The Product Cannot Be Your Only Tool

When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. As a product leader, other people, and maybe you as well, will lead every conversation with you towards features and product capabilities. While this is where your direct ownership is, as a product leader you don’t have the luxury to focus only on that.
Photo by Spencer Selover from Pexels

I recently started to binge-watch Suits all the way from season one. One of the things I noticed was that the legal tools seemed to be the tools that the characters used most of the time, even for areas other than proper work. For example, the constant fighting between Harvey and Louis often boils down to the details of the by-laws and whether or not they apply in this case. I’m sure you would agree that there are many other ways to settle disputes between colleagues. Also in their personal lives, lawsuits are often mentioned as a means to get something sorted out: “are you going to sue him?” was used more than once. Not the natural choice for most of us. But since they love the law and legal is their expertise, they are very comfortable using it, and they do so even when other options might be better.

I raised this example in a recent discussion with S., the CEO of a very interesting scaleup I’m consulting to. During a working session with him and his product lead, the conversation shifted into an open discussion about the role of the CPO. We were discussing strategy and who needs to lead it. Naturally, it would be the CEO’s role, and S. is definitely one of the most strategic CEOs I have ever met. However, the strategy does not stop at setting the direction in general. There is much more depth in it, that most CEOs don’t have the time or the sufficient amount of details to get into. S., for example, blocks a few hours in every workday (!) for strategic work. Not the common case for CEOs.

So if the CEO can’t lead the strategy on their own, who should be helping them? Of course, the responsibility is of the entire management team, but someone needs to take the lead since it cannot be done entirely as a group exercise. This would be very inefficient, and more importantly, can lead you the wrong way.

Choosing the Right Leader for Your Strategy

The Suits example above is relevant to all of us. We all find it easier to use some “tools” (i.e. certain skills or areas of impact) over others. These are skills that we have developed over time and feel confident in, or areas that we have successfully impacted before. When tasked with a new challenge, we will look at it from the perspective of the tools that we already have and see which ones apply here. But if we only have one set of tools, we will always see the solutions only there. If you have a hammer everything looks like a nail.

Bringing it back to the leadership discussion, each member of the management team has a distinct set of tools that are usually fully aligned with their expertise. When they need to solve a new problem, they will first and foremost use these tools. Sales, for example, would find it much easier to impact the sales process than anything else, and while they often come to you with product requests, these are usually tactical. Marketing would see how the top of the funnel and brand awareness can drive a solution, and R&D will always look for new technology innovations to solve the problem. 

So when setting the strategy is on the table, most members of the management team will seek the answers in their own domain of expertise, but that is not necessarily where the answer lies. Surely this is not where the full answer is, since the strategy is about connecting the dots in the bigger picture, and is not focused on a single domain. The function you define as the lead would impact the strategy that you get as a result.

Product Expertise Is Different

Product leadership and even hands-on product management require a different type of expertise. Instead of diving very deep into a single domain, it requires knowing enough about multiple domains to be able to satisfy all of them. This is the nature of the role, and this is one of the reasons that product people don’t produce many tangible artifacts. Unlike other departments that produce content, code, leads, or money in the bank, most of what we do is communication and decision making. But that’s what puts us product leaders in the perfect position to lead cross-functional efforts like strategy.

If you think about the product discipline, even in entry-level roles, you can already see the skills that are needed for this type of integrative work. Here are a few examples: listening to customers and understanding what they need, even if they don’t say so explicitly (and actually even if they say something completely different). Listening to R&D and finding a solution that would meet both functionality, quality, and timeline requirements. Making sure that the value eventually delivered is indeed the value that was intended. And as you start climbing up the ladder, it involves working with multiple stakeholders and coming up with solutions that would satisfy all of their needs simultaneously, even if these solutions are not straightforward.

These skills are all practiced by product people on a day-to-day basis, and they are also reflected in data (although not academic-level research).

Product Leader Personality Types

Different people have different personalities, that’s obvious. But research has classified people into a limited set of personality types, based on a number of dimensions. Each dimension is a spectrum, with different traits on opposite sides of it. People are positioned in any place on this spectrum (for each dimension) which creates an infinite number of personalities. In order to match a person to one of a small number of personality types, they are considered to be on one of the sides of the spectrum for each dimension, regardless of how far in it they are. There are four or five such dimensions (depending on the theory you choose), and so there are 16 or 32 personality types that generally describe the human variety.

Source: CPP Inc.

Without getting too much into the theory itself, I want to highlight one of the dimensions in the research, that is very relevant to our discussion. It is the third dimension in the image above – how people decide or come to conclusions, otherwise known as thinking vs. feeling.

Don’t let the names confuse you. Both of these are ways to make logical decisions. The thinking side of the spectrum tends to stick to hard facts and data when making decisions, while the feeling side tends to also take into account people’s needs and strive to make a harmonious decision.

Following this definition, it should not surprise you if I told you that most product people are on the feeling side of the spectrum rather than pure thinkers. As product people, the decisions we need to engage in cannot be fully supported by data, either because the data is missing or because people’s needs are not easily measured and translated into objective, quantifiable data points. I have seen this in action with the CPO Bootcamp participants. Out of a few dozens of product leaders who participated in the program and took a personality test, only one had a slight tendency towards the thinking side. Everyone else was deep into the feeling side of the spectrum. As product leaders, we engage in complex decisions throughout our careers. 

This becomes our expertise. When it comes to strategy, the outcome needs to address and impact all relevant aspects of the company: technology, product, sales, marketing, finance, etc. As a product leader, you are already skilled to take all of these into consideration in order to form a solid product strategy. The next level for you is to make yourself also skilled at seeking solutions outside of the product department. I’ll write more about that next week, so stay tuned.

My free e-book “Speed-Up the Journey to Product-Market Fit” — an executive’s guide to strategic product management is waiting for you

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