The state of product management with Jason Knight
Join Murray Robinson and Shane Gibson as they chat with Jason Knight on the state of product management.
Jason shares his insights and experiences on the responsibilities of a product manager, the evolving nature of the role. Differentiating buyer and user features the importance of testing and validating ideas. Supporting cross-functional teams and fostering a mindset of continuous improvement. Jason shares insights from his experiences and discussions with thought leaders and provides advice for those navigating the product management field.
Read along you will
Shane: Welcome to the No Nonsense Agile Podcast. I’m Shane Gibson.
Murray: And I’m Murray Robinson.
Jason: And I’m Jason Knight.
Murray: Hi Jason. Thanks for coming on.
Jason: Thanks for having me.
Murray: Jason, we want to talk to you about the state of product management, could you start by Telling us a bit about your background and what you do these days.
Jason: Absolutely, so I’m Jason. I am based in the UK. I’ve been in the tech space for the last 20 25 years. Started out in software development as a developer, and spent a number of years working for a large multinational market research company with offices all over the world. Moved around quite a lot of different roles within that organization, but all focused on the tech side. As I moved into leadership I started getting closer to not just what we’re building and how we’re building it, but also the reason that we were building it and who we were building it for. And although we never called it product management at the time, in retrospect, we were absolutely doing product management. It had everything that we were doing on the product management side, apart from potentially the commercial side, which is something that came later. We then got acquired by a large private equity firm, kKR, who wanted to digitally transform the company. And they started shipping in all these cool new tech people from outside that started to really show me some stuff that we hadn’t thought about in a traditional old market research company. But I also started to realize that maybe that wasn’t the best place to do those the best way that I could. I had built a number of products and I decided at that point, after this ridiculous long stint at a massive company that it was time to get out into startups. So I moved to a few startups, did a few different interesting things in different industries. And after a while, started a podcast of my own, to really expand my horizons with the types of people that I could talk to out in the world and the types of things that I could find and the kind of conversations that I could have to really open my eyes to the world of product management.
So that then was a really big accelerant to my product learning and my product experience. And after a while I thought maybe I can mix the work that I’ve done, with some of this wider experience so that I could then maybe do a bit of consulting, advise startups that are struggling with some of these things and help them set up their product teams for success, which then hopefully sets their companies up for success as well.
So I wanted to ask you what is going on with product management these days. I see Product managers complaining that they’re just glorified project managers and business analysts who aren’t allowed to research, or design anything. And other people keep trying to get into their space. So, you see all these agile coaches changing their titles to product coaches and UX designers saying get out of my space. The market seems terrible. Everybody’s looking for a job. What is your view of the state of product management?
Jason: I think it’s complicated because anyone can have an opinion on what a product should be or how it should be developed or the things that it should do, who should be able to use it and all of that stuff.
On the face of it, it’s pretty easy. Like having informed opinions is maybe a little bit more difficult, but anyone can look at any product. Like we’re using Zencaster to record this at the moment. I could probably pull out five different things that on this screen right now, that I would rather have a bit different. Informed opinion is a whole different thing, but it starts to make people think that product management is just having opinions and that it’s easy and anyone could do it. So then you get, designers saying that they want to be the people that are leading forward. There are some people that have put out blog posts and articles about that from the design space.
I had a discussion with a founder recently who was just like, Oh yeah. If we don’t have product managers, then the engineers will just do it.
They could, but I’d rather have engineers doing the engineering and collaborating with me on building the best product possible rather than starting to worry about, prototypes and market analysis and speaking to customers all the time. The problem with product management is that the role is so ambiguous and it feels like an optional extra to some people because they’re sitting there saying we could just do whatever the customers say. We can do whatever the CEO says. Everyone’s got an opinion. We can just get all of those opinions in and just build that. And the engineers and the designers will do it. And the cEO has probably got the strategy in their heads anyway. So it just sounds like an easy kind of luxury role when actually I think that it should be 100 percent the opposite.
Product managers being treated as project managers or people that are just effectively doing the agile delivery of a product. That also happens quite a lot. And I think that some of that is just down to the fact that it’s still a fairly immature role in the grand scheme of things. Obviously in places like Google and Facebook and places like that, it’s a lot more established. They’ve been pioneers in some ways of how the role should work. And that’s informed a lot of the literature, which then informs a lot of what product managers are expecting out of this stuff, which is why they get sad when they can’t do it the way that they think they should be able to do it based on these books.
In the wider non tech world they just think that product managers are engineers that can talk to people. They’re people that can write what someone says in a way that the engineers can consume and then take the results back to the rest of the business to talk to them about it.
Murray: That’s a business analyst.
Jason: That is a business analyst. Part of what people I think expect of product managers. They expect that the Ceo has this fantastic idea, a vision, and a strategy in their head. If they don’t want to let go of that, then the job of a product manager basically becomes doing what they or the sales team said to get that strategy into realization. So that means product managers are disempowered because the leadership team don’t want to let go.
