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125 / Product Management Communities of Practice, with Petra Wille

Hosted by Paul Gebel




Petra Wille

Coach, Author, Conference Organizer

Petra Wille is an independent product leadership coach and author who’s been helping product teams boost their skill sets and up their game since 2013.  For the past four years, her work has focused on helping product leaders build outcome-oriented product organizations. Petra is dedicated to sharing her knowledge with the broader product community. In January 2021, Petra published STRONG Product People: A Complete Guide to Developing Great Product Managers, which has already generated lots of buzz in the product community. Alongside her freelance work, Petra is the co-organizer of Product at Heart in Hamburg, Germany.


Product managers seem to enjoy talking about how tough it is to be a product manager. And it is no matter the context of your specific business. Fortunately, as the role becomes more professionalized – and more populated – product communities are popping up and providing ready access to others we can learn from, network with, and vent our frustrations to. All of which, Petra Wille says, underscores the significance of product communities and the need for a collaborative mindset.

Petra is a product coach, author of STRONG Product People and STRONG Product Communities, and co-organizer of the Product at Heart conference, in Hamburg, Germany.

The fact is, “we can’t innovate without involving,” Petra says, emphasizing the collaborative nature of successful innovation. It’s the sense of belonging, of being in the same game and facing similar struggles, that draws product managers to one another at community events, Petra adds.

“Before you decide to join a product community or even attend a meetup,” Petra advises, “make sure you know what you want to get out of it. Understand your personal and professional goals.”

Some product managers want to learn a new technical skill. Others are looking to benchmark their organization’s product management practice against others. And some just want to vent, Petra continues. Find the right fit, she jokes, “because there’s nothing more frustrating than getting a lot of helpful tips when the only thing that you wanted to do was release some steam.”

Petra tailors her coaching and guidance in ways that align as well with veteran product leaders as with freshly minted ones. The one constant is that no matter where you are in your career, great product people are always learning and collaborating with others.

Be sure to catch the entire episode with Petra Wille for take on upcoming trends in 2024, including:

  • Profitability and the sustainability of ‘digital business models’
  • Moral & ethical concerns around AI
  • Regulatory compliance with ecological restrictions, especially in the EU
  • First principles thinking, now from the perspective of a ‘global product community’

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 folks, I was a kid in a candy shop with this recent conversation with Petra Wille. She runs a global product conference out of Hamburg, Germany. She has a book out and another forthcoming. And I think that the way that she thinks is rare. It’s a great opportunity to explore someone who is adept at conversations from the individual coaching scale all the way up to a global product community scale. And the things that we talked about I think are going to apply if you’re just starting out, if you’re a product leader in an organization, and everywhere in between. The conversation that I had left me energized and I learned a ton. I hope you will, too. So let’s get after it.

Paul [00:01:22] Well hello and welcome to the show. Today we’re delighted to be joined by Petra Wille. She is an independent product leadership coach and author of Strong Product People who’s been helping product teams boost their skill sets and product leadership development on their teams and themselves. Alongside her freelance work, Petra co-organizes Product at Heart in Hamburg, Germany. Petra, thank you for joining us. Welcome to the show.

Petra [00:01:44] Yeah, I’m so happy to be here. I’m really looking forward to this one.

Paul [00:01:47] Likewise. Your energy and enthusiasm is apparent immediately to anyone who’s experienced your talks or your conferences or just a conversation with you. What inspired you to become a product leadership coach and how has your coaching style evolved over the years?

Petra [00:02:03] Wow, that is an interesting first question. Yeah. Basically, my coaches convinced me that it was the next step to do, so you could say user research was what convinced me to become a product leadership coach. To some extent it was a natural transition, right? So I was coaching individual contributor product management folks for quite some time. And I have to admit I got a bit frustrated at some point because I was coaching product manager after product manager after product manager. And so some of them, or most of them, struggled with the exact same issues, right?

Petra [00:02:35] So I was kind of, “Okay, how can I help more people?” And one answer to that was, “Okay, maybe I should talk to their bosses instead of the IC level product people directly,” because I had so many things already sitting on my shelves, frameworks that I could use to help product leadership folks and coach them along the way to create product organizations that are even more successful and that are pleasant places to be for product people.

