Updated: June 26, 2023 - 16 min read
Editor's note: This is a guest blog from an external contributor.
Hello everyone, and thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts on the topic of Product Tooling for Product People.
Everywhere we turn now, on social platforms, in publications, at conferences, through training and upskilling, we’re hearing all those wonderful messages about what exactly Product Management is, could be, and where it’s heading in the future.
However, we then go back to base, and it’s straight into the same old churn of the washing machine. Cycle by cycle, we’re usually stuffed back into the same process, with often the same outcome. My observation is how this deflates Product teams, and places limits on their growth and ambition.
Over my time in Product Management, I’ve just never found that toolkit that truly felt like it was designed for the Product role.
Having had the privilege to lead several large Product teams in recent years, I’ve watched teams lost to the continuous cycle of Delivery and Support. The toolkit focus has typically felt like it was aligned to only delivering more, supporting better, and documenting as much as possible.
Those things happened, in the main, not because that was the ambition of the Product team, rather because they were stifled by a lack of appetite in this space, and by their organisations and leadership.
Much of this must be attributed to an ongoing lack of understanding or appreciation of what Product Management really is and stands for. Sometimes you end up looking in the mirror and thinking “am I getting this right?”, and then you have those moments of vindication. Thankfully!
That said, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic, and pathways forward for those of us who deeply care about the Product Management profession. Therefore, by the end of this blog, I hope you’ll feel more inspired and aware about 3 key areas:
The gaps in Product tooling: Where tools fail to serve the needs of Product teams
The end-to-end Product Lifecycle challenges faced by Product teams
The positive impact of fuelling your Product teams with the right tools
The Gap in Product Tooling
Recently I was at a Product Management event, and had the opportunity to host a round table on the topic. What I heard back was the usual two summaries from attendees who were all in various Product roles and lengths of experience.
1. We only have X or Y tool, and we just use it to manage the backlog, and ship stuff
2. We have so many tools, we don’t really know why, and for what reason they were selected
Therefore, I’d like to start by addressing these points in turn, and building the case that there is a gap in Product Tooling.
We only have X or Y tool, and we just use it to manage the backlog, and ship stuff
If you’re in Product, this is surely going to resonate.
What springs straight to mind is the usual conversation of leaning towards being a Feature Factory. In the 12+ years I’ve worked in Product, initially I just didn’t realise this is what I was doing. Then in the latter years of leading teams, being able to step out and observe, it became obvious that this was often pretty much all we were being. The toolkits were supporting this. It was a sort of vicious circle that you just couldn’t break without alternative toolkit options, and without visionary leadership to support it.
In the round table, I heard this so many times. An appetite for more from the attendees, however, a realisation that they would most likely return to their organisations, and fall back into a model, a culture, a mindset, all striving for more and more output. Therefore, supported by tools with that at their focus.
I’m not here to make this blog feel like a name and shame of tools, because there are so many great tools out there. And where would we be without them? No part of me dislikes those toolkits, it’s just that I’m coming from a perspective that whilst they contribute strongly to the overall activities that we as Product teams are involved in, do they really stand out as a tool that was designed for us in Product? Do they help us to reach the goals and advancements we seek to make as we establish more effective Product teams?
We have so many tools, we don't really know why, or for what reason they were selected
At the other end of the spectrum, the message was about being overloaded with tools, and interestingly, typically where those tools were usually selected by functions other than Product. To try and then understand and utilise the toolkit landscape this created, became about decisions from elsewhere, and by that, often outside of Product.
Immediately this resonated again with my own experiences, and demonstrated that Product was usually out of the decision making loop, and just expected to use these tools now that they have been acquired. All creating an environment of misalignment and frustration.
So, what is it that we're craving in Product from the toolkit landscape?
What we really need are tools built for Product Managers and Product Management functions.
The field of Product Management continues to accelerate, and the future opportunities are exciting. However, the ideal focus of the strategic and innovative Product Manager gets lost in the day-to-day expectations. Most organisations hire Product Managers, and then treat them like Feature Factories. Companies want strategists and visionaries in theory, whereas in practice, they often just push their Product Teams to execute and deliver top-down requests.
Obviously every organisation isn’t the same. Many are taking advantage of these areas of opportunity, and perhaps I just don’t get to meet enough of those people, as most Product Managers I’m in contact with tell me the same: Reality is outweighing theory and the ideal best practice.
Ok, then what should we be doing about it?
Firstly, we need to believe that there are options out there for us.
From talking with many Product Managers about toolkits, the response is typically a limited awareness of tools which stand out as specifically designed to support Product teams.
