How to deal with difficult team members: a 5-steps process for team success

How to deal with difficult team members: a 5-steps process for team success

We have all been there. With multidisciplinary teams, often big, very few (or none) direct reporting lines, delivering efficiency in product management is difficult.

A particular challenge are difficult team members. It is not unusual, you have someone who is clearly very talented in an aspect of the job, but very difficult to deal with, either because of his character or lack in other skills. The right solution is not  getting rid of the person, but learning how to work together in an optimal way.

Over the years I have developed a standard 5-steps process that I will try to describe here. It has worked multiple times, but it requires discipline, patience and dedication. It really helps if you naturally possess people skills, but can you really be an effective product manager if you don’t?

1. Understand their values.

Every person has a ranking of values that I call their value inventory. This is very diverse and it is connected to the different personality types. Most people do not rationally take a personal inventory. Consider it a set of feelings and beliefs that guide personal actions.

In an ideal world one defines and configures his own life ensuring all his values are met and fulfilled. Coming to terms with reality, what everyone of us does is working hard to have their top values in order, while accepting that some others will be kept in the background or ignored.

There is another phenomenon that is strange in many ways. Many people, accepting their inability to control their life compatibly with their value inventory, change their inventory instead. Ever tried to convince yourself about something that didn’t seem quite right in the first place? How many people valuing their freedom very highly end up with a “suffocating” partner?

Coming back to the general concept, if life is not aligned with the value inventory happiness is out of reach. Consciously or unconsciously, it makes no difference.

The value inventory is very intimate and not many people are willing to share it openly (some are though!). However it is not difficult to understand someone else’s top values.

  • What takes them out of bed in the morning?
  • What are they interested in?
  • What makes them happy?
  • What frustrates them?
  • What do they really hate?

With a bit of interpersonal skills these things become evident very quickly, however it could be as easy as asking!

2. Get trust.

After you have understood something of the person’s inventory it’s time to share yours. You need to be smart here and focus a lot on the common values. It can be challenging to apply the right strategy if the other person has a strong emotional intelligence as he/she would certainly understand your value inventory more quickly than you can understand his/hers. However it does not really matter as finding common values will bring you a long way! Everyone likes to share common views and opinions. In a short time you can develop that feeling of “being on the same side”.

Sometimes a trick is using value misalignment with a given situation. Identifying something that clashes against a common value (there is always something at work that you don’t like!) and spending some time openly discussing that can help. Measure is the key here, investing too much energy in negativity is never good.

3. Identify the other person weaknesses

We all have strengths and weaknesses. Ensure you understand very well what the other person is good at and what he/she is bad at. If you are lucky there will be something the person is very bad at that is a strength for yourself!

All you have to do at this point is a simple trade. Offer your strengths in exchange for your colleague’s. Selling the idea can be the tricky part, but a bit of commercial skills will go a long way. Being honest and direct is usually simple and works most of the time.

4. Deliver before asking

Do something for the person. You will have your chance. Help with a problem, support a situation, do something concrete. If you have understood the values and strenghts/weaknesses it will not be difficult. Just find something you are better at than him/her. You need to be altruistic here. Besides what your long term objectives are, you need to put yourself in an altruistic mind set.

So do not ask anything in return. Chances are your investment will pay off with interest quite quickly, but do not expect it. This is very important.

5. Set the other person up for success

Once you have done all that, there will be a growing underlying trust, a sense of reciprocal understanding, the awareness of how you can be useful to each other. You will instinctively start to like each other even if you are far from being friends.

Only at this point you can start discussing about each other’s role in the team and how you can deliver value through the right strategy. What you need to be able to do is setting up the person for success. Everyone deserves the chance to apply his/her strengths and be supported with his/her weaknesses. This is what each manager should do in the first place even if not many seem to be able to do it consistently.

 

A good product manager must be able to negotiate that position, putting his/her skills at disposal of all the other members of the team. It is in the interest of the team after all.

