Creating a Product Organization Within Your Business

17 January, 2020 | 32 min 42 sec
Podcast Host Tania Salarvand | Podcast Guest Mike Varona
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Brief Summary

Companies no longer want to build just anything; they want to anticipate and respond to what their customers find delightful and exciting. Mike Varona, Principal Product Strategist at ThoughtWorks, discusses what it takes to create a product organization within your business, to provide the best experience for your customers. If you are a leader wondering how to best support and nurture an internal product discipline, this is the podcast for you.


The Head of Product role is responsible for envisioning the holistic ecosystem of products and services within an organization, and choreographing the user experience across everything that they do. Companies no longer want to build just anything, they want to anticipate and respond to what their customers want and find delightful and exciting. The Product organization brings a deep understanding of the user voice, the business value and the technology landscape. 

The way we build digital products looks completely different from the way we have traditionally built physical products. With digital, it’s much easier to iterate quickly, to put scrappier prototypes in front of our customers. This allows us to get their feedback early and build it into the first product we put out to market. 

Product delivery looks different now. We’re not doing one-time big bang launches, we’re launching often. We quickly learn from how customers interact with our products and make changes on the fly. 

The Head of Product role is very different from the role of product owners and product managers. Less time is spent on the products themselves. You focus on being a servant leader to the product teams, unblocking them, empowering them to move the needle on business objectives, and managing stakeholder expectations across all the business units that the products are serving. 

Before beginning a product build it is crucial to do an exploration and ask why the product is being built and who it valuable for. This will de-risk building the wrong product and help an organization deliver value to their customers and the business itself. 

Successful product leaders are good at negotiation, influence, building empathy, active listening, and the ability to ask why, but in an appropriate way that leads stakeholders to really ask themselves the question and participate in the co-designing of what a product needs to look like. 

The best way to build up the soft skills needed to be a successful product leader is through pairing. Allowing product people to work with one another teaches them how to give active, relevant, quick feedback, and how to be supportive and build somebody up. Product leaders need to focus on building empathy and fostering social and emotional intelligence in their organization. 

If the business throws a solution over to the technology team to build, rather than working through the problems with a team, or if the user voice is not represented in the build, there is a definite and immediate need for a product organization or a product role to be played in some capacity. 

While it used to be a lot about building roadmaps, understanding plans and project management, product management is becoming more about understanding vision, bringing more alignment across the organization, and building transparency through vision and strategy

Startups build a lot of good product practices into their DNA and offer great examples of how we can build a product within our organizations, but large organizations can still find ways to introduce these best practices in a meaningful way. One example is of a financial institution who spun up their own innovation lab that functioned as a startup, with autonomy over the work, flexibility to innovate, and the space to fail. 

Podcast Transcript

Tania: Hello and welcome to Pragmatism in Practice. A podcast from ThoughtWorks, where we share stories of practical approaches to becoming a modern digital business. I'm Tania Salarvand and I'm here with Michael Varona today, a Principal Product Strategist at ThoughtWorks. We've just been discussing what it takes to create a product organization within your business, and how leaders can best support and nurture that product discipline to create the best experience for their customers. Hi, Mike. Welcome.

Michael Varona: Hi. Thanks for having me today.

Tania: So tell me a little bit Mike, what is the head of product role mean, and why do you think it's important for every company that builds software, to really think about that as a core growth driver?

Michael Varona: So it's interesting. I think that the head of product role is something that takes many different forms depending on the company that you're at. Broadly, I think it's a role that's responsible for envisioning the holistic ecosystem of products and services within your organization, to make sure that they support a user experience across all of your different products. I think it's something that of late, we're seeing a lot more in that, companies don't want to just build anything anymore. They want to be responding to their customers. They want to be anticipating what their customers are looking for, and they want to be choreographing that experience across everything that they may can do nowadays.

Tania: Is it safe to say Mike, that really this role of a product leader are similar is, different skillsets today than it might've been in the past and continuously evolving?

