I recently wrote an article about why Product Management isn’t embraced everywhere1. In it, I referred to product people as ‘unicorn’ people. Advertising an internal vacancy for an experienced Unicorn might get a few curious looks from your employees, but it probably won’t draw out the candidates you’re searching for to drive your product management agenda. So how might you identify your unicorn people? And how could you guide them towards the product management light? These are the things we’ll be discussing in this article.
What is a Unicorn?
We’re clearly not talking about a mythical creature here. Or a rhinoceros.
Unicorns are a metaphor for the humans who share some qualities which are aligned to good product management. Whilst these qualities aren’t unique to product-oriented roles, it’s not so often we see the breadth and depth of them embodied in the same individual, hence, unicorns🦄.
Passion for users
Great product management and user centred design go hand in hand. Understanding, empathising with and advocating for users with gusto is an important part of any product role. This is especially true in environments with minimal data fluency, where one-dimensional KPIs drive attitudes and behaviours, and user experience or behavioural analytics don’t exist to provide context. I have personally been in situations where mine has been the only voice representing the customer, in a room full of people whose livelihoods ultimately depend on customers’ continued product loyalty.
The art is in balancing unwavering passion for users’ desires, against cold, hard business performance and constraints. Leaning too far in either direction can ultimately prove harmful to organisational profitability and sustainability. Careful and considered observation and measurement can provide early steering information to help keep you from falling off the tightrope.
Impossible! Ever hear someone use that word to describe something, the solution to which is soon after so routine that it barely raises an eyebrow? Humans are inherent problem solvers. This ability has allowed people to adapt and survive as a (relatively modern) species for the last 200,000 years or so2.
It’s also a key skill which we as product people rely on daily in some shape or form. Whether that’s providing support to our users, developing or curating product experiences which generate mutual benefit for both users and our organisation.
Problem solving with intent – not just solving problems but being deliberate about how you solve problems and how you improve the problem solving process, is important for creating sustainability in Product Management. This involves an understanding and application of an appropriate structured approach to defining a problem, generating, evaluating and delivering solutions. One such approach might be a sequence of discovery, definition, ideation, implementation and iteration, as opposed to problem solving through trial and error or relying on sheer luck.
Ideally seek breadth and depth of experience, rather than just sticking in your metaphorical lane, as this fosters cross-pollination, useful analogues and innovation. My favourite example of this comes from one of my esteemed colleagues (thanks Rob!) who shared with me an anecdote where NASA looked towards the ancient art of paper folding, Origami, in order to solve engineering problems and opportunities in space3.
Effective collaboration, early, often and on an ongoing basis is a catalyst for great problem solving. The skill of the product person’s role here is in identifying who to collaborate with and when, facilitating productive interactions and fit for purpose feedback mechanisms. Extra care should be taken when designing these interactions and mechanisms so as not to dilute the power of data-driven decision making, especially where HIPPOs (HIghest Paid Person’s Opinion) are prevalent.
Depending on an organisation’s operating model design, it is very possible that product management roles have little to no direct line management responsibility for the various disciplines they need to bring together to design, launch and maintain their products and features. Where the opposite is true, it isn’t exactly a silver bullet either.
It might sound counterintuitive, but both of these structures actually increase the demands placed on your leadership skills. Where everyone involved in the product reports into the product owner at the helm, there may be a certain dynamic which stifles the constructive tension between roles as people don’t always feel comfortable challenging their direct leader. On the other hand, where there is no direct reporting line, product owners and product managers must rely on their ability to influence, negotiate, collaborate and create a sense of shared purpose around their product’s goals.
Product management roles are leadership roles, whichever way they are structured. Teams, stakeholders and organisations rely on product peoples’ decision making abilities – an aspect which is sometimes overlooked. Empowerment is particularly important when financial accountability is imparted upon product roles, in order that appropriate levels of autonomy and authority exist to allow product managers and product owners to effectively influence financial measures aligned to their products.