Petra [00:03:00] So that’s, I think, why I did it in the first place or why I considered making the move. And once I had this perspective, “Hm, all of my material through the lens of product leadership, does that still make sense?” A lot of it still made sense. So I had created a self-assessment for product people, and that definitely could be used in a product leadership role to be the compass or your definition of what makes a great product person, right? So and then it becomes a bit of a compass in hiring and onboarding product people for product leaders. So a lot of the stuff that I already had worked well for the product leadership folks as well. So that was basically what got me started with the product leadership coaching.

Paul [00:03:41] It’s great. And you’ve been helping people for over a decade now and really leaning into this idea. You’re coming off the heels, as of the time of this recording, a very successful product conference. Do you find a difference between helping and coaching and teaching in a conference setting versus the one-to-one? I mean, besides the obvious scale? Do you find yourself talking about things differently in general conversation with a lot of people than you do in focused conversations? How do you blend those two sides of yourself in these really powerful ways that you show up in the product community?

Petra [00:04:13] I’m nodding heavily along while Paul is asking this question. But yeah, there definitely is a difference, because if Arne Kittler and I do curate our conference agenda and schedule, we always have the product practitioner in mind. So we already said, like, “No Product at Heart is not about learning the Product 101.” It’s more about the practitioners, the people that are already doing this job for quite some time and seek for new inspiration, broadening horizons, inspiring these people, right? So that’s always what we have in mind when we curate events and the lineup. And still, we have these 800-plus attendees. So we need to cater to all of their needs to some extent at least. So there’s always a bit of frameworks and methodologies because that’s what the people take home with them after the conference and can easily apply to their day.

Petra [00:05:02] And then on top of that, we try to inspire them, and as I said, broaden their horizons. This year we had a big theme around finding clarity of thought for yourself and then providing directional clarity to others. Because these are important things for product people to learn and to wrap their heads around, right? But for some people, some even complain and say, like, that was a bit of a meta-theme, and where have been the frameworks and more of the toolkits and stuff like that?

Petra [00:05:30] So we still try to do both, but in one-on-one coaching situations, it’s way more tailored to their current context, their company’s context. So we try to meet them where they are in the one-on-one coaching conversations, right? So we know there is this ideal way of doing product management, but basically, nobody’s there. So I always ask my coachees, “What are the most pressing things? What are the biggest challenges that you have?” And we try to really improve these things. Sometimes it seems to be minor improvements in the beginning, but over time it really adds up and it often unblocks the product organization to some extent. And that is rare at a conference. A conference is more of inspiration, and maybe there’s a toolkit that you take with you, or maybe there is another thought leader that you stumble across or a book recommendation that sticks with you. But coaching is so often about, “What is your current challenges; How can we tackle those? How can we make it slightly better?” And maybe not the ideal version of doing things, but the better version of doing things.

Paul [00:06:32] That is such a great answer. Coincidentally, I’m coming into this recording after having just talked to my coach, so those kinds of conversations are probably the most valuable conversations I have in any given week. So it’s super powerful that you’re able to articulate and help people at both scales. I think the community really needs that. I really want to get into some of the main ideas that we talked about a bit before the show surrounding communities of practice, but I want to jump into it through the lens of your book. So talking a bit about Strong Product People. You’ve got a really broad range of ideas, especially around how product management varies. We all call ourselves product managers. Many of us listening to the show are holding the title of product manager, but our day-to-day can vary wildly depending on our industry and firm and where our product is going to land, B to C, B to B, all the ways that you can slice and dice it up. So given there’s so much variation across products within this one title, what principles, again, through that lens of community of practice, what principles do you think in your book are the ones that are really helpful for a product manager just starting out in their career to try to focus on to level up and get strong at? What makes a strong product person?