Michael Varona: Absolutely. I think it's important for us to distinguish between a product and digital product. In the past, you might have heard, product design as something much more tangible like the physical products that we build, the skill sets now have to encompass both of those, as well as those for digital products that we're creating. And so the leadership for the product space, typically has a skill set that looks completely different, because of the way that we build digital products looks completely different from the way that we would have traditionally built physical products and even the way that we build them today.

Tania: Great. And how has that product management concept evolved? And what impact do you think that it's having for end customers today?

Michael Varona: Yeah, I think that product management has changed in that, you're now trying to think across products and services, interactions with the different users, and trying to get out in front of what it is that we think a user would need, and be able to understand much more deeply, the things that those users and customers want and find delightful and exciting in the things that we do. So in product management, I think it's important for the leaders in that space as well as for those who are responsible for the products themselves, to really be that voice of the customer, and be able to at the same time articulate the things that are valuable to the business, as well as now be able to understand the technological landscape that exists, the constraints that are there and what's on the forefront, and be able to bring all of those things together, into something that really helps to build value for everyone involved.

Tania: You mentioned customer and customer insights quite a bit, which I think is really critical. Has that been something that you would say traditionally was built into the product development or product design as you mentioned process? Or is that something new? Because clearly our customers are constantly changing and evolving and how do we then really understand their needs?

Michael Varona: Right. This is something that the approach has changed a lot. I think in the past, if you think about how we would have developed a product, it might've been, build that product, put it out into the world, see what feedback you get through some sort of survey or maybe a focus group, go build another product, make those little changes, put it out there and it's a very expensive and time consuming process. With digital products, it's much easier for us to iterate quickly, and to put in front of the customers, scrappier prototypes, paper wire frames that allow us to get their feedback early, understand what works for them, and be able to build that into our first shot that we put out.

And then quickly learn from the way that they interact with our products, and make those changes pretty much on the fly now. Just the way that product is designed now, and the way that we implement product is completely different.

Tania: Which does bring up another point about where someone in your role with spend the bulk of their time. How do you measure the effectiveness of that time spent, especially when you think of someone leading this initiative and in how that role is changing? How would you break that down?

Michael Varona: Yeah, it's interesting. I think the role of the head of product or the VP of products as it might be called in some organizations, is very different from the role of the product owners and product managers that are actually out there building the products. So where I think the focus of my time had been spent was a little sadly in meetings, because it's more important at that level where you are looking across an organization to help envision what that strategy might look like. It's much more important to play almost more of a political role, to be a servant leader to the teams that are developing the products to the product owners and product managers who are responsible for ensuring that each of those products are doing the things that they need to do.

So, a lot of my time was actually spent unblocking those teams, unblocking those product managers and product owners, managing stakeholder expectations, making sure that stakeholders understood what it was that we were trying to do, what we were going after. And understanding that as we've been talking about delivery looks different now of products. We're not looking for one time big bang launches. We're looking at launching often. Iterating on the things that we're doing and helping them understand what that meant for the organization and how that tied into the way that they have to plan, which looks very different.

It's also just being able to align the visions across all the different business units that your product might be serving. Getting a broader view of all those organizations that play together and understanding those disparate needs. Unfortunately at that level, you spend less time on the products themselves, but the job is extremely important just when we think about the importance of being able to empower the teams to really help move the needle on what the businesses objectives are.

Tania: As you're engaging in these types of initiatives and being part of these teams and playing this role, what are some of the challenges that you're facing, and to how have you been addressing them?

Michael Varona: Yeah. I think the most difficult thing really is education. And I mean that as in helping clients and stakeholders to understand what it is that we do, as well as helping to upscale the team members, the product owners, just in as far as what it is that product is. Managing ambiguity in the space is really, really difficult. I don't think that there is agreement within the industry at this time, around what a product role actually is. So that means that the different organizations that are out there all have different definitions, and so when you engage with them, it looks very different and the needs are very different.

And it's hard to get that alignment across what it is that we're trying to do. To go a little deeper into that, teams within the organization that are delivering product, they all individually have different needs as well. So the product owner and the product manager role, end up looking very different from team to team within an organization as well. This makes it really difficult to build that sort of one size fits all program or curriculum around upscaling for the people in the industry. And it makes it really difficult to articulate what it is that product people do, in order to sell those skills to different stakeholders and different clients out there.

