La Fosse was delighted to host Product, Design, and Discussion: a roundtable where Product and Design leaders met to share insights around building teams, navigating stakeholders, and owning product.

See below for a few of the event’s key takeaways:

The problem with Product

‘As a commoditised business, your power is in your customer experience. If Design’s role in Product is weakened, the power of the thing that differentiates you is dissipated.’

Product, engineering, and design. Depending on the organisation, they can be led by one person, two people, or be three entirely separate functions. So what’s the optimal model?

Though there was no consensus, it was observed that Product and Design in particular often converge in a single role, often with the legacy corporate structure leading product leaders to come out on top. This often means designers reporting into people who may not fully understand their discipline. Though there is a theoretical argument that it doesn’t really matter who reports to who if your end goal is the same – exceptional customer experience – undoubtedly a Product Manager will have less to give to a Designer as a manager or mentor. This itself is a strong argument for the separation of disciplines.

Meanwhile, the representation of design roles fades as one progresses up the chain to virtually vanish at the C-Suite. Not having a seat at the table becomes problematic when allocating budget for research and hiring – a trend, it was suggested, that can be noticed in many products, which are consequently less user-focused, especially as Product Managers often come from a Program management background (a problem thought-leading UX Designer Andy Budd has raised on Twitter.)

However, ultimately the conversation will always come back to balance: the scope for the Product Manager’s job is to strike an accord between what’s best for the user and what’s best for the company, to resolve any tensions in this, and create a narrative that makes sense for everyone. As one attendee put it: “You can’t make successful products without being customer-focused, but you can’t make successful products by being only customer-focused.”

Don’t get lost in semantics

“No one questions the value of an accountant in a business. Everyone questions the value of product.”

Part of the explanation for discord might be a certain lexicographical ambiguity: while most would feel comfortable writing up a job description for an Accountant, Product Owner, or UX Designer might inspire a different explanation, not just per industry, but per business. There is even a certain trigger point in a start-up, likely after a bit of funding, where no one knows what the next step is, so the solution is to ‘get some of those product guys in.’ The (misled) perception is of a nice-to-have, rather than an essential.

Whilst one attendee described how this indistinct job spec leads to low accountability in the role (and therefore there was some justification for its interrogation), others attributed it merely to the fact that Product as a discipline is yet in the first flushes of youth, and therefore is still figuring itself out in its various forms. In 25 years it might well be laughable that Product would be anywhere else than at a company’s genesis.

Others were of the opinion that semantics were diversion tactics, and instead of wasting time getting overly preoccupied with the difference between a product owner and a Product Manager, they would rather their teams just solve customer problems and kept the organisation moving forward. Given the context of the ever-changing competitive environment in which teams find themselves, structural evolution is only natural, and in fact, leaders should worry much more about their team’s competencies and the context in which they were operating than a rigidly defined structure.

Moreover, it’s not a given that even in an ideal world, everyone would stay in their own tightly-defined lane. It’s commonly accepted that everyone should have a good idea of what one another do, so why not go one step further, accept that there is a large degree of overlap, and give functions the green light to challenge one another? While having a strictly-defined remit implies that you can’t be questioned, in fact, a more overlapping structure could drive better results and customer experience.

How to: Grow a design leader

Obviously, getting the best people is about more than just the money (a fair statement in Product, and also in the wider tech market.) Large organisations can throw whatever salaries they want into the mix – attracting and retaining talent comes down to assessing the individual and giving them what they really want from a role.

With particular reference given to Dan Pink’s Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose framework, a few highlights for Talent Attraction were:

  • An escape from BAU: giving people interesting problems to solve.
  • Opportunities to learn: through development and also through constant, honest feedback.
  • A sense of purpose (which can make up for a lack of resources a surprising amount.)
  • Trust: In a small pool of candidates, it makes much more sense to manage someone’s career in an industry rather than manage their career in a company. Retention shouldn’t be about keeping someone at a company – it’s retaining a relationship with an individual.

“Creative services – serving who?”

Another legacy debate was that of project ownership and company perception. How do you make sure that product and design teams are setting the agenda, not being passed tickets? Particularly with the unspoken (or indeed, spoken) assumption that revenue is owned by sales – sometimes with the addendum that equates sales with customer satisfaction.

Various ideas were discussed with regards to realigning the creative function’s perceived relationship to the PNL. Business reporting the effects of the function on key metrics – revenue, growth, business development, cost-cutting – can build credibility in a language shareholders are likely to appreciate, and taking this initiative on your own is a way to encourage the board to assess your value against metrics of your own choosing. An interesting article on this subject breaks down the four product principles of Allen Zhang, founder of WeChat, describing how “Zhang’s team does track key metrics, but they are mostly observed and used as evidence in a supporting role rather than driving product strategy.”

Wider company credibility can be gained through using company public forums in the business to carry out show-and-tell problem-solving – allowing business functions to pick a problem and challenge you to find a creative solution for it.

In a broader sense, nothing is more effective than showing results. Setting expectations, delivering on them, building credibility that you’ll deliver a phenomenal customer experience, and earning the space to do what you want. And of course, there is no shortage of historic examples where projects have failed due to lack of Product involvement from the outset – as one attendee put it: “You don’t need to throw rocks, but there are powerful ways to change the conversations and dynamic in the business to justify product people being there from the start.”