Petra [00:07:40] Yeah. So in the book, I talk about these various levels of becoming an ultimately competent product manager. And again, that really depends on the company’s needs or what the Head of Product wants to achieve with the product or organization and the product, right? But for me, so my kind of smallest common denominator definition of what makes a great product person is, first of all, I think it’s totally fine if the only thing that the junior product person can do is dealing with what the team is currently working on in the current iteration, you could call it sprint, maybe we’re looking at two weeks’ iterations and then the next few upcoming ones.

Petra [00:08:22] So it’s never the case that you come in as a newbie product person and hopefully never, ever responsible for strategy right away, right? Because you need to learn these things. That needs to be one skill learned after the other. And I think focusing on, “Okay, what is the team, the development team, including design and including user research,” you name it, whatever your team is composed of, the question is, “What do they currently need to have this directional clarity?” So why are we all here? What is the value that we’re trying to provide to our clients, customers, users, and how are we making money out of that or doing anything beneficial for the company or organization we’re working for? I think both aspects are really important. So many people have been really confused about, “Oh, now in this not-so-economically stable situation, we need to focus on profitability a bit more.” And I was confused about that, because why are so many product people confused about profitability to be any of their concerns? Right? They always should look at the business side of things.

Petra [00:09:26] So as a junior product person, try to understand, “Okay, what is this value part? What is the advantage for the company in doing stuff?” And then really look at the short term. So I would say a quarter. That is actually what I would recommend people to start with. So understand the backlog, understand what the team’s working on, understand why things are there. There’s always historical context for the stuff that we are doing. Understand the stakeholder landscape. So who are the people within the company that hold the influence and the power? How is the company operating? Some really trust in data, some really trust in user research, and others are still ruled by the highest-paid person’s opinion, right? So that are other things that junior product people should try to understand. So actually, how does the landscape look like?

Petra [00:10:11] And it is impossible to do that without the guidance of either the more senior appears or hopefully a line manager that helps you to understand all these things because otherwise, it would take you ages to figure these things out, right? But that is usually a lens that I like to recommend for the junior product people. And then I try to explain to them that this is not yet competent product management. So if you can prioritize the work of a quarter, if you can do valuable product discovery that spends around a quarter of work with your team, that’s not yet competent product management, by my definition, that’s my personal definition, because I think a strong product person should be able to create a product strategy for the product they’re working on. They should be fluent in the business cases, business modeling, maybe forecasting, all these kinds of things. That’s usually stuff that you learn a bit later. Then it’s a lot around teamwork. So, “How can I motivate the team? Should I motivate the team? Is that my role as a product person?” So all these kinds of considerations, that’s usually things that you learn a bit later in the game. And again, super hard to do it alone. So it does make sense to find allies who help you on that journey. And that is not necessarily only your line manager. Oftentimes they’re not product people at all. So then it’s way more helpful if you find more senior peers that could actually help, or community lands. If you go to company external meetups. So there are so many communities out there, product communities. So go find peers within these communities, even if it’s just like, “Hey, I’m interested in a framework and there is a great book about it. Should we read the book together and talk about it?” So that could be already beneficial to find allies because otherwise, it’s so hard to learn all these things alone.

Paul [00:12:00] Wonderful answers, so many ideas in there to unpack. I want to jump into the communities. The way that you describe communities. I’ve found myself a bit of two minds. I’ve been to product meetups, I’ve been to conferences, I’ve been in, you know, client and internal communities, and sometimes they’re incredibly helpful. We get pointed tactically towards a skill or a framework. Other times, I would say, more often than not, they become group therapy sessions where we kind of, product managers love to talk about how tough it is to be a product manager. And I’m guilty of that just as much as others. Is there a way that we can classify communities as doing their job better than others? Is there something that you look for in a community of practice that makes one more effective at what a community of practice is supposed to do than another?

Petra [00:12:50] Yeah, I think it depends on your personal goals, right? I would always recommend, before you decide to join one, or even decide to attend a meetup, the question is, What do you want to get out of it? And that, by the way, could be contributing to the community because giving a talk at a meetup helps you to reflect on the mastery that you have already gained. So that could be a personal reward to some extent, right? So even if you just, like, have this feeling of, “I’m giving a lot into this community,” the return on investment is always kind of just like, “Oh, I have something to talk about.” And that itself is a reward.

