Product Strategy

5 Takeaways from the Product Leader Summit

Thoughts from leading product thinkers

Jonathan Savage

December 14, 2018

Connected CEO Mike Stern and I recently had the opportunity to attend the Product Leader Summit in Redwood City, California. As the name would suggest, the conference featured presentations from the world’s top product thinkers and makers, among them Gibson Biddle (former VP of product at Netflix), Silicon Valley Product Group’s Marty Cagan, Box CEO Aaron Levie, and Medium CEO Ev Williams.

Aside from being a who’s who of people in the product space, the summit was a source of tremendous insight. So without further ado, here are 5 takeaways from the 2018 Product Leader summit.

1. Empower your teams to serve the customer, not the business.

SVPG founder and author of Inspired Marty Cagan gave an incredible talk about how building customer-focused teams are key to success. If your teams are only allowed to serve the interests of the business—say, by looking for new revenue streams or entering new markets—you move further away from the end-user and their needs, and ultimately the product suffers.

To get more customer-focused, argues Cagan, business leaders need to step back and let product managers do what they do best: listening to, talking with, and learning from customers. 

Cagan quotes John Doerr to reinforce his point: “we need teams of missionaries, not mercenaries.”
Marty Cagan talk: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Results

2. Don’t hire rockstars; build great leaders.

To build customer-focused teams, Cagan cautioned the audience away from hiring “rockstars.” Don’t try to fix the company by bringing in some superhero, he says—it’s a waste of time and money looking for them, and they tend to bring their egos with them too. Instead, try to create conditions that allow leadership to grow internally and organically. That happens through internal mentorship and coaching, best practices training, and by providing clear OKRs to motivate them.

Your team members don’t need to be extraordinary leaders at the start, in other words—you simply need to provide an environment for ordinary people to do extraordinary things. 

Bill Campbell, who personally coached Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin, said that “Leadership is about recognizing that there’s a greatness in everyone, and your job is to create an environment where that greatness can emerge.”

3. Good intentions don’t work, but good mechanisms do.

It’s rare to get visibility into Amazon’s decision-making processes, so it was great when Kintan Brahmbhatt, Director of Product for Amazon Music, walked us through the platform giant’s approach to pitching new products, features, and services internally.

At most companies, pitches tend to be presented. Someone will bring a deck to a meeting and give a presentation on “Why we should release such-and-such feature.” But this approach, says Brahmbhatt, is speculative: rather than demonstrate how the new product would actually play out in the market, they simply run through plans and intentions. For Brahmbhatt, however, good intentions don’t work—good mechanisms do.

That’s why at Amazon, the mechanism for releasing better features is not a pitch deck or a presentation, but a press release. And not just any press release: prior to attending a stakeholder meeting, employees at Amazon are required to create a document describing what progress their proposed product, feature, or service will deliver to the customer. It must include extensive notes as well as customer and stakeholder feedback.

The idea here is simple: writing your vision down forces you to be more thoughtful and precise about your objectives as well as anticipate stakeholder concerns. It encourages the practitioner to think about problem definition and customer needs, not how to sell your audience.

4. The path to success is never a straight line.

Medium CEO Ev Williams gave a refreshingly transparent talk about the leadership questions he struggled with at all of his startups—each of which he humorously described as “businesses based on typing things into the internet” (Blogger, Twitter, Medium).

In Williams’s talk, he explained how success is never a straight line because it comes from taking big risks and learning from them. Failure, in other words, is inevitable and should be embraced. Creeping incrementalism, on the other hand, is a risk-averse tactic that leaves most products taxiing in the runway. 

As Williams said, “Being wrong has to be accepted in a culture where you need to create risk.”

5. Your culture is your strategy.

Former product leader at Amazon AWS Tatyana Mamut spoke about how important culture was to fast-growing companies. Though most companies treat culture as something soft and squishy, Mamut argued that culture is in fact decisive for how people behave at scale. CEOs, says Mamut, need to have the same depth of thinking about their corporate culture as they do about finance and operations.

In particular, Mamut identified five major risks to organizations that  neglect their cultures:

  1. Scaling Risk: The larger an organization grows, the more strain the culture has to bear. Scale needs to be managed proactively; the same management systems at 40 employees don’t work at 150, so plan ahead.
  2. Fragmentation Risk: As a company’s needs evolve and they begin to hire for different kinds of competency, a single culture is liable to collapse into multiple silos. (When an engineering-led startup hires a new sales team to focus on growth, for example, leaders need to ask how these different teams are going to work effectively together.)
  3. Attrition Risk: When there is a major shift in company strategy, the culture can shift with it. It's important to take stock of the culture at this point to make sure it’s in line with where the company wants to be. Perhaps some current employees need to be managed out of the company, or hiring practices need to be updated.
  4. Conformity Risk: When your organization is not diverse—if the entire executive team is, say, middle-aged white men—you run the risk of having a homogenous culture. And this risk impacts the bottom line: studies have shown that diverse leadership teams have a net positive impact on a business’s revenues.
  5. Stagnation Risk: Over time, a company’s internal processes start to ossify and new ideas can’t get through. This is when companies are most liable to be disrupted from the outside.

The question is not whether you have a “good” or “bad” culture, says Mamut, but whether you have an effective or ineffective one. An effective culture prescribes and reinforces norms and principles dynamically, helping to drive an organization's’ business goals. The companies that scaled normatively (Netflix, Amazon, Bridgewater) had clearly defined principles, not values simply pinned to a wall.

To hear more from the day, watch full videos from most of the Product Leader Summit sessions.

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