I think in all instances, it's important to take almost a product approach, eat our own dog food where, you want to really start with an assessment. You want to have the needs really bubble up and start to love the problem that exists. So whether that be for a client or customer, or for a product owner or product manager, what are their needs? What are their wants? What are their desires? Have those bubble up to the surface, and then start to get a lay of the land. Understand what we know and get started as soon as we can. Not looking to be perfect, but just looking to get going.

And then being open to adjusting and changing direction as we need along the way, and starting to make decisions as late as is actually responsible. So, solutions end up being a little bit more expensive as far as upfront investment might seem, but they're much more bespoke and you end up saving time in that you're not redoing something or restarting something, but are able to incrementally add onto where we've started.

So yeah, I think in general just to sum that up really quickly, dealing with just the many different differences in what product looks like, is solved by being able to take a product approach, and just deal with the ambiguity by starting, by understanding the problem, loving the problem, and making decisions as late as we can possibly make them.

Tania: You make mention of this fact that a lot of times people don't actually know what the product role is intended to do or maybe are using it in the wrong way and the industry terms are wrong. If you were to think of two or three risks that could come into play, if an organization embarking on a mission like this, does not put a good product manager or product leader in the team, what are the risks that they could face?

Michael Varona: Absolutely. That's an interesting question. I think to define a bad product owner, is someone who for me just goes along with what is being asked of them and does not actually ask the questions of why we're building this product. Who is it valuable for? And so the risk can be actually very high to send somebody in who's just going to go in and be an order taker, to go in and start to build a thing without asking all of the right questions, without trying to articulate all of the important pieces, building something that serves no value to anyone, and ends up costing millions of dollars often for our clients and customers.

The ability to not just push back and talk about figuring out the why, but also having the approach as to how to show incremental value as you build, is a very important skillset. So to have someone to come in and be able to push back say, "Hey, let's start exploration. It should look like this, and we can show value at every single point." I think that helps to de-risk building the wrong thing, and the ability to have strong product people who are comfortable with that ambiguity, comfortable with the ability to ask the right questions and ask them in the right way, really helps to have an organization build things that are valuable to their customers and therefore also valuable to the business itself.

Tania: It's interesting because in all of the things that you've mentioned so far Mike, I get the sense that there's a lot of soft skills involved in this role, and obviously those are harder to train and pick up on. But as you think about when you're interviewing and bringing people into these roles, what are the skills that you're looking for, and why would you say these are important to being successful in this role?

Michael Varona: Absolutely. So I would say the hard skills, things like road mapping and being able to run workshops and get alignment across stakeholders by running a specific session, those are all table stakes for product people nowadays. And there's a million books out there that you can read and lots of communities out there that will talk about the hard skills that people use from a day to day. You hit the nail on the head by saying that soft skills are actually the capabilities that I believe are core to the product management function.

Things like negotiation, influence, building empathy, active listening. These are all the things that I look for when I'm talking to a product person. The ability to again ask the why, but ask it in an appropriate way, that leads our customers and stakeholders to really ask themselves the question and participate in the co-designing of what that product needs to look like. Those are things that I think are very hard to build up. It takes practice.

It takes a lot of collaboration with other product people. That actually is for me the best way to build these up is, in the pairing of product people, in allowing product people to work with one another, see how each other's approaches look, be able to give active, relevant, quick feedback around what they've been doing. I think those are all important things that being able to pair with another product person helps to do. It's definitely one of those things where I think as product people we need to be supportive of one another. We need to be able to give that good feedback, that criticism when it needs to exist there.

And again, even that in and of itself is a soft skill, right? The ability to give positive feedback and really build somebody up. Yeah, those are the things that I think the leaders in this space really need to focus on building for their organizations. And it probably all comes down to empathy. So focusing on how to build empathy, or how to create social emotional intelligence or foster social emotional intelligence in your organization. I know that there are a lot of trainers out there who speak to that and they're not necessarily product specific.

