For us product people, it is hard to fathom that a company would resist being “product-led,” but recently, I’ve had conversations with people who react negatively to the term. Detractors take it to mean that the priority is to build great and beautiful products, but financial concerns (costs and profitability) and commercial concerns (sales targets and growth) are secondary.
Larger companies with a history of being sales-driven are most sensitive to this and will argue that financial goals and obligations, either to Wall Street or venture backers, must be the company’s highest priority.
Being product-led helps drive a company’s financial targets - a successful and well-managed product can ultimately be the company’s growth driver. However, words have impact, and even if our definition of product-led is in lockstep with a company’s financial goals, if it creates push-back, don’t use it!
Everything you do as a product leader can still drive a product-led culture…just call it something else. Here are some suggestions on key focus areas that will be accepted and appreciated by all product team members and stakeholders:
Define your north star and goals… as a team
A simple 1-2 page visual template representing where the product will go over the next 3-5 years is an invaluable artifact. Even more important is the opportunity to build this over a few sessions with your product team’s critical stakeholders: design, research, analytics, engineering, product marketing, and sales.
As a product manager, you can guide the conversation and prepare materials and pre-reads, but ensure that everyone’s voice carries equal weight and contributes to the final north star. Doing this the first time is hard, but refreshing it each year after that becomes a much more fun activity.
I typically like to include north star elements such as customer problem statements, key customer benefits, bold vision statement, riskiest assumptions, addressable market, business model, and key metrics.
Find more ways to test and experiment
Many commercial teams will still lead with features - what can I bring to my customers to show them that we’re progressing with the product and shipping new cool things they might want. I have seen and been part of this “feature factory” type of mentality, and it’s a real challenge since much of what gets built never actually gets used by the customer and clutters up the UI and tech stack.
Rather than jump to features you think customers want, design more low-impact, rapid tests to validate an idea or hunch, and partner with product marketing to give a good set of talking points about what you are doing and why it matters for customers for your sales team to use with prospects.
Talk to your customers
Companies that struggle to become product-led often have a history of their product managers not having direct contact with customers. This is a culture-change opportunity - the product manager and researcher should know as much about the customer needs as anyone else in the organization.
Have meetings and calls where you can share ideas, sketches, or concepts the customer can react to and spark a good conversation - seek out their problems, and incorporate that into the roadmap where it makes sense.
Be a good storyteller
As a product leader, you have the opportunity to tell a continuous narrative within your organization about how the product is performing, customer outcomes, and what the product team is learning as it goes.
Be concise, data-driven, and engaging, and act as an advocate for the customer while always calling out impact and pacing on product revenue and costs. Doing this will naturally evolve your culture to one that’s customer-driven.
Leadership: step aside
As a product leader, if you foster a culture of collaboration and good, continuous communication, you will not need leadership to step in and make decisions - your product team can work through it independently.
As you storytell, explain what key decisions were made and why - bring your stakeholders along and invite them to raise questions or react to the work - this will allow for your team to move more quickly and more autonomously.
The above are critical steps to transform change and bring your company in a more product-led direction. Collaboration, customer focus, experimentation, smart goal setting, and storytelling are critical activities to get there - create whatever label for this within your organization that fosters excitement - “product-led,” “customer-driven,” “self-empowered teams,” “growth drivers,” - the label is far less important than the way of working!