In science and technology businesses technically strong team members with poor communication skills are not rare. Bad communication in the team is a disaster in the making. Sooner or later big problems will arise. An easy set up is something like this: “you ensure I understand what you mean and what you want to do, I will do the communication enabling you to just focus on the action. This way, you do what you really want to do, I get the job done and the communication is properly delivered.” Win-win.

I have done that so many times! It works!

Ensuring the right equilibrium in the team is established and maintained is key to success. Sorting out these situations will be a massive step forward and will ultimately set yourself up for success. Product managers should enable others to be successful to be successful themselves!

The Long Tail: profiting from big product portfolios as the new paradigm for Product Managers?

The Long Tail: profiting from big product portfolios as the new paradigm for Product Managers?

Recently I wrote about how killing a product can be the best choice for an efficient portfolio management. The idea of investing heavily on the blockbusters and limiting costs and effort on the niche products is consistent with the Pareto 80/20 rule and is the foundation for a lean product management approach.

That said,some schools of thought go in the opposite direction. When Chris Anderson formulated his Long Tail theory, back in 2004 as a post on Wired, which became a book 4 years later, he proposed a controversial idea. The idea is selling less of more products. At the time this was a completely new fascinating paradigm. In brick and mortar retail, shelf space is limited, therefore shops must focus on a small number of as big as possible hits. They stock few products and they sell significant quantities of all of them. If anything does not sell it gets quickly replaced by another product to avoid wasting precious shelf space. This is commonly known as the blockbuster strategy. In a nutshell, it is relying on a small number of carefully selected products and maximising sales for all of them.

This strategy has worked for centuries without substantial changes until the advent of digital retail. Online stores offer virtually unlimited shelf space and carrying unimaginable levels of stocks becomes suddenly feasible. This is particularly valid for digital content (movies, software, e-books, etc.) rather than physical goods, for which warehousing still carries some cost burden. However, while storing digital products is undeniably cheap these days, e-commerce also allows efficient distribution and warehousing, inaccessible to normal retail shops. This obviously drives down the cost of keeping stock. Moreover, modern online marketing strategies make possible to give proper visibility to a big number of product like never before.

In this novel scenario the Long Tail becomes fascinating and disruptive. The elimination of shelf space and stock keeping constraints make a completely new strategy entirely possible. You can now effectively sell a much bigger number of products. Even if each one contributes to a small revenue percentage, the virtually unlimited scalability of online businesses makes the concept extremely attractive. So attractive that the Long Tail made it to Business Week’s “Best Ideas of 2005”. Since then the idea got undeniable traction. Businesses like Netflix, iTunes, Amazon Prime Video and Spotify leverage the strength of their immense catalogs. It looks like the Long Tail can finally defeat the Pareto rule. Or does it?

Digital products are the natural habitat for the Long Tail, for the above mentioned supply chain and stock keeping concepts. With moderate costs, the tail can be of infinite length adding massively to the total revenues even if pretty thin. If it wasn’t for the fact that this does not seem to happen consistently. In an eye-opening article on HBR, Anita Elberse published her research on digital music and video consumption. The expectation was a flatter sales distribution curve, with top products accounting for a decreasing proportion of total sales. What the study findings suggest instead is the contrary. Numbers speak for themselves, 15-20% of products account for 80% or more of total sales. The longer the tail, the more successful the top products become. This is a winner-take-all scenario, not what postulated by the Long Tail theory.

Citing from the article, “rather than bulking up, the tail is becoming much longer and flatter”. The Long Tail seems to make niche product even more niche and blockbuster even more blockbuster. Interestingly, what the long tail does is attracting what Anita defines as “heavy customers”, after a wide assortment of products. Heavy customers are attracted by the broad offering, however they seem to contribute for a negligible push in revenue generated by the tail. As Wharton researchers put it in a study on Netflix published in 2009, “since only a small fraction of consumers constitute heavy movie watchers, it is not surprising that there is weak evidence of the Long Tail effect”.