But being able to engage those trainers, I think that's great for all parts of the organization, but is definitely a bolster to a lot of the core needs of product managers and product owners out there.

Tania: That makes sense Mike and I think to your point it's quite difficult to find, and sometimes it takes a lot of nurturing and recognition of those skills, that's very important. The other thing that just comes to my mind and I can imagine many new teams or teams who are about to embark on something or teams who've already started but don't have a product person on their teams might be thinking is, if you with your experience were to go into an existing engagement, what would be the two or three red flags that immediately tell you, you need a product person in here or you don't have one, or you need to think about one because you're not going down the right path.

Michael Varona: Definitely the first thing, and I see this often, is the business handing work over to the technology space, and telling them to build something. So, not having that translation between what is valuable to the business, and what we should be building is definitely a red flag. Something that immediately tells me, "We need to have a product person in that space." Also, often product and design are coupled together. So seeing an organization without design. When I say design I'm talking much more broadly, not just something like visual design or interaction design, but actually design research, a function that is out there to learn from the user.

Seeing an organization without that, is also a huge red flag to me. Needing to have someone in the space to articulate the user voice, the business value and the tech constraints. And I say someone, what I really mean is an organization, because that can take many different forms. But those two things. Not having someone representing the user voice, and the business just throwing over solutions rather than working through problems with a team, those are two things that definitely immediately are flags for me around the need for a product organization or a product role to be played in some capacity for a team.

Tania: That makes great sense. So as you think about this concept of product management ... and I call it a concept because I think you've just really brought to light the fact that it's still a little nebulous for some folks and still even the industry is struggling with coming up with what exactly it is, the tangible component of it, but clearly a need. What do you think has changed or is starting to change an industry? What trends are you seeing? Are you seeing anything different now than you had in the past? What are some things that folks should really start looking for?

Michael Varona: Absolutely. I think what I'm seeing is the recognition for the need of product, just in general. So I think a lot of companies don't know why they need product, but see that successful digital companies have product organizations, and recognizing that there is something to the product organization that helps to build really good products. Just that recognition is the first piece. Again, still nebulous for many, but just the recognition that that needs to exist, and that that needs to exist working together again with design and technology.

I think having that triumvirate is a thing that we're seeing happening more and more out there. In general, the way that we've talked about product management, hasn't changed that much over the years, but with that recognition of the need, I think there's more and more talk around it. When we talk about product management, it used to be a lot about building roadmaps, understanding plans, project management. I think now it's a lot more around understanding vision, bringing more alignment across the organization, building transparency around vision and strategy.

Those are the things that I think within product management, are becoming more and more important and talked about in much greater detail, just because of the greater recognition of the need of product management. Also the ability to empower teams to help move a needle, whatever that needle may be. Again, I talked about servant leadership a little bit earlier, but from all levels, being a product owner or a product manager, being able to unblock your team, to allow them to understand what's important at all levels, and help to craft the solution to help really affect change there.

I think that is something that I will see a lot more in 2020. And giving that a space to learn for teams. I think we often hear about failing fast, that term a lot of people don't like to use because of the word fail, but reality is, we learn through failure. So call it failing fast, call it learning quickly, whatever terminology you want to use, being able to build that space for your team to be able to do that, as you're creating a product, that's something that I think we're seeing more and more. Along with that comes metrics, and being able to understand what success looks like.

Understand how we can recognize earlier whether we're accomplishing the things that we want to accomplish, and just knowing what it is that we need to measure, those are things that are all very important to the product management space, and things that I think in the next several years, we'll be seeing some innovation around team structure, around the way that we measure things, how we measure things, where we measure things. Those are all concepts that we'll see happening more and more.

Tania: Yes, and I think a lot of organizations embarking on this are thinking about metrics and how do we measure either this as a standalone or this as a bigger piece of the puzzle in business outcomes. I think that's a very valid point. You mentioned a lot of what you're seeing is that people are just starting to catch on to this idea, or maybe just starting to really nurture it in their organizations. Have you seen any best practices or any organizations that are doing this really well, or anything that really showcases the best practice?