Petra [00:13:25] So the purposes of communities that you could think about is learning from others, then learning with each other. So that would be the joint book clubs or reading a book together. Then it’s definitely the networking because oftentimes the meet-up itself is not so helpful. But you were queuing for the pizza slice and then you met another PM from another company and half a year later you end up being in an application process with them. So you never know, right? But networking definitely could be something that you’re interested in.

Petra [00:13:54] Then again, venting about certain topics, that’s perfectly fine. If being angry about something is your current state of mind, then why not go find a community where that is okay to share all these struggles? And it often helps if you let people know, “Hey, I’m just here to release some steam,” or, “Hey, I’m here to actually seek guidance and are there any tips and tricks?” Because there’s nothing more frustrating than getting a lot of helpful tips if the only thing that you wanted to do was just to kind of release some of the steam, right? So these are things that you could think about before you actually go to an event or join a community.

Petra [00:14:31] And then one note for the more introverted people out there, I think smaller communities work better for all of us introverts. So maybe it’s perfectly fine if it’s 12 people and it’s a local community and you can actually meet them for an hour and talk about stuff. And it’s not as frightening as hanging out in a 300-person online Zoom call discussing the Jobs-to-be-Done framework, right? So I think that really helps to think about community size as well. And then a lot of communities have claims as to what the community is all about. So go read that. Sometimes they’re principles: so how do we share? How do we engage? If that is available, then it’s definitely worth to give it a review before you actually join.

Paul [00:15:14] Yeah, you’ve surveyed a quick take of basically every community I’ve ever been a part of. The venting, the learning, the being constructive, the networking. I think these are all categorically, as you say, valid. It can be a valid need to have a bit of catharsis from time to time and recognizing that that is part of our professional development is a valuable skill.

Petra [00:15:37] Yeah, and I forgot one, which is benchmarking. So sometimes it just helps to understand where you’re currently at with your current company’s product management practices, right? So that’s another thing why people are seeking community just like to see, “Are we really that bad?” Or, “We are not that bad, everybody’s struggling with similar things,” right? So this sense of belonging and being in the same game and everybody has the same struggles definitely is something that people seek when they attend community events.

Paul [00:16:05] Yeah. So I want to pick your brain a little bit about trends and how you have an insight to the community through your conference and feedback on your book and the many interactions you have with product people across industries. It can be tempting to just say remote work is here to stay and we need to learn hybrid work and collaboration. I think that’s been done. I’m curious what other trends you see product managers needing. Do we need to get crunchier in finances? Do we need to be more design-oriented in our research? What kind of things do you see strong product people having as different now in 2023, going into 2024, that maybe is different than it was three, four, five years ago?

Petra [00:16:46] Yes. I think there are no new topics on the tables. All the topics that we are currently discussing are here to stay, to some extent. I think it comes and goes in waves. So some are more important right now than others. So from what I hear in all kinds of conversations, this profitability topic is a topic for next year as well, I guess. So how are we making money with all of that? How are we making..? A lot of these digital business models are still not sustainable, taking all the investor’s money aside, right? So that’s definitely a topic that is here to stay, I’d say.

Petra [00:17:19] And then moral and ethical concerns are more of a thing with AI being used in many, many products these days, or at least many, many companies consider to use machine learning and AI more. And that kind of really emphasizes the importance that every product person has at least a stance on what is their take on the moral and ethical concerns of using AI. Because I think all of us have read about the issues that come with it. So now it’s on us to just think these things through and being playful with the technology, still using it, being early adopters to it, but see where it takes us and be really cautious with all of that. I think that is definitely something.

Petra [00:18:00] And then at least in Europe, I see a big tendency, to some extent because of some regulations coming from the EU, that companies really, especially the established ones, have to look into; “Okay, how are we making the whole business model/company more sustainable ecologically, CO2 footprint wise,” whatever, all these kind of things, that’s happening a lot. And that is something that product people get involved in more and more as well. Currently seeing the trend more in the B2B world, but I’m pretty sure that B2C-wise this will be more in demand over the next few years as well.

