Interview: Leading Agile Teams with More Strategic Requirements

John-Mansour-1Interviewed by Jim Gallant

Products are product managers’ babies, so it’s hard to fault them when they can’t avert their gazes from their children’s features. But according to John Mansour, founder and managing partner at Proficientz, a firm that has developed and delivered product management (PM) training since 2001, this brand of single-minded devotion will stunt your baby’s growth.

In this interview, Mansour draws on his 25 years of experience in PM, marketing, sales, education, and consulting to reveal how to be a good parent can mold your offspring into a productive member of society.

On June 10, 2016, Mansour will lead the workshop “Leading Agile Teams with More Strategic Requirements,” at Workbar in Cambridge, MA, presented by BPMA.

This interview is edited and condensed from a longer phone conversation.

When did you realize that product teams were struggling and the answer was formal training?

The need existed long before Proficientz began in 2001, and the need continues to expand. In both the B2B and B2C worlds, technology is infiltrating more and more areas. Proficientz focuses on B2B, and that world has been impacted by today’s brand of consumerism. The need for product management best practices keeps growing because every company wants to get closer to its customers and markets to find what it can do to bring those customers greater value and drive their revenue growth.

You’ve noted that for years, the software industry has often struggled to break free of the P&G model for management of consumer packaged goods.

It’s specific to the B2B landscape. The biggest difference between the consumer product model, or what I refer to as “traditional product management”, and the B2B world, is that in B2B, products must be great and deliver value to the executive buyer. If products don’t provide strategic value to customers in the C-suite, they’re probably going to have a very short life span.

What is unique about B2B though, is that it’s hard to deliver strategic value with any one product. That’s why product teams must collaborate more and align behind a common view of the customer. In most B2B companies, especially in software, you’re selling to customers who want integrated products because they want to further integrate their businesses. As a result, the traditional model in which each product manager works in a silo and tries to make his or her product great doesn’t align with how customers run their businesses. Customers don’t look at their businesses in the way many B2B companies have structured their product management teams.

For example, customers may be trying to integrate HR, Finance, IT, and Operations, all these different functions, and they’re looking to product companies for solutions to help them do that. I think the biggest disconnect today is the difference between how B2B companies structure their product management teams and how customers want to buy and use the products. Our whole philosophy is that you have to align your product management team in a way that mirrors how customers do business and have a much deeper understanding of what they’re trying to accomplish from the top down. Product management teams must build multi-product solutions that address customers’ strategic needs that are beneficial to the right users. Otherwise, these products won’t hit their mark and make an impact.

On several occasions, you’ve said that too many companies create buyer personas that aren’t deep enough and that they should be developing “organizational” personas. Can you elaborate?

When you mention a buyer persona, most people think about the CIO, CFO, or some other executive. Not every CIO or CFO wants or needs the same things, though, and I think that’s where the train tends to go off the tracks. Buyer personas have to be very industry-specific. All CFOs want greater revenue and profitability; that’s the generic part. But the CFO of a healthcare provider has very different challenges than the CFO of a retailer because the dynamics of their industries are so different.

Too often industry-specific buyer personas are completely ignored. When most people create buyer personas, they go generic. For example, all heads of HR want to attract and retain top talent. There’s a lot of truth in that statement, but it doesn’t get to the heart of what products must do to help these buyers accomplish something beyond the obvious.

Too often there’s a disconnect because product management teams are structures to consider industry-specific dynamics, like whether there’s a shortage or abundance of labor or people with the right skills within that market.

What’s the best way the executives of a product company can align with and support its product organization?

This biggest thing for me – and for product companies today – is this: products are how we make money, so inside a product company, the starting point of every decision and how the company is structured centers on how “we make money.” Instead, product managers first must think about how to make their customers successful, what their customers are struggling with, and what’s stopping them from achieving success.

Over the past 15 years, I’ve seen a handful of my clients do well from day one and grow their businesses organically. The common denominator? They put the success of their customers first and figure out how to use their products and services to grow profitably making those customers successful. This approach forces a totally different mindset. It breeds a whole new culture instead of one in which the product team is told by senior management that it must meet a 30% growth target. That’s an inside-out mentality. The best approach is outside-in.

