Is it Time for a Licence to Practise Product Management?

This article was first published on https://www.mindtheproduct.com/ on August 14, 2018

I recently came across a piece by Mike Monteiro, co-founder and design director of Mule Design, titled Design’s Lost Generation, in which he makes the case that designers should require a licence to do their job.

Mike got me thinking; should product managers also require a licence do their job? After all, we’re a sizeable professional community and having a product management certification or licence in place would ensure that all product managers comply with the same standards.

But is it even possible to standardise product management, and in any case would this be desirable?

The Case For Licensing and Certification

I started my working life as a corporate lawyer in The Netherlands, so I had to obtain a professional licence to do this job. Looking back on both my legal and my product management careers, and studying common product management challenges, I can see there are a number of reasons in favour of licensing and certification:

  • Seal of Approval — Your company’s product is likely to be in good hands if it’s being managed by a licensed product manager.
  • Recruiting Product Managers — You only recruit product managers with a licence and the appropriate certification.
  • Quality Control — Increased consistency of quality and professionalism among product managers, since they’ve all studied the same content and standards.
  • Increased Accountability — If product managers act unethically, their licences can be revoked.
  • Broader Understanding and Recognition of What Product Managers do — Similar to government and industry bodies, if there were a single product management licence or code of conduct, it would help gain a wider understanding of the product manager role.
  • Ruling out Unethical Products and Behaviours — By codifying an agreed list of behaviours and standards that all product managers are expected to comply with. This can be outlined further in the right level of product management certification.
  • Keeping on top of Latest Trends, Approaches and Standards — A product manager could only have their licence renewed after obtaining relevant professional certificates or demonstrating compliance with set standards.

So I can see where people like Mike Monteiro are coming from; licensing would keep the (ethical) quality of products high and eradicate unethical products or behaviours. Professional certificates could be used as a way to continuously educate product managers about professional and ethical standards.

Why I’m not Convinced

However, from my experience as both a lawyer and a product manager, I believe that licensing isn’t the Holy Grail for either product managers or the companies they work for. This is why:

  • Product management isn’t yet a standardised discipline — The legal profession is well established, and deeply rooted in legal systems that are centuries old. There are serious consequences for people who don’t abide by the law. In contrast, the craft of product management is still developing. There isn’t a set way to practise product management, and it’s much more about a mindset.
  • Killing off creativity and diversity — By certifying and licensing we would create a significant barrier to entry into product management. One of the things I love is the diversity of background of most product managers. These different prior experiences add distinct flavours to someone’s approach to building and managing products.
  • No bulletproof safeguard — Even if we were to go down the route of licensing and certification, we shouldn’t be under the illusion that unethical products would automatically be a thing of the past. There are plenty of questionable lawyers with shady practices out there!

In short, I don’t believe that a licence and certificate based on set standards or requirements for all product managers is desirable, or even viable, at this stage.

Instead, I suggest we look at two alternative steps that will help us move towards solving the problems that licensing looks to address: a manifesto and certification.

What can be Done Instead — Manifesto and Certification

Similar to the original Agile Manifesto, I’d love for a group of product management thought leaders to get together and devise a “Product Management Manifesto” which stipulates the basic standards that we should adhere to.

While not being as “strict” as a universal product management licence, the manifesto and the principles it contains would heavily influence a product manager’s day-to-day approach and decision making.

One way to treat such a manifesto as a living and actionable document is by creating certificates which enable Product Managers to continuously learn about the core principles stipulated in the manifesto. There could, for instance, be certificates that cover “appropriate usage of customer data” or “continuous iteration”.

I guess the challenge with these kinds of certificates is to not make them too restrictive, as that would create the risk of removing the creative and innovative elements from product management. Equally, the certification content would have to move “with the times”, constantly adapting to evolving societal needs and circumstances.

Too Early?

I think it’s too early to look at a single, industry-wide licence that all product managers should comply with. Product management is still in its infancy, and a licence or code of conduct would create more confusion than good at this stage.

