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112 / Beyond the Handoff Culture: How To Collaborate in a Post-Pandemic World, with Gavin Deadman

Hosted by Paul Gebel




Gavin Deadman

Flutter Entertainment

Gavin Deadman is a product coach based in London, England. He coaches a product team of about 150 product managers and product leaders within the division of Flutter International at Flutter Entertainment Plc. Gavin is a servant leader with 23 years of product and marketing experience who advocates for an empowered and learning culture. He spent 10 of the past 23 years working in product management and the other 13 in acquisition marketing. He’s also worked in the iGaming industry for over 12 years.

Product teams emerging from 3 years of remote-work hibernation are now living through what Gavin Deadman calls the “handoff culture.” Acquisition marketer turned product management coach, Gavin supports a product team of 150 product managers and product leaders within the division of Flutter International and Flutter Entertainment. A prolific blogger, Gavin’s writing is must-read content for product managers, marketers, makers, and leaders.

In a pre-pandemic workplace, core product development functions were typically co-located in the same office space, Gavin explains. So collaborating with designers, engineers, and the rest of the business was pretty straightforward.

“When you’re actually working with human beings in the flesh, understanding why you’re solving particular problems becomes quite natural,” he adds.

But the Covid-driven disruption not only created a physical disconnect between product managers and their teams; it also forced us to create new, specialist-type roles and applications to do smaller parts of the job relative to collaboration. Over time, we figured out how to untangle that web.

We got really good at having conversations; we established ways of working that actually accelerate decisionmaking; and, maybe because some of those decisions went sideways, we learned to iterate more quickly.

Over the past 3 years, we’ve formalized processes that have driven much of the pre-pandemic inefficiencies from our work. Now, we find ourselves with a new code to crack:

  • How do we move from the sterile efficiency of the handoff culture to build back some of the “healthy friction” occurring organically as product teams return with new energy to their workspaces?
  • Have the skill sets we expect from product managers, designers, and engineers changed? If so, how do we reassess them?
  • In this dynamic new workplace, where does the role of “servant leader” fit into the product manager job description?

Catch the entire Product Momentum conversation with Gavin to hear his insights.

Paul [00:00:19] Hello and welcome to Product, Momentum, where we hope to entertain, educate and celebrate the amazing product people who are helping to shape our community’s way ahead. My name is Paul Gebel and I’m the Director of Product Innovation at ITX. Along with my co-host, Sean Flaherty, and our amazing production team and occasional guest host, we record and release a conversation with a product thought leader, writer, speaker, or maker who has something to share with the community every two weeks.

Paul [00:00:43] Hey, everybody, and welcome to our conversation today with Gavin Deadman. Gavin is coming to us from London, England today. And our conversation is one that I’ve been looking forward to for a while. He’s a prolific writer and just a coach at heart. There’s really no other way to put it: he cares deeply about the product leaders and product managers in our industry, how to help motivate teams, how to build and nurture a growth mindset. And I just really appreciated the practical approach that he brings to all of his conversations. I know I learned a ton in what we unpacked today, and I’m sure you will too. So without further ado, here’s Gavin Deadman.

Paul [00:01:19] Well hello and welcome to the pod. Today, we’re delighted to be joined by Gavin Deadman. Gavin’s a product coach based in London, coaching a product team of about 150 product managers and product leaders within the division of Flutter International and Flutter Entertainment. He’s a servant leader with 23 years of product and marketing experience who advocates for an empowered and learning culture. Ten of those years were working in product management and 13 in acquisition marketing. He’s also worked in the gaming industry now for over 12 years. Gavin, so happy to have you. Welcome to the show.

Gavin [00:01:48] Thanks, Paul. Great to be here.

Paul [00:01:49] Absolutely. I want to dig in by unpacking just a little bit of your background because it’s so intriguing. This world of acquisition marketing is probably going to sound foreign to many folks in the product space. Can you just unpack how these worlds collided for you and a bit of your story around, how does someone with a business background like this succeed in product management?

Gavin [00:02:09] Absolutely. So when I think of product management acquisition marketing, there’s a lot of similarities from my time working in acquisition marketing, such as, for example, the data-driven decision making, including like the AB testing and experimentation. You know, that’s decades old now when it comes to acquisition marketing. Having a focus on the quality of customers is relevant for both acquisition marketing versus product management. Then looking at conversion rates and the pain points, whether it’s a conversion funnel or throughout the product itself, looking at the pain points, looking at the customer behavior and then optimizing them. That’s, you know, 101 acquisition marketing and product management as well. And generally as well, when you look at the cause-and-effect relationship for both disciplines, very relevant.

