When can product managers be creative?

Product management, especially for modern digital products, is an analytical pursuit. All that user behaviour data, market analysis data, and scientific approach means that the majority of a product managers job involves analytical thinking and rational decision-making.

But there are times when a product manager needs to apply some creative thinking.

Analysis can show what the problem is, but creativity is needed to think of ways to solve it. Analysis can show which feature isn’t performing as expected, but creativity is needed to find the changes that will make it achieve.

The Double Diamond innovation process shows stages of divergent and convergent thinking. Any time I’ve seen anyone using it, their focus has been on the four stages rather than the different ways of thinking during the stages, so I think the power of switching between analytical and creative thinking gets lost, but it is a real skill. And knowing when to switch is essential for good product management.

Different teams for different work

Every cross-functional team should have the skills it needs to complete the work. That’s important for achieving a fast flow rate of work because the team doesn’t have to wait on contributions from outside.

Every team, to have a complete skill set that means it doesn’t have to go outside itself, needs all of the roles that make up a cross-functional team. That might include product, delivery, content, design, development, testing, etc.

The problem with every team being the same is that work is never the same.

Some work might require design but not content. Other work might require lots of development but not so much design.

Perhaps the solution is to have different team templates, still cross-functional, but with predefined focus on certain types of work.

One team could have the skills to do more new product development work, another be skilled in optimising existing products, and another particularly good at customer service or payment capabilities.

These teams shouldn’t be set up to be ‘the payments team’, for example, they should just have the skills that enable them to do that kind of work well.

What does it mean to be user-centred?

Google, “Define user-centred” and almost all of the results will be about user-centred design. But for an organisation to be truly user-centred, user-centredness can’t be only about design. User-centredness must run deeper.

There are multiple lists of principles for user-centredness, and many are designed focus, but here are a few that seem like they could extend beyond design.

  • Understand users – including the context of use and user needs.
  • Make interaction easy – however users interact with an organisation, be consistent, solve problems so users don’t have to.
  • Create a dialogue – frequent involvement of users, taking feedback onboard.
  • Change over time – keep pace with users and their changing needs.

What if we started from nothing

What if you started work tomorrow morning with no outcomes or goals, no design process or project plan, and was told, “Do some good”.

Where would you start? What would you do?

With complete freedom to start from scratch you could be open minded, pick any problem to solve, any goal to achieve, design a completely new way of working, create something free from the constraints of existing mindsets.

What would I do..?

What teams need to work together

There’s lots research that supports a cognitive foundation to teamwork.

Team cognition is critical to effective teamwork and team performance. The current working definition of team cognition encompasses the organised structures that support team members to acquire, distribute, store, and retrieve critical knowledge. An ability to share crucial information, and know where in the team unique knowledge resides, allows members to anticipate and execute actions as a unit rather than as individuals.

The research indicates that three of the most important contributors to high-performing teams are:

  • social category heterogeneity – team members are different from one another in a number of significant respects.
  • high external interdependence – team members interacting with each other influence one another’s experiences.
  • low authority differentiation – team members have the same status, influence and power within the team.

Team cognition emerges through team learning and team member interaction.

Theory of constraints and continuous improvement

Continuous improvement offers a structured approach to achieving product goals.

It’s based on Godratt’s Theory of constraints which says that every goal has one biggest barrier. It probably has other barriers too, but it only has one biggest barrier. Identifying and removing that barrier has the biggest impact on achieving the goal. Once the biggest barrier has been removed, then the second biggest barrier becomes the biggest, and so on until the goal is as close to being achieved as it can be.

Often there comes a point where the gains from removing progressively smaller barriers are no longer worth the effort, and the product has reached maximum optimisation.

This approach to the continuous improvement of a product focuses on solving the biggest problems first.

Individual, team and organisational culture

For a team to be successful it needs individual expectations, behaviours, etc., team culture and organisational culture to be continually realigning as each evolves.

Success for leaders then, could be defined as facilitating that continual cultural realignment, taking into account all of the different actors and all the changes with each of them.

We can’t think about individual team members in isolation from the rest of the team or the rest of the organisation. Can’t think about the team as a unit in isolation from the organisation or other teams. And we can’t think of the organisation as something separate

This gives us a micro macro meso model where there is an exchange between all three that also changes all three. Everything is affected by everything else.

The challenge for the individuals is dealing with the dissonance between their own expectations and behaviours, the team culture and the organisational culture. And for leaders, who are of course also individuals, accepting that dissonance as a signal for the need for realigning.

Product outcomes depends on mental models

The fundamentals of the scientific model are that to understand how the world works we create a mental model and then test it against reality.

Achieving product outcomes depends on having a mental model about how things work in the world of the product. These will be unique to each product but might include supply and demand mechanics for a marketplace product or customer motivations for a dating product. Without that mental model, which has been tested and validated against the real world, setting outcomes is just guessing.

So, important work for product managers is to build up a mental model that helps them understand how their product truly operates. From this they can form the outcomes they want the product to achieve.

Standards to assess products

Good products are:

  • Accessible
  • Cost-efficient
  • Data usage
  • Ethical
  • Maintainable
  • Managable
  • Performant
  • Private
  • Safe
  • Secure
  • Sustainable
  • Usable

Naturally occurring work in progress limits

If work is waiting 90% of the time, then only work is ever in progress for 10% of time. Does this impediment to flow create naturally occurring work-in-progress limits?

Work can be waiting for all kinds of reasons. It can be waiting for approval, waiting for someone to become free to pick it up, moving between roles.

Reducing the time work is waiting is one way to reduce the time it takes to get value from that work. But sometimes that isn’t possible, so it’s necessary to work without applied work-in-progress limits.

How we define ‘in progress’ matters. Is work in progress if it has started but isn’t finished? Or is work in progress if it has been started, is actively being worked on, but isn’t finished? In which case, work that isn’t being actively worked on is ‘work in waiting’.

One perspective sees time spent ‘in waiting’ as waste. If that work was finished sooner, then more value would be realised from it.

But, having work ‘in waiting’ creates a natural limit to work-in-progress.