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Are your product problems that special?

Customers
Meetings
Coaching / Training / Mentorship

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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