As someone who has been deeply involved in digital product for more than a decade, I’ve developed a strong intuition about what makes a great digital experience. I’ve worked in the trenches alongside tech and design. I’ve run countless usability sessions with end users. I’ve created deck after deck explaining great product design to countless executives. That experience has taught me how to be great at managing digital products and is a reason I’m a digital product leader today. Even so, with all of those reps, I still struggle every day to be great at leading teams of digital product managers.
Our job as product leaders is to bring problems to solve to our teams, not prescriptive solutions for them to add to a task list. That took me a while to learn. Interestingly enough, it was all the background I had of working down in the weeds, the product muscle memory that I had developed, that led me to believe that I had to be the person that had all the answers. And I needed to dictate those answers to my teams so that we drove the right outcomes. That approach was not only wrong, it was directly impacting the success I thought I was driving—especially around ensuring we were meeting the value expectation of the broader business.
That’s my job, right? Reduce risk. Hit business objectives. Ship excellent product.
I came into the product leader role with those assumptions because I’ve seen how companies value the products we create so differently than the people that are creating them. Having a strong business case for a digital product is paramount to ensuring their long-term success. For the most part, economics tend to dominate over altruism. Given that inherent pressure on ensuring anything we launch provides measurable business value, my predilection was to reduce risk of the unknown by being more prescriptive to the product teams about the “what” we are delivering. But trying to mitigate risk in that way is a fool’s errand. It is also antithetical to what digital product teams are great at: solving complicated user problems.
When done right, product teams are purposely comprised of humans across various disciplines who care deeply about the user and creating great experiences. They are motivated by the ability to shape and define the work, and to create the types of experiences that are meaningful and impactful. So, while I was trying to reduce risk and coach the team toward the answer, they felt like I was approaching the problem in a totally prescriptive way and removing the ability for them to truly own the product.
In short, bringing them the solution was telling them I didn’t trust them to do their job and it took all of the incentive away to try and create something truly remarkable—and it takes something remarkable to drive that business value I thought I was protecting.
Becoming a better product leader is a similar journey to being a great product team member. Listen to the customer (the team). Trust your instincts but verify your assumptions. Communicate to an almost annoying level. Be OK with not knowing the answer. Be brave enough to ask for help. Learn to stop fearing failure. Most importantly, remind yourself why you are doing the work in front of you. As a product team member, that means keeping the user and their experience at the core of how you shape the work. As product leader, it means keeping the team and their development at the core of how you shape the work. It’s kind of like one big trust fall. And if you are working with people as talented and incredible as I have been lucky enough to lead, they’ll catch you. Every. Single. Time.