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.

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