That then, all that leaves them is the ability to talk to engineers and write up tickets and tell the engineers to do the tickets in the order that they think they should be done and check that the engineers are doing the tickets. So that then puts them squarely in delivery mode and there’s nothing wrong with being a delivery manager.
But it doesn’t really bring what product management should be, which is actually helping to inform and drive that strategy and decide what we should be doing and where we should be doing it and who we should be doing it for. A lot of that just gets left on the side of the road because either the leaders of the company want to do it or the sales team driving it themselves to whoever they’re talking to. And you have a strategy that is based on the order that they talk to potential customers. And it just leaves very little for the product manager to do.
Murray: Yeah. I’ve talked to a couple of companies in the last few months where I raised the issue of customer discovery. And I proposed that you would do discovery at the same time as delivery. And they just looked at me like I had two heads. And the response was, why would we want to go back and do several months of discovery when we know what we want and we just want to build it? They couldn’t understand the concept of discovery and delivery at the same time, or the need to test the things that you were building as you went. Do you find that?
Jason: This goes back to the same problem that everyone’s got an opinion and everyone thinks that they know what needs to be done to the product. Now it’s especially easy for CEOs, for leaders, for other stakeholders. within an organization to say I’ve worked in this industry for 20 years. Therefore, I know exactly what is needed because my experience trumps all. We don’t need to speak to any customers because we already know. Or in the case of a sales team we speak to customers all the time and we’ve heard a bunch of stuff from them. And both of these are true we can’t ignore those people, but I think it is difficult for many, especially in B2B, because you do have what they believe to be customer insight.
I’ve been in some companies where I’ve not managed to change that. I’ve not managed to get a good discovery culture going because there’s so much resistance from other parts of the organization that, you’re lucky if you get along to a sales call every now and then. There are companies out there where it’s incredibly difficult to move that needle. But I in organizations where there’s at least some chance to do it, then you should push all the way. There’s obviously two potential ways that you can do it. One of which is whenever we have a new idea, we’ll spend weeks building a research plan and doing loads of interviews and finding people and synthesizing the results. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, but you’re probably going to struggle to get buy in because it seems like it’s just pushing everything back by weeks. The other, is let’s just keep talking to customers all the time and do smaller research on an ongoing basis. And I think that can be incredibly valuable.
But if you’re doing discovery, and all you do is come back with exactly the same story that you started with, then people are going to judge that, and they are going to maybe push back on doing it the next time. But if you can do smaller, ongoing discovery and insert those into your usual workflow, I think that’s incredibly valuable. I’ve had insights that I’ve had from customers, mainly the people buying it rather than the people using it. things that we didn’t know, and you walk into and you’re talking to them about something else, you end up talking about another thing, and then you wiggle that tooth a little bit, and then eventually you talk to some other people about that, and you end up building a whole new product line that is successful because you had those discussions. No salesperson is going to ask that question, because they’re looking to get the deal across the line now. There’s nothing wrong with listening to their feedback, but you also need to get your own feedback as much as you can.
Murray: Yeah, I think it’s often the case that in B2B the sales people promised things that weren’t in the product and weren’t on the roadmap and promised that the delivery team could develop it all within, a few months for hardly anything. Then it took two years and 20 times as much. And in the end, it was really unclear whether the customer really needed it or not, because it was just a discussion between the client who said some things and a sales guy who thought they were important. Had the client validated it with his customers and users? I don’t think so, They hadn’t done it in the scenario I was thinking of.
Jason: There is some just general sales hygiene that needs to be pushed for with an organization. And obviously, as a product manager, you’re not always going to get a say over that. You don’t get a say over their sales process. You don’t get a say over how that’s executed by individual sellers when they go out into the field. I do think there’s two ways to tackle this. So one is if you’ve got a culture of whatever the next deal says you have to do to win the deal. Or if there’s a certain threshold, like if it’s above a certain amount of money, you have to do it. That’s obviously an incredibly difficult situation to be in. And it needs to be resourced appropriately, or the company’s general strategic goals need to be downscaled appropriately. You’ve got to realize things take time.
But on the other hand, I also think it’s incumbent on product managers to do a better job, of enabling the sales team. I have seen situations where the sales team just don’t really have a full understanding of what the product does or doesn’t do, and they sell something thinking that a product like this does that because no one told them it didn’t. But I think it’s also important for the product team to provide better sales enablement materials to the sales team and engage with the sales team more regularly. Rather than just when they’re shouting at each other at the last minute, they actually have regular catch ups and conversations with the sales team to keep them up to date with what the product does or doesn’t do, who its best fit customers are, deals as they go down the pipeline. They’re going to be big, long sales cycles that they’re working through for very high value contracts. So you’ve got plenty of time to have conversations along the way and catch up with these people. And I think the best product teams will have a good line of communication with the sales team. That way they know that they can be successful.
