Five Thinking Tools for Product Leadership

Leading a product development endeavour can be enormously rewarding, but it is also one of the most uncertain journeys you can undertake. Leadership is complex and product leadership is no exception. Product leaders need something to hold on to, a mental model of sorts. This article presents some things I would cling to if I were a captain of the seas.

To Boldly Go…

One perspective on leading is that it is like convincing a group of people to go places where they have never been. It could even be the case that nobody has been there before.

In order to do this the following conditions are really useful:

  • a clear idea of where you going
  • a general plot on how to get there, the routes you will take
  • a fairly accurate way of determining where you are
  • an unstoppable determination to arrive

It is obvious that you cannot do this alone. You need to collaborate with other people to succeed. But so what? These collaborators are the exact same people you are bringing along to the trip and engaging them will just make them more committed. Some clever leaders even manage to set things up so that only some slight guidance is needed.

A Thinking Model

Imagine you are the captain of a grand ship. Perhaps it is an elegant wooden schooner requiring a crew of many people. The crew may smell a bit, but they are skillful and loyal. The sails are flapping and you can feel the wind messing with your hair. It is a strong ship, yet speedy and agile.

But this is no pleasure trip; you have a mission. Your job is to transport some fine passengers to their destination. The passengers are nice enough, but they seem very confused, which does not stop them from being very vocal about the conditions on board.

To achieve your mission, here are your most important resources:
1. The North Star This is the product vision, the business goals, the effects you want to achieve. What will the world look like when you have reached your destination? This tells everyone where we are going and will help you navigate. It helps achieve that clear distinction of what the product will and will not do. The goals may be adjusted during the way, but the general objectives will remain. Like a friendly star to gaze onto.
2. The Chart Plot An overview plan of the journey is useful as long as we accept that it is volatile. What are the major legs we need to travel? In other words, what intermediary goals should we seek? We may drift off course or we may deliberately choose to take another route so we must regularly re-plot to keep a good overview. The Chart Plot will keep you on course and determine your speed. It will help you avoid the reefs and getting caught in doldrums.
3. The Rolling Wave The waves of the sea will gradually roll you to new locations. As a traveller, you will see more and learn more, which you incorporate into your strategic maneuvering. You will need to gradually refine the features and plans for your product. What use is scouting for waves that are beyond the horizon? The Rolling Waves will carry you forward and you will gradually see more detail of previously unchartered waters.
4. The Crew The crew is your team of specialists. All of them have special abilities; yet, each one of them is a sailor. They know every inch of the ship and will cajole it into movement in the right direction, always keeping a look out for obstacles and reporting the position as we go along. One additional chore they have is the obligation to keep the ship clean and trimmed. The Crew will get the ship moving and keeping it so. They will steer it as best they can after your orders and report your position.
5. The Passengers. Your voyage will only be fortunate if you listen to your customers. Only through the users of your product can value materialise. They are your market and you should strive to delight them. Sure, they may feel like a nuisance sometimes, but they are the true enablers of the voyage. The faster you get them where they want to go, the happier they will be. The Passengers will help you understand if you are on the right course towards gratifying their wants and needs.

The unstoppable determination to arrive must come from yourself. It is significative of any fearless captain.

The Bold and the Beautiful

Finally, some advice for budding captains: Remember, if you push your crew too hard they will dislike it. They will feel gradually more fatigued and less motivated – even if you do energise them with the occasional bottle of rum. They are proud sailors! If you do not bend they may rebel against you. Or, more probably, simply swim to another ship. Furthermore, the maintenance of the ship will suffer and the wood will slowly deteriorate into a rotten, festering mush. This will slow down the top speed of the vessel and repairs will take time. It this is allowed to go on, the ship will capsize. So remember, when we reach harbour and we have had a few with the friendly inhabitants, we will probably need to make another trip with our trusty craft. It is a good idea to keep it ship shape.

The passengers, on the other hand, will only help you if you engage them. Otherwise, they will simply sit comfortably in their cabins, doing what they always do to make time pass. You must engage them, although they are not of your kind. They may have opinions on how you run this ship and you should not listen. They may quarrel with you about the insolence of the rugged sailors and you should politely defend your people. But when you dreamingly admire the stars together you should commit everything to memory.

Bon Voyage!

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