Instead, I suggest we start thinking about a Product Management Manifesto, outlining core principles to strive for in everything we do as product managers. This will in turn drive associated certification.

Given that product managers are rapidly growing in numbers and that our discipline is gaining broader appeal, I think it’s time to start a serious discussion about moving this idea forward.

The Agile Manifesto was conceived in a ski lodge, but before I start to look for somewhere similarly cold and inaccessible for a meeting, please leave a comment below to share your thoughts about the Product Management Manifesto and what should be in it. Let’s get started!

My product management toolkit (30): giving and receiving feedback

I’ve got many, many flaws. Taking things personally is one of them … On one hand, I’m always going to ‘expose’ myself to feedback by trying, challenging and simply ‘doing’, expecting to be challenged and to receive feedback. On the other hand, however, every time that I do receive feedback – direct or indirect – I need to make sure I pause and listen carefully, taking the feedback in fully first.

i-dont-always-take-things-personally-oh-wait-yes-i-do.jpg

 

For example, the other day I found myself asking “why” a lot in a discussion about a customer problem and a colleague kept saying “let’s stop overcomplicating things, let’s just keep things simple.” Guess what I felt? I took it personally and wondered why she wasn’t as keen as I was to explore the problem in a bit more detail …

It made me realise again that feedback is crucial, and particularly for us as product managers:

  • We’re likely to give plenty of feedback.
  • And we’re likely to receive a whole lot of it too.

Giving feedback

As a product manager, I often find myself giving feedback to others, either about a behaviour or something that they’ve produced – for example:

  • A presentation, either in the making or delivered
  • A product thought, idea or prototype
  • One of my product managers failing to collaborate effectively with their product team members
  • Feeding back to colleagues in the senior leadership team about their ideas or decisions

When giving feedback, I believe it’s important to:

  • Have a think about what you’re going to say first – Many a time I’ve made the mistake where I’d just blurt out feedback in the moment. This can be ok when interacting with certain people, especially if you’re in a trusted relationship with them. However, the risk with this ‘in the moment’ approach is that your feedback might not be well thought through or constructive … Simply writing down a few bullet points can help to think through the essence of the feedback and how to best get that across.
  • It’s about the person’s behaviour, not about the person – Another common pitfall can be to focus your feedback on a person instead of their behaviour. Let’s, for instance, think of a scenario where you’ve observed a colleague being late a few times. Instead of saying “Ellen, why are you always so late?”, which makes it all about Ellen as a person, you could ask: “Ellen, I’ve noticed you being late for meetings over the last two weeks, do you mind if we have a chat about why that is?”
  • Be specific and timely when describing the behaviour – I strongly suggest avoiding sweeping statements or being very black and white when giving feedback. For example, compare these two examples: “Paul, your product ideas haven’t been clear” versus “Paul, when you suggested ideas for a new product feature last week, I missed detail about what the feature would entail and the assumed customer value the feature would bring.” In the latter example, the feedback provided is specific and offers a good starting point for conversation. Asking for permission in the form of “May I give you feedback?” can also be a friendly way to start the conversation.
  • Describe the (emotional) impact the behaviour had on you – When making your feedback specific, it helps to describe the impact the person’s behaviour has had on you. I think it’s important to steer clear of statements like “Richard, your lack of decision making in the last prioritisation conversation was frustrating for lots of people in the team” – which feels very broad brush and not fair on the recipient of your feedback since he/she won’t be able to clarify with the people you claim to be speaking on behalf of. Instead, I suggest saying something along the lines of “Richard,  your lack of decision making in the last prioritisation conversation made me feel directionless, as I don’t know how to best proceed from here.”
  • Consider the “S-B-I” framework – In essence, I strongly recommend looking at the “Situation, Behaviour, Impact” (‘S-B-I’) framework, as it offers a nice way of framing the feedback that you’re giving (see Fig. 1 below).

