Step Up and Lead by Google Product Lead

In this blog post, Yariv Adan gives us practical and actionable tips on how to become more strategic as a leader through five key bullet points that urge a change of mindset and behavior. He touches on the importance of organizational alignment, building relationships, and his evolving role as a Product Manager.

Meet Yariv

Yariv Adan, Google Product Lead

Yariv Adan is a seasoned Global Manager, with a record of excellence in the world’s top companies,  experience in leading global teams, defining strategy, as well as designing and launching complex global products. For the past 12 years, Yariv has been building the future as Product Lead at Google, leading the product team responsible for many of the differentiating “intelligence” capabilities of the Google Assistant and a global group responsible for the strategy and development of products for the Emerging Markets (Latin America, Africa, Middle East, India, and Southeast Asia).

Prior to his role at Google, Yariv worked as Advisor and Executive Board Member at Culture Trip, where he highly engaged a hands-on advisor to the founder, and Executive Board Member from the very early seed stage, through multiple fundraising rounds, and hyper-growth of the product usage. Yariv demonstrates a rare combination of strengths within his discipline. He is a true innovator, coming up with new and well-founded ideas frequently. He is an inspiring leader, challenging his team and the overall group to think bigger and do more and also detail-oriented and focused on execution, and has launched many products to market with his partners. Yariv has a Bachelor of Science in Computer Sciences from Hebrew University. 

A Guide to Being More Strategic 

I manage product teams at Google and this talk originated from career and growth discussions that I had with people on my team, as well as with others that I mentor and coach. As I was having these talks, I noticed a recurring pattern that stood in the way of people getting to the next step. Multiple times, people heard that they need to step up and act more strategically, but it wasn’t clear to them what exactly this means and how it applies to their day-to-day. 

After speaking with people and giving private tips and coaching, I compiled a list of five bullets that is short, clear, concrete, and actionable. If you look at the list together, it’s a mindset and behavioral change that takes you in the direction toward thinking and acting most strategically. 

Own the problem, not the solution 

So what do I mean by this headline bullet? The first one is to own the problem, not the solution. And in my opinion, this one is the most important one on the list.  I think that once you properly own a problem, most of the other stuff kind of follows. At the beginning of your career, it’s critical to learn how to get hard things done. You need to learn how to focus yourself and focus your theme on the most important tasks and execute accordingly. You learn that delivering is not trivial. As you master that and you become more senior, you need to shift that focus from building a solution to actually addressing and owning a problem. And this is that shift that I’m talking about. This is one of the most important things that will actually take you to that strategic place. 

In order to explain what it means to own a problem, I like to illustrate it using Google search because I think everyone is familiar with the product so it’s easy to relate to. If you go back to the very early days when Google started this specific solution, Larry and Sergei, the founders, started with a new algorithm for ranking web results in search engines. They found that the current search engines were doing poor rankings and that they can do a better search engine by improving the ranking.

But this is not how they framed the problem. This is not the mission that they set for themselves. Instead, they said ‘what we want to do is to make the world’s information universally accessible and useful.’ And as they built their solution in their company, they focused on that problem.  What they discovered, once they owned the problem, is that there are many more blocking features to actually make information useful and accessible than just fixing the ranking algorithm. They figured out that:

  • People don’t even get to ranking because they are misspelling the queries.
  • Some content like maps, videos or news don’t even exist.
  • Certain content in certain languages doesn’t exist, or that people don’t speak certain languages.
  • If the web is slow, users go away. 
person on laptop using google search

So basically they found out that to really own the problem and to really solve it and make information available, they needed to do much more than just ranking algorithms. By owning the problem, it actually built Google to be what it is today. So as opposed to come and say ‘we are focusing on improving search algorithm ranking’ which is very scoped and small, they opened up and actually discovered more things. Because once you go into a problem and learn the complexities and actually let your users interact, you’re learning that the challenges are much bigger than what you’ve seen. But how can that apply to your day-to-day? What should you do to own the problem? 