The only exception arises from the significant growth we’ve seen in recent years for Roadmap tools, where there are now many options, and of course for a very good reason, as roadmapping is the function which most closely aligns Product Managers to planning, execution, timelines, and ultimately feature delivery. However, most feedback is that these tools are often used to build delivery plans rather than Product roadmaps, further fueling the Feature Factory approach.
Product Management is of course not just about great execution. There are many other functions we are across, however, there are very few tools designed specifically for the Product Management role, and instead, we end up cobbling together those made for non Product Management purposes.
I’d very much like to see a world where Product tools that address the specific needs of Product Managers are more at the forefront of such decisions taken by organisations.
Last year, I was specifically looking for something in the Roadmap tooling space that would blend the power of insights, ideas, voting, integrations, flexibility, and all with those values and outcomes at the centre of the toolkit. In addition, a great UX and easy to consume by all recipients/viewers, for improved communication with stakeholders.
I found just such a tool, and subsequently we moved forward to a proof of concept conversation with the vendor and key stakeholders. During that meeting, and as the vendor was explaining how the tool worked, someone from the Delivery space commented “this is great, I really need this for my delivery plans.”
The vendor responded with “We very much value your interest and recognition, however, we must be clear that this is a tool designed for Product teams. Whilst there is great transparency and access for all, the fundamental owner is the Product Manager.”
This was a clear demonstration of intent, by having tools designed for a specific purpose and function.
This was one of those rare occurrences where I felt like, “Wow, here was a tool made by and for Product people.” Whilst a euphoric moment, it was also one to stimulate some reflection, thinking about why this was such a rare occurrence in over 10 years of being in Product. I had to think a lot about that, and it took me back to a previous role, where I’d come across another tool, targeted to a different set of outcomes, and which was also a Product tool for Product People.
This was undoubtedly a moment of epiphany for me. I already knew how passionate I was about developing the very best in Product teams, and could stand beside the achievements made over the years of doing that, however, the truth was that toolkits had remained a constant gap. Perhaps I was always searching for the utopia, and maybe never quite realised it until this moment.
This was when I decided I had to set out on a journey to give something back, and to advocate for the need to access the right tools. It’s what has led me to who I am now: A Product toolkit evangelist.
Looking in the mirror: The best path forward for Product Tooling?
Whenever I want to think about the best path forward, it’s what I call the “looking at yourself in the mirror moment.” What do I see coming back at me, and how will I use it to my advantage?
When thinking about the future of Product Management Toolkits, here are some of the thoughts and ideas that bounce back…
A single source of truth for my entire Product suite
Transparency and self-service for everyone
A greater focus upon the Product Lifecycle
Proactive highlighting of risks and opportunities
Informed by a blend of data and knowledge
Being the first to know about issues and opportunities
Everything in one place for the history of the Product(s)
Feeling of empowerment
More investment and alignment to defining Product strategy and vision
Meeting the goals of a more sustainable environment
I’d like to next take a deeper look into the Product Lifecycle tool I mentioned earlier, as an example of how I envision these ideas becoming a reality.
Filling the Gaps: Opportunities for Future Product Tools
It’s probably fair to say that the image above is now one we’re frequently aware of, however, I would stop to ask “do we have a clear approach to each stage?” within our teams and organisations.
As I talk with my network about Product Lifecycles, and specifically the stages above, the message is quite stark, and typically demonstrates that we’re missing clarity as to our actions at each stage, and even which stage our Products are at. But why is this?
Again, it could be argued to be a representation of being conditioned to delivering output. Organisations have wrapped this around us, and the opportunity to lift our heads and think about what we need, what we want, and what’s out there to fulfil it, simply hasn’t been something we could credibly give time or impetus to.
There are of course examples where we are tackling these stages, or at least we can argue we are. We know that as we enhance and add more to our Products and Platforms, that we can measure the growth and impact they create, and that’s typically the easiest aspect to attribute to a stage, namely ‘growth’.
But what about the other stages? What tools are available for Product Discovery and Design, or for leading to a more rounded and effective ‘implementation’ stage?
Do we have an appreciation of when our Products are stepping from ‘growth’ to ‘maturity’? Have we thought about what triggers that? Do we feel comfortable that there’s a point where our Products begin to flatten out? Can we accept it, or do we just keep adding more and more from the feature factory in the hope and belief that we will have endless growth? To what extent are we listening to the feedback and experiences of our users, and what is this telling us about the true stage our Products are at?
I challenge most of us in Product to confidently say we’re really doing this, and I’d support it by saying that there’s an absence of toolkits to enable it. Or is there? Is it just that we’re not aware of them? Again, my own conversations would suggest so.
