Ep. 1: How do you ensure that Product is not a Black Box?

Ep. 1: “How do you ensure that Product is not a Black Box?”

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HOW DO YOU ENSURE THAT PRODUCT IS NOT A BLACK BOX?// Are you a new product leader? Are you concerned that the rest of your org feels that product is a "black box?" Learn from experienced product leaders who successfully ensure that their organizations understand WHAT the Product team is working on and WHY:

and yours truly, Hope Gurion, Fearless Product (https://www.fearless-product.com)

Hope Gurion: On this episode of Fearless Product Leadership, we are going to ask product leaders: How do you make sure that product is not a black box?

And we are going to find out from leaders from companies that have as few as 100 employees, up to several thousand, in b2b and b2c organizations; how they provide the Transparency that their organizations need to understand the what, the why, and the when of everything that's going on in the product organization. These are the products leaders that we're going to be speaking with today You can get more information on their background by watching their bio videos using the links below:

Lauren Antonelli: I make sure that we're not building products or releasing projects in a black box, all comes down to line-of-sight. Our CEO has extensive templates about his thoughts on how to work and have organized teams (www.victorcho.info). One of them is about how leaders work in the workplace and a big part of that is about line-of-sight. So, it's up, down and across and we have lots of different ways that we work to create that line of sight in the company.

So, lots of product teams send out release notes; that's like one way to make sure that the company understands what's being released. We also set a time aside in every ‘All Hands’ meeting, to talk about the strategic priorities and the products that are under them; product managers talk, developers talk, it's a really across team effort. At the end of each week I actually send out a company-wide email that we call TGIF, that goes through what we accomplished this week, what we're planning on doing next week, any big data measurement points that have moved and any upcoming dates the company needs to know. It's actually a much more detailed layer than we've ever done at the company, but that was in response to people wanting to have more information. I don't think there's ever a time when the org has too much information. I don't think over communication is possible and so in that way, that's how we make sure that people constantly are understanding what we're working on and why.

No one wants to work at a company that they don't understand why their work is valuable or how its contributing to the bottom line and so, I have a this quote on my desk from the author of the five dysfunctions of a team, that says, “If you could get all the people in an organization going in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition at any time” and that's my KPI in my current role. I will do whatever I can to make sure all 115 of these people are working towards the same goals every day and that sort of transcends product in a lot of ways. It really is - our product is our business, so it's super important for the entire company to really understand what we're working on, why it didn't work, why it did work, what the customers are saying about it and so it's just line-of-sight and over communication.

Hope Gurion: So, just to follow up on that, it sounds like you have an all-hands, you have the TGIF, you have the release notes, are these all text documents or what is the other ways that you make sure people have the same understanding?

Lauren Antonelli: So, at ‘All Hands’ it's nice, because you get to ask questions and you can be in front of the people who are creating these products or testing them with customers. We almost always show visual, either videos or gifts or photos of what it looks like. The release notes always have photos, videos all of that stuff in it. What the product and tech teams call a feature is not often what makes sense to the rest of the company or the customer, so a lot of times when I'm coaching the product managers on how to do line of sight; I tell them to actually pretend like they're talking to customers. Like you would you would never call our internal nickname for a project to the customers; you would tell them what it is and how it works and so that's the kind of simplicity that we use to talk to the whole company; really just making sure that they understand why something is important, don't talk in the jargon of agile and that kind of stuff and really just tell them, just like human beings, talk about it. This is how it helps people get together for parties this is what - you know? That kind of way. So, we make sure that we really don't get too product-y about stuff when we're talking to the company. It's okay obviously, if you're working a product in tech and QA and are just going really fast, but I think it's important for line of sight to make sure that you're using communication that people understand.


HOPE GURION: Next we’ll hear from Al Ming, who has held product leadership roles at the New York Times and Scripps Networks and Discovery Communications before joining CNBC.  Al shares how vision, goals and commitments play an important role in ensuring the product org is not a black box.

Al Ming: A number of patterns that I've had some success with, in terms of how to build more transparency in the organization and prevent products from being a black box. One of the ones that I think has helped a lot is having a lot of clarity as to the goals that you're trying to accomplish and making sure that you're aligned on those goals. In some context, that's about vision and strategy, it may also be about understanding what those KPIs are, but making sure that with our peers at the product leadership level, at the executive level, there is a clear idea of what are we trying to accomplish and how we are mapping the decisions about what is tactical and strategic to that.