Check this out: Pre Mortems – Seeing The Problems Before They Happen

1. Articulate

So I think the basis at the beginning is to articulate to yourself and to your team what the user problem you’re trying to solve is. Have that be your north star. Not what you’re trying to build, but rather what is the problem you’re trying to solve? So articulate it and repeat it again.

2. Review

Once you have the problem, then you figure out that you’re working on a good problem. It’s a big and growing problem that isn’t answered by others. You should review critically on a regular basis, whether you’re actually solving it. Because again, people tend to measure progress based on the solution. How efficient and effective are we in building our solution? Are we executing well? But if you’re not solving the problem, you’re actually not making focus. So again, critically  ask yourself on a regular basis ‘am I actually getting closer to solving the problem?’

3. Own

Then the next step is really owning the problem. Own the entire problem. Don’t make excuses and don’t delegate responsibility. Don’t come and say, ‘Yes, we built that, but it is hard. Or it’s not in our scope.’ No, if the problem is not solved, and if you built it only partially, and if it doesn’t exist, it is not solved.  People will not use your product in the end. So again going back to Larry and Sergei, they found out people misspell, and that’s not their problem, but if they really want to solve it, they need to own that problem. Again, don’t make excuses and don’t delegate responsibility. Don’t expect someone else to solve tactical pieces. 

5. Don’t fall in love

The next piece is don’t fall in love with your solution and features. The problem is that we have ideas we see as important. Maybe it’s a very elegant solution, but you find out that certain things actually don’t solve it and don’t add value. Again, your point is the problem, not the solution.

6. Challenge reality

Finally, challenge reality. And this is also critical if you want to go to the next steps. If there are critical dependencies that can’t be solved without the current resources or set up, try to change resources and set up. If you have a certain problem, but in order to solve it, you need different types of talent, tools, or focus, change it and change reality. Don’t be stuck within reality. And if you cannot change it, if this is something that is outside your budget, capability, or your control, reconsider your mission and strategy. There is no point in building a solution that doesn’t solve the problem.

So again, the first step is to own the problem and really articulate it. Own it. Don’t fall in love and really challenge reality. The people that did great things are people that actually challenged reality and took a different approach. So the first item to me is the most important one. And this is the key differentiator between someone that looks at the solution and how to execute it, versus someone that thinks ‘What is the problem that I’m trying to solve? Is it the right problem? Do I have the right solution? Do I have the right topic?’

Full accountability 

The next thing is full accountability. And this is a huge difference as it is mostly a mindset and behavioral shift from focusing on execution within the context of the team and usually your own role. I am the PM. My role is to define the product. UX’s role is to define the experience and engineers to make that happen. It is usually finger-pointing and whatnot versus full accountability. Don’t limit yourself to your role. You need to be a hundred percent accountable for the goals of the project. Once you receive and you accept them, these become your goals. You need to believe in them and have conviction. If you don’t believe in the goals, change them. But you’re accountable, you cannot say “Oh, these are the goals that I accepted.” You need to be accountable for the strategy.

How are you going to go through with the goal, the plan, and the results if you did not deliver? You cannot point at someone else. If you want to be a leader and to strategically own an area, you need to be a hundred percent accountable. Again, goals, strategy, plan, and results. This cannot be split by functions. And by the way, the best leadership that I’ve seen is actually cross-functional leadership working together. So when you have strong partners be that engineering or UX or others. Together, you’re accountable for the success of the product. And you lead an area, but you’re a hundred percent accountable for the overall success and goals of the product. So full accountability as opposed to role accountability. 

You might also be interested in: Product Management Skills: Cross Functional Collaboration

Think critically 

The next thing is really thinking critically.  The key reason that people don’t think critically is that they lack context. So you really need to think about your product from the perspective of the bigger organization, the CEO, and the executives. In order to do that, you need to ask yourself:

  • What are they trying to achieve?
  • What are their goals for the year?
  • What do they care about?
  • What are the metrics that they’re trying to move?
  • What are they are tracking?
  • What is the key strategy?