But I think also from a product perspective, but some people’s products are just crap. They don’t have loads of features that they should have. Partly it’s because of unmanaged expansion. For example, if the sales team is just going out to sell to just anyone, and they’ve never had any kind of market segmentation, they’ve never gone and worked out who their best fit customers are, then A, they’ve done that, and they should be held to account for that. But also the product team and the product marketing team, have a big role to play there to make sure that they actually have a solid understanding of where they should expand to but at the same time, that expansion does require that product managers have some understanding of things that market needs. And if we’re going in, we should probably do some evaluation and discovery around that to start to understand how we can get ahead of the curve and start building some of the stuff rather than having to react all the time. There’s always going to be reactivity in sales led organizations because of the dynamic we already talked about. But what can you as a product team do to anticipate and understand that market more than just waiting for someone to come and say, Oh, Hey, got to do this now.
I’m always going to hold the sales team to account and the sales. architecture of an organization because, there are some truly bad ways from a product perspective to go out and sell products. At the same time, I do think it’s part of the product team’s remit to make a product that could be sold.
Murray: What do you think about this stuff that’s coming out of user experience designers on, social media, UX designers saying. Product managers are taking over our space. They think, they can do our job and they can’t because they don’t know what they’re doing and they just need to get out of the way and let us, decide what customers want and what should be built.
Jason: I think that’s what I’d say if I was a uX researcher because I want to stand up for my own trade. But I guess the question is they want to get involved in all of the things. Do they want to get involved in more than just speaking to customers, which they absolutely should do, If you have a user research team, it’s amazing to be able to have people dedicated to speaking to people. And these could be experts in the craft. They’re going to be people that can drive the right kinds of questions, make sure that we do the right things with the results. But do they want to get involved in everything? Do they want to get involved in the market analysis? Do they want to get involved in the depths of the technical solutions? Or do they want to do the long term strategy stuff. What they’re becoming in that situation is a product manager.
Same with engineers. Like people are sitting there saying, Oh, I’m an engineer. Facebook just had a bunch of engineers and google wanted CS people with computer science degrees to come in and do this stuff.
I used to be an engineer. Of course you can do this stuff. But do you want to? If you just want to be a delivery manager or someone talks to customers and writes their stuff down and sends it through to the engineers, then cool. If you want to do the, full stack product management job, do you really want to do that? Or do you just want to do the design part of it? Or the engineering part? any answer to that question is a valid answer. But you need to go into it on purpose, not just think that it’s easy. There’s this whole iceberg effect, right? You look at someone’s job and you say, the bit that I can see looks easy, so it must all be easy. But you don’t see all the stuff under the water, which you probably don’t want to touch. And that’s, where it gets disappointing, because you’re assuming my job’s easy, because you see a bit of it and think you can do it.
Murray: When I first did product management back in the late 90s, after I did my MBA, it was in a marketing team. And my job was product price, place and promotion if you remember that stuff from your marketing. So I got involved a lot in product design. I did the pricing, I did a lot of work with the retail sales distribution channel And the marketing promotion, direct mail, TV. But ultimately I was being held accountable for numbers, profit, revenue, growth. That kind of view of product seems to be different these days. I’m seeing these technical product roles that don’t seem to do any of that marketing.
Jason: Yeah, of product management is from procter Gamble 100 years ago, when they started being the brand men But this idea that product management is just there to handle the tech. I think that’s a big problem. I have this idea that the over technicalization of product management is one of the biggest barriers to product management. You’ve got all these people, called product owners, because they started using Scrum in their organisation, and they were just seen as the people that moved stuff around in the backlog for the developers, and then reported that back to the rest of the business, or in some cases they became mini dictators within the teams, because that was their power zone. So they just become taskmasters. And I don’t think that’s right at all. I really want product managers to have a much higher regard for the commercial parts of the product. Like your product isn’t done just because you’ve pushed some code. Your product’s done when people are buying it, using it, when they can find it, when they love it, and when you’re continuously improving that product in ways that resonate with the market and the people that are using it.
Now, does that mean that every product manager is going to get dramatically and deeply involved in pricing and packaging? I would argue that they. should at least be involved, even if they’re not driving it. In a sales led organization, they’re going to be competing forces at that table that want to have a big say in that. And you may not be the decision maker, but you should still be involved because how a product is packaged and priced does have impact on the technical side, let alone on the stuff that goes out to the market. So you need to enable it to be packaged and therefore priced in that way through the product. You need to build it in that way. How you scale the product. If you’re in a product led growth, maybe a B2C organization, where there maybe isn’t a sales team. And you’re probably more directly on the hook for user acquisition and activation and all that stuff then you probably naturally have more of, an opinion about this stuff because, you don’t have anyone to hide behind. I think it’s easy for product managers to hide behind a sales team in a sales led organization because the sales team are the ones that drive the revenue we just have to build the product. Okay, cool. But what are you doing to help them drive the revenue?
Now, again, going back to the previous stereotype, it could be that the sales team are just doing absolutely anything, and you’re effectively a glorified services company. That’s a way to run a business. It’s probably not the best way to build a product, but those companies exist. But if you’re not in one of those companies, what can you do to work with the sales team to enable your products to be purchased? I think that’s the important thing that a lot of product managers miss these days.
