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Are your product problems that special?

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19 November, 2021

James Engelbert
James Engelbert

Head of Product at BT

James Engelbert, Head of Product at BT, shares how he helped his team approach learning differently.

Problem

As a product manager you have to jungle business outcomes, customer needs, and technology challenges, but how often do you think about learning? As a product leader, I think it's our job to help our team explore perspectives outside your organisation. At BT, and I think a lot of companies we tend to become very insular in our thinking. There are ample opportunities out there, and one of the most valuable ways to accelerate your learning as a product manager is through networking. Similar to how you would conduct user research with customers, ask a lot of questions and get different points of views from ‘outside’ to help you with business or customer challenges.

Like a lot of companies, we had a pretty new product team 一 some people came from product organizations, others from traditional e-commerce or project-based companies. It was a very diverse group of people with varying understanding of how ‘product’ as a job works. I found that challenges around stakeholder management, backlog management, how to layout out OKRs, and a whole bunch more, were things which were often talked about as ‘unique to BT’ and because ‘we have always done something a certain way’ was often a reason for frustration. The likes of FANG companies seemed to have it all figured out, and we were never going to become good enough.

Actions taken

I recognized the lack of outside perspective could be causing a disjointed view of the world and our challenges as a product team. I knew we went unique but I needed some help convincing the team. I had spent a lot of time chatting to other product people on Slack groups, LinkedIn forums, WhatsApp groups to help me with challenges I faced managing a team and thought it could be something everyone could benefit from. So I set up an initiative every month, where I would bring in a facilitator to talk about their experience. It would be a pretty casual call where I would ask them questions relating to any burning topic which was troubling the team at that time. Sometimes we had predefined questions but most of the time I free-styled (which is my favorite style). I would ask things that were on my mind and the conversation went from there.

Doing it once every month helped in many ways as the people I asked to chat with me were from a diverse group of companies and we covered a wide variety of topics. The biggest advantage of this was that through the conversations it was obvious that our issues weren't special to us and I think it helped the team to hear first-hand from people other than me, but as well, sharing their successes and failures.

I think other ways which are helpful to foster a continuous learning customer in an organisation is through traditional mentoring. Some people prefer a 1:1 conversation where they can be more honest or workshop thoughts. I also saw some benefit from attending seminars, or round tables which can be free to attend. After a while, though, I have found them to be a bit repetitive so I personally prefer 1:1 or round table discussions.

Lessons learned

  • Everyone is on a similar journey no matter the size of your company if you're a startup or from silicon valley. Trust me, you're not special.
  • I learn better when I talk to people about real-life experiences as opposed to trying to remember a theory.

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