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Academy Xi Blog

Why Product Management is having a moment right now

By Academy Xi

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We asked a group of talented product specialists for their take on why 2021 saw product management continue to gain momentum in business.

Key themes include: 

  • Kinesthetic learning
  • Storytelling
  • Product Management role ‘archetypes’
  • Problem definition and articulation
  • Hiring strategies
  • Good humour

Anton Stout – Senior Product Designer, Myer

Anton is also a Founder of Clue Group which creates tools and strategies to support Experience Designers.

There has been a huge spike in the demand for product management in recent years. How would you describe the trajectory it is on?

It’s certainly a busy time for Product Managers, and it’s not likely to change soon as the demand for digital offerings has increased. For business, it’s simply been a question of survival. If they never had a digital presence or operated under a lackluster digital strategy, lockdowns have changed all that.

It goes without saying those already invested in digital saw a significant uptick in demand through digital channels, putting downward pressure on team capacity as backlogs started to fill up.

The rapid hiring of digital talent has seen teams balloon, calling on greater people management skills. This lands squarely at the feet of the Product Manager.

What are the three most valuable skills any Product Manager can have?

First, it’s all about the people. Without a doubt, your most important skill is communication. Communicating clearly and frequently in terms of performance, bottlenecks, and workarounds to key stakeholders and equally co-ordinating and keeping the team focused on the right tasks is critical.

Second, lean heavily on your area of expertise. Those with design, engineering, architect, etc backgrounds will definitely find traction with team members that occupy those disciplines. It’s important to determine if the gravitas of the team’s challenges marry well to your area of expertise if you want to better guide team outcomes.

Third, release the pressure valve. It’s not all about hard business skills. Good humor is a hidden superpower of great Product Managers. You need to let go and inject a few laughs into the process, knowing when and how to do that brings and keeps the team closer together is often an unrecognized talent.

Imagine you have been charged with growing the product management function of your business from scratch. What’s the first thing you do?

Make sure you have the right team for the job. If you have the opportunity, hit your network if you need a solid team, if the Job/Position Descriptions haven’t been written, ask yourself, who do I need that has done this (and done this well) already. While controversial, I’d want to know the hiring strategy and the skills/talent match based on the OKRs/desired project outcomes.

Performance is completely based on the team capability, if you don’t have a fortified cross-functional team, a clear resourcing pipeline and if you suffer from any team attrition you’re going to be underperforming.

Lai’i Dowsett – Senior Consultant, Product Development (previously Tesla, Apple)

La’i loves building new things. After graduating college in Boston and working in Silicon Valley, she returned to work in Australia in 2018 to be close to her family.

There has been a huge spike in the demand for product management in recent years. How would you describe the trajectory it is on?

Absolutely. And with this demand being driven by the pace of technology, increasing customer expectations and competition, businesses (tech & non-tech) realise their continued success will depend on building a more dynamic (broad and deep) level of ‘integrated competence’ and collaboration. Businesses don’t necessarily have the same luxury of time when it comes to R&D and launching new products to market. They need to test & learn quickly. As products and services become more sophisticated, the way we work, self-organise, and deliver value to customers has also had to evolve; a sharper operating rhythm and rapid adaptability to change is required to thrive. (Cue product management.)

I think there’s still a lot of change ahead with various PM role ‘archetypes’ evolving from different business’ needs (i.e. having a technical, strategic, and/or execution/delivery slant). This presents a lot of opportunity for people from diverse backgrounds to enter the Product space; customer support, marketing, and engineering are just a few functions that people can make natural pivots from.

What are the three most valuable skills any Product Manager can have?

First, communication. Articulating ideas and problems for different audiences, but also being able to collaborate with a diverse set of stakeholders. It’s important that a PM has the ability to move between strategic discussions and then quickly pivot and dive into detailed product work. Because PM is a fast-paced, multifaceted discipline, I’d say this is an underrated and very important skill.

Second, adaptability to change. Having a level of resilience, stick-with-it-ness and adaptability to change in the face of ambiguity is important. I think this is something learnt through exposure, being thrown in the deep-end, or being responsible for avoiding failure at all costs. As a result, exposing yourself to new environments/projects as frequently as possible could be a good start.