Whilst it may on rare occasions be warranted to avert a potential disaster, having an executive flat out override the product manager/owner’s decision grossly undermines their position which can take a long time to rebuild. Co-creating intentional guiderails and boundaries instead can support the delegation of authority and decision making within your governance framework. This approach promotes empowerment and autonomy, both of which are key motivators for unicorns.
Deep product knowledge
Every decision a product owner or product manager makes can have a butterfly effect of consequences, so it’s vital to have a deep understanding of how your products should work, how they actually do (and don’t) work, and how they are used.
This doesn’t mean being able to redraw an exact replica blueprint of every nut and bolt from memory, but as a bare minimum I would suggest developing and maintaining a foundational knowledge of the key technical elements, integrations and manufacturing/logistical/supporting processes which make up your entire product experience. Slim product knowledge leads to poor decision making ability which is at best lucky and at worst, damaging.
Consider for a moment a scenario where a change of colour is proposed for a plastic product. What sounds like a simple thing on the surface actually has a significant impact on the product’s specialised manufacturing process because adding dye in this case, changes the chemical properties of the plastic and makes the product unfit for purpose as a result. Not such a simple change after all!
Appetite and aptitude for learning
I feel this one goes without saying, so I won’t push the point too much. Suffice it to say that learning is vital for developing the breadth and depth of understanding required to be effective in a product role. The greater a person’s aptitude and appetite for learning, the more likely it is that they will amass a solid enough baseline to be up and running quickly. If it’s not something which has already been explored in your organisation, consider assessing preferred learning styles. This can reveal easy ways to boost knowledge absorption and retention, by learning how to learn both at an individual and at a cultural level.
Creative AND analytical
Product is both a creative AND analytical discipline.
For many people, these things are seen as mutually exclusive, however I would argue that it’s not as binary as that. Preference towards either creativity or analytical thinking might come naturally to some4, but these skills can also be consciously developed with practice.
Remember the product colour change example from earlier? This is a prime time for analytical skills to shine. Whilst the estimated cost to change might be relatively well understood, the value of the change can be harder to quantify. Product people need to be able to form hypotheses around changes (e.g. We believe that changing the product’s colour from beige to red will result in more sales), understand how to test these hypotheses and interpret data in a meaningful way. In my experience, the key is understanding the limitations of what data can and can’t tell you. Consider carefully aspects such as sample size, segmentation, distribution and how the data is collected; e.g. is the sample large enough and made up of the right population to provide valid quantitative insight? Is what is described as a ‘random sample’ actually ‘random’? Does the way the data has been captured introduce bias?
Creativity is equally important in product roles, as we’ve already touched on when talking about problem solving. As the driver of your product, your organisation relies on you to generate and develop ideas, solutions, visions and roadmaps. To spot opportunities, pain points and waste, and to know who’s who in the zoo so you can rally the right people, technologies, concepts and components to address them.
Spotting a Unicorn
I’m sure by now you’re desperate to find these magical product people and hire a bunch of them immediately. But wait.
Problem-solving lifetime-learning user-centric creative analyst product expert leaders. Didn’t we already say they’re unicorns? Impossible to find, surely?
The people you seek might be right under your nose, inside your organisation already, just waiting for a chance to grow into a product role. In no particular order, here are some things to look out for which might put you on the trail of your very own unicorns — good luck!
- They are an SME (Subject Matter Expert) / ‘go-to’ person for your product.
- They tend to take a balanced view, considering different perspectives and information sources.
- They energise the people they interact with.
- They’re curious.
- They GSD (sometimes in spite of the ‘rules’).
Read Part Two: Five tried and tested ways to build better products
- If Product Management is good for business, why isn’t it everywhere? Darren Cope, Elabor8
- Survival of the Adaptable: Smithsonian, National Museum of Natural History
- Origami in Space Engineering: Rediscovering the Meaning of Discovery, New York Times
- Personality Types: 16 Personalities
- Photos: Unsplash