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How product management support functions can strangle innovation

As a product leader, time is my most valuable currency. Time spent on tasks not related to the unique value I can provide to the company is wasted. And the unique value product management creates is in our unique insights and a point of view. These insights come from meeting with customers to understand their needs and combining that with an understanding of the market to develop and maintain a product strategy and roadmap. We then iterate on those artifacts by testing product ideas (and sometimes the strategy & roadmap) with trusted customers, bringing additional features or products to market, measuring and reflecting on the outcomes, and doing it all again. These activities should not be new to anyone who understands modern product management. They are table stakes.

Unfortunately, we have a major problem in companies today. Product management, and our ability to conduct these activities, is being strangled by well-meaning but ultimately ineffective support functions. Firms today are bloated with program managers, program analysts, sales operations managers, GTM operations managers, product operations managers, managers of planning and operations, technical project managers, and the like. Unfortunately, whenever I encounter such titles in the wild, I get ready to have an adverse reaction because while many of these individuals purport to want to help, the majority of my engagement with them leaves me disappointed. Instead of undifferentiated heavy lifting getting removed from my plate, what invariably ends up happening is that not only is there another cook in the kitchen slowing down meal prep, but I now have 3 additional TPS reports to fill out every week.

All of this bureaucracy creates drag on innovation. But the problem isn’t with the specific ICs that I mentioned above by title, who like I say, are well-meaning but ultimately just following directions. The problem is with operations leadership. There are three major things that I see operations leaders getting wrong today that hurt other functions.

The first, and most critical, is that they have lost sight of the fact that operations exists to create leverage for the organization. Leverage is created by identifying and eliminating waste, duplication, and toil (mundane tasks that detract from people’s core jobs, as above). The tactics that operations can employ are process re-engineering, organizational change management, selection and implementation of software or hardware tools to reduce manual work, and so on. Process re-engineering, for example, is as much about eliminating needless processes as it is about introducing new ones. Yet where operations leaders often start is at the tactical end: buying new tools, creating new processes, etc. without defining and setting goals related to how much leverage they create for the teams they seek to serve.

The second is that operations leaders don’t approach their work with a product-oriented mindset. Every function at a company has either an internal or an external customer. If you get that wrong, then you end up working on projects that look attractive on paper but are really just self-serving: their outcomes don’t benefit anyone but yourselves. Operations functions frequently believe that their customers are “leadership” (i.e. executives) but I’ll argue that executives are almost nobody’s true end customer inside an organization (unless you are the chief of staff to the CEO, in which case, have at it). Instead, the true constituents for operations functions are the teams who will be beneficiaries of the efficiency that has been created. If such teams can’t point to operations and say, “these teams have improved my focus/effectiveness by X% through their work” then operations has failed.

The third is that operations leaders don’t think of themselves as change agents and don’t hire change agents on their teams. Instead, they hire change executors who are good at designing and implementing tools and processes but are both unable to either explain the motivation behind the changes (that’s on leadership) nor motivate constituents to buy into those changes by demonstrating how they will be beneficiaries. Change management in such organizations ends up being top-down and by fiat, annoying constituents who rightfully point out that operations functions create negative ROI.

So where do we go from here? The first is that executives need to hold operations functions accountable to improving leverage. If constituents’ – not executives’ — “CSAT scores” for operations are consistently low, that is a major problem that needs to be addressed. The second is that operations leaders themselves should ask themselves whether they want to end up like what’s happened to HR in the last few decades, and course-correct before it’s too late. I strongly believe in a robust HR function that can actually help leverage talent as the secret weapon to help a company win. However, the HR profession has not spent the last few decades truly positioning itself as a strategic partner to a company and selling the CEO on how a happy, engaged workforce delivers better ROI. Instead, it has boxed itself into tactics like designing and implementing overly complicated “employee engagement” programs or creating career ladders with 500 spreadsheet cells instead of serving HR’s actual constituents properly (middle managers who need to develop their talent). The result is that even adding “Business Partner” onto the end of their titles couldn’t make HR true partners to the business, and so the massive wave of outsourcing the majority of HR functions continues. And finally, product leaders need to stop tolerating substandard operations functions and being asked to generate bureaucratic outputs and not outcomes. They should demand better from their operations leaders and escalate if they don’t get it.

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