Paul [00:02:52] The kind of data-driven decision-making that you’re talking about, is that something that you see as too much of an echo chamber in product management today? Is there a lesson that we can learn from acquisition marketing that maybe there’s not enough of in the product space today? What do you feel like product managers can learn from this world of acquisition marketing?

Gavin [00:03:10] Yeah, so it’s coming down to that purpose and the role that product plays on the wider business. So when you think of the product, what is the purpose of the product? It’s to drive customers and customers will then drive the business. So products will drive the business. That’s the purpose of it. It’s to grow the business. What’s the purpose of acquisition marketing? It’s to grow the business by getting new customers in, and that’s where the similarities are. So that’s where, in terms of mindset from a product point of view, it’s really important to think of, like, “Why am I working on this initiative or Why am I looking to solve this problem? How are we going to measure success?” There’s a reason behind that. It’s not just to deliver product changes live to customers and seeing customers engage with that, that’s good. But it needs to be something that customers are willing to pay for is something that’s going to drive the business. Because otherwise it’s a question of why we do it if it’s not going to grow the business, it’s not going to grow the product.

Paul [00:04:03] I love that. One of the things that we talked about in the conversation before the pod today, it resonated when you were talking about how we really want to be very discreet about who we choose to go and talk to. And I think this decision making of, we’re in this to run a business, a product only succeeds if there’s revenue, if there’s cash flow. And sometimes, at least in circles that I travel in, it seems like there’s almost an altruism about, “everybody is the target market,” or there’s a persona that’s almost too broad.

Paul [00:04:33] And I think there’s a lesson to learn, or at least that I took away from our talk, about how we really have to be more selective about who it is we’re trying to help and how we’re trying to help them. And it’s only when we can put those two things together that you can really build a product that’s going to really change the world and not just fall flat or be a mile wide and an inch deep, so to speak. Is that reading too much between the lines, or am I getting close to the kind of things that you’re thinking about?

Gavin [00:04:56] No, that’s spot on. I agree that you’re going to have a certain demographic that’s going to buy your products, and it’s really important to understand them, like through their personas, and build that empathy for them so then you can target them efficiently with products that they’re going to love and they’re going to actually buy and they’re going to be loyal to, you know, that product and that brand really over time.

Gavin [00:05:18] But yeah, I think one thing that really helps product managers build that empathy for their customers is really understanding the customer pain points, like, whether it’s at reviews or it could be customer support queries. And that’s where it really brings home actually, “what are we doing, and what is the reason for doing this?” And actually, you can see customers giving feedback and it’s responding to that. And as you respond to that feedback, you grow the business and you see the numbers come through rather than just thinking, like, we’re going through this process of building a product, actually building it for the customers because that is going to grow the business.

Paul [00:05:51] Well said. Well said. You’re a prolific writer and one of the things that we are trying to deal with is something that you’ve written a bunch about. It ties into this concept of figuring things out and working together as a team. But one of the things that coming out of the pandemic and figuring out how hybrid, return-to-work, fully remote fits together is this concept that you’ve called handoff culture. And this impacts the problem that we’re jumping off of because communication has become systemically fragmented, right? The designer designs the mockups and hands them off to the architect. The architect assesses the feasibility and hands them off to the product manager, the product manager writes the stories and hands… And so on and so forth down the line. And it feels like a lot of our conversations have turned from organic, spontaneous, creative, empathetic conversations into a process and being beholden to the process. And I’m wondering, this is something that I struggle with in leading a team of intelligent, creative people; how do you break through this handoff culture that we’re starting to see in this post-pandemic, post-return-to-work world?

Gavin [00:07:02] Yes, it’s a really good point and a good subject to unpack. So when I think of pre-pandemic and pre-COVID what life was like for product managers, so typically when you think of product, they’re a core part of the business. It is the business. So typically that would be in-house. The product function will be in-house, marketing team’s in-house because that’s a key driver of growth in the business. And whilst the business could be global and there could be calls that you’d have to make with people that people are quite comfortable with, typically the core functions would be co-located in the relevant market that you’re operating in. So in terms of collaborating with people day-to-day, whether it’s the developers, the rest of the business, marketing, it becomes really easy. You know, you speak to five people within an hour, quickly make decisions, and progress.

Gavin [00:07:47] It’s quite easy, you know, everyone like working together towards a common goal and it’s quite real, you know, when you’re actually working with human beings in the flesh, it becomes quite natural in terms of, why are you there, what is the purpose, where are you headed, and why are you solving specific problems? But I think, now, looking at the, like COVID and remote working, it’s now created an element of divide in terms of solving problems in an efficient way, or what is the purpose of solving that problem or building a product. So beforehand, where it could take one product manager that would typically do both the product manager and product role that would be embedded with multiple scrum teams, which, you know, you would manage the dynamics of spending time with stakeholders and developers, which was quite natural and was relatively easy.