The big tech companies back in the 90s in the early 2000s when they were starting to set up product management practices to build All their stuff out whether they’re over reliance on computer science degrees and technical people from stanford was really the driver for then everyone else thinking that product management is just a technical discipline now Rather than a full stack, everything around the product. Endeavor, which is, what I think it should be.
Murray: Yeah. Should a product manager be responsible for the commercials of their product, for the profitability, for example?
Jason: That’s a good question. I’ve worked with companies that are, going straight to customers, product led growth style again, those people are naturally going to be more responsible because the things that they do are going to automatically have an impact on whether people find the product, whether people onboard onto the product, whether people use the product, whether they continue to use it.
I’d say it’s difficult to make a product manager solely responsible for the revenue if they are behind a sales team they should be, accountable. They’re not ultimately responsible because, a crappy sales team can fail to sell a good product, but also a good sales team can sell a crappy product. They should be held accountable, if they make bad product decisions, or if they make a product that people don’t want to buy. Some product managers see revenue as a dirty word. Our targets are all product targets. We’re not thinking about revenue targets.
All we’re going to worry about is some of the things that, inform revenue as in how many people stay in the product, how many people use the product. But I think it is worth them having a stronger opinion and accountability for the things that they’re doing, the things that we’re doing, actually do help the commercial part of the organization, to sell, renew and upsell the product. Because if they don’t do that, then they’re making everyone’s lives harder, including their own.
Murray: I don’t see how you can be a good product manager without understanding the profit of your product. Because there’s a lot of decisions you’re making all the time that could make things cost more. I would think , you want to be saying if we do that, we won’t meet the organization’s profit goals. And you can’t have any of those discussions if you have no clue about the profitability of your product.
Jason: Yeah, and I think a lot of this is down to the fact that product management universities and online training places they’re all focusing on the craft of product management. Now, I’m not against that. we should learn our craft. But at the same time, I think a lot of the role that a product manager can bring is by bridging, not just their own craft, but bridging all of the other parts of the organization. So I’ve read a bunch of sales books but I’ve never been a SaaS seller and I probably never will be a SaaS seller. But at the same time, I want to know all of the things that SaaS sellers care about. I want to know all of the things that marketers care about. I want to know what CFOs care about. I want to know what CEOs care about. I want to know what operational people care about. I want to read all of their books and talk to all of those people, or as many of them as I can, to start to understand how my craft works in conjunction with their craft. And how what I need matches to what they need, because I think it’s easy for pMs, to start complaining about other functions, bloody sales team or whatever.
But on the other hand, we are all working for the same company and will succeed if the company succeeds and we should all be pushing in the same direction towards that success. So I do think it’s important to understand cross disciplinary stuff as much as possible.
Murray: what’s the right model for a product manager? Is it CEO of the product or orchestra, conductor or something else?
Jason: I think the CEO of product narrative that’s from Ben Horowitz’s good product manager, bad product manager essay. I don’t like the concept of a CEO product because, the CEO is always ultimately the CEO product. They can override you on anything. However, I do the kind of attitude behind it. It touches on some of the things that we’ve been talking about. The idea that product managers should attempt to be, wide in scope, They shouldn’t be just sitting there contained in a box. A CEO cares about everything in a company, because of course they do. Whilst I would never say that a product manager is a CEO of the product, I do think that having that wider mentality and not a not my problem mate type mentality I think that doesn’t do product managers any favors at all. As to what the model is, I think, you could say, maybe like the director on a film. The person that gets it done, coordinates everyone, gets them all together, I’ve watched a few behind the scenes and making of type documentaries in the past, and one of the common themes is, if you get a good director in you get Quentin Tarantino directing a film, he’s gonna do a good job and get the best out of the actors to make sure that the vision works. The director, the product manager can come in and make sure that story is brought to life by basically making everyone else on the production performed to their very best. Getting the best out of the actors, getting the best out of the cinematographers, getting the best out of the sound people, getting the best out of all of them to make sure that the story that you’re trying to tell is told in a way that hopefully wins an Oscar.
Murray: So, you’ve been talking to a lot of leaders in the product management space, in the last year. What themes have been emerging for you
Jason: AI obviously keeps coming up. It’s, a big seismic shift. I think there’s a lot more people talking around what you might call the business value of product management, which is really some of the stuff that we’ve been talking about. That Product managers need to be strategic enablers and partners to the business rather than, just these kind of ticket monkeys that pass stuff around.
And I think there’s still quite a lot of just general ongoing debate around things like oKRs and prioritization frameworks That goes back to the craft again. There’s always people talking about the craft. But I do think that the biggest and most heartening thing is this sort of talk of the business value of product management. When you start to see some of the news that comes out from people like Airbnb and snap and these other companies that started to basically lay off. product managers, or re imagine what product managers mean, and they always then start to precipitate these tiresome op eds around, oh the end of product management, and they never really are the end of anything, of course, and no one cared about how these companies ran their product teams before the news came out. Like it was only afterwards, all of a sudden, Oh yeah, we should now be more like Airbnb.