Michael Varona: Yeah I think we can learn a lot from the smaller, scrappier organizations out there. Startups for instance. They build a lot of good product practices into their DNA. It's less about a transformation effort. It's less about moving from the way we've done things for decades or centuries in some cases, and making that cultural shift into a brand new way of building value for our clients. I think we're seeing the way that startups function as great examples of how we can build a product within our organizations.

What I've seen in a couple instances and one comes to mind specifically of a large financial institution that I was working at where, they recognized how difficult it was for many different reasons, to make this digital shift to change their organizational structure, their operating model, all of the legalities and compliance around their industry, for them to do that within their large enterprise. But they recognize the need to become digital first, to think about products in a different way. So what they were able to do was actually spin up their own little startup.

They spun up basically an innovation lab that allowed them to innovate around the products that they were building, build something out and deliver something within a year. So, their investment looked a little bit different, but for them, being able to completely slice off another part of their company, and give that work and autonomy and space to fail, versus trying to transform an entire culture that failure was not a possibility, the org structure and the reporting structure was heavy. These were all things that were not possible within their enterprise.

So, being able to think a little bit laterally for them and recognize what the needs were, and find a different way to help bring those needs about, that was something that astounded me to tell you the truth. It was a wonderful thing to see. And honestly, I'd worked both with the larger enterprise, and that was a slow go and there was a bit of a slog there and they were moving slowly through it and they were committed to it. But you could tell that it was 10 years out from being able to do the things that they wanted to do, as well as working with that smaller startup that they spun up, and the interaction was completely different.

Being able to actually own the product and deliver something really quickly, it was night and day within that organization to see. So often I think one, we can learn a lot from these smaller scrappier startups, but secondly, trying to find ways to just introduce those best practices and those principles quickly into your organization. I think also help to become that example for your organization and how to make some of those changes come about.

Tania: It does sound like cultural change is a big part of that within an organization. And so Mike, before we end today, I'd love to hear your thoughts on, as being a professional in this space for a while now and having seen different organizations, large and small go through this transition, and thinking about the next generation of folks coming into these roles, what is the passion for you today? What keeps you excited and interested in this role, and what keeps you really excited about making sure that you're passing that on to others?

Michael Varona: Absolutely. I was having a conversation earlier this week about what I still go out and learn in the space. Because, I'm working right now in a capacity which is closer to product ownership. And so the ability to go in and get my hands dirty and learn from customers and talk to stakeholders, that's all stuff that I've always loved and there's always ways to learn and improve. But one thing that I've really taken away from playing that head of product role, is the desire to really grow other product people. I think that's an important thing for all product people.

To want to see others within the industry grow, and to share your learnings, and to share your challenges, and to be able to talk through these things, really helps to one, empower others, and really helps to break down this impostor syndrome, which I think is very real for most products people. And two, helps to improve the product culture within your organization. For me those are extremely important things that I'm very passionate about, as far as being able to continue to build up the importance of product within the broader industry, as well as really hoping that other products people see as important for themselves.

The idea that we are a community, the idea that we need to be fostering a culture, for me is far more important than it is to define the activities that we need to do from day to day to build products. Those just come with the territory and flesh out with experience. The idea that we could build a community and a culture around what product needs to be is actually the thing that I hope product people throughout the industry are driving towards as we go further into the future with this.

Tania: That's great to hear because as we know the evolving customer is going to be much more product centric, and their expectations much higher, and their needs very different. So I think the more we encourage and really showcase these capabilities, the better off we'll all be at the end.

Michael Varona: Yeah. Absolutely. Product and technology are changing constantly. So those hard skills, they change at every moment. So, being able to work as a community to being able to figure out what's the next big thing and how do we learn that, that's definitely something that we don't want to do individually, we want to be doing together.

Tania: Mike, thank you so much for your time today. I think there are some really great pieces of takeaways that hopefully our audience can also take back to their organizations. So I appreciate you spending that time.

Michael Varona: Thank you for having me. This has been great.

Tania: If you enjoyed this episode of Pragmatism in Practice, please head over to iTunes to subscribe to future episodes, rate us, and leave a review. Thank you.

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