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66 / Key Elements that Foster the Product Mindset

Hosted by Sean Flaherty

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About Marc Abraham
marc-abraham
Marc Abraham
ASOS

Marc Abraham is an experienced product management practitioner and Head of Product – Engagement at London-based ASOS.com. He has worked for a large number of successful digital organizations, from startups to more established businesses. Marc wrote about his learnings in the book My Product Management Toolkit, which came out in 2018, and Managing Product = Managing Tension, which was released in 2020. He also publishes on Medium and his personal website.

There is an ongoing evolution in organizations toward an emphasis on the customer experience with your product versus a steady delivery of flashy new features. The former focuses on outcomes, while the latter embraces outputs, perhaps better known as “feature bloat” or “experience rot.”

In this episode of the Product Momentum Podcast, Sean is joined by Marc Abraham, Head of Product – Engagement at London-based ASOS, and the author of My Product Management Toolkit and Managing Product = Managing Tension. Teams that boast a product mindset, Marc says, focus their energies around the 4 C’s: creativity, curiosity, clarity, and customer.

“These elements are not unique to the domain of the product manager,” he adds. “But once you’ve got those four elements of the mindset, you’re really onto something in terms of creating that kind of customer-centric product culture organizations are looking for.”

Listen to hear more from Marc, including:

  • The power of “W-H-Y” – the ultimate essence of being a good product person
  • Embracing tension in product management in a constructive way
  • Using a shared language for engagement within and outside of your organization

Sean [00:00:19] Hello and welcome to the Product Momentum Podcast. This is a podcast intended to entertain, educate, celebrate, and give a little back to the product leadership community.

Sean [00:00:31] Hello, everyone. I’m excited to have Marc Abraham on the podcast today, from London with an incredible British accent. We have some incredible insights. He’s got a model around the four C’s that we’re going to share. How do we tap into creativity, curiosity, clarity, understanding of the customer? And he talks about how it’s all about creating a shared language as a foundation, shared goals, shared guardrails. It’s actually an incredible conversation. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed talking to Marc. Let’s get after it.

Sean [00:01:05] Well, hello and welcome to the podcast. Today we have Marc Abraham, an experienced product management practitioner, head of product at ASOS, author of two incredible books on product leadership, My Product Management Toolkit, and Managing Product = Managing Tension. I’m excited to have you on the show today, Marc. How are you?

Marc [00:01:22] I’m good. Thank you for having me. I’m excited.

Sean [00:01:26] Well, what’s got you excited these days in product leadership?

Marc [00:01:28] What gets me excited is the feeling I’m getting, particularly if I look around in Europe, I don’t know what it’s like in the States, is that product is getting more of a, what I call a seat at the table and definitely going through the evolution of very delivery-focused to be much more involved in strategy, building out a culture, which is based around data and customer. Again, I wouldn’t say it’s perfect in a lot of organizations that I encounter what I see around me, but we’re definitely on that journey.

Marc [00:01:58] I would also add, it’s not just about the kind of what I see as the hard skills of product management, like how do you create a roadmap or how do you put together a strategy, but also what I deem to be the softer skills, you could argue that typically I think those are the hardest skills, becoming increasingly important because of our role as product people in the organization. So how do we collaborate? How do we influence, how do we make progress visible? And I see a real journey and evolution there. So that excites me.

Sean [00:02:25] That is exciting. In the pre-call, you had mentioned that the perception is that the US might be a little bit ahead of Europe in that development of the softer side of things. Do you still feel that way?

Marc [00:02:35] Yeah, and I can’t speak for the whole US. It’s massive. But particularly, I guess, when I speak to my peers in the US and not just in the Bay Area, I would say, where they work at companies that are more product-led, as I call it. So the core focus is the product, typically a digital software product, and a lot of the kind of evolution and culture around managing product, working with customers, learning from customers is already there. Whereas I think from what I see, not just in the UK, but also when I speak to product peers in the rest of Europe, we’re still on a journey and moving away from being purely a kind of delivery function in some cases.

Sean [00:03:14] So you’ve been involved, deeply involved, with Mind the Product as well, right?

Marc [00:03:17] That’s correct, yes.

Sean [00:03:19] Which is a huge deal. I mean, you guys made a splash here. I mean, I heard about you very early on, and it seems to me that you’ve been a part of that movement to bring some of this stuff into the European market. How’s that been?

