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Not sure what to do next?

Our working lives should be fairly straight forward, after all, our simple objective would appear to be to work effectively together in order to make our company as successful as possible. However, given these relatively obvious objectives, it is sometimes extraordinary how often we seem to create an opportunity for a misunderstanding which will almost inevitably derail these efforts to work together. Whilst we can accept that our competitors might not be trying to help us, why would we let this sort of situation persist where we put obstacles in our own way, and how can we remove these pitfalls from our processes?

At the heart of the issue lies the, again very simple, assumption that we should want everyone to be very clear about what they need to do next. Yet, most of us can probably remember moments when we felt like that baby raccoon in our image, hanging precariously in a situation where we’re really not sure what we are supposed to do, feeling ourselves losing grip on our position, with that nagging feeling that we might be about to fall to our doom! Often this situation is caused by a lack of procedures or processes being put in place, sometimes because it is thought that this would somehow stem the creative juices of the product team or, where these processes have been created, they are either buried in a 70 page user manual or hidden on an obscure shared drive.

The easiest way to resolve this challenge is through making your working processes transparent and fully visible to the teams who are trying to follow them. In a product management context, this would be achieved through sharing a clear workflow process with your teams, which not only shows them what the process flow is, but is also entirely open about the type of information being gathered. In a recent discussion I was challenged about why someone would need this consistency as it was viewed to be constricting the product manager. However, the practical reality is that none of us wants to spend months working on something, then only to find ourselves at the approval point being told that we forgot to consider a key element, or overlooked some fundamental research areas, so now need to go away in order to plug these gaps and come back in six months for the next approval cycle.

Today’s best-of-breed product management tools address this requirement by allowing firms to set up a number of standard workflows, in order to cater for varied scenarios where different budget thresholds, regulatory considerations, or client profiles, require a different approach or approval committee to be included. The product managers can then clearly see what the particular process is that they have to follow, the stages that they need to work through, the documentation that they need to produce, and the type of information that they need to gather to progress to the next stage. Importantly, there is also clarity about when you need to approach someone for approval, some certainty (both for you and the approver!) about who can approve your request to move forwards, and an awareness that you have already provided all of the evidence that will be required in order for this approval to be given.

In another recent discussion, I was challenged regarding whether this undermines the skills of a product manager, by effectively cramping their style and restricting their ability to be innovative. However, there are two things that are very important to remember here; firstly, that this just gives clarity about what you need to do, or need to find out, but it doesn’t do that for you so your skill, judgement and excellence as a product manager will still be completely able to express itself. The second aspect is that most organisations want you, as a product manager, to use your creativity to create great products, but not to remodel the boring business processes that most firms need today in order to be responsible, successful and compliant with the regulations impacting their particular part of the industry.

As humans we sometimes have a tendency to create language, code words or restricted knowledge that allows us to feel better by considering ourselves to be part of a select club. So many industries do it by using abbreviations, acronyms, metaphors or numerical codes which automatically create boundaries, making it difficult for those “outside the circle” to play a meaningful role. We even do it when creating models that are designed to make our working life easier, such as in agile product management, where widespread debate often ensues regarding the difference between a product owner versus manager, or how a scrum should be run, or points allocated to a story, let alone how you should do your backlog grooming – and that’s even amongst those who know what these terms mean!

All most of us need, in order to work effectively, is to understand what our employers are looking for from us, what are the boundaries that they would like us to work within, and the targets that we need to hit in order to be considered successful. That shouldn’t cause any negative impact on our ability to be innovative, or creative, but will ensure that we don’t waste each other’s time by doing things outside particular guidelines. Creating simple, yet clear, workflow processes unencumbered by piles of paperwork, or a glossary of jargon, enables that clarity to be obtained, and doesn’t leave us swinging from the branch of a tree looking nervously at the ground far below us.  


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