Gavin [00:08:39] But now, it’s actually, there’s a lot more people doing the role where because just to collaborate with people you have to organize, do meetings, work out diaries and talk to people, get that liven, and it can take more time, especially when it comes to making decisions. So generally, when you look across the industry, there’s a lot more, I guess, specialist roles to do smaller parts of the overall job. So that’s where you have product manager, folks in discovery, and now commonly product owner focuses on the execution and delivery. And that’s we’re in supporting roles to help people through that process, to get ideas to customers.

Gavin [00:09:14] And that’s where, I think, when you look at Agile, it’s caused a bit of a challenge when it comes to Agile transformations, we’re going to be backwards. Pre-COVID, I think people were accelerating their Agile transformation and it was relatively straightforward to move it from, say, a waterfall sort of environment to more iterative product development because the product manager was embedded within the development teams and the product manager is a business representation. And that’s the big part of say, Scrum, having that business representation or business representative with the development team making them decisions in terms of priority, vision, and strategy. Whereas now, for example, across the industry, that’s happening further away from the developers more than it has been for the last 5 to 10 years. So it’s really going to step back up in terms of that decision being made close to the development teams.

Paul [00:10:07] Yeah, I think you’re diagnosing a really hard-to-pin-down problem. And if I could just kind of summarize the way that I’m observing this intersection with what you’re talking about, it seems like there’s a hand-off culture, so to speak, in a good way, where we’ve gotten really efficient at having conversations, we’ve gotten really efficient at making decisions, and not necessarily pointed in the right direction all the time because things are moving faster, we’re iterating more quickly. But it seems like the problem that you’re starting to describe is one of, if I could put it this way, a healthy friction where going a little bit slower because we’re bumping into each other, because the product manager is embedded and translating the user’s needs and pain points, there’s a conversation that used to happen a lot more organically that we can still have. It’s not mutually exclusive to be remote or have collaboration, right? You can collaborate remotely and a lot of people have cracked that code. But what you were just saying is there’s almost a step of healthy friction that we need to build back into the process, where we’ve almost gotten too efficient for our own good. Is that close? Did I get that right?

Gavin [00:11:12] Yeah, I agree. And I think there’s an extra element to it and that’s, I think, remote working, I believe is harder to scale up. So now when you’re, say, looking for a product manager, maybe they’ve got less skill sets than they used to have like five, ten years ago because you’d normally naturally absorb all the different skills from all the different disciplines, whether it’s business acumen from marketing or commercial team, and just sitting with developers, you can naturally pick up some of the technical jargon that you normally wouldn’t do.

Gavin [00:11:42] Whereas now actually, whether it’s product owner or product manager, picking up all the different skill sets that’s needed, whether it’s, you know, from the discovery side, research, and execution is a lot harder. So that’s another element where I think it comes down to trust, whether I think businesses do trust, whether now in this current sort of climate, whether they could trust someone to have all them skill sets or they’re capable of having that, you know, from the ground up, because it is a lot harder to learn. I think for an individual that’s brand new to product management or product ownership, to comprehend all of the different disciplines of running that business within a product is quite hard. So that’s where it’s sort of quite natural now to break it down into multiple different roles. So I think that’s an extra dynamic that I think is added in to the reason why there’s a bit of a hand-off culture now that we’re seeing across the industry, because one of them is a skillset shortage of having all of that, you know, the general role together.

Paul [00:12:38] I love that. And one of the things that’s coming through clearly, just to change subjects slightly, but to bring sort of what you bring to the table back into the conversation, it’s so clear that you care deeply about product people and teams that product leaders support. A lot of people throw the term servant leader around, and I think it’s become a little bit of a buzzword. But when I hear you talk, you really care about changing the situation and helping organizations learn and grow differently. Can you tell me, what does it mean to be a servant leader in terms of skills to hone? What are the things that a product leader as a servant leader can bring to a team than just a rocket-fueled product manager, you know, might miss? What does a servant leader in a team look like these days?

Gavin [00:13:24] Sure. So I’m extremely passionate about servant leadership. And even when you’re looking at, like, modern leadership management courses such as the Institute of Leadership Management, they’ve got that now in the curriculum. You know, a big part of that is servant leadership. So servant leadership for me is focusing on developing people. That is the crux of it. So whilst, you know, it could be a product leader, they’re very much focused the folks and directing the team and literally really focused on delivering that strategy and there’s a lot going on.