These kind of articles and opinions that come out after a move like this. They open good conversation. At least they start to get people talking about it again. I do think it’s important because product management is still such a, an ambiguous and non-standardized space , that people do talk about it about how it can be effective, like it’s gone too technical, for example, in certain organizations, then having conversations about bringing that back a little bit, I think it’s good. However, those conversations arise. So product managers generally get a, hard time because they are easy targets for a lot of people that don’t really understand what the role is, but then a lot of product managers I don’t think really understand what the role is because they’ve been put in situations where they’ve never been allowed to do the things that would make them successful product managers.
So I do think that the business lens on product management and taking it away from the technical side and delivery management is always really positive.
Murray: What do you think about the job market?
Because I’m hearing quite a lot of product managers complaining about the job market and being fired and can’t find another job.
Jason: Yeah, I don’t know what it’s like where you are. But certainly in the UK, there have been shoots of recovery. But I do know a lot of people, especially in leadership positions that are looking. I guess when there’s loads of layoffs becomes a buyer’s market when it comes to hiring product people. I do think that there’s a certain over supply of product managers at the moment, which means there aren’t enough good jobs for all of them. There’s always dysfunctional jobs and organizations that you see job ads for that you would never apply for in a million years. Now maybe some people do hold their nose and they’re going for this because they need a job and I’m never going to judge anyone for that. But yeah, I do.
I just think that there’s just a massive oversupply of product managers compared to the amount of good roles that there are out there. Maybe they can start their own company that requires a bunch of different skills as well.
Murray: Product management has got really sexy over the last few years and I’ve seen a lot of people try and get into it. So, I’ve seen UX designers becoming product managers. I’ve seen mid level marketing people now their title is director of product management without any apparent understanding of product management whatsoever. I’ve seen product owners, next week, they’re a product manager. And agile coaches, are now all product coaches. So, there’s a lot of people pushing into the product management space. I think because it’s perceived as the direction that everything is going in. Products not projects, outcomes not outputs.
Jason: You’re right that other people are trying to move in and in some cases, they’re just doing this because everyone can have an opinion on a product, right? And everyone just sees the bit of a product manager’s job that they saw and that they think that they can do. And I’m sure some of these people will be very successful.
I love to see people coming into product management from things like customer support or customer success or qa. There’s been people that I’ve seen going into product management from those backgrounds that because of their use of empathy and the, care and attention that they bring to it, they can actually start to be quite effective. Now they’re obviously strategic muscles that maybe they want to work on, and of course maybe some of the technical understanding as well. So no one can come in and have it all probably from the outset, because there are so many different things that you need to be aware of. So I’m not going to say that these people can’t do it, but maybe some of them think that they can do it when they’ve not really thought about all of the things that make it up.
On the other hand, you’ve also got all the actual product managers that were already product managers or product owners or whatever they were, that, yeah, maybe getting laid off, or maybe they’ve just got fed up working in some of those organizations that are maybe so dysfunctional that they can never do any good product work at all. And they start to read all of this stuff that they see online and think there could be a better life out there somewhere. Let’s find a better company and do some good product management work there.
But at the same time, if you can find a company that kind of, it’s imperfections match what you’re up for dealing with, then you should go and do that. But I’ve seen so many people out there that have been, product managers for a bit or product leaders for a bit. And they just can’t do it anymore. They can’t deal with that nonsense anymore because they were working in an organization that just didn’t respect the trade. So I don’t want to go and find a new one. Problem is everyone wants to find a new one that respects the trade. There aren’t that many of them.
So it becomes tricky to get a good job. And that’s then just a decision they have to make based on their own personal runway and how much they want to eat shit, versus how much they want to just wait for something better.
Murray: Mortgage led product management.
Jason: But it’s a real thing, right? Like I was lucky when I decided to get out of. full time work and move into contracting, freelancing and such. I had something like three to six months worth of runway before I had to worry about anything. So I had time to work out whether I wanted to get another full time job or whether I wanted to do some of this other stuff that I’m now doing. If I’m sitting there and I don’t have that runway, and if I need to, pay the next mortgage payment. That’s going to really sharpen my focus on what the next job is. And I may end up taking a less than ideal job. The question then is how can I make the most of it?
Murray: What are your clients telling you they want from product management?
Jason: On the one hand, you have CEOs and other people on the executive teams demanding product managers and product leaders that can drive the strategy be the future of the company and align everyone around the power of product management and get everyone together and make the company successful and scalable.
And on the other hand, you have a bunch of product managers and product leaders saying, oh, the CEOs, they just want to do it all themselves. They never let me do anything. And I’m just there to deliver stuff and work on their vision. And in some cases, these are from the same company. The difficulty is of course, the cEOs have the vision. And that’s right, because in a startup, they’re almost certainly the founder. And it was their vision to start with. But at the same time, they realize that they can’t really scale themselves, and maybe they don’t know how to get to that vision because, they’ve never built a product before, maybe they’re not a tech person. And they know that they should get some kind of strategic product person in to go and do that stuff for them, either because they’ve read about it, or because they know people that have advised them on this.