Third, problem solving. There will be many things you don’t know the answer to – but the job of a PM isn’t to know everything – it’s to know the questions to ask, and to strategise, prioritise and drive outcomes. A willingness to learn, genuine curiosity, and an appetite for wearing multiple hats/leaning into being a multi-faceted contributor is important.

Imagine you have been charged with growing the product management function of your business from scratch. What’s the first thing you do?

Once the problem you’re solving for and opportunity have been shaped, making a few initial, intentional technical/product hires is key (Tech lead, Engineering, Design). These will look very different depending on the problem you’re solving/product you’re building. However, finding a small founding team who can wear multiple hats is the starting point.

It comes down to this: when you don’t know the answers, you want to be in a room with people who 1) know the questions to ask, 2) have the perseverance and adaptability to change to keep breeze in the sail, and are 3) resourceful, curious, and reliable team players.

Zeke Condon – Business, Innovation & Product Consultant, Director & Founder, Telos PM

Zeke’s business, Telos PM, sees him launch media, & web mobile applications, deliver product go-to-market campaigns & consult on organisational-wide product transformation programs.

There has been a huge spike in the demand for product management in recent years. How would you describe the trajectory it is on?

Would you like to buy Tickets for a Rocketship anybody?

The joke at the beginning of the work-from-home was “Q: So who was responsible for driving your digital transformation? CEO, CTO, CIO, CPO? A: the global pandemic”. And it’s true. There has been more digital change in the past two years than any forecast x10 would ever have predicted. But the thing is, most of the corporations out there adopted existing technology – both for servicing their internal and their external facing customers.

Now that all of those businesses are coming out of lockdown, confidence is increasing and companies are realising the need to customise on top of the technology they have adopted, or are now in a much better state of digital readiness that they are ready to bring forward their big hairy audacious innovation goals. Likewise, consumers’ digital readiness is through the roof. Simple adoption trends like the humble QR code are opening up new markets for product interactions that were previously reserved for early adopting markets.

With all of this tech and innovation comes more competition, and then the new wave of understanding, adoption, and adoption of better product development and management principles. Someone has to drive all that change and product management is finally moving from niche tech companies to mainstream industry. Read more about the Product job market in The Enormous Growth of Product Management.

What are the three most valuable skills any Product Manager can have?

First, kinesthetic learning. It’s one thing to read or hear about something, but doing something yourself. It creates an entirely different mindset & set of insights that a product manager can product, plus it sets you up for the next skill.

Second, storytelling. It’s impossible to know every single data point and trend, let alone piece that all together into a coherent statement. There’s just not enough time. A PM who can instead tell a story about a customer experience, an observation of a trend in the market or articulate the patterns that make certain technologies work over others is most likely to elicit imagery and free thinking in those they work with. This is about empowering the teams to build on top of ideas and make them even better.

Third, coaching & mentoring. PM is one of those roles that has a ‘manager’ title, but (normally) nothing they are responsible for… but you are accountable for the results… so influence is a big factor in the success. A great way to influence others is to start by coaching & mentoring, being the selfless leader, putting the people ahead of you and sharing what you know and learn freely. A good coaching PM can create an entire product without ever making a decision, just asking good questions, listening deeply & intently to those around them.

Imagine you have been charged with growing the product management function of your business from scratch. What’s the first thing you do?

Invite the whole team to a full day treasure hunt somewhere in the city. There is no map, there are no instructions, there is no clear goal. They can’t ask me for advice or tips because I technically don’t exist, nobody knows what they are looking for and nobody tells them what tools they can use. All they get is a vague but powerful vision statement that tells the people who participate that at the end of the day everyone will be better off.

Then watch that team learn all about what it means to really understand what it means to be a team that is flying blind towards a vision.

Luke Hymers – Chief of Staff to CEO, Baraja

Luke leads executive, product and engineering operations at Baraja, a rapidly growing start-up which makes self-driving car technology.

There has been a huge spike in the demand for product management in recent years. How would you describe the trajectory it is on?

I think the perpetual trend is just masses of new product companies popping up solving old problems better with new tech. There is also greater appreciation for the mindset shift from one-dimensional focus to more ‘product thinking’ focused on value creation and outcomes for customers and the business. Increasingly you’re seeing this shift in functional/operational areas where the customer is the business but hasn’t been thought of that way before. In short, more people in more places are starting to think of more things “as a product” with an aim to inspire more innovation and impact.