And the problem is that there are two types of people. There is the type that goes to executive reviews, and then the execs are asking them the hard questions. And then there are the strategic people that go ask the executives the hard questions. Usually, they think enough about it before and actually come with some suggestions and options prepared

So what are some examples of thinking critically? One is what does success look like? Many times I seek teams that set success criteria that are completely irrelevant when you put them in the context of the organization. Either it’s a metric that doesn’t care or doesn’t move things significantly. Always ask “If I am successful in my strategy, does the CEO and the executive team care about that success? Is it something that actually moved the success of the overall organization in a meaningful way?” If the answer is no, you should go back and think, and you should definitely have a strong understanding of what your impact is on the bigger picture. 

image of puzzle pieces

Then there’s a question about alignment. The alignment is both positive and negative. It’s positive in the sense of amplifying something, but also duplicating. Am I going against key partnerships or all sorts of messaging and so forth? And again, how does your project relate to other efforts? Are your goals and plans realistic? Again, many times, people like to put all sorts of fancy goals and fancy plans, and then they don’t believe that it is possible anymore.

Really ask yourself once you put your goals and plan: Based on what we learned in the past, based on what we tried, based on what we know, is this really realistic?  And then are you thinking about it holistically and creatively? Are you really considering all the aspects of the product? Not just your piece in it. Are you thinking about partnerships? Are you thinking about marketing and so forth? Don’t go into leadership and have them ask you the questions. Did you really think about legal, PR, policy impact on the brand, and so forth?

Think beyond your team 

Once you think critically and you understand the executives, you must think outside your team. The universe doesn’t end with your team. And again, this is a big difference between junior people and the people that take the next step.  What does it mean to think outside your team? I think the two key pieces are what success looks like and how to get there. Once you think outside your team, you have the opportunity to chase a bigger goal and get more resources through collaborations, integrations, and scaling. So marketing, PR, partnerships, BizDev. You can have a broader impact on the organization.

Generally, if you step outside your team and you speak with other teams and understand how your piece fits into the bigger picture, it broadens your perspective. And it opens up your mind and often it opens up new opportunities. You realize that the technology that you have or whatever value that you are doing can be used in other places as well. So don’t limit your universe to your team. Not in what success means and not in how to get there. There are many more resources outside and opportunities to go into whatever you’re doing and scale it to have a much bigger impact. 

Be recognized as a leader 

I think this is mostly about how to know whether you are actually doing it. Are you a leader? Are you strategic?  And the key thing is to be recognized as a leader and you can ask yourself and be very honest with yourself. Do people go to you as the go-to person for your domain? Do execs know your name or know you as the one that answers questions. Are you the contact person for that? And if you are not, ask yourself why and close the gaps.  If you think you’re a leader, but you’re not recognized as such, that’s a kind of a big flag.

Gain this skill: Product Leadership Skills: Influence Without Authority

Step Up & Lead 

These are the five bullets that I think are critical. I think by now it’s a bit more clear what I mean by them. The key thing question is what to do next? And I think the key message is to step up and lead. Many times, I tell people, that this is what they need to do. Go and do it. And they’re saying “No, no one said that I am the manager of the team”.

But the key thing about leadership is that leadership is not granted or given. It’s demonstrated. It’s for you to step up and follow these steps. And people will appreciate you for doing that. Every time when there is someone else in the room who is volunteering, or who wants to do something, everyone is sitting in their chairs, waiting for that single person to step up. Stepping up and leading is actually very easy. Everyone would love for you to do it. So really just go for it.  

standing out from the crowd with chess piece metaphor

Read next: The Hybrid PM Playbook: Tips for Leaders

The First 30 Days of The Job 

I hire people for the long term, not for the short term. So I would strongly encourage you to spend your first 30 days learning and really understanding. Usually, I find that 80% of what you learn in your role is actually in the first 30 days in terms of the intellectual side of it, the market, what’s going on, what other people are doing. This Is when you actually have the time to dig in and talk to people, to really learn, and to ask the questions The other thing that is very critical that goes away very quickly is fresh eyes. In the beginning, you can actually see all the nonsense. It’s impossible to re-create fresh eyes.