Okay, so they get the person in, and the person wants to do that, but of course it’s really hard for a founder to let go, right? Because this is their baby, and no matter how much they want intellectually, for those things to happen, in the heat of war, there are going to be decisions that they make, which they believe to be the right decisions, that may not be the decisions that the product person wants to make.
It’s hard because I do think that there was a genuine desire from most of the CEOs that I’ve spoken to for product to really take the lead. But then they often override that because they have their own vision that they don’t think is being executed quite to spec and that starts to lead to some of these clashes.
And it’s a shame because they want the thing, but I don’t think a hundred percent of the time that they know what wanting the thing really means and how it would actually play out in day to day or month to month, quarter to quarter interactions.
Murray: I think it can be hard on the ego for a CEO to have a product manager who says, let’s test this. And also for them to have tested it and found that people don’t want it.
Jason: Yeah, no one wants to be told their baby’s ugly, right?
Murray: Oh, there’s all this research from Pendo and the Standish Chaos group and places like that, where they say, when you actually look at product features in technical products, only 20 to 30 percent of them are used, and the other 60 to 70 percent are hardly ever used at all. Teams spend an enormous amount of time and money building stuff that can’t be adding any value because nobody’s using it.
Jason: Yeah, although I was reflecting on this yesterday, this idea of does it matter if no one’s using it, if it still helps you to sell the product, it’s not just about delivering features. It’s about delivering a product that could be sold. And I’m thinking about this in the kind of context of what I might call a checkbox feature. Something that comes up in a procurement list that every single vendor has to have this feature, otherwise they don’t even get past round one. But then they get in there and no one uses it. It’s not actually a feature that anyone wants. You just have to have it. But then if you get rid of the feature, you probably can’t sell the next big deal.
And that puts you in this kind of weird situation where as a product person someone in the organisation is going to be advocating for that feature to stay because they need it to sell the product, even though no one ever uses it. I have seen it. I was speaking to someone a few weeks back. They were saying, we’ve got such and such in our product. Literally no one ever uses it. But if we don’t have it. People don’t want to buy the product. I’ve worked in the past in the mental health SaaS. One of the problems that we had in that space, and I’ve spoken to a number of people in other companies in that space as well, that have the same problem. So I don’t think this is a secret. Is that many companies, basically wrongly believe that mental health support for their employees is tick the box. Don’t even care how good it is, I just need to be able to say that I’ve done it. Which means that delivering it well, which we try to do in the company that I work for, there’s this other company that can deliver it not well, but you still tick the box. And that starts to get depressing. Because you’re sitting there saying, we want to do a good job. But, not all of your buyers care about you doing a good job in that situation. Some of them just want you to do any job. We used to get emails from our own healthcare insurance provider, offering us the services that we offered to other people, but just a worse version of them, because it was just like an extra that they added into their package. And that’s really hard to compete with. if you’re in a situation where people do need to have a thing like that healthcare company, they probably didn’t really want to have that package, maintain it and so forth, because it certainly didn’t seem to put a lot of effort into it.
But at the same time, if they don’t include it, it makes their overall offering less attractive, even if no one really uses it. I’ve been in situations where, there’s talk of market expansion into some far flung territory that, we don’t have any other customers, that care about that place, let’s pick on New Zealand. New Zealand’s not the most appetizing market for a Western European organization that only sells to uK and Europe, right? It’s time zones and probably loads of other stuff that they have to worry about there, but if you also imagine that they have different features that they require for some reason like a finance thing or some tax stuff or whatever it is that something needs to be maintained. to keep that market alive. And then you speak to the customer and they’re like, no one’s using it in New Zealand. And they’re like oh yeah no, no one’s going to use it. It’s just, we had to demonstrate when we were getting budget to buy the solution that we had international coverage. And New Zealand is one of our markets that we care about. , if you didn’t support New Zealand, you wouldn’t have got the, several hundred thousand pound annual deal or whatever. No one’s actually using it and no one cares. Now, that’s a depressing scenario for a product manager. And in that situation, you want to put the bare minimum of effort into that, but sometimes you can’t move it, because if you move it, everything else falls down.
Shane: I agree. there’s buyer features and user features. If it’s sales led then you’re going to end up with buy features. And as long as product and sales are having that conversation, and saying, this is a check sheet feature, right? If we don’t have this, then our sales conversations are harder than they could be. Are we the leader in the market? Yeah, we are. Who gives a fuck then? We don’t need those features. Are we trying to merge into the market? Yeah, we are. Okay. Now we give a shit, right? Now we actually need those to even start the conversation. Cause the number of sales teams that walk in the door and the customer goes, yeah, we get these every day, Here’s my five questions. If you can answer yes to these, we might have a conversation. You don’t answer yes to one of them, then they don’t even have a conversation with you. So If you’re a sales led organization, you’re going to need buyer features. You probably want to under invest in those buyer features because they’re just a checklist, You need to, show the box, you need to prove the box works, and that’s all you’ve got to do. if you’re a product led company and now you’ve got all these buyer features nobody uses, your product probably doesn’t match your go to, market strategy. for me, that’s the difference. You’ve just got to be clear about what you are and why you’re doing stuff. And then sometimes you just wear the cost of debt. We all do. Sometimes we push a feature way earlier than we should. Sometimes we make it relatively ad hoc because we’re agreeing that debt has some value right now, Getting that thing out early means we can incur that debt. And that’s how we survive. So yeah, I definitely agree between buyer features and user features. We just gotta be careful about the balance and that it is part of our strategy.
