How Adaptable Product Managers Can Drive Success

Product managers sit at the crossroads of adaptation

As a product manager, if you are doing your job right, you are never bored. That is, if you are properly shepherding initiatives from conception to launch and through iterations of continuous improvement and growth, if you are monitoring the market and constantly scanning the competitive environment, if you are partnering across the organization to pitch new ideas and create new value, if you are meeting with customers and better understanding their goals and challenges, then you should be busy.

Product managers sit at the crossroads of every key decision in the lifecycle of an organization’s key initiatives.  And in a world of increasing changes in technologies, markets, audiences, competitors, governance, supply chains, and so many more trends, successful adaptation is more critical than ever.

If product managers are good at their job, then they are critical in helping to do the most important work of figuring out how your products should adapt to this steady stream of knowns, unknowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. It’s a messy world, and product managers are there to help organizations harness the mess and thrive in change.

Good product managers are tracking all the right signals

As an effective product manager, you are on top of the metrics and the signals. You are keeping a watch on the heartbeat of the product. You are watching the market and the industry. And you are opening your mind open to the trends and themes in the wider world that could affect your team.

You are the one who is supposed to be pulling this all together and providing the space to consult and interpret the information. You are also the one who they trust to keep watch as they charge forward and build the future.

Good product managers are framing the decisions for the team 

In addition to taking in all that important information, and filtering out all the noise, a good product manager is framing the next set of decisions for the team to make.

It is important here that we use the word ‘framing’ instead of ‘making’ those decisions. Framing is about setting things up in a fair, transparent, and effective way so that the decisions can be made with confidence and cohesion. It is about ensuring people have the information, know the risk, and accept the responsibility together. With the right framing, the product team has unity. And with unity, the product team can achieve greatness together.

It’s also important to note that unity is not conformity. Product team unity is more than its parts, not a combination of its parts. Being an empowered team means everyone is obligated to share their opinions, their fears, their skepticisms, and their concerns along with their enthusiasm, excitement, and options. The discussion should include a healthy and vibrant dialog.

But once a decision is made, everyone must learn to move forward to discover the future together. Empowered team members either agree and commit, or they disagree and commit. But disagreeing, stalling, pouting, and undermining efforts are not an option. This is what destroys unity and ruins the whole thing.

Without a balance between these two elements of open consultation against unity of effort, there can be no empowered team. It is especially the product manager’s job to ensure this balance is maintained.

Good product managers have what they need to feel like a community

Humans are social creatures. As much as your introverted programmer or self-absorbed and awkwardly opinionated designer might pretend, they crave community as much as anyone else.

Don’t believe me? Go look at the social ratings and comments on StackOverflow, the feedback on dribbble, and the encouragement on 500px. Still don’t believe me, go to a Star Trek or a Comic-Con convention, and tell me that these geeks don’t want to be somewhere they feel like they belong.

As a product manager, you have the power to drive adaptation

Successfully adapting organizations to our changing world is not something one person can do in an ivory tower. It takes a clear-eyed awareness of the situation, a deep mutual trust in your teams, and a collective willingness to go where the winds of change are blowing in order to succeed.

Even if a company doesn’t adopt something like the Adaptable Product Framework formally, I sincerely believe that an effective product manager can do great work by employing its principles on his or her team.

The fact is, I’ve been on teams where I have put in the effort. Usually, it’s those times that have led to some of the most rewarding experiences of my career.

But I also have to admit that I’ve also been on teams where it was a lot harder to do, and maybe I didn’t put in the effort. We shipped, but it felt routine and mechanical. It wasn’t fun. The results didn’t resonate. And we never bonded.

I highly recommend putting in the effort. It’s much more fun. 

The fact is, you as a product manager have everything you need to create a healthy community out of your team and your audiences, which is a critical element to adapting to our changing world. And there has never been a more important time to do that.

Adaptable Product Organizations

How do you create an adaptable product organization? 

Most product managers can’t decide how our organizations officially will ‘do product’. So we do our best to ship with the team we have. This can work. We can still ship good stuff. We can move things forward. We can get some solid wins. And we can build some great friendships and help people do amazing work together.

But what if you ARE the boss?

Some of you are leaders of product organizations. Some of you DO have the authority to set up new product processes and systems. So for you, I have some advice I’d like share. Hopefully it gives you a few things to think about.