The data is leading to questioning the Long Tail theory’s fundamentals. Citing from Wharton’s study, “whether or not the Long Tail exists is a fundamental question for decision makers in marketing, operations and finance who face the prospect of further penetration of the Internet channel, which offers expanding product variety and new recommendation systems to help manage it”.

Leaving any philosophical considerations about the theory on the side, I’d like to go back to a concept that emerges from Anita’s article on HBR. In the final remarks, she makes a very important reference to development cots: “strictly manage the costs of offering products that will rarely sell. If possible, use online networks to construct creative models in which you incur no costs unless the customer actually initiates a transaction”.

Shifting the focus from digital to physical products, this becomes even more critical. Assuming shelf space is still an insignificant cost, development and marketing do not come for free. Investing in products that won’t sell is a waste. Moreover removing resources from the more profitable ones is an additional opportunity cost. Even if the Long Tail effect exists, it deals with revenue, not necessarily profitability. For that you need to look at costs and they can kill you. Maybe it’s better to kill a few products instead.

Kill it! Or The Art of Managing Small Product Portoflios

Kill it!

In a product portfolio business, the product manager (or more appropriately product portfolio manager) usually oversees part of an often complex catalog of products.

Here are some examples:

  • catalog-based B2B businesses (electronics components/parts; scientific research: specialty chemicals, biology/biotechnology; mechanical; finance and insurance)
  • catalog B2C businesses (think about amazon, with a huge catalog of diverse products; online shops; bricks and mortar retail chains; personal finance)
  • technical/scientific field, either B2B or B2C. These are usually highly specialised companies servicing specific market niches, with a certain numbers of products in different categories (engineering companies; pharmaceuticals; FMCG)

A typical portfolio is made of the star products (or cash cows), the potentials (new or growing products looking to become star) and the laggards. Realistically 20% or less of the portfolio will generate most of the revenues, while the majority of the rest is there for historical reasons, for “completeness”, “because you never know”, or by pure mistake.

 

Examples from physical goods industries

Let’s use, as I often do, the specialty chemical industry as an example. Many chemical compounds suppliers offer comprehensive sets of molecules belonging to a specific chemical class. Usually these are molecules with the same basic structure and only minor variations differentiating them. You can see a few examples here:

The electronics and mechanical industries also offer many excellent similar cases:

 

The argument for the large size portfolio

Most often the argument for keeping a large portfolio is value of choice and completeness of the offer. Companies go the extra mile to add yet another small variant of a given product or technology to ensure anything thinkable is on offer, not to lose any occasional potential customer.

The truth is that more often than not, among the hundreds or thousands of products, there are just a few bestsellers and most things don’t sell at all.

There is a huge opportunity cost in maintaining such a big catalog. Efforts are diluted on the majority of products that do not have any real market traction.

I believe the same argument can be raised for apps that keep adding functionalities in the attempt to attract all kinds of user. They end up losing their identity down the product roadmap, failing to retain customers attracted by the original core idea of the product.

There are several unanswered questions behind strategic business choices:

  • Why do some products sell while other similar ones don’t? Is it because there is a real need for a specific variant? Is it because sales or marketing naturally tend to favour one thing rather than others?
  • Are some product variants intrinsically superior to others?
  • How true is it that the bestsellers sell thanks to the availability of all the alternatives?
  • So are customers really attracted by the completeness of the offer?
  • If I dropped the non-sellers and focus on the bestsellers, could I grow the business?
  • Should companies follow the existing market or should they try to create new markets?

Investing in launching some products (or variants) to sell others seem counterintuitive. Yet this is what many companies do. The unanswered question is: does this really help sales?

 

How laggards inherently compete vs best sellers

In the most typical organisation, Product Managers sit between R&D, Manufacturing/Supply Chain, Sales and Marketing.

