If there was a prize for best metaphor used on stage at a conference, Kirsten Butzow of Pragmatic Marketing wins it for schooling the crowd at INDUSTRY this week on ants.
After one of the worst mistakes of her career, one that revealed how dysfunctional and insular her executive team had become, a meant-to-be-mindless show on the BBC about ants provided the lessons her team needed to become effective leaders and provide a better product to customers.
Kirsten hit on a key theme of this year’s global INDUSTRY conference in Cleveland—that successful product management can’t happen without well-aligned teams, both in product and throughout an organization.
Using examples from news and media, comedy, government, and, of course, Amazonian fire ants, most speakers had some take on how to be an influential product leader and build an effective product organization.
In Kirsten’s view, companies too often fail to create a shared vision, commit to it, and then act as a superorganism to achieve it—the three pillars of ant life. When her team at Pearson Learning instituted those three practices following their disastrous mistake, they achieved a 10 percent increase in customer satisfaction, 20 percent reduction in support calls and 15 percent increase in product delivery velocity.
Teams can suffer when they grow too fast without clear roles, too. Nick Caldwell, former head of engineering at Reddit, shared with the crowd insights from his experience scaling engineering from 35 people to 170 in a two-year period. A key question he asked each person on the team was if they cared more about people or architecture? That helped him sort managers from architects. And he implemented the RACI matrix (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed) to build trust within the team and a process for verifying that work was underway, behind, or completed.
But aligning a single team goes only so far. Effective product teams also need to be aligned with others across a company, and in some cases with teams outside their own organization.
Village Capital investor Brianne Kimmel — previously of Zendesk’s go-to-market team– advocated for product to play a key role in training and coaching sales. She laid out a loop of education, activation, and iteration that product should use to turn salespeople into product experts.
Nikki Lee has an even trickier role—as an innovation specialist at government contractor 18F, it’s her job to work inside government agencies to improve the user experience of public-facing websites and apps as well as internal processes and systems. Beyond that, she has to instill that knowledge within government teams so she can move onto the next project.
Her advice: Make others look good. Equip them with powerful stories that help them sell the product vision across an organization. And while she has to work herself out of a job, she recommends that mentality for others too. Build things that live beyond your tenure somewhere, she said, and coach the people around you to help grow a product culture.
That was echoed by Firstmark Capital investor Catherine Ulrich, who previously worked as chief product officer at Weight Watchers and Shutterstock. As a first-time chief product officer suddenly managing people much older and more experienced than herself, she worked tirelessly to help others succeed in her organization, and by asserting her own leadership style to motivate and influence her team. During an especially tense moment where her company’s website crashed, costing tens of thousands of dollars each minute of downtime, she relieved the tension in the room by making everyone stand up and dance.
“Courage always comes before confidence,” is a quote she heard from the owner of Ripped Fitness in NYC and has lived by since.
Influence was a word used often on stage at INDUSTRY this year. Alignment across teams comes when product leaders have influence. Perhaps the best example of that came from TheSkimm’s Dheerja Kaur, who, twice in her career has built products at organizations where product is a new function. Rather than stay in her “product swim lane” early in her career in product management at ESPN, she deliberately spent time with people across the organization, to ensure she understood their roles and that her work aligned with theirs. “Focus on how product can help others, not how it takes away their responsibilities,” she says.
The INDUSTRY lineup made it clear that alignment across product organizations and broader teams doesn’t just matter, it’s critical to building a product-centric culture that we all believe makes for the best companies.