Gavin [00:13:54] It can be put at the bottom of the pile often in terms of actually the priority is developing their people, because ultimately the people that are going to develop the business and adapt to change and the complex and competitive environment is the people. And it’s a lot better to have hundreds of people thinking rather than one. So multiple brains are better than one. So the more you can develop the people, the more that the business can develop as well. I think there’s an element as well of trust. So there is a lot of investment that a product leader needs to make with developing people. And it does take time and it can be a cause of anxiety to think, well, if I spend that investment and that time in people, they might leave after two years. But actually, if you create that environment, then people don’t want to leave even if they can, that that’s a change for a leader is to keep them motivated, that actually you’ve got an exciting product, you’ve got exciting problems to solve, and they are feeling challenged and they are contributing to, you know, solving those problems.

Gavin [00:14:53] And, you know, typically, human beings, they like to feel challenged. That is part of being human. They generally strive to actually want to learn and be challenged and help and drive the business forward. And giving them the opportunity to do that, it’s remarkable what they can achieve given that chance. So yeah, and I think one of the things that is a challenge at the moment is, I think, when it comes to the skill sets of a product leader in terms of servant leadership, when you look at the industry, they necessarily haven’t got a lot of that experience in terms of product’s practical experience or mentoring. So it’s really hard for them to develop their people when they themselves haven’t got that skill set. So I think the next generation of potential product leaders will come up from the ground up and they’ll have that experience. So we’re in sort of phase at the moment, where, in the next generation of product leaders, are going to be, I think, more servant leader driven.

Paul [00:15:46] Yeah, and it’s almost impossible to be a servant leader without having a growth mindset. If you’ve got a fixed mindset and what you see is your role and, “I can never exceed,” or, “I can never grow beyond the data,” and we look at things from a fixed mindset. In order to be a servant leader, by definition, you must have a growth mindset. And I want to spend just a couple of our last questions around this idea of mindset and motivation. So, growth mindset, I think, you know, the concept Carol Dweck introduced in her landmark book a couple of years ago. I think Growth Mindset has been around and in the industry for a while, but as it applies to the idea of products and people, we almost have to have this idea of growing teams and culture. You mentioned building a place that’s so sticky that people don’t want to grow.

Paul [00:16:30] But even if they do, we’re making the product community a better place by building product leaders. We’re making a rising tide that raises all ships. How can a product manager introduce a growth mindset deliberately to their thought process? I’m wondering about, how can we look at data, AB testing, your past life as an acquisition marketer, how can we look at all these data, value stream mapping kind of quantitative activities and bring a growth mindset into the people and the products that we’re building systems around?

Gavin [00:17:00] Yeah, good question and it’s a really good point. I’ve read this somewhere, and I think it’s a really good phrase, is around treating your personal development and yourself as a product. So typically, when it comes to product management, one of the skills is to be quite curious and ask good questions to understand why your customers are behaving in the way they are, how can you find new opportunities to solve problems in an innovative way? And looking at gap analysis, you know, SWOT analysis in a market, your products. And you can apply a lot of that to your own personal development. So SWOT analysis, what are your strengths, weaknesses? Self-reflection, so self-reflection on the product, what do customers think and why, what does reality look like and where do you want to get to? What are the gaps? Similar to your current, you know, self-development as a product manager, you know, what does good look like in terms of expectations? What does reality look like? Where is it gap and why do you want to get to?

Gavin [00:17:55] And I think it’s really important that people don’t stop learning. So as you’ll become a product leader, there’s always an opportunity to continuously learn and then help and develop your people learn as well, and showing them how to learn. Because it’s not easy, you don’t wake up the next day and suddenly you’ve got a growth mindset. It takes a lot of nurturing and years of trying different methods to find out how you learn as an individual, what methods make the most impact and how can you apply your learning? But it is really easy once you’ve found out how to learn and what impacts you can make from learning, then that’s a lot easier.

Paul [00:18:29] Well said. I think the last part of that servant leadership thread that you unpacked or began to unpack was around the concept of motivation. You spend a lot of your time coaching product managers and product leaders, and I’m editorializing a little bit, but for me, the difference between a coach and a cheerleader is that a coach’s job, it’s kind of back to that concept of a healthy friction, right? You’re as a coach challenging people to think differently and to make them professionally uncomfortable a little bit and to find those uncertainties and build them into certainties and future-proof their careers. So as a coach, and thinking about this idea of motivation, how can a product manager, especially one who leads other product owners and product managers on a team, build skills that are critical for the future in their team? How can a product manager or a servant leader act as a coach to build this idea of motivation within the team? Is there a sweet spot of just enough challenge but not too much? Or is it our job to just remove obstacles and make everything easy?