So, for me that usually takes two forms; one is a kind of vision and strategy, usually it's a deck in most cultures, but it could be something else, that articulates not just the what is that metric that we're trying to get to or where the success look like, but what are the tactics that we're going to be using to try to get to that. They don't necessarily have to go as far as a vision statement or a story, although those are great; but they have to kind of speak from our perspective at a high level, what are we doing to achieve these goals. From that we're able to give them a more timely view, with something like, OKRs, objectives and key results; where every quarter we say these are the big swings that we're taking. These are the things that line up to the map that we've already told you about, that this team is going to do, this quarter. These two teams are going to work together on this initiative for. So, that they have an idea of what we think is going to succeed. A part of the process even coming up with those is to do a top-down, bottom-up, side-to-side exercise, so that people who are outside the park organization can know that they're heard, know that their ideas are heard, know that the work that we are doing takes into account whatever insights we can gain from the rest of the organization.

So, that kind of takes us through to understanding what we think is important at a high level and what we're prioritizing as things in a given time box. Other patterns that I've found helpful in terms of creating that clarity throughout the organization, is, I'm a big fan of Christina Wodtke’s model of commitments; so every Monday like talking amongst the team about what are we doing to achieve that goal. So, that they see us kind of putting our money where our mouth is and the teams can articulate, this is work that is going towards this goal, this is the same thing that that you've heard about before. We don't always get a lot of people joining those meetings because some people don't care, some people are more interested as it turns out, but we share it with everyone, like after we meet and we talk about it, we share it with some people; at least the executive stakeholders get to hear what's going on and heading even a level further down, if you've heard about our OKRs, if you've heard about what's going on a given week, you can join.

Something that's helped a lot, I haven't implemented yet here at CNBC but previously at Scripps Networks, one of the things that worked really well was getting our editorial teams to commit someone to be part of the team. Someone who joins sprint planning, someone who comes to stand up when there's something they're interested in, someone who comes to sprint demos, not just for demos but throughout the process. So, that if there's something that they want to be involved in they can be and that starts it's similar to the way that in consultancies or agencies you can sell your idea better if the client thinks it's their idea too.

So, the same model kind of goes for product, is to have our stakeholders involved in that process, so it's a we thing, not a you thing and that also helps to create a bubbling up effect, where someone who is a member of a sprint team is able to then go back to their boss and say “Oh yeah, I worked on that” like that's something that I'm involved in, that's something that I've heard of, it's not a surprise to anyone anymore and that helps to eliminate those kind of unpleasant surprises that tend to get in the way when you are a black box and people don't know why you're doing the things you're doing.

Finally, I know I've gone for a bit about this, but the last thing is to actually connect things back together, at things like sprint demos, at things like quarterly reviews of how our OKRs did, to the actual metrics that we've all agreed on; so you get to see that we are delivering on the things that we are accomplishing. That in a sprint demo we're not just saying, “We launched, yay for us” we're saying, “We launched and this is the impact that we're having” or “We launched last sprint and now we're seeing the measurements that come back, now we're seeing the impacts that this has” and they realize that the work you're doing is important. It is something that is driving the bottom line for the company, it's driving revenue, it's driving audience it's driving engagement and it creates a virtuous cycle there; where they want to be more involved, where they pay attention to those emails that you send out or those meetings that you call or those sprint planning sessions that you ask someone to be a part of. It keeps that going and allows us to keep that transparency throughout the organization.


Hope Gurion: I love that Al connects the dots back to goals with the demos and proof that what was delivered, also delivered on the objectives and goals. Next Brandon Anderson, VP of Product at Sports Engine, discusses the communication tactics he uses to make sure everyone throughout the company knows what the product team is doing and why.

Brandon Anderson: The way that I approach transparency and to make sure that our organization has all the information that they need to be able to do their jobs, based off of the jobs that the product organization is doing, is really multi-layered. I have stakeholders across the organization, we have over a hundred and twenty salespeople within our organization, we of course an executive team, I have customer service, account management, customer success, onboarding coaches and then of course, the product development organization. Does every team know what they're doing and what the context is for what they're doing? So, it’s a big challenge for us.

I've never worked in an organization that tried to push out more communication and, in my team, I'm really responsible for helping do that. I really like our teams to approach it across all the different personas if you will, in the organization. So, of course, road maps are produced. I do six-month road maps, we move really fast, anything longer gets out of date. We publish those out to the entire organization quarterly; so, each Reb goes out quarterly. So, that's certainly a foundation piece.

Every two weeks our product organization groups together all of the things that we're working on in development and the alpha-beta are ready for GA and we publish out an email to the entire company. So, those are some basic things that we do, then we relay - we have some kan ban teams, some scrum teams, they all produce release notes. We're a continuous deployment shop and so we're constantly pushing changes out to production; those go into the actual application itself, through different tools like intercom and Alivio.

Of course, we do field enablement every month, for our sales force; where we get up there and kind of jobs in, you’re giving the whole demo on why it's cool, in the context of why we built what we built.