Jason: The thing about whether we should or shouldn’t accrue debt, is an interesting discussion. Normally you’ll hear about technical debt, for example, and obviously we’re now talking about feature debt. I also sometimes talk about revenue debt, which is this idea that you’ve built up so much revenue in an area that it’s impossible to stop supporting it, even though you don’t want to support it, and you end up with too many pots of revenue that you can’t say goodbye to, and you have to try and support them all.
Radhika Dutt, speaks about vision debt, the idea that sometimes you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. But you should know that you’ve taken out payments against the vision that you were trying to achieve to meet a short term goal. So these are all different versions of debt and I still like to think of debt as a loan or mortgage or credit card. Some of that debt is awful. And like the payments will cripple you. And some of that debt you can mortgage you’d be paying that off for 2025 years, right? Like people don’t see mortgage debt as bad debt. So there’s this whole spectrum of debt, and you absolutely want to pay off the debt that is causing you the highest interest rates. But there’s probably some debt that you carry for the lifetime of the organization. You don’t have to pay it off. Or if you do pay it off, you can pay it off over years or decades You just need to make sure that you’re always conscious about how those repayments are adding up,
Shane: And also that you keep a history of the context around how those decisions are made and why. The number of times you go and talk to an organization and you go, why the hell did you do that? And sometimes you get the context and you go, oh yeah, okay given that context, I’ll probably do the same. Sometimes nobody knows. The person who made that call’s gone and they never documented the context let alone the decision and you’re sitting there going, why, why, was that done? Can we unroll it right now? Is it safe? Somebody went to some effort to put it in. It’s got to be there for a reason.
Murray: Lots of organizations don’t know why they do things. That’s just the way we do it. Why do we do this? Don’t know. Why do we do that? You just have to do it.
Jason: Yeah, and I think status quo thinking is, not amazing. It’s always been done like that is not great. When I used to work for a very old, traditional, multinational market research company, there was a lot of working norms that developed over decades. I believe that some of that has been unpicked now, because, it was important to do that to help the company thrive into the future.
But I do think it’s important challenge ourselves? How can we do a retrospective? On what’s working for us, what’s not working for us, what’s holding us back. What is driving us forward? This thing that we’ve been doing for 30 years is just nonsense.
We have to stop doing that. And if it causes other problems, then we can row back. It’s lazy to just keep doing the same thing. It’s important to always have an open mind and to push for positive change if it introduces other factors roll it back but don’t just keep doing the thing for the sake of it. Who does that?
Jason: Obviously everybody, but I think if you had that conversation with anyone, that’s worked at a company for all their life and you just had that discussion on, the general concept of we shouldn’t be holding ourselves back. I think most of them would at least concede the point on that, even if they still fought tooth and nail for the specific form don’t want you to change. It’s almost the same as we’re talking earlier with the CEO really wanting the strategic product people driving the company to the future, while simultaneously undercutting their efforts to do that because what makes sense intellectually doesn’t always make sense emotionally. So it does take a long time to unpick those things. And obviously companies don’t always have a lot of time. So sometimes I don’t get unpicked.
Murray: We better go to summaries, Shane.
Shane: Excellent what is a product manager? Is it an engineer that can talk? I think that’s fair because we’ve got this theme of craft all the way through this conversation. There is a craft there there are a skills, you have to be cross functional.
People can often see the fun stuff, but let me just figure out which feature we’re going to do next. They don’t see all the hard work that goes underneath it. And, I think, they should try the job if they think it’s that easy.
And then who’s the customer, right?
So we know as a PM, often we see the customer is our customer, but the other parts of the organization is just the customer as much as they are and if we’re a sales lead organization, where’s your sales enablement material. Where’s your things that help your sales team understand what your product does, who it does it for, what it doesn’t do, who it doesn’t do it. for, right? Help them be successful, have that conversation.
And then into that idea of full stack product management role. we’re probably all familiar with full stack in engineering capability, but we often don’t talk about full stack or T Skills or cross functional skills in other roles outside of that pure engineering one.
And that question of who does the pricing, that one for me is always one of the critical questions, right? If you’re in charge of product and you can’t determine the value of the product you’re building. You don’t have the ability to add the value to the organization that you’re looking for. Who’s in charge of pricing? Who’s accountable for revenue? That’ll tell you how the organization works. What can you do to get more people to adopt your product? That’s the role, right? If you don’t achieve that goal, you’re not doing that role. There is one person. Typically, and then everybody else is supporting them. So yeah, they need some governance, but we can’t manage by committee.