Petra [00:18:36] And then I think the product scene, so not what companies do, but what all of us as a big global product community will be seeing is, I think we’re trying to find more of these first principles product-wise. So everybody’s still, “Okay, we understand we have some methodologies and framework, some of them work better than others, some are personal preference.” But there are some things, for example, what I really like is providing people with directional clarity, because that’s actually one of these things that product people should care about. And it doesn’t matter if the company still thinks a product manager is the mini-CEO of the team, which I hate as a framing, but some companies still strongly believe into that. But even then, you have to provide directional clarity. And if you’re on the total opposite of the scale and you have like super low hierarchy and everybody is just like a team working together towards a shared goal, again providing directional clarity still is a topic. So I think as a product scene we will see more of these themes that are equally important no matter the company environment that you’re working in.

Paul [00:19:42] Well, I wasn’t going to ask this, but since you set it up so well, I have to jump in and respond. The phrase ‘CEO of the product’ is still thrown around as if it’s taken as settled fact. And it’s a very inflammatory phrase, especially to CEOs. So I’m wondering, what is it about that phrase that caused that reaction in your response? Why are product managers maybe hurting themselves by clinging to this phrase of ‘CEO of the product?’

Petra [00:20:08] Yeah. So there is a personal answer and story to that and then there is a general product coaching answer to that. So the personal story to that: I was once Managing Director of the company and a product manager before, right? And once you’re ultimately responsible for the lives and the salaries of the people, you realize that product management has nothing to do with being ultimately responsible for a company, right? So that’s kind of why I personally don’t like this metaphor. And then I think, maybe that’s another personal preference, I’m just not a strong believer in that somebody needs to be the leader. We’re all grown-up adults. We all should be to some extent, good and working as a team. We all should have learned that diverse backgrounds and ideas make better products and therefore, yeah, still, maybe somebody has a bit more authority because of they are creating a product strategy or setting the goals. But all of that should never, ever happen without involving as many stakeholders and team members and users and you name it as possible. So I just think products get better if we involve more people and better in terms of more accessible for all the people on the planet and not just for a small amount of them. So that’s why I don’t like the idea of, there’s somebody who has it all, who knows it all, who prioritizes it all. So I just don’t like this idea, especially in companies where they love the mini-CEO definition of product management. Product people often have no authority because they’re often in environments where the highest-paid person’s opinion still rules and dictates what the teams actually do. So yeah.

Paul [00:21:48] Yeah. Clearly spoken from lived experience. I can feel the passion in your response. The way that I’ve experienced it is very, very similar and I think there is a hidden message in there. You didn’t say this overtly, but I want to make sure that I understood this. You said we don’t need a leader in the sense that everybody is a professional, everybody’s an adult. And I’m wondering, do we, in claiming this title of mini-CEO, infantilize the team in a sense, do we put the team in a state where we’re taking accountability away from folks? The decisions should be shared where we have a common collaborative vision. Communication was a big theme in your book. So I’m wondering, is this all tied up in the way that you responded to that last question? Is this, you know, being more of a community as a team?

Petra [00:22:30] Yeah, to some extent. So if possible, right, Because it implies that you have engineers that are interested in having these conversations about the product trajectory. Or if they’re not interested in learning anything about the user, then it’s hard to have such a collaboration, right? But given that there is a certain interest from the developers into design, into usability issues, into the business part of running the product, into planning and all these kind of things, and given that the product manager has the same interest for what they do and for what the design folks do, I think if that is kind of the environment we’re looking at, then there is no need of this mini-CEO definition of a product manager.

Petra [00:23:15] I just wrote a blog post about it, I think in September, that we currently tend to rename all product managers to product leads, which causes a lot of confusion because product leads or product leaders is often used to talk about the people leading the product organization. So that currently is a bit of a, nobody knows which term to use, even I as a product leadership coach, I’m constantly struggling. But I think that is kind of the counter-revolution to the mini-CEO thing, right? Because we don’t call the mini-CEO and people even don’t want to call them product managers still. So product leads becomes the term of the year, maybe? I’m not the biggest fan of it, but I think that is kind of where it’s coming from. So to open it a bit more up because then you have an engineering lead and a design lead and a product lead. So we’re all equals. I think that’s where all of that is coming from. It’s just another trend.

