“Product Mindset” and “Product Ways of Working” seem to be all the rage these days. Almost every time I’m in a meeting with senior or executive leaders in an organization, and the discussion turns to talking about how the teams function, then these are buzzwords that get employed.

To the credit of these leaders, what has changed over the past few years is that there’s a much better understanding of what these terms mean at the execution level in the organization. Typically now, a leader will no longer see a Product Manager as being some sort of glorified Business Analyst or Project Manager, but will now come to understand that they have a strategic role to play and should also be counted on to bring a vision and strategize beyond the horizon of their immediate backlog. These are big improvements and our leaders should be commended for getting on board and being supportive of this transformation.

What still needs a lot of work though is a more thorough understanding on what it means to employ a product mindset at the senior and executive leadership. A while back I remember an exercise we did to think through and catalog the OKRs we were employing in the organization. In a future post I’ll explain more on how best to employ OKRs in an organization, but for now it suffices to say that OKRs should often have a cascading effect from the top level strategic priorities down to the individual products. This is to ensure a tight coupling and alignment to the organization’s strategy.

In my organization, we’ve gotten a lot better at having OKRs, and in tracking metrics in general, at the execution level and product level, but have never really done a good job of bridging between the organization’s top level strategic priorities and the execution level metrics. OKRs, when done properly, would bridge that gap.

When I asked my organization’s senior leaders to tell me the OKRs for each of their domains (which we define as a macro grouping of product areas), what I got back in most cases was a lengthy list of all of the detailed OKRs from the execution level. For any one domain, I may have had 30 different OKRs, none of which overlapped or was a rollup of the others. Separately, these same leaders would undoubtedly state, without any intended irony, that they were operating with a product mindset.

Here’s the thing: to be fully operating with a product mindset, then that mindset needs to be applied at every layer of the organization, not just at the execution level where you have people with the Product Manager title. You may have multiple squads of engineers with a Product Manager that ultimately form one product team, but there’s likely an adjacent product team lead by a different Product Manager, and perhaps both of those Product Managers report to the same leader, forming a grouping of products. That grouping is also a product, and should have it’s own higher level roadmap, overarching vision, and OKRs.

Adjacent to that grouping is probably another grouping, and those adjacent groupings together might form an even larger grouping (perhaps you call this a Domain, as we do). Again, this domain is also a product, with it’s own [even] higher level roadmap, overarching vision across all the groupings, and domain OKRs.

Product Hierarchy
Each grouping of Products, at every level, is also a Product itself

Coming back to my story, when I asked our senior leaders to tell me what their OKRs were for their domains, what I wanted was for them to see each domain as being a product in its own right, and for them to provide the overarching OKRs that tie together all of the efforts happening lower down in their organization. If they don’t have that, then how can I be assured that everyone in the domain is going in the same direction and executing on one common overarching strategy and vision? In short, I can’t. Instead what I get across the organization is several hundred individual product teams that are all doing their best to deliver on their goals, and we have to cross our fingers that they’re all moving in the same direction. Not exactly a strategy for success.

As a senior or executive leader in the organization, you should understand that having a product mindset is not just about forming product teams. Your job is not just about the operational aspects of running a large organization, such as people management, or managing your budget, but also about bringing a vision and developing an overarching strategy for your whole team. That strategy should tie together the different efforts into a set of common goals. When you come across efforts that don’t align to those goals, then that’s an opportunity to question whether those resources should be redeployed. When you consider your entire organization to be a product, everyone no only will understand how they fit in to the overarching strategy, but they also share accountability to make sure they are contributing to the vision.

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