If you are going to reorg, commit to making it more than a change of names

My first suggestion is to set the right expectations.  A reorg can be a big deal. You have a chance to reset an improve things. You can make everyone’s days much better.  Please take it seriously. Don’t just change the names, rename some divisions, and call it done. Don’t expect the new leader with a bunch of new meetings to do all the heavy lifting. In my experience, the names and meetings don’t really matter that much (unless you are promoting an asshole… then you are committing to blowing it). In most situations, to change names and meetings without taking an opportunity to improve processes and methods is just window dressing.

So if you are ready to make real change, read on.

As a leader, realize your job has to change if you want to be adaptable

I hate to break it to you, but you are not in your position because you have unusually insightful product instincts. If you did, then you probably would have started Facebook before Mark (unless you are the Winkyvoss Twins, which you did actually start Facebook before Mark, but that’s another story).

So why ARE you here? I think you are in your job because someone trusted you. They trusted you to lead. They trusted you to empower. And they trusted you to get the most from your teams.

So how do you do that?

I can first tell you how you probably should NOT do that. You should not plan to get the most from your teams by inserting yourself into the middle of the whole process to assert your new authority.

Sure, you may be new. You may need to learn the business and the technology and the customers, but there are more productive ways to do it then becoming a bottleneck. You should not start second-guessing your team. You should not start asking them to get your signoff for every important decision. And you should definitely not treat them like idiots who need your wisdom and opinions on every initiative.

This is obvious, but it is important to be reminded of it. Even I fall back on some of these patterns from time to time. It’s very easy since it can feel like our teams are begging us for guidance on everything — especially once we start dispensing it.

The fact is, leadership can mess with our heads. We come in and see all the problems. People dump them on us and want us to do something about it. We see people ‘begging’ for our guidance and we easily start to think it must be because our guidance is especially valuable.

In my experience, if people are begging us to unblock them, then it is more likely because we have become a bottleneck. In this situation, we have effectively dis-empowered our teams. Which is obviously the opposite of what we should be doing.

As a leader, we should watch out for situations where people are hanging on our every word. This might be satisfying for the ego, but I think it is a sign of a bigger problem — and that problem is you!

Understand your new job leading an adaptable product organization

So what should you do? You get the best from your teams by unleashing them!

That is, you are there to give them a general framework for making decisions, a vague sense of the destination they should be going, just-enough resources and just enough time (or maybe less if you want to see them get creative) — and you let them go!

You need to trust them to do their jobs. And then you follow up to make sure you are challenging, supporting, and appreciating them. This is really what the Adaptable Product Framework is all about.

I’ve seen many product leaders excited to finally become directors and VPs. Many of them seem to think that it is finally their turn to call the shots. Now they can build the things they thought we should build in the way they thought those products should be built. Now they get an audience for all their opinions.

Unfortunately, it’s not going to work. Let me tell you why.

The reality is that you are not perfect and you are not getting this promotion to be the product guru with all the answers. Your ideas aren’t better than anyone else’s. Actually, your ideas might be a bit less informed because you are further from the front lines.

I think the old adage of ‘what got you here, won’t get you there’ is especially true. So many product leaders don’t know that when they get into leadership, now that they are in charge of empowering product teams, and so they have to change their job. They are not there to push their favorite features and pet projects. They are now in their role to empower product teams by giving them what they need to win.

So what do you do as a leader of an adaptable product org?

You can use the framework to make sure teams are truly autonomous and have whatever they need to achieve their mission (which you have helped ensure is clearly defined for them).

You can make sure they have asked the existential questions, that they have chosen good metrics and have thought through scenarios with them.

You can ensure that they are taking time to reset their plans in a safe space. You can ensure they are dealing with setbacks and challenges in a positive way.

You can ensure they are setting their own healthy constraints that will push them to launch.

And you can ensure they are learning and growing together as a team.

It’s not that hard, you just have to let go of the details and become the awesome empowering product leader you wish you had when you were in the trenches.

To conclude… as a product leader, in order to create an adaptable organization, you have to let go

Once you let go, you allow your people figure things out for themselves. Will some people complain? Yes. They will. That’s to be expected if they are likely moving from a world where they were spoon fed projects and features from on-high to a world where they have to figure things out on their own.

Will some people freak out now that the inmates are running the asylum? Yes. That’s to be expected, especially from the glue people who don’t know what to do with themselves anymore.

It’s a new world. Embrace it. Once you see how much more engaged your adaptable product teams are in their work, you will see how important it is to give your people the frameworks, the resources, and the space they need to fly.

Why You Need An Adaptable Product Strategy

How do you plan in a world of continuous change?

The world of product strategy is a struggle. You don’t need me to tell you that. You know that the pace of change has accelerated to blistering speeds. New technologies are disrupting older technologies faster than ever. Economies are on the brink. Jobs are being destroyed and created. Governments are in flux. Regulators are getting more active. Globalization is growing, contracting, and evolving at the same time. 

