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How product mangers can improve collaboration in cross-functional teams
Today we are talking with Maziar Adl, the co-founder and CTO of Gocious, an organization that creates product roadmap management software. When I met Maziar and he told me about his company, I asked why does the world need another roadmapping company given the abundance of current options to product managers. His answer intrigued me because it identified a clear pain point that isn’t getting enough attention. Then when I heard his backstory in technology leadership roles at Xerox and Experian and the challenges he encountered with product roadmaps, I was eager to invite him to be a guest on this podcast. As the title of this episode conveys, our discussion will weave together topics for aligning customers’ needs and business strategy.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[2:36] What problems have you ran into related to aligning business strategy and product work?
In product management, I often saw silos coming from top to bottom. The executive team makes decisions and translates those decisions to different parts of the organization, but mission for everybody to walk toward got lost in translation. Bottom up, there were also issues. The engineering team works on progressing the product but doesn’t communicate information back up to product management or executive groups.
The role of product management is extremely in flux. It’s evolving so fast. There are courses in product management, but 15 years ago you couldn’t get a PhD in product management and come out knowing how everything works. Product managers bring many skills together to make it work. The role isn’t well defined, and processes and tools are evolving too.
When I was the director of engineering, I often saw that what I understood the product to be was different from how directions of other departments in the organization understood the product. There was a big gap in communication at the executive level. That’s when I realized there was a need for a tool that can bring cross-functional teams together.
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[6:52] Did you find a gap in the roadmapping tools that were available before you started Gocious?
There were two types of tools that were available. Many of the tools product managers use on a day-to-day basis are engineering-focused ticketing systems. They’re about cutting sprints and prioritizing user stories. An executive or someone in sales or finance cannot understand much from these tools about what product is coming out next month or next year. These tools don’t help product managers explain features to others.
There are other tools that do some of this work of explaining features for you, but they don’t show the portfolio of products. They aren’t organized in a way that somebody in sales can look at a product and see the history of innovation on that product or what else is coming into the market. These tools mostly show initiatives. You can see activities that are going on to improve areas of the product, and you can see how those initiatives are organized, but you can’t see how an entire product evolved over time. You don’t see the big picture.
I realized that if everyone at the company is on the same page about the company’s portfolio of products and can see the evolution of the products, it will make a huge difference in the way cross-functional teams come together to discuss the next stage of the products that have to come out the door.
[10:31] What was your experience at Experian?
I was the CTO in a part of the organization called consumer services. We had a direct-to-consumer product. We had a lot of feedback from focus groups and call centers. We had meetings to discuss opportunities for new products. Later, we went through a major transformation and started focusing more on driving the business from a customer’s perspective. Product management became more central in receiving customer feedback and making sure it was properly translated and analyzed. Prior to that, it was a much slower process and not everything was analyzed. The product team wasn’t as central to everything we did. Engineering had a lot of power. Product helped prioritize, but engineering often built a product and expected us to try to sell it.
[14:27] What did you do to better align customer needs and business strategy?
At Experian, when I was CTO, I worked with our chief product officer to reorganize my team of 150 engineers so we had proper product management coverage for engineering efforts. The CPO heled me align how product management and engineering coordinated with each other and the rest of the business. At the same time, our group started putting more rigor into product management. The CPO put together a product board, which met on a regular basis to review the major items coming in. Product managers from different parts of the product would review cases to open new markets and achieve our objectives, and engineers could weigh in. This was an opportunity to make sure activities are in line with the objective of the organization. At first it was clunky, but through practice we kept improving that process. When we saw things not working well, not only would we correct it, but it was an opportunity for executives to lend a hand to product management. These meetings grew the product team and gave them empowerment. They helped product managers and engineers communicate effectively.
Our original vision for Gocious was to help manufacturing in product planning and collaborating about the future innovation of products. I consider manufacturing to be two classes. There are certain companies that have found a niche and there’s not a lot of innovation happening in the company. For example, there’s not a lot of innovation in clothes hangers, but it’s very hard to get into the market, so nobody’s challenging those companies. The second class is complex products. Almost every complex manufacturing company is going through some major disruption. They really need to rethink the products in a lot of areas. Software technology is playing a more central role in hardware being manufactured, which means hardware teams have to change the way they design their products. For example, in the past you couldn’t change the operating system on a computer, but now you can. This is also happening more to other products from cars to jets to industrial machinery. That means software teams will play a more central role in product development.
There haven’t been major innovations in hardware manufacturing, but software development has created new processes like Lean and Agile. As software teams come in to manufacturing, they will change the way manufacturers think about the product development lifecycle. This is a great opportunity for product management to have a more central role to bring teams together and connect them with the bigger business.
Gocious would be a great option for these environments. Our focus is to enhance this area of larger software products or companies that are bringing more and more software into their hardware environments.
Action Guide: Put the information Maziar shared into action now. Click here to download the Action Guide.
“I want to put a ding in the universe.” – Steve Jobs
“If you look at history, innovation doesn’t come just from giving people incentives; it comes from creating environments where their ideas can connect.” – Steven Johnson
Thank you for taking the journey to product mastery and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it using the social media buttons you see below.