Product management in digital transformation

Dan clarifies what digital transformation is, along with signs it may be struggling, and how to promote its success.

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What is digital transformation? Digital Transformation is the business buzzword of the last decade, and it means different things to different organisations. For some it was the launch of a new digital channel such as a website. For others it was moving their technology into the cloud or implementing Agile engineering practices within their business.

In truth, it’s something much deeper than that. It’s a process of change that impacts every part of a business. Why? The world is not stopping, uncertainty is the norm, everything is forever changing, evolving, adapting and moving in new directions, into areas we never thought were possible.

These changes inevitably have an impact on the skills and processes that are sometimes less visible but ultimately lead to the failure of a transformation. To remain operationally competitive it’s imperative that businesses regularly review how their transformation is going.

What are the signs that your digital transformation is struggling and what might be causing it?
Short term or tactical focus

This is usually the symptom of a lack of overarching strategy and planning. Strategy comes in many forms. You may think you have a well thought out plan for your product but the practicalities of delivering it without a wider impact assessment and planning upfront can lead to teams firefighting, doing the “thinking” on the fly and never being able to catch up.

This is compounded by business leaders who are constantly under pressure to deliver quickly to meet targets, meaning there is seldom any respite to get comfortably ahead with product delivery. This can lead to cut corners and mounting technical debt resulting in Frankenstein systems that paralyse a business. There’s also likely to be little understanding or appreciation of product lifecycle management in the senior ranks.

Slow delivery

There could be several reasons for this. Short term focus is certainly a contributing factor, but it could also be due to a lack of skills and experience, poor delivery processes, too many hand-offs and stakeholder sign offs, operating silos, technical debt and complicated legacy systems to name but a few.

Poor collaboration

The number one cause of failure in any business process is a lack of communication. Teams within a business have their own needs, targets and agendas which, when put in silos, can lead everyone pursuing different directions as well as conflict, misalignment and errors.

Poor results­

This is a symptom of assumptions being made. To deliver results that matter, it’s imperative that there is a strategic direction, an informed view of the market, customer’s needs are analysed, and risks such as viability and usability are removed.

Old business behaviours where the most knowledgeable person about the product, or the highest paid person makes their best guess, can be avoided with ways to mitigate the chances of failure through good product process.

High attrition

In today’s talent marketplace high attrition can be one of the biggest indicators of an issue with transformation. Low pay, bad managers etc. still exist but career-focused individuals are always looking to grow within their field. If they have learnt from mentors, coaches and books what good working practices look like and then they enter an environment that stifles their growth, they will be looking for the exit.

Arguably, these people are your most valuable employees so good working practices are directly linked to their wellbeing and career growth. Empowerment and devolution of ownership to Product Teams offering them problems instead of solutions instils trust that hands responsibility to the experts within their field.

However, if the Product Team’s skills and experience are poor then this transfer of ownership will likely lead to failure and result in micromanaging and a culture of command and control. This results in under skilled teams unable to learn and grow resulting in them looking for other roles where they can grow. This is a common chicken and egg scenario.

What can be done to promote digital transformation success?
Secure leadership buy-in

This is critical. It’s imperative that the leadership within the business fully understand and support the ongoing transformational process. Often significant organisational changes and investments are required to ensure change can occur across the business. Therefore, it’s important leaders understand the implications of inaction and what the benefits are of the changes being proposed. This requires a strong senior sponsor.

Embed skilled product leadership

The ideal situation is one where product is represented at the executive level. Good product process, strategy, leadership, coaching, and recruitment needs to be established across an organisation to ensure good quality candidates are recruited, and better processes and a product-led culture can flourish across the business. Most companies establishing this for the first time will need to have an organisational design that fits in with their design and engineering capabilities. They’ll also need to ensure good relationships are forged with business stakeholders and partners.

Set a strategic direction

To create business-wide alignment there needs to be an overarching strategic vision for the business. This should define the outcome the business wants at highest top-level. It could be an experience you want your customers to have or an outcome that your products and services must produce to solve customer problems. It also needs to have the associated measurements for success. Once these are in place, product teams know what they need to achieve and how to direct their efforts. Good strategy has customer needs at the heart with the needs of the business enveloping it. This is an outcome focused approach rather than one that focuses on outputs.

Ensure continuous learning

Moving from a feature factory to empowered product teams who are trusted by the business takes a significant shift. In order for business leaders to trust their teams they have to know that product are thinking of everything for everyone.

Business leaders have a lot riding on their shoulders so they need to know their teams are covering as much as possible and answering as many questions as they can come up with. Product Managers need to be the product expert and know all that they can possibly know about their product and the environment it operates in. Only then will the shift to a product-led approach occur. To attain this there needs to be a state of continuous learning across the whole team.

Implement good processes

Once you have buy-in, an embedded product leadership team, a top-down strategy, a process for recruiting the best people, upskilling, coaching and mentorship, you can start to deploy new product processes. This starts with the product lifecycle and making sure there is a solid ‘discovery’ and ‘define’ process that ratifies and ensures the right things are being proposed.

It’s all about removing the risks associated with assumptions (e.g. that it’s a winning idea and that it’s possible/affordable to build) that often forms the bedrock of the old ways of progressing with ideas. This validation makes sure that the work is optimal, and that those leader’s P&L is protected, and that the best chances of success are found. These items can be prioritised by value and then the problems can be handed to the design and technical teams to solve, making sure the solutions they create are fully usable.

Empower product teams

The holy grail of digital transformation are empowered product teams. By achieving this you’ll have made the necessary moves to ensure the success of your transition to a product-led technology company. This is what your teams aspire for and will inevitably lead to you being able to attract the best talent while retaining them, all the while producing the best products in the most efficient way. Once the teams are empowered it’s critical that they have a culture of collaboration. To avoid poor communication, setting up communities of practice and stakeholder councils will ensure that knowledge flows seamlessly across the organisation.

Need help? If you are encountering the problems mentioned above, we have product experts who can help you through all stages of your transition, navigating the pitfalls that lead to frustration and helping set yourselves up for future success.

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