Whether your organization is going through a product management transformation or is currently at a product steady-state, it’s worth taking a deep breath and considering what your company’s ideal product team looks like. They say the suit makes the man or woman. Perhaps the same can be said of the product team and the organization. Asking ourselves the same questions we might ask before investing in a bespoke suit offers an interesting lens to think about how we build and structure our teams as we try to create world-class products and experiences.

What’s the occasion?

Because a bespoke suit is a substantial investment, one question you might ask is, “Where am I going to wear this outfit?” Is this my new downtown wear, or am I planning on wearing it to charity events only?

In other words: Is this going to be my default, or do I have a specific use case in mind? Now this is starting to sound like a product question.

Let’s say you’re looking to hire a product manager. Your basic problem statement might be that your organization needs to deliver an effective/profitable experience or solution to a specific persona, and we need someone to coordinate those efforts. While true, this does not really take into consideration things like internal office politics, market fluctuation, or real-world international and domestic politics (just to name a few). It’s best to take these factors into consideration, or you may end up wearing a white dress to someone else’s wedding.

Product system map

One approach to parsing these issues is a product system map. A product system map attempts to address the forces that affect the product. Here is an example of an early map I did for an internal data foundations team here at rS:

System map

In my naivete at the time, this map did not include the political headwinds like GDPR and CCPA that would rock the boat in this space. A reflective look at the needs, forces, and opportunities facing your particular product will help you identify the skillsets this new hire needs to be successful.

A final consideration is your product-market fit. Has your product already found its fit, or are you looking for a product manager to guide the product toward this goal? And if you’re struggling with product-market fit (as most of us are), I highly encourage you to read Obviously Awesome by April Dunford.

What’s your style? 

Your product organization’s “style” determines your bandwidth and capabilities. Some suits feature oversized lapels, big brass buttons, and animal-print fabric. Others are simple, basic, and “bare bones.” This lens offers a nice analogy for a product organization trying to determine its size and capabilities. Do you go big, or do you go simple?

Style

In some cases, the right answer for your product team could be just a few people. Most products have multiple experiences depending on the amount of customer journey inside the product. An effective organization often gives PMs one or a few experiences to manage. Again, getting back to the market conditions, the complexity of forces that affect a product also helps determine how much ground one PM can cover. If an organization with a larger product portfolio is being affected by a major headwind, it’s best to assign a PM that is most affected to become the expert on this factor.

Additional challenges

Other major considerations here include the size of your user base, your international strategy, and your customer type(s). If you have a large user base, your team might benefit from a growth or experimentation manager. Companies that have international footprints often need a “white knight” to make sure domestic concerns don’t suck all the oxygen out of the room. Often, this looks like a product strategy manager. And an organization focused on customer acquisition would find value in a product marketing manager who’s an expert on the sales pipeline.

In addition, product operations is quickly becoming a hot topic in the field. This new bud on the product rose bush is still blooming, but it’s worth considering hiring specifically for this role if your environment struggles with normalizing processes or improving quality assurance before release.    

Once you have a clear vision for the desired current state and future of your product team, it’s time to start thinking about people, alignment, and process.

Finding the perfect fabric

Fabric selection for any fine suit is a weighty decision, as it encompasses everything from color, pattern, and weight, to durability and flexibility. Also, it’s a choice that cannot be altered. It’s possible to adjust the fit, but replacing the fabric means creating an entirely new suit. Which is, of course, costly and time-consuming, much like replacing a product manager. Product managers start creating their best value after the first 12 months, once they’ve become experts on their product. Definitely something to keep in mind when evaluating product managers! 

Fabric

Color and Pattern

When picking the color of a suit, you need to consider how well it aligns with other accessories, such as shoes or a belt. And so, the person you hire must be able to collaborate well with other key stakeholders. Will this person need to coordinate with functional departments, work with legal on privacy, or partner with data science on a new machine learning model? 