So, those are all really great, but I would say the secret sauce to all of it, is probably about a year and a half ago, each of the product teams put together a small group of cross-functional people, that were folks that actually are in the trenches; so customer service, onboarding coaches, account managers and sales people and the product managers and product owners on the team, meet every week and each person has to go through, what are the things that we need to address? What are some small wins? What's the context for what we're building and why? Then, they're all responsible to go back and tell everybody within their department what happened and what that specific team is doing. So, if you can imagine, we have we have eight to nine product teams depending on how you define them and so those folks are going back, so there's nine representatives that are pulling information from our team back to their folks. So, they bring that context down to their distinct levels, which is, I think I hear time and time again that that's the best meeting that our product teams have to get information out to folks.


Hope Gurion: Finally, we’ll hear from Prasad Gune, SVP Product at Signifyd, who formerly led product at OpenTable and LinkedIn, describe the importance of relationships and alignment on the problems to solve.


Prasad Gune: I try to make sure that product is not a blackbox is basically through a lot of communication. It's talking to people; it's building relationships upfront. Typically, most people who are not in the product or engineering function shy away because it seems difficult, it seems technical and I see part of my role as actually building that connective tissue with other groups. So, for instance, in my new role here, I've been in the role for close to a month. I spent a lot of time sitting down with people who are not in the product function; executives in sales and finance and as part of that I actually walk them through what product does and for some people they know it already, for others it's educational and they get a sense of what's happening inside the black box, if you will. Most importantly, I try to make sure it's not about the exact details and specifics about every single thing that product does, but how it matters; what is it that we do, how do we make sure that we're delivering our the most important things to the company and why it should matter to them as both as individuals, but also leaders in their own capacity. The more you make clear that the reason getting people on boarded quickly and hiring for the product roles matters or in general, matters, is because I can then deliver a product which will have an outcome of the financial to the company, that's important for a CFO. Having a product ready to sell is important for a split in the sales organization.

I gave you examples of senior executives, but the same thing applies across the board, the more and more you make they clear what it is that product does and how it touches different functions and the more you know people realize, you are not just your value, but how to work with you effectively. So, that's mostly what I try to do.

I do also want to point out one thing though, which is, you want to be transparent as possible, but you also to be very clear on your expectations and on things are unrolled and boundaries. A clear example for me on that is when I'm talking to a sales team for instance, I'm less concerned about the specific features that people are asking for, and much more concern about the problems that they're trying to solve; both on the field cyber roles and on the customer side. So, just like how I'm not going out there trying to sell on behalf of the selling organization, with the sales team I'm really looking for details on what is the problem which are solved. So, being very clear about how we work together, is important too in this area.

Hope Gurion:

So, the thing that I tell leaders to keep in mind is that the rest of the organization has a tremendous amount of dependency on the decisions that are made by the product organization.

It’s critical that you want to provide transparency to the rest of the organization, because that shows that you care about their needs, just as much as you care about your customers’ needs. By being transparent, by finding the right frequency of communication that doesn’t overwhelm you and your team, but is actually in sync with the type of communication you’re doing to facilitate shared understanding with your engineers and with your customer support team; so, you can really invite in the rest of the organization to share their wisdom with you and to have confidence and trust in the decisions that you and your team are making. And, that you understand it’s a team sport to effectively introduce and evolve products.

So, what action items are you taking away from today’s episode about insuring that product in your organization is not a blackbox?

1.     Is it the context? Does everybody in your organization know the why behind the what?

2.     Is it your ratio of delivery against commitments? Nothing erodes trust faster than a trail of broken promises. If you can’t maintained a 1 to 1 ratio of delivery to commitments, are you effectively communicating the why behind the commitments that you weren't able to keep?

3.     Great product leaders make sure that every goal has a measure of success. Do your product teams have meaningful goals and metrics of success that can actually be measured? You’d better!  When you're communicating what your team is working on and what metrics they're intending to move, don't forget to follow through with exactly how much they were able to move those success metrics.

4.     For frequency, we want to make sure that you are communicating enough to maintain shared understanding and course correct where needed, but you also want to make sure that it’s so frequent that you can’t actually achieve your goals and deliver on your commitments.

5.     Visuals can be an incredible strength when you are trying to provide transparency to your organization. Are you using Visuals to communicate what the product team is doing? People can remember and relate to visuals that customers will experience.  The more people retain, the less you’ll have to explain! 

6.     Relationships are a key part of your success as leader. Are you investing in Relationship-building are crucial part of your success? You need lines of communication open with executives and the people on the front lines working with customers. This will help ensure that you and your team don't have blind spots in what you’re learning, building and communicating.

I hope you found this helpful, and you’ll find more resources in the notes below.

Thanks for listening to this episode of Fearless Product Leadership. If you know a new product leader who would find this advice helpful, please let them know about this podcast!

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Resources mentioned in this episode: 

You can find me, Hope Gurion, on Linkedin and Twitter or subscribe to “Fearless Product Leadership” on your favorite podcast platform to be notified of new episodes.  You will find transcripts, videos versions of each episode as well as more information on my Fearless Product coaching and consulting services by visiting my website, Fearless-Product.com.