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The Key to Horizontal Leadership Roles Across Product Teams

Managing Expectations

12 May, 2021

Julian Jones
Julian Jones

Product Manager at Nike

Julian Jones, Product Manager at Nike, discusses how he influenced the top authority and took a horizontal leadership role when that role across product teams was not defined.


The teams that I currently work with are considered capability teams in the sense that we attempt to expand the company’s ability to solve a variety of consumer pain points. In one particular growth area of the company, the product teams I have been involved with have been trying to make progress for a couple of years. The good news is that we did make progress, but it was inconsistent. While some teams made remarkable progress, others were making none. This resulted in no customer value because we were not delivering what we needed across all teams.

One of the reasons for that was many teams were focused on trying to solve the long-term state — trying to figure out the North Star and build for it. That was creating misunderstandings about the scope of the problem in the product we were trying to develop. The other consequence was that the teams that did make progress but were successful at branching off their solution to work for a small number of use cases, but not all use cases.

And so, not only were the company hamstrung in its ability to deliver value, but the solutions that we proposed were considered a tech-death by the company that we would have to resolve to get to the North Star that we were hoping for. In short, there were a lot of inconsistencies in our product strategy, engineering implementations, and customer experiences.

Actions taken

I tried to connect the more short-term execution-focused teams with the long-term strategy that we were driving toward. I tried to drive an alignment to start building toward the North Star that we knew we had issues with while also delivering the incremental value that the business needed. The team working toward the North Star wanted to build a cohesive yet consistent product strategy and engineering approach that could handle any use case within the domain we were working.

I met with all the product teams across the different customer experiences that we wanted to support. I tried to understand their perspective about the short-term objective in this domain relative to the parts of the customer experience they manage and their roadmap. In tune, I met the different engineering teams across different backgrounds in an attempt to try and understand our engineering approaches.

After all the product and engineering discoveries, I identified the lowest common denominator. All the teams shared a subset of their feature that was shared across all the different teams. I took that shared bodywork and elevated it to be our MVP across the entire company. Also, I held the same proposal from a product perspective. I got an alignment from all different teams on the core value drop. From then on, I worked with our product strategy teams and other teams who were involved in the long-term proposal.

I tried to paint the story for how we could get from there to where we wanted it in a long-term state. Once I had the short-term MVP proposal defined and everyone aligned to it, I provided them the path to get there. Finally, I built a product narrative, and elevated it to our senior leadership and got buy-in from them. We did use our foundational work for companies like product strategy going forward. Best of all, we were able to agree in a more unified way.

Lessons learned

  • When building a product, always have a strong sense of what your use cases are. Having a concrete, well-defined set of use cases can help team members understand what scope of the problem they are trying to solve.
  • Always get the basics right. While everyone wants to think about long-term strategies and deliver as fast as possible, some product managers tend to lose sight of the early stage of customer experience they are trying to create.
  • As a product manager, even if you are not a senior leader, don’t be afraid to do the work in terms of the products covered in discovery. Develop an opinion and propose ways to fill in the gaps, and you will see that your senior leaders will appreciate that.
  • Product Managers are here to build products and solve customer problems, either internal or external or address market opportunities; instead of focussing on the north star to build the perfect product, route yourself in the right direction.

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