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Product Management Nirvana, ExOs, and Eogtripping at MoDev MVP: Day 1

I was feeling upbeat and ready to learn as I journeyed to MVP this morning.  Whispy clouds brushed against a perfectly blue sky, the sun was shining bright, and the warm air was…warm.  Bonus.  I ran into very little traffic crossing 395 and no traffic on route 110 passing the Pentagon.  I parked my car, finished my telecon, and rapped with El Jefe, Pete Erickson, before checking in to this year’s MVP conference.

You may have noticed that your local Interweb is serving you this page from  The big boss shared that your favorite mobile community is trying some new things and going were no community oriented conference organization has gone before.  There’s some new awesomeness coming out of Modev in the coming months with more wearables and things, events for the hardcore digerati, and hackathons for the maker crowd.  He started going in-depth about Modev’s new hotness, but realized that he brought in me to work and not geek out.  Product managers from both near and far have descended upon the Artisphere, and I here to look pretty.  Pete told me to get busy, so I hurried upstairs to begin my day in the Artisphere’s beloved, [Thunder]Dome Theatre.

I know my function.

I know my function.

I sat down with pen in hand and Moleskin open to hear Levent Gurses share some X-Cross experience in his talk, Cross-Functional Teams: A Product Manager’s Nirvana.  Product management is hard.  As a manager, you have to manage the people creating this new thing as well as managing winding path a product can take from conception to commercialization.  I can’t say I’ve experienced nirvana, I came close once on an outing with my wife, but if I could get it here, I’m game.  Levent’s over-arching message is this: for too long we’ve been building products by function, and only because our teams are divided into individuals with specific expertise.  Since our product teams are made up of experts, they bring their individual expertise to bare on specific instead of focusing on building the best product.  A team comprised of players with cross-functional expertise have a much broader knowledge base and will bring a product focus to the process and not individual functions or features.  Nirvana right?  Levent shared some practical experience with the audience, “successfully executing a project with a cross functional team is more than hiring developers with UX experience, or designers with engineering experience.  Cross-functional teams should have decision making ability and be able to hire advisors when they require specific expertise.”  So how do you make this happen:

  1. Keep team membership small, between 5 and 10 people.
  2. Choose open-minded people for teammates. XCross isn’t for everyone.
  3. Hire a strong team leader to keep the team on track.
  4. Create real metrics.  Think through estimates and measure them against actuals to determine success.
Levent advises managers to abandon the functional approach to product development.

Levent advises managers to abandon the functional approach to product development.

This all sounded great, but there are some drawbacks to consider before blowing up your existing team and rebounding with a new one.  Levent advises product managers to:

  • Spend more time budgeting for the project.  Since teammates have a breadth of expertise, they may not be SMEs.  You’ll need to hire out advisors from time to time and judging how much time you’ll need advisors can be difficult.
  • A cross functional team can encounter many distractions both internally and externally.  Strong leadership is required to buffer the team from outside forces as well as keeping the team focused.
  • Political resistance.  Companies have spent a large amount of time developing silos and vertical teams.  This can be a cultural impact on many companies.

I’m not ashamed to admit I was redrawing my company’s org chart after listening to Levent speak.  As I was removing a line from myself and connecting another with my 7 year old,  Pete ascended the stage to welcome our next presenter.  This was one of the must see talks on my list.  Last year, Singularity University’s, Salim Ismail, wrote the business world’s book of the year, Exponential Organizations.  The affectionately called Exo book (pronounced E-ecks-ohh) details the rise of companies like Uber and AirBnB (ExOs).  The book explains what makes an ExO, how these companies disrupted their industries, the characteristics of ExOs, and how you too can build you own ExO.  I’ve written about ExO’s before as well as talking about them on my monthly radio show and I was really excited to meet him live.

In typical ExO fashion, Salim wasn’t at Artisphere, but outsourced his appearance in video.  One of the central tenets of building an ExO is informationalizing an industry.  Informationalizing means reducing the core problem space of a product or service to its basest concept and selling that concept.  As poster children of ExOs, Uber and AirBnB are great case studies.  Uber informationalizes taxi service by making it easy for anyone to find a readily available taxi wherever they are by making anyone a taxi service.  By turning ordinary people in taxi drivers, Uber increases the theoretical taxi coverage area as well as the supply of cabs.  Since this is basically information, an Uber user can ask the system for a taxi that’s closest to their location and request pick up.  One of Uber’s drivers gets that request and makes the pickup.  Uber doesn’t own the taxi fleet and doesn’t employ the drivers; thereby, avoiding those costs.  Instead, Uber, provides a marketplace for any old person to drive a taxi, an easier than calling-some-cab-company hiring service, and a quick dispatch for drivers.  Plus, they collect a commission for arranging the fare.

Ismail claims that if an organization successfully executes 4 out of the 10 facets of an ExO they’ll be successful.  Here they are:

S – Staff on demand – maintain a small workforce an hire out work when you need it.

C – Community and crowd – build a community around your product and service that self-regulates and propels.

A – Algorithms – use data and metrics to measure success and pivot when the data doesn’t pan out.

L – Leveraged assets – Own nothing, rent what you need and use outside organizations.

E – Engagement – be touchy feely and hands-on with your community and as transparent as possible.

I – Interface processes – use a hub and spoke model to build products and service customers.

D – Dashboards – use dashboards to view data in near realtime as possible to pivot on a change.

E – Experimentation – try many different things and stick with the ones that work.

A – Autonomy – teams must have decision making authority and accountability to react to market dynamics quickly

S – Social Technologies – Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms will drive eyeballs and encourage buying.

THG’s Teague Hopkins carried out us to lunch with his talk, Ego Risk: Why Innovation Fails.  I had already interviewed Teague about his talk and how the trough of sorrow is what makes teams fail.  I had thought about going to another session, but confirmation bias stopped me in my tracks and I wanted to learn more about managing my egomaniacal app team.  My interview with Teague focused on theory. In the Dome theatre, he was all about dealing with ego risk.  I thought about calling my analyst after Teague showed a slide displaying 10 or so different biases. I silently counted them and realized I had them all.  Teague’s advice is really simple. As the leader, start with yourself, and then help your team.  Here are the steps you can take to mitigate risk:

  1. Adopt some form of objectivity or mindfulness exercise that allows you to take a step back and observe the situation from a wider point of view.
  2. When you find your mindfulness exercise, find a minimum effective dosage.  Everyone would like to meditate for 30 minutes every morning, but it may not be possible.  Could you stay on program and meditate for 15 minutes or two minutes and get some feeling of mindfulness.  Find some minimum you can take to keep you going.
  3. Adopt good habits through a habit loop.  Habits start with a trigger and build upon themselves through a feedback loop.  Find triggers that support the routines you want to continue, and decide upon a meaningful reward to congratulate yourself.  For instance, if you want to make going to the gym a habit, putting your gym back by the door can be a trigger, and the reward a tasty, fat free, green smoothie.
Objectivity, mindfulness, and enthusiasm are the keys to startup success.

Objectivity, mindfulness, and enthusiasm are the keys to startup success.

Teague concluded his talk with a couple of insights.  The scarcest resource in any team is enthusiasm.  If a team isn’t enthusiastic about what they are doing, then it won’t get done.  It’s up to leaders to build a culture that inspires teams to climb out of the trough of sorry and remain enthusiastic.

Read on for product pyramid schemes and inspiring roadmaps.

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