To lead the portfolio development and manage the technology lifecycle they need to keep the focus on what makes business sense, resisting the technology-driven mindset of completing the offer by adding variants or pursuing product introductions as a natural evolution of all R&D results/projects.

At the same time, to drive growth Product Managers must in fact compete for Marketing and Sales resources. Sales people will always focus on the most promising leads, the shortest sale cycle, the biggest potentials. It is also human to go for the path of least resistance: if a product needs half the effort to generate the same deal size as another product, what do you expect to be the commercial team’s favourite?

Diluting the resources at your disposal on too many fronts (read: too many products) is inefficient and risky.

 

The most reasonable solution

The right solution is one and one alone. Look at the big picture and focus on your biggest assets. The rest? Kill it.

I know, you are afraid of losing opportunities. We all are. But you will naturally give preference to your best bets anyway. You’d be afraid of neglecting a commercial push for the highest potentials to try and improve a laggard. Then what? Your laggard will remain laggard. You have spent time and effort developing it and maintaining it. So you will spend more time and effort to keep it alive, to justify its presence in the portfolio. The reality is, that’s time you could better invest in more productive activities.

Do yourself a favour. Look at the data, test it meaningfully, identify your stars and your promises. Give them your heart. And your laggards? Kill them.

The NUDE Product

What is really a Product?

There is a ton of literature about it and many definitions.

A nice way to start is the problem.

If there is no problem there is no need for a product.

 

A solution that is truly necessary (N), unique (U) and doable (D), that solves the problem effectively (E), is what defines a N-U-D-E Product.

 

In a nutshell, a product is a solution to a problem. Good solutions are reasonable and effective.

And what if the problem has already a solution?

The majority of products fail in this case. There is certainly value in alternatives, particularly when the market is big and diverse, but most products lacking uniqueness struggle to find a convincing value proposition. It becomes a matter of price (the exact opposite of the Blue Ocean Strategy)

Is the product reasonably easy to make, develop or implement? Can it be sold at a sensible price? In other words, is it really doable? Can I address and ideally solve the problem with it?

A solution that is truly necessary (N), unique (U) and doable (D), that solves the problem effectively (E), is what I define a N-U-D-E Product.

The NUDE Product is the ideal scenario for an new product introduction (NPI) and what every Product Manager should aim at.

Is that enough?

No, it is not. If I were the only one in the world experiencing the problem I would certainly be a potential customer, but why should anyone care? So the problem must be experienced by enough people to have a market. The NUDE product must make business sense to pay for the Product Manager’s salary, at least…

Leading with No Reporting Lines

What is the most important skill for an effective Product Manager?

We are indeed talking about world class professionals with outstanding technical skills, solid business understanding, competences in project management, organisational skills, marketing. So the list of minimum requirements is long and it goes on much further: capacity to communicate effectively across the company organisation, from the most junior technician to senior management, ability to clearly define value propositions and convey them through powerful marketing communication. A good grasp of finance is necessary most of the time and an absolute requirement is the capacity to think strategically.

Does any such individual even exist? And we haven’t started discussing the most important skill: being able to persuade people to do what you need them to. I am using the verb “to persuade” purposefully. Because the CEO of the Product usually have no direct report. A CEO with no employees!

Leading without formally managing anyone requires a strong personality. It also requires capacity to “read” people, influencing and negotiation skills together with a good dose of charisma. All must be part of the Product Manager’s toolbox.

 

Product Managers live in the core of the matrix management  concept, “commonly used to describe managing cross functional, cross business group and other forms of working that cross the traditional vertical business units – often silos – of function and geography” (from Wikipedia).

 

I recommend reading the good post 3 Key Concepts for Product Management in a Matrix Organization by Michael Swan on LinkedIn.

Michael speaks about a clear communication of the Why, the What and the How. A clear plan and an effective communication across business functions is indeed the key to success.

So what is the most important skill for a Product Manager? There isn’t such a thing as a single dominant skill but surely the capacity to bond with and inspire people is more important than technical knowledge.