Fig. 1 – Situation, Behaviour, Impact framework – Taken from: https://www.ccl.org/articles/leading-effectively-articles/hr-pipeline-a-quick-win-to-improve-your-talent-development-process/

Receiving feedback

Going back to my earlier admission about take things personally, the way in which I receive feedback is critical for me. I’ve found that it can be easy to feel completely floored by the feedback received, instead of treating the feedback as an opportunity to learn and improve. Without saying that I find receiving feedback easy, I’ve learned to (pro) actively ask for feedback and guidance.

When receiving feedback, I believe it’s important to:

  • Listen with the intent to understand, not to respond – If you’re anything like me, i.e. not super comfortable with asking people for feedback, your initial response might well be to act defensively and respond to the criticism. In the great book “Radical Candor”, author Kim Scott urges us not to do that; don’t start criticising the criticism! Instead, she suggests saying something like “So what I hear you saying is …”
  • Ask for specifics – Try to understand when you displayed certain behaviours, what you could have done or said differently and why. To me, the whole point of asking for feedback is that you’ll be able to learn from the feedback received. When you receive and digest the feedback, you can decide to either to not act on it or to put your learnings into practice. Either way, it’s imperative that the feedback is specific, so that you can make a well informed decision on whether to act on it.
  • Express appreciation for the feedback and give yourself time to process – If you did get feedback, the next important thing is to follow up and show that you really welcomed the feedback. You don’t even need to respond straight away and mention the things that you’re going to do to implement the feedback. It’s perfectly fine to say “Thank you so much for your feedback. Let me take it away and reflect on it.” If you agree with what was said, you should make a change as soon as possible. If the necessary change will take time, do something visible to show you’re trying.

Main learning point: Giving or receiving feedback isn’t easy, and there’s no silver bullet available to make it any easier. However, tools like the “Situation, Behaviour, Impact” framework can help us to better frame the feedback that we’re giving. And when it comes to receiving feedback, I’ve found “listening” to be the most powerful tool of all.

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://marcabraham.com/2017/08/17/book-review-radical-candor/
  2. https://marcabraham.com/2018/02/18/my-product-management-toolkit-26-pause-and-listen/
  3. https://getlighthouse.com/blog/give-constructive-feedback-motivate-improve/
  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-oRKr5xA9N0
  5. https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/situation-behavior-impact-feedback.htm
  6. https://www.fastcompany.com/3019036/simple-direct-honest-personal-and-blunt-how-the-5-word-performance-review-works-wonde
  7. https://www.inc.com/the-muse/how-to-give-constructive-criticism-employees-managers-useful-feedback.html

App review: Vipps

I’m always on the lookout for new payment apps and I recently came across Vipps. Vipps is a Norwegian peer to peer payments app, currently only available to Norwegian users.

Fig. 1 – Screenshot of Vipps – Taken from: https://www.vipps.no/

These are the main things I’ve learned about Vipps:

  1. Use the recipient’s mobile number – Similar to the way the likes of Monzo and Uber work, with the Vipps app all you need is the mobile number of the recipient. If you need to send money to someone else, your friend needs to download the Vipps app and the amount will be sent to his/her account registered with Vipps. Select the person you want to pay from your phone’s contact list or enter their mobile number.
  2. Use Vipps to split bills – For example, when you’re eating out with a group of friends, you can ask your friends for money when splitting the bill. Create a group name – e.g. Nando’s on Friday – and add the names of the group members. Now people in your group can enter all expenses that are to be shared between the group members. Once all the amounts have been entered and everyone has confirmed that there are no more outlays, it is easy to see who owes what.
  3. Personal account registered with Vipps – Vipps doesn’t have it’s own current account. Instead, users can send money through Vipps from any Norwegian bank, provided that they have a bank debit card and a bank account with the bank in question.
  4. Getting started with Vipps – To be able to use Vipps, users need to enter a Norwegian national identity number, a Norwegian mobile number, the details of their payment card (Visa or MasterCard), their Norwegian bank account number and an email address. Once you’ve created a four digit code, you can start paying or receiving money. When logging into Vipps, you can use your personal code or Touch ID.
  5. Vipps’ charges – Vipps doesn’t charge for amounts below NOK 5 000. For payments of NOK 5 000 or above, the charge is 1 per cent of the total amount. There is no charge for receiving money.