There’s a lot of accountability for this upon us. Whatever our excuses, we’ve simply got to take it on the chin. Are we really doing enough to promote awareness of each stage of the Product Lifecycle in our organisation? Do we really see the value of doing so? Truth is, both answers are probably not that positive.
A few of us are lucky enough to be in an organisation that’s more Product-Led, with a CPO, and with a mindset for what benefits a Product-Led culture can bring. As a result, your organisation will have a much better understanding of the product process, and in this best-case scenario, perhaps you’re able to undertake elements of the Product Lifecycle, however, you’re still set back by sparse Product Tooling.
What if there was something more to stimulate a better execution of this? A toolkit that could bring it all together in one place, giving you that holistic view across the Lifecycle of all your Products? A single source of truth in a platform built by Product people for Product teams?
So this leads me into the final take away.
What difference could we make by fueling our Product teams with the right tools?
Creating effective Product tools would power up the role of Product. It’s my viewpoint that a Toolkit designed for Product Managers and teams, would be a game changer for your role, your team, your function, and your organisation. The bar would lift significantly. You’d have an umbrella view across the entire Product landscape, you’d be always on the front foot, and you’d be in a position of increased credibility as a result.
My own experiences have shown that Product teams are often perceived to be more reactive than proactive, still closer to being order takers than problem solvers, and most definitely not allowed at the forefront of value and outcome based decisions.
One key reason for this is absolutely the absence of Product-centric tooling. Product teams would be in a powerful new space if their organisations realised that a key part of investing in their Product teams is to provide them the budget and access to buying decisions for Product tools.
As this post has referenced throughout, my own opinion is that there are two fundamental tools you need to fuel your Product teams: Roadmap and Lifecycle. Together, these two can be a game changer for your teams, working in conjunction with each other, powering outcome-based decision making, and creating the space for Product teams to ideate, shape, and drive their Products.
Case study: The Product Lifecycle tool created for Product teams
The Skyjed platform is specifically designed for Product Lifecycle Management, and seeks to meet the needs and objectives of Product roles and teams across all industries and sectors: From the definition of your Product strategy and vision, through checkpoints of Product Design and innovation, then unlocking ongoing measurement and performance. Skyjed is a shining example of how products designed for Product Managers can help drive efficiency.
Throughout the Lifecycle stages, Product teams have their finger on the pulse with a health check dashboard for all their Products, where they can drill into 6 domains for a deeper view into areas of strong or under performance.
In addition, a risk and opportunity action matrix highlights the areas for Product teams to investigate, either to address a point of increasing under performance, or to jump into areas where Products are outperforming expectations.
In the images below, you can see how all your Products are held in one single source of truth, an indicative health score for each Product, and then begin to drill into an action list typically driven by automated triggers you as the Product Manager have defined. In addition, a suite of dashboards and reports provide a clear view of any areas of risk or opportunity for every Product.
This is different. This is a toolkit to provide Product teams with real time visibility of their Products, and to fuel faster engagement and decision making.
Here you can see the Product Lifecycle picture for ABC Consumer Product, taking you on a journey through Design, Monitor, and Insights. In addition, using action triggers defined by the Product Manager, a planner dashboard, either populated automatically, or manually where the Product Manager wishes to add specific activities.
This demonstrates the specific activities in your planner, per Product.
Now we can drill into the health status of each Product, across 6 domains. Product teams can click and drill into all these areas, pointing you to specifics of under or over performance.
A dashboard highlighting key risk and opportunity action areas. Product teams can click through directly to the generated action, placing the Product Manager on the front foot as soon as the action arises.
In addition to the drill down from the above risk and opportunity matrix, Product teams can access the Actions tab, where all are consolidated in one place.
The journey ahead is now clearer, and it's your for the taking
Maybe the marketplace is far from awash with the right options, or perhaps you just can’t see the opportunity for such a step change?
We can now see the Product Roadmap space has developed significantly, with many choices, however, for the step changing Lifecycle Toolkit, it’s simply not front and centre of our minds, and certainly not across the broader organisation.
More than likely, you’ve been saying to yourself…
Does it exist?
Would my organisation even be interested?
I’d never get the budget!
May as well stick to the eat, sleep, repeat cycle of output
I very much wish to see a future with Product-specific tooling, as I do believe this will lead to stronger Product teams and better products. My own efforts are going into this in future. It’s something of a calling now.
We don’t have to accept our fate as a feature factory.
Options are out there, and hopefully this blog has helped to inspire and bring that to life more.
I’d be pleased to connect and discuss with anyone else who’s interested in helping to give something back to our Product friends and colleagues around the world, and embrace the opportunity these new toolkits are offering us.
Updated: June 26, 2023