I recommend people to write down all the things that don’t make sense to them and all the questions that they have. They don’t need to ask these questions. Maybe they’re not comfortable yet, but save them for later. Maybe you will find out the answers yourself, or maybe it would be more comfortable for you to ask. Clearly, nothing that you will do in the first 30 days in terms of execution and delivery will be big or important. Most probably, it would be extremely inefficient. So honestly spend the time to learn. There are no stupid questions in the first 30 days of the job. After that, they become worrying. So this is my strong recommendation.

Some more tips: Kickstarting the Early Stages of Your Product Management Career with Google Sr PM

Tips For Organizational Alignment 

It’s always good when you make the currency of decision-making data, instead of who speaks loudly or your rank. And so two things, one is data.  Come up with data that backs up your story.  If you have good data, people will struggle to disagree on it, but you will also understand it. Why is that? Because it could be that the data is supportive but maybe it is strategically the wrong thing. I think having data is really critical in identifying the right data. The other thing that I strongly recommend is before you present, have some briefing with an exec or as close to the exec and propose the idea to them. Show them the data and how it supports your idea. And ask them questions like ‘Is that enough? Would you like to see something else when I present?’ Don’t come blind.

The other thing is to minimize the number of people in the meeting that are seeing this for the first time. So try to pre-brief people, as many as you can in that room, even if they’re not the final decision maker or the most senior.  Do previews. You will get good feedback and also they will support you. And maybe some of them can actually present and so forth.

Lastly, we always say that the strongest person in the room is an engineer with a demo. Instead of presenting a document, you can actually show what you’re planning on building, how it looks and feels like, and it can be a complete mock, but people will get it. And then the discussion goes from ‘Should we do it? How would we do it? What are the challenges?’ In this case, it creates a lot of excitement, and also it’s much easier to communicate the idea. So these are the few tips I can think about. 

Building Relations 

I realized that in order to be successful, you need to partner.  That was my point of thinking beyond and outside my team. I realized that ‘Hey, I can do so much. But if I really want to be successful, I need to have partners.’ And then the most important thing is that when I come to a partner, I ask myself why is this good for that partner? The partner doesn’t care, or doesn’t want to hear why it’s good for me or why the idea is generally good. But they want to hear why it’s good for society and users?

So you really need to know that partner and to understand what the partner cares about. Does that partner care about operational costs? Do they care about quarterly revenue? Are they more strategic? What is the key-value? What do the key metrics mean to them? It’s the same with executives. You need to tell them ‘Hey, I know you care about X, here is Y.’ This is critical to do. And again, come with a story. Come with demos. As I mentioned, try the pre-briefing.

If there can be other people involved and so forth so that you do not come completely cold-handed and that you are prepared with a full demo and understanding of what they care about. That’s also very helpful, but you need to think about what is in it for them. And if you are aligned on solving the same problem, and they think that you understand them and what they want to achieve, then it’s a very different relationship.

You might also be interested in: How Great Leaders Bridge Knowledge Gaps in Product Teams

a team working together on a presentation

The Evolving PM Role 

When I started, I was an individual contributor and now I’m leading teams. So my challenge was executing. I had that perspective, but most of the time it was really getting over these obstacles. And as I grew, I faced more vague problems or not even problems. It was like figuring out emerging markets or privacy.  We even came up with the idea of making a  system. What is the user problem? Where are users most targeting?  Where should we start? How do we get feedback?

So I think if you start with a well-defined project, you’re set up for success. You have the resources and you need to execute. As you go on and become more senior, you are handed a broader area. Get your sources, put them in the right place, do the partnership, drive execution, and be responsible for the health of the organization, which is critical as well. 

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