Main learning point: Love how apps like Vipps are making it easier and easier for people to pay and receive money. The splitting bills functionality is very welcome!

Vipps 3

Fig. 2 – Vipps’ peer-to-peer payments – Taken from: http://anti.as/news/vipps-by-dnb

Vipps 4

Fig. 3 – Screenshot of Vipps’ Android app; making a payment – Taken from: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=no.dnb.vipps

Vipps 5

Fig. 4 – Screenshot of Vipps’ iOSapp; selecting a contact or a company that you want to pay – Taken from: https://www.appannie.com/en/apps/ios/app/vipps-by-dnb/

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.vipps.no/
  2. https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/vipps-by-dnb/id984380185?mt=8
  3. https://www.finextra.com/newsarticle/30131/dnb-spins-off-vipps-mobile-payment-service
  4. http://anti.as/projects/vipps-by-dnb
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vipps
  6. http://www.lifeinnorway.net/living/money/mobile-payments/
  7. https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=no.dnb.vipps&hl=en_GB
  8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Mx5lsfs2d0
  9. https://www.vipps.no/vilkar.html
  10. https://www.microsoft.com/en-gb/store/p/vipps-by-dnb/9nblgggz9jv1

Book review: Agile Excellence for Product Managers

Agile product management is a very interesting and dynamic area. In a post a few months ago I explored how agile product management differs from ‘traditional’ product management using a great book by Roman Pichler as a reference. I’ve just finished “Agile Excellence for Product Managers” by Greg Cohen which outlines the key principles of Agile product management.

In his book, Greg Cohen describes with a good amount of practical detail the role that Agile can play in managing a product throughout its lifecycle. Unlike many other books, the diagrams in this book are relevant and provide a good starting point for applying some of the Agile tools yourself.

I found the book particularly useful with respect to the following areas:

  1. What does a (good) product manager do? – Cohen explains how the product manager acts as the voice of the customer in development and makes sure that the right product gets built.
  2. Linkage between business strategy, product strategy and roadmap – The book does really well in going beyond the pure delivery aspect of software development, by outlining the way a business strategy should translate into a product strategy and roadmap.
  3. Minimum marketable feature – I already knew about this concept, but it was good to see the underlying principle reinforced in this book and to understand how product managers can build on these minimum but key product features (see also “Software by numbers” by Mark Denne and Jane Cleland-Huang).
  4. Constraint card – The book mentions the use of constraint cards as introduced by Mike Cohn in User stories applied. I like how these simple cards provide a structured and comprehensive way of assessing product viability, taking into account common constraints such as performance and portability.
  5. Prioritisation matrix – Again, another structured way to approach a common theme for most product managers, “how to best prioritise product improvements, new features and requests from stakeholders?” Applying and weighing predetermined criteria is a good way of removing some of the randomness that can be involved in software development and subsequent iterations.

Main learning point: this is a very useful book for product managers, using Cohen’s practical tools and tips to develop and iterate (digital) products. The book does a good job in explaining how Agile techniques can be applied to product managing, developing a product and managing through its lifecycle. It has given me plenty of ideas and tools that I can use on a day-to-day basis, which I think is a good indicator of the value of “Agile Excellence for Product Managers”. Definitely one I’d recommend to all product managers who are looking to apply Agile to their approach or processes.

Related links for further learning:

http://www.agile-excellence.com/home.html

http://www.softwarebynumbers.org/default.htm

http://www.mountaingoatsoftware.com/books/2-user-stories-applied-for-agile-software-development