Episode 125: Answering Questions About Creating, Managing, and Redeveloping a Product
June 28, 2023
In this Dear Melissa segment, Melissa Perri answers subscribers’ questions about developing the strategy for a new product, managing legacy products when you are a product owner, and redeveloping an existing product.
In this Dear Melissa segment, Melissa Perri answers subscribers’ questions about how to stay on top of what is going on in a scaling team when you are the product leader, how R&D differs from product management, as well as how you can transition from a consultancy into a product company.
- Q: Dear Melissa, I took on my first head of product role two years ago at a company that was going through steady growth. Last year, the company restructured and my department grew to 150 people across engineering and product, which also saw more products being added to my remit. Some of these products are very different from others. So we set separate annual goals. However, I find it hard to keep up to speed on a day-to-day basis for things like achievements and new functionality we're planning to add. Do you have any advice on how I can keep up?
- A: This is definitely a problem for many leaders in a scaling situation. At first, you’ve got a couple product managers under you, you can drop by their desks and see what's going on. You probably know what's on the roadmap. But then, bam, we got 150 people. So my first question to you is, do you have those product managers all reporting to you? Or do you have a mid-layer like a Director of Product level or VP of Product? I think, if you're overseeing both product and engineering, you're going to want to think about hiring people to oversee those product managers because you can't have all of them reporting to you. So now your job, though, in that case, is transitioning more into what we think of with the CPO role or a VP of Product/Head of Product role, which means that you're overseeing the entire portfolio, you're not responsible for the day-to-day. So naturally, in any situation like this, a product leader is not going to know everything that's going on constantly.
- Q: Dear Melissa, product management is always advocated as a trifecta of engineering design and business. However, what if the company also has an R&D department or a research department? How would you set them up for success in this model, if at all? The R&D department works more with academia. They write academic papers, and present at science conferences, but they barely contribute anything to the app itself besides some algorithms here and there. Unfortunately, the leaders of the company think that this is where innovation is coming from for the product. And it's a must-have department. In my humble opinion, there is no dedicated R&D department needed if you empower your engineering team the way it's meant to be in a modern product company.
- A: I've seen R&D in many different organizations, but there are different ways that they show up. One side of R&D is that they're content experts. So, in this case, they're like experts on the content that's going into the system, but also the market perspective. So they're out there being forward-facing people in academic circles or in places where they're providing the science, let's say, behind what your application does. So, I'll give you a good example. In healthcare, if you're building a product that has high pharmaceutical components or something like that, you might hire some pharmacists who are really prominent in the industry. And they might advise on how you do your work and innovate around it and the trends that are coming out. They're not usually building the software, they're more like advisory roles. So I've definitely seen R&D in those situations. I've seen them in education, for instance, when they're brought in more as educators who have taught those subject matters before, and maybe they're doing content development. So they're creating the way that you teach courses. And the product management team is teaching us to figure out how those surface up through software. So the R&D team here is more content experts. They also might be a little market-facing. So they might be going out and studying, as well, where the opportunities are in the market. In all those cases, I think R&D is a really bad name for them. They're not necessarily just R&D. They're more like content experts, subject matter experts. And I think it's better to put some labels around them. That's more about product marketing, market experts, or content experts. They're highly technical people that are more like data scientists and experts from a technical perspective on building the algorithms on doing the data science behind it on building the tech, let's say. And in those situations, they're kind of a little bit more like a platform team. They're not just R&D over here, doing some sciencey stuff. And when I do see R&D being siloed in these organizations, what happens is that they're not connected back to the customer value piece.
- Q: Dear Melissa, my employer hired me as a product manager in a team of project managers who have been focused on delivering the software, which is AI computer vision modules to big companies on strict deadlines, meeting high standards of quality as needed rapidly. How do I convince them to incorporate customer interviews and think like product managers when they don't even get to control or decide how these big companies will use their models within their own apps or systems? They also want to build their own B2C apps, but are worried that these big companies would cancel their license with them for doing something similar and selling to customers directly.
- A: So my question here is, are you a consultancy, or are you a product company? Because it sounds like you're a consultancy. I don't know if you mean to be a consultancy, but from the last part of here, where you're considering building your own apps, it sounds like you're a consultancy. So let's start there. It sounds like you're a development consultancy that puts product management inside a company. That's your client, and they're just dictating to you what to build. So, if you're going to switch that dynamic, you have to reset expectations with your customers. If that dynamic is not set in a consultancy, that's incredibly hard to change. And it also depends on what did your clients hire you for? So I think you need to suss that out first because if you come in there and just be like, hey, we need to change the way that we work. There's actually a lot that goes into that when you run a consultancy. The second part is whether you can actually build B2C stuff. And maybe that's why you were hired as a product manager to help think through those apps. If so, that's where I think you should spend a lot of your time trying to figure out what you could sell from it. As long as you're not directly competing with what these companies sell, you're okay.
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