Gavin [00:19:28] Yeah. So it all depends on the level of skill of the individual. So I would recommend anyone that’s leading other people or teams or managing other teams, they go on professional courses, like ILM Level 3 Leadership and Management, and that’s where they’ll really teach you the difference between management and leadership, which can often be confused that they’re the same thing where they are different things.

Gavin [00:19:51] And also really good techniques, one of my favorite techniques, which would help product managers in that scenario that you mentioned, is a will and skill technique. So depending on the individual’s will and skill, you would apply a different technique. So if someone’s got a low skill and a low will you would direct them, like tell them what to do. If someone’s got a low skill but then high will, you would mentor them to increase their skills. And then if someone’s got highly skilled, but then a variable will, then you would coach them and ask them some questions to actually unpack, like, what’s stopping them from reaching their full potential? They’re more than capable of doing it because they’ve got high skill, but there could be something that’s just blocking them like confidence or imposter syndrome. So it’s just unpacking that and that awareness that actually they are more than capable of doing it and giving them some ideas and options to progress and to reach their full potential.

Gavin [00:20:44] And then the last one is delegating. Where they’re highly skilled and they’ve got high will, then you’d delegate, which is basically should be empowering. So, yeah, the last thing you want to do is empower someone who’s got a low skill and low will, because it’s likely not a lot will get done. And equally, if someone is highly skilled, you don’t want to necessarily direct them because that would demotivate them. And no one likes to be micromanaged when they are highly skilled. So yeah, I think following that balance and using techniques like that would really help product managers on their journey to both improve their leadership skills and people management skills.

Paul [00:21:18] Well, it wouldn’t be a product management conversation if we didn’t work a quad chart into the conversation, so we’ve got our two by two, the will and skill matrix. I’m going to use that. That’s a really great insight and I think a really great tool to allow leaders to build a conversation about what type of role a person is going to fill on a team. You’ve got my wheels turning, and that’s a great ad. I’ve just got a couple more questions for you to wrap up our time together. The first is one that we ask of all of our guests as we close out our conversation. I’m wondering, can you share for us, just off the cuff, what does the term innovation mean to you? How would you define innovation?

Gavin [00:21:51] So I would define innovation as solving a new or existing problem in a unique way.

Paul [00:21:57] And the problem has to be new? How do you differentiate between a new problem and an old problem?

Gavin [00:22:01] So an old problem will be more of a solution. So it could be an existing solution or there’s already a solution live in the market, so you just solve that in an innovative way, really. And also, it doesn’t just apply to customer problems, it could be process, ways of working, anything day-to-day that you’re working on, looking at how you work and just solving it in a more efficient way. Because some people can think, well, innovation is all about coming up with shiny new features, brand new products that actually could be just a small part of the product that’s important for customers, solving it in a more modern way or solving in a better way that fulfills the customer needs or internally a business need or team need, wherever it could be.

Paul [00:22:41] Great distinction. The last thing before I let you go is what would you recommend a product manager have on their bookshelf or what video or blog post have you found to be inspirational? What would you say is required reading for a product manager who’s trying to level up their career?

Gavin [00:22:55] So I would say any book or website or blog by Stephen Haines. I’m a really big fan of Stephen Haines because his foundational thinking is around business acumen and the key element of making decisions from data and using data, which is fundamental. Yeah, and I really like his techniques and principles and values. Yeah, I would recommend searching for Stephen Haines on Amazon to check out his books.

Paul [00:23:19] Yeah, and he’s actually a previous guest on this very podcast. We’re fans of Stephen as well and he’s a friend of the pod, so great ad, and fully agree, his insight is really, I think, pragmatic for the times. So Gavin, thank you so much for taking the time today. It’s been a pleasure unpacking these ideas with you. I think you’ve got some really great takes and I think it’s going to help a lot of people. So appreciate it.

Gavin [00:23:38] Thanks, Paul. Thanks for having me.

Paul [00:23:39] Cheers.

Paul [00:23:43] Well, that’s it for today. In line with our goals of transparency and listening, we really want to hear from you. Sean and I are committed to reading every piece of feedback that we get, so please leave a comment or a rating wherever you’re listening to this podcast. Not only does it help us continue to improve, but it also helps the show climb up the rankings so that we can help other listeners move, touch, and inspire the world, just like you’re doing. Thanks, everyone, we’ll see you next episode.


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