Product leadership looks vastly different from company to company, depending primarily on the contextually-correct balance between design leadership and management. Product ownership is more about design leadership (see my design leadership principles). Product management is generally more about driving the process and is mostly about keeping the team organized, motivated, and undistracted.
Design is a form of applied science. It’s a frame of mind and a mode of problem solving. A designer’s mindset is action-oriented towards creating a preferred future.
Product design is an iterative, cyclical process…
Here is how product and design are typically differentiated:
The Product Owner must own the product strategy, be a leader, as well as be a design leader (to the degree necessary for the context). Below are principles of product strategy, but see the leadership and design leadership pages for those principles respectively.
All elements of product design are founded on strategy.
The slightest shift in product strategy will result in a chain reaction of change to all layers above it. Usually the higher you go up the stack, the more change is required - sometimes a complete overhaul.
Foregoing foundational strategy work results in never-ending pivots. Never-ending organizational changes based on faulty strategy is the fastest way of wearing out team morale and inevitably leads to failure. Be serious about getting to the bottom of the problem you are solving and setting a solid strategy.
Strategy is set within market context. Continually monitor external opportunities and threats, be mindful of your team’s weaknesses and leverage your strengths.
Strategy involves engineering and business input. Product strategy is about maximizing the possibilities within business, engineering, and user constraints. Calculated organizational goals that are technically feasible need to be in place for what will be achieved through user adoption and product usage.
Design Thinking is a methodology that effectively incorporates experts of all disciplines to solve complex problems:
Scope is the most critical component of product implementation strategy. Everyone’s workload is based on it.
- Functional specifications are features that have been conceived to accomplish clear goals and have been reasonably tested and validated.
- Content requirements bridge the divide between product functionality and human usability through the communication of right ideas.
Scope creep will sink your project. Disciplined leadership entails knowing what the minimum amount of work is necessary to accomplish the next desired outcome and saying no to every other interesting idea. “The man who chases two rabbits, catches neither.” - Confucious
Creative work demands uninterrupted, deep focus. Interruptions may derail a creative’s focus for 15 minutes before they can get back in their train of thought.
Naturally, the more that knowledge workers put their mind to their work, the better it is. If their work is meaningful to them and they have enough work that challenges them, they can remain engaged indefinitely.
Ensuring a state of flow for the team is the most important aspect of driving the process. What satisfies people more than anything is to be in a continuous state of flow, because it’s optimal amount of challenge to one’s skills. Bean bags, ping pong tables, and free snacks will not fill the void of work that is perpetually too hard or too easy. If there’s a misalignment, an adjustment to the team will need to be made.
Emotional distractions derail someone’s flow the most, which is why building a positive, high-performing team culture may be the product owner’s greatest task. Office politics and toxic work environments are the worst for creatives. Without good leadership, work sucks and A-players leave.
Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, but arriving at sophistication is anything but simple. People look at user-friendly designs and mistake its ease of use as easy to create. In actuality, it is experience that informs the product owner and designers’ discipline to say ‘no’ to most features and it is user testing that lead to the sophistication of the user interface. In the end, with the luxury of 20/20 hindsight, the solution always appears obvious.
Non-builders cannot fully appreciate the work behind great design. The same people who associate design closely with decoration or art typically overestimate the merit of their product ideas. This is because they haven’t prototyped their ideas. If you don’t test your prototypes, you can’t discover for yourself how many assumptions your ideas are based on.
Software engineering and design require completely different mindsets. Engineers code solutions taking into account all edge cases that may break the application. This paradigm of thought often bleeds into UI design where more features and information is included than necessary, and then organized in a logical arrangement. This is the wrong approach to design, because people prefer only to have the main features and to have them laid out in the way that is closest to how they are used to using them - they don’t want to have to think.
If a team doesn’t understand the design principles behind a process, they won’t protect them. This is why great design requires design leadership to teach, exemplify, advocate, and defend the principles. See my design leadership principles.