Greater Boston is home to many incubators and startups. For brilliant people with big ideas starting companies, what do you recommend they do to ensure they’re customer- and user-focused out of the gate?

The first and most important thing is that they have to identify their target customer – very specifically. A lot of startups begin with a technology or tool they think applies to “every company with an IT department” or “every company that needs data security.” That’s a generic application. My advice is to pick an industry where this innovation or solution can have the greatest impact. Find out what the biggest obstacles to success are in one market segment, get good at removing those obstacles and grow from there.

The mistake many startups make is spreading themselves too thin right off the bat because they want to land their first few customers. So they go out and get a bank as a customer, and then a telecom company. They customize the product for those two separate industries and then go after a retailer. Before you know it, they’re being dragged in three completely different directions, and everything just collapses under all that weight.

What should the role of the product owner be versus the product manager? It seems to be poorly understood.

There’s a big distinction since the advent of the product owner in the Agile environment. In response, the role of the product manager must change significantly, and that’s where a lot of companies run into ambiguity, with product owners and product managers stepping on each other’s toes. The #1 competency of a product owner is to be the surrogate user. I refer to them as “process experts”. They need to understand, thoroughly, the jobs of the people who use their product.

Let’s say a product is designed for customer service representatives at a call center. As product owner, you have to understand what these people do, how they do their jobs, their responsibilities, and how they’re measured. You must understand all these things even better than your product because you’re the one sitting with the engineering team all day, helping them design the product’s usability. If you don’t grasp how these people do their jobs, you’ll miss the target. Understanding the user is the biggest responsibility of the product owner.

In most Agile environments, you have a dedicated product owner, which makes the role of the product manager less about the product and more about the market. If I’m a product manager, I should be looking more at market trends and how they’re driving various practices and behaviors.

I’ll stick with call center example. How is the nature of call centers changing within various markets, and how does that impact the role of customer service reps and the new challenges they face? Again, for the product manager, it’s less about day-to-day product stuff and more about the how the landscape is shifting for the customers they serve, in their particular profession. For product managers, it’s more about framing the big picture and areas of focus than about addressing products at a tactical level via roadmaps, sprints, and backlogs.

What’s your biggest reward when people update their processes?

I love it when Proficientz clients take our framework and use it to fundamentally change what they do for the better. I just got back from visiting the Orange County Product Management Association where two of our clients spoke in a town hall format. One client was in charge of product management at his company, the other in charge of product marketing at an unrelated company. Both said that Proficientz has changed how they look at their customers, and it has changed everything they do. For example, when asking for funding in strategic planning meetings, they now focus on market issues and customer issues at a business level, without mentioning their product! That really resonated with their executives, engineers, and sales people.

One gentleman’s company serves the power transmission industry. He said his company was headed down the wrong road with an entire product line until it stepped back and looked at the market using the Proficientz framework. Luckily they had the time to backtrack and take that product line in a different direction. Initially they we were thinking about power companies’ needs for greater capacity and higher transmission rates. But the landscape of the industry today has changed due to the many alternative sources of power, and as a result, these companies are focusing more on how to cut costs. That recognition helped my client move in the right direction strategically. It wouldn’t have happened without that big-picture market perspective.

In product management, we must understand market dynamics better than we understand our products, and that should drive us. It’s a very hard shift for most of us because we eat, sleep, breathe, and live products 24/7. When I see product management professionals make that transition to this way of thinking and make it work, that’s my reward.

Speaking of product management associations, tell me about their value and the benefit of events like ProductCamp?

They’ve had an enormous impact. Back in the mid ‘90s when I was a product manager, none of these organizations existed. Our profession was pretty much unknown. I’ve been working with Boston Product Management Association since ‘02 and with others around the country, including the Orange County Product Managers association, and I chaired the product management society in Atlanta for a while, too. These various organizations have been instrumental in raising the awareness of product management globally!

Ten or 12 years or so ago, if you brought up product management, senior executives asked, “What’s that?” Today, all over the world, local associations and ProductCamps, for our profession, they’ve done wonders for making our profession so well-known.

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