Then as a product manager, how can you get the best out of the other crafts? Because you are the person that’s breaching across all those different boundaries in an organization.
And then back to business value product managers, we’ve got the same problem in the data world. Right now organizations after hiring 20 or 30 data engineers have realized that they’re all busy swimming, but adding no value and they get rid of some of them. No matter what role you do, you’ve got to show value to the organization because when times are hard, the ones that are showing value get to stay.
Gets me onto this thing that we’ve had for a while, which is in some roles, there is a craft and there’s apprenticeship and there’s a learning path. And then some of the newer roles like Agile Coaches and like Product Managers, not so much. Like you said, there are lots of online places you can go to learn. There is some education coming out of the universities to a degree. Lots of books, lots of podcasts, but is there really a craft right now or are we still forming it. I think we’re probably still forming it. Cause everybody’s got a different opinion on what a product manager does and that’s part of the problem. So, my key takeaway, if you’re a product manager and you’re not doing the, pricing you’re doing it wrong. How about you Murray?
Murray: It’s interesting you’re talking about career and craft because Procter Gamble did have all that back in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s. They’ve probably still got it now, but it was consumer products and we’re mainly talking about technical products, SAS products and so on. When I learned about product, it came from the, Procter Gamble school.
But a lot of things in tech they just ignore what everybody else has done and just make it all up again for themselves.
So, I definitely think that a product manager should have Shared commercial responsibility for profit customer value and growth and delivery. It’s a CEO of the product or the orchestra conductor.
I see a real tension between what the thought leaders in the space are saying and what people are experiencing in companies. So, people like Marty Kagan they’re saying, yeah, product management is super important. Empowered product teams, cross functional. You’ve got all these people talking about continuous discovery, continuous delivery, Everybody agrees that’s the future. You see all these product managers going to these courses and learning all this stuff and then going back to their company and told No, shut up and just write some tickets
60 percent of them are looking for another job according to a survey I saw recently on LinkedIn So, yeah, there’s a real tension between What it should be and what it is. There’s too much ego, maybe in the executive ranks where they just want a product manager who does what they’re told and just delivers stuff. Maybe they don’t respect the craft. But there’s quite a lot of unhappiness in the field because of that.
Jason: That point about the thought leaders. If you write a book about product management you’re going to have a position. You can’t just sit there and say, this might not work, on page one, because then people aren’t gonna buy the book, right? I think Inspired is a wonderful book. I think Empowered is a wonderful book. I’ve spoken to Marty about the books, and on the podcast, and when you talk to, people like Marty or Teresa Torres from the Continuous Discovery Camp they all say, this doesn’t work all the time, because, there are lots of really dysfunctional companies out there, that don’t believe in this and Marty said these companies have to believe that this new way is the way. If they don’t, then they’re gonna struggle to do the way.
When I spoke to Theresa Torres, she was like yeah, no, absolutely, some companies ain’t gonna get to speak to people once every week, because of whatever reasons. But how could you speak to them more than you’re speaking to them today? And if you try and do it, maybe you don’t get all the way there, but at least you get somewhere better than where you started. I don’t want a book that says, oh yeah, just try and do it a little bit better and you might be fine because that’s not inspiring. Let’s have an aspirational goal. And something that I say to PMs all the time, is don’t beat yourself up if there was something that you had to do that wasn’t on a page of one of those books or was opposite to one of the things in that book. Sometimes you just got to do what you got to do, but as long as you’re net improving and trying to get things, it goes back to that status quo thing, right? Don’t just sit there doing the same things that you’ve always been doing and complaining that they’re not working. There are approaches that you can take. You should at least try them, and if they don’t work, don’t use them again. Or if you have to adapt them, then adapt them.
Murray: All right. Now, where can people find out more about your thinking, Jason?
Jason: They can follow me on linkedIn. It’s Jason Knight. I could read out the whole URL, but I’m sure you could hopefully put it in the show notes. I’ve also got my own podcast, One Night In product, Knight with a K. That’s been going for about three years now, and I’ve interviewed a bunch of different people. So definitely recommend people go to that. And there’s also links off of that site for things like newsletters and slack channels, and there’s all these other places where I’m trying to hang out and just have conversations with people. That’s all basically linked off of OneNightInProduct. com. There’s a course that we’re planning to start running in January to help B2B product managers be successful. You can find that over there as well. And, tackle some of the problems that we’ve been talking about today.
Murray: I know people want to engage you for consulting.
Jason: So they can go to OneNightConsulting. com and they can see if there’s anything either that I can do for them or any people that I can refer them to.
Murray: All right. Thank you very much for coming on, Jason.
Jason: Thanks for having me, and it’s been a pleasure.
Murray: That was the No Nonsense Agile Podcast from Murray Robinson and Shane Gibson. If you’d like help to create high value digital products and services, contact murray at evolve. co. That’s evolve with a zero. Thanks for listening.
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