How to build a digital product when you do not have a product function


A look at how to build a digital product, when you do not have a Product Management team/function within your business.

There is certainly an undercurrent of recession in digital businesses and digital departments across Australia.  

In response, companies are going after the product function of their product teams, with the view that unless team members are on the tools, the value exchange is insufficient.

In other words, product teams can function without the specific Product Management function, instead relying on the broader business to set the product vision and steer that ship.  

I can see the two sides of this coin.

On one side, I get that businesses need to respond to reduced revenue and turnover and sure.

Equally, many experienced and focused product teams can function for a period without Product leadership.

They have a roadmap, and engineers and by following the ceremonies and process, the ship can coast for a period. All members of the Product team have an interest in and view of their digital product and this can result in a well-intentioned view that they have an unofficial Product Management contribution to make.

On the other side of the coin, cutting the Product Management function is akin to the short-term response companies have when they let the marketing function go next.

A response we all know is wrong at the very time when marketing should be invested in.

If ever there was a time to improve your digital product, it is surely during a time of recession where improved conversion, revenue and performance are what you should be reaching for.

Though business is short-term and if you are preserving cash, well, you are preserving cash, I guess.

I get it.

Everyone is a Product Manager, right?

Many people look at Product Management and say, I can do that.

And maybe to some degree that might be true, at least at the surface level.

Experience, however, tells me that experienced Product Managers are both unique and trained in what they do. Experienced Product Managers have experience at all touch points of the product lifecycle and can rationalise their decisions and priorities in ways that others in the product team and business cannot.  

Product Managers are realists at the same time wanting to break the door down.

  • Product Managers have and lead the vision of their digital products. Through experience, good Product Managers will have a sensible, rational view of the vision and will be able to articulate and defend it.  
  • In none-digital businesses, Product Managers inform and steer business leaders, something nobody else in the team is capable of or wants to do.
  • Product Managers keep up to date with the competitive landscape. They regularly review competitors and document this in formats that are useful for the business to make strategic and tactical decisions.
  • Product Managers manage the broader business on the journey. Management, sales, stakeholders.
  • Product Managers keep the Product business plan up-to-date and ensure it is aligned with the broader business plan and strategy of the business.
  • Product Managers accept compromise including within businesses, in ways that other members of the product team cannot easily accept. And they shield the team from the compromise, something important for the health of the team.
  • And much, much more.

And so, where many put their hand up and say I can do that, can you? More importantly, do you?

How to build a digital product when you do not have a product function.

Here is what I would do.

I am biased in one sense because I am your answer.

Though I am genuinely being objective. I am also coming from personal experience where I led the product function in a large corporation and from time to time, we did not have the product management capacity we needed on hand.

1. Write a product playbook

A playbook is your manual. Processes, policies, how-to’s. The consistent reference point for the whole team.

Though you can make it far richer.  

Your playbook can impact real product experience. Things to look for. Little known, though important hygiene.

A good Product Manager can most certainly develop the skeleton of your playbook and as they learn more about your business, your team and of course, your digital products, they can make the playbook richer and richer.

2. Externalise

Increasingly, digital product agencies will offer external product management services including leadership.

You do not need to replace the headcount and you get the added benefit of being able to point to an external as validation for why you have done whatever you have done. (Because external consultants are always GOD within a business!).

3. Make it part-time

Depending on where you are in the product lifecycle, work out how product management can be lighter touch.

Of course, having full-time product management resources would be ideal, though just accept that you do not and will not and make it work.  

Easy said, though it is easily done too. Product Managers are lateral thinkers. They will find a way to make it work with the team.

And you can bet they will be adding to that playbook as they learn!

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