The pattern for fabrics on suits can be subtle or loud, and defines the suit’s personality. In product, the best allegory for this is process. What patterns of interaction does a successful product manager at your organization exhibit? The thing to look for is whether the candidate has a consistent process they feel comfortable and confident using. On a cautionary note, be wary of toxic patterns that can lead to your entire outfit unraveling.

Weight

The primary consideration here is the environment. As a Texan, I tend to buy lightweight suits unless I’m traveling north. Making sure the market you serve aligns with the interest of the prospective hire can make the difference between a good and great product manager. Does the candidate want to become an expert on the user, the problem, and eventually, the solutions you’re creating? Will this person be able to ultimately be able to empathize with the user need?

Durability

Durable fabric makes for suits that last. Everyone eventually gets burned out but evaluating how resilient and confident someone will be can be the difference between two candidates. Will this position have to interact with fragile legacy systems that require weekend service? Does this product require a bunch of executive presentations? Being able to handle the repeating needs of the role with continual resolve is important for a PM.

Flexibility

How flexible is the fabric? Your team can leverage someone with strong foundational PM skills for a variety of tasks, from journey mapping to go-to-market. The more robust the skill sets, the more you should expect to pay this individual. However, being able to provide value in changing contexts allows PM to be company problem-solvers — white blood cells addressing different needs.

Getting the right fit

After you have defined your style and fabric, it’s time for a fitting. Conversation is key to a good fitting, and the same is true as you try to fit your PMs into your engineering and organizational structure. When interviewing a potential PM, keep the following three rules in mind. 

Rule No. 1

No lying! Don’t let your colleagues in engineering sugarcoat the realities of the current working structure, processes, or degree of technical debt. 

Rule No. 2

By its very nature, engineering structure is not as fluid as product structure. Engineers are the experts on the actual technical assets, just as your tailor is the expert in his craft. It’s going to take time to get everything just right — maybe even until your next full roadmap revision. Like a good suit, it’s worth the wait. If you make the transition too soon, it can create issues managing tech debt and talent resources.

As much as we like to think that engineers do magic, it still takes time to attune their “powers” to the products they support. It’s easier for product organizations to align with each other rather than having to share people across different product verticals. Otherwise, your engineers will be stretched across too much of the business.

Stretch

Rule No. 3

Measure as many times as you need to, but try to only cut once.  When getting their measurements done, some people will do it once in the morning, then again after lunch to determine the normal fluctuations of their body. The key is it’s expensive to go back on these decisions once they’ve been made. As suggested above, it will take time and money to realign the engineering structure to better suit the consumer experience.

An organization with poor alignment will often find themselves looking for a new PM rather than offering grace. But if you can get it right, you’ll create a group of high-functioning engineers that feel both ownership and impact on a tangible experience. This alignment allows PM to use their full skill sets to deliver the right experience, rather than the most features. For those that have gone through this process, it can create a new lease on life and make PMs feel like they have our backs. 

Taking care of your investment

When you receive your bespoke suit, they almost always include a card with care advice. For any product team, it’s worth considering a team charter to codify these practices and principles to ensure constituency within the team. Here are a few principals I find valuable for my colleagues and me:

  1. Know what we don’t know, prepare to be wrong, and vocalize risks and learning opportunities
  2. Focus on the significant, essential, and bottlenecks
  3. Unite under a shared banner
  4. Empathy first — start with the other person’s pains, goals, and values
  5. Express the hypothesis first and seek to challenge
  6. Set the right expectations and kill ambiguity with stakeholders
  7. Focus on what makes people tick, learn to listen actively, empathize, and acknowledge other viewpoints
  8. To promote long-term success, you must ignore short-term reward systems
  9. Embrace the inspectors
  10. Encourage a questioning attitude over blind obedience

Let me know in the comments if you enjoyed the article. Or just share some cat pics!

Obligatory cute pet pic:

Cute cat pic

About the Author

Clay is a data-centric product manager with three years of experience at rewardStyle, where he is helping to build the influencer economy. He works on the board of directors for Productcamp DFW, giving back to the PM community. You can find him here on LinkedIn if you want to connect.