What are the three most valuable skills any Product Manager can have?

Good product managers need to analyse, synthesize and define. They seek to understand the situation from all angles and can consolidate information to create coherent insight, clear vision, strategic narrative and focused direction. Those building blocks help determine the necessary decision points – what is priority, what is contentious, what needs to be communicated and what needs to be resolved. PM’s must also be exceptional communicators and ‘wood-chopping, water carrying’ leaders for their teams. But perhaps the most important role is simply being those eyes that see, distill and influence things across the business. Few roles have as broad and deep exposure as PM’s.

Imagine you have been charged with growing the product management function of your business from scratch. What’s the first thing you do?

One of my favourite pieces from MIT says that problem definition is ‘the most underrated skill in management’. Before you do anything or build anything, you need to deeply understand and articulate the problem(s) you’re trying to solve and know that they’re commercially meaningful enough to even need a product or product team! Paraphrasing Des Traynor – small, rare problems don’t make good foundations for products. There’s then the ‘plumbing’ which is critical to building impactful, motivated teams – you need to set clear strategic context. Marty Cagan’s new book ‘Empowered’ outlines a good framework for this: purpose, vision, strategy, KPIs/scorecard, measurable objectives, team ‘topography’ (structures, process and rhythms) – those are the guardrails which enable people to effectively focus on, explore and solve the right problems.

Tiffany McHugh – Head of Product (Learning), Academy Xi

Tiffany heads up Academy Xi’s Product function which is responsible for delivering cutting-edge, employment-driven learning experiences.

There has been a huge spike in the demand for product management in recent years. How would you describe the trajectory it is on?

Due to the global impact of COVID, digital transformation became a matter of survival for many companies. The rise in popularity of product management accompanies and facilitates these necessary and important digital changes. There is a growing need for skilled professionals who can drive rapid development of new products and services to meet the demands of established and new digital industries and tech-savvy customers.

At Academy Xi, we have seen a significant uplift in interest in studying Product Management. We’ve also noticed an increase in hiring partners looking for PM graduates, and we have observed a variety of tech-adjacent roles adding PM skills into their hiring mix. “Help! I can’t find good tech talent” is a good read which outlines the demand in the current job market. We expect this trend will continue for many years to come, and believe that the diverse commercial, strategic and technical skills that underpin product management are beneficial for many digital professionals, not just those titled as “Product Manager”. Check out our Product Management Elevate course.

What are the three most valuable skills any Product Manager can have?

First, analytical/strategic. Skilled at unearthing the “real problems” and opportunities. Second, pragmatic. Balancing the needs of the customer with the needs of the business. Third, persuasive and personable. Possessing the diplomacy to take on many (sometimes competing) perspectives, the capacity to understand the technical difficulties involved, and to motivate a team with a range of challenges towards a single unified outcome.

Imagine you have been charged with growing the product management function of your business from scratch. What’s the first thing you do?

First, understand the organisation’s digital strategy moving forward. Without a clear overarching mission, vision and strategic plan, product initiatives may remain unfocussed. It’s important to know what values most heavily influence business and product decisions. Cheapest, fastest, biggest, best? Know your company values and priorities.

Next it’s important to understand the capacity, skill and technical constraints of your teams from the outset. A product will only be as successful as the contributors that built, sold and supported it, so understand the capabilities that exist now, and the gaps that may need to be filled so you can find the right people to build the right products to meet the company’s goals.

Product Management can certainly occur in smaller companies without a dedicated product manager; cross-functional teams with good management (and a project owner) who collectively understand PM methodology can collaborate towards a unified goal. But as the business and projects scale up and evolve more rapidly, it makes sense to embed a PM professional (or more) to formalise and organise these collaborations. Better still, give your key people core product management training to allow them to practice key product planning moments in a safe environment. As to whether these teams follow agile ceremonies or formal PM processes will entirely depend on the nature of the work and organisation. As with any methodology, it is best to pick and choose the elements that suit the context of the business. It’s about overriding ‘business as usual’ thinking and not every tool and method in the PM textbook will be relevant in every business.

Want your business to harness a ‘product mindset’ to better solve problems? Why not give your key people a strong foundation in Product training?

Get in touch with us.