate that success. The best they can do is refine the original product, but eventually all product cycles play out, and management becomes increasingly concerned about the lack of future revenue streams.

6. Handling Growth. A good problem to have, but one that’s very difficult nevertheless, is when your company grows very rapidly, and what worked for you before no longer scales. Managing through rapid growth is a very real challenge for successful companies, and everyone knows the stories of companies that wasted away fantastic opportunities by not effectively adapting to the new demands.

7. Specials. In many companies, especially large enterprise companies, they get seduced by the promise of a big customer in exchange for “special” features. It only takes a few of these before the organization is so bogged down with customer-specific requirements that even the smallest changes take a long time, and then on top of that they can’t seem to get companies to buy the “standard” product.

8. Decision Making. In far too many organizations the decision making process is broken. The product team can’t get decisions made in a timely manner, and when they are made, they don’t stick long enough to get a product shipped. A very related complaint is churn, which is when requirements change so frequently during development that it’s very hard to make forward progress.

9. Role Confusion. In many companies, there is no clarity around who “owns” the product, and who is responsible for each type of decision, and lack of understanding of the purpose of certain roles. The result is that there’s no real sense of ownership or accountability.

10. Employee Morale. Finally, I’ll often get called into product organizations because of low employee morale. The company isn’t able to retain their best product people and nobody’s happy about that. Of course this is just a symptom and is likely the result of several of the items above, or other factors such as role definition, or very often company culture.

Now each of these is a symptom of underlying problems in how the company produces products. While there are specific techniques that can be used to help some of these, the most effective product management model is the one that will not only address the symptoms but work to institutionalize the appropriate behaviors and processes.

More about additional factors in upcoming articles, but if you recognize any of these symptoms you might want to take a hard look at how you create software and ask yourself if how you handle product management may have anything to do with it.