You know that you need to stay close to your customers and respond to trends and challenges faster than they can on their own. But you also know that customers with near infinite choice are becoming more fickle, more lazy, and more unforgiving.

As always, the competition is fierce. Your competitors know that the winners are likely to take all, and many of them are ready to play dirty to get there. VC funds prop up new startups to compete with you seemingly overnight. And of course, the big companies continue to threaten to crush you at every corner.

In this business, you know that being a little bit paranoid as a product manager is healthy. You expect the struggle. If it were easy, then anyone could do our jobs. And we know that’s not true.

The question we should ask ourselves is not how to guide our lazy little boat that will find an easy way through the storms of the world today, but rather, how do we create a kickass ship that can sail out and meet all these challenges head on?

I believe that as product leaders, our number one job is to be ready to lead our team to victory no matter what we find out there. That means we have to be truly adaptable in our approach, our methods, and our processes. We have to expect the unexpected. To do that, we have a plan to make adjustments as we learn.

In order to win, we have to harness courage and build unity in our teams, because in our crazy new world, fortune favors the brave. If favors the resilient. It favors the unified. And it favors the leaders who are honest with themselves and their teams about reality.

Adaptation is the story of thriving in change

When we look at adaptation in nature, we see that the members of a species that adapt best to a changing world are the ones who win. When the summers get hotter, the adaptations that preserve water are the ones that win. When the winters get colder, the adaptations that preserve energy are the ones that win. Adaptation is the story not just of survival. It the story of winning and thriving in a new reality.

Adaptable product strategies are stories of willing flexibility

Product strategy is a funny thing. Many authors and academics will offer you full-featured definitions of the concept of having a product strategy that covers all your bases, anticipates changes, starts with just the right minimum capabilities and adapts to signals and evolves. Some of those definitions are even helpful.

For our purposes, though, we will keep it simple. When we talk about having an adaptable product strategy, we’re talking about having a plan for making adjustments to changes in the environment. These changes could be from outside or the inside of an organization. They could be changes in the customers, in the market, or in the technologies employed. They could come from governments, social movements, or complementing services. Wherever they come from, the adaptable product strategy is waiting for them. It’s asking for them. It’s begging them to come in so we can climb on board and ride new waves and have fun doing it.

The reality is, change comes at product leaders from every direction. But this doesn’t mean we should give up on planning for the long game. It just means we need a multi-leveled long game plan that builds in the necessary measures to adapt. What we need is a plan to change, not a change of plans.

To create a plan to change, you need to unify and empower your team, build in the signal tracking, set up milestones to make adjustments, and establish the expectation that change is not just necessary, it is welcome, energizing, challenging, and fun!

Adaptable strategies are a full team exercise

Crafting an adaptable product strategy is not a one-time workshop activity to be carried out by some guru with all the answers and none of the responsibilities. An adaptable approach requires the entire product team to buy into playing the long game. It requires every brain to be activated and engaged in the process. The adaptable product leader is not there to sail the ship on her own. The adaptable product leader is there to bring the team together, to agree on a course together, to filter information coming in together, to create space to evaluate options together, and to ensure the team has what it needs to take on whatever happens — together.

The Adaptable Product Framework is a way to think about planning for change

And so while there is no crystal ball to help you perfectly plan every feature of your product strategy, I believe there are tools and methods that can help.

Like many product managers, I love to collect frameworks, canvases, and models. Each one usually has merit. Each one offers a different way to see, process, and take action in the world. But each one is often based on a different set of circumstances and a different stage of the organization’s development. And so each one needs to be looked at objectively before it is adopted.

The Adaptable Product Framework is my contribution to the conversation. It is designed for use within existing organizations that need a systematic approach for adapting to rapid changes in the environment. It blends concepts of fostering an open and transparent culture of analysis, harnessing the principles of true team empowerment, and driving collective learning.

This framework is something I’ve been working on for over 20 years. It was developed by pulling together the tools that I’ve seen actually work. It is something I’ve used every day. I’ve mostly employed it informally at large and small companies, but it should be something your organization can adopt at any level.

And so I’ve finally made the time to write some of this down and start sharing it with others. My hope is that it can help inspire other product managers to achieve more with their teams, and have more fun doing their jobs.

You can learn more about the framework on this site. But my request is that if you do find it useful, sign up for our mailing list, follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn, track how it evolves over time, and let us know how it is affecting your career–and hopefully–your organization. 

Learn more about the Adaptable Product Framework