Paul [00:24:14] Very interesting and I’m connecting the dots here. Martin Erickson, who wrote the foreword for your book, also wrote the book Product Leadership. So I’m seeing a through line here that’s consistent.

Petra [00:24:23] Exactly.

Paul [00:24:24] We just have a couple of minutes left and I wish we could keep going. I’m having such a good time unpacking some of these ideas with you. But in the interest of time, I wanted to get one question that we ask all of our guests, and it’s a deceptively simple one, but interested in your take on it. How do you define innovation?

Petra [00:24:42] So innovation, I have this, and it’s not that I invented innovation. I didn’t invent it. But somebody at some point said, like, “We need to invent on behalf of our users.” And that is always where I’m coming from when I’m talking about innovation. We could innovate on behalf of the company as well. Ideally, there is an overlap because of what users want and what the company wants. But it is actually, when I look at innovation, I always think about, are we innovating on somebody’s behalf? And I think we can’t innovate without involving, and depending what innovation we’re looking for, if it’s a business model innovation then we need to involve some of the business folks. If we’re looking at a more technological innovation, then we need to invite more of the developers. Or often, actually, it is where the innovation comes from. So it’s often not the product person having the idea. The product person is sharing the struggles of the user or the struggles that the company currently is having, and then somebody else who knows more about the domain; technology, business, wherever has this kind of epiphany moment where like, “Oh, there is this new technology that we could actually try and see if that is actually solving that problem.” So again, innovation, a big community thing.

Paul [00:25:54] Yeah, I love that answer, that perspective of beginning with the user and building on behalf of someone else is not a take that I’ve heard before. I love asking this question because as many people as I ask it to you is as many answers as I’ve gotten and it’s a really thoughtful approach you’ve taken there.

Petra [00:26:08] Yeah, it’s really nice.

Paul [00:26:09] Last question that I have at the time of this release, your new book will have been out for…

Petra [00:26:16] Most likely, yes.

Petra [00:26:17] ….At least a little while, most likely. Can you tell us a little bit about what’s coming up and why this should be on a product manager’s bookshelf?

Petra [00:26:23] Yeah, actually, Strong Product People becomes a little sister. That’s always what I’m saying. So Strong Product People was really all about product leadership. So it’s written for the people running a product organization, so it helps them to become a better coach. It helps them to upskill the product organization. And that is actually what this book is all about. And the new one that I’m currently in the process of releasing is Strong Product Communities, and that is actually really a book for whoever is interested to start or mature the product community within their organization. Because I often see that that is a totally undeveloped field in every product organization and there’s so much potential there because product people are often so siloed, they’re not even sharing the most helpful frameworks for them in this situation, right?

Petra [00:27:12] So the book is all about, how could you get in touch with your colleagues, what are good formats that worked for others? So I interviewed a ton of people. All the interviews are part of that book as well. So how is, for example, Teresa Torres running her community, or how is Google running their European product community of practice? So these are interviews that are part of the book. And then I surveyed more than 100 people about what they like about their communities of practice, what rituals work well, and what is not working that well. So all of that is condensed in the book and it hopefully will help make the product management profession less lonely and more and more product people being part of a community. So that’s why I wrote it.

Paul [00:27:52] Well, Petra, you have been a force for good in our communities around the world. I have been just so honored that you’ve taken the time to chat with us today. I really appreciate it.

Petra [00:28:02] Of course.

Paul [00:28:03] I’ve learned a ton. I wish we could keep going, but we’ll wrap our time up here.

Petra [00:28:06] Maybe we will after we hit stop recording.

Paul [00:28:10] Fingers crossed, fingers crossed. Well Petra, that’s all for now. We’ll look forward to talking more in the future. Cheers.

Petra [00:28:16] Thank you.

Paul [00:28:19] 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 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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