Marc [00:03:30] Yeah, that’s been quite an experience. As you say, I’ve been a part of that movement for the last going on eight years now, I think, in lots of different shapes and sizes. But for those of your listeners who aren’t familiar with Mind the Products, it’s a global community with over two hundred thousand members now by and for product people. So it’s product managers, product designers, entrepreneurs, product marketing people. And I think what we’ve done, there is now a real community of people who come together to compare notes, to learn from each other in a safe space. Because if you think back in how Mind the Product started, it was just, and I’m not one of the founders, but I was there in the very early days when it was just a bunch of us in a pub in London just getting together, this is, we’re talking 2010 here, just to really figure out what the hell we’re doing as product people. And that initial spirit of coming together, like I said, comparing notes, even though it’s now a big movement and a global community with local meet-ups and conferences, that spirit is still very much true to this very day. And I see that in action. And it’s been amazing to be part of that journey, if you like.

Sean [00:04:40] Sure. And it’s amazing what you guys are doing for the industry. So thank you for that. I see it spreading into other regions, too, and the work that Adrienne Tan’s doing down in Australia is amazing with her group. So it’s definitely a growing field. It’s an exciting place to be, and anyway, so the product mindset that you talk about, I want to hear about that. So it’s different than product management and I totally agree. But I’d like to hear your deep thoughts on that subject.

Marc [00:05:04] Yeah, deep thoughts. Now, there’s some pressure, Sean. I think the reason why I talk about product mindset is that that’s something that I see as something that’s not exclusive to the domain of a product manager. I break it down into kind of four C’s. So you’ve got the customer, clarity, creativity, and curiosity. If you think about those four components of curiosity, creativity, clarity, and customer, for an organization to be truly kind of product-centric, in my view, effectively everyone should, in some shape or form, focus on those four C’s. Again, I see a clear role for a product manager to drive some of the customer thinking, the clarity of direction, clarity of decisions, clarity of learnings, the creativity. And we could talk a bit more about what creativity is and isn’t, and the curiosity. But I think once you’ve got those kind of four elements of that mindset, not just within your product function, but in lots of other areas of the business, then I think you’re really onto something in terms of creating that kind of customer-centric product culture that we talked about earlier.

Sean [00:06:14] Yeah. So you mentioned going a little deeper on what you mean by creativity. Let’s do that.

Marc [00:06:18] Yeah, because just the creativity, you know, there’s this myth, right, that you need to be like Van Gogh to be creative or super artistic. It’s not that. For me, the most basic form of creativity is looking at existing problems and coming up with novel ways of solving those problems or coming up with new ideas for things that haven’t been explored just yet. Even just thinking in options, you’ve got a problem, yes, there’s one solution, but there might be another solution and you could potentially integrate those two very opposing solutions. That for me is creativity. And you might think, well, “Marc, that sounds obvious, right? Isn’t everyone doing that already?” I don’t know what your experience is, Sean. I’m always amazed that maybe because we don’t necessarily understand what creativity is or isn’t, or people don’t necessarily get the freedom to think in terms of creative solutions or new options, but it doesn’t always happen. And I think, in product, we can really drive that. We really can create the opportunity and the space for people to think beyond constraints, or even when there is a constraint, because that’s the reality of life, right, to still think, “OK, what can we do within these given constraints?”

Sean [00:07:31] And I couldn’t agree more. You made a statement about how the product mindset should not be exclusive just to the product leaders, to the product management, right. Like, you never know where that next idea is going to come from or that next innovation is going to come from. And really, the more people that you have thinking about the future of your products and your services that go along with those products, the more people you have thinking about it and actually caring about its future, the better off you are as a product leader, right. So to me, you’ve come to this understanding that product leadership is more about scaling our ability to come up with ideas and to experiment and to use data to be customer-centric. It’s about scaling that beyond ourselves into our teams, and into our customer ecosystem, too, right?

Marc [00:08:14] Yeah. I think one thing that I feel quite strongly about, to build on what you just said Sean, is that idea of that kind of product rock star, that he or she comes up with this great idea. And sometimes it does happen and it’s amazing when it does. But again, that’s not how, in my experience, as you say, creative solutions come about. It’s a much more collaborative process and doing that early and often, rather than having an off-site for a day and expecting creativity to happen on demand. It doesn’t work that way, unfortunately.

Sean [00:08:42] For sure. So let’s talk a little bit more about your C of curiosity. I think they are tightly interrelated, right, curiosity and creativity.

Marc [00:08:51] Yeah. Again, in the simplest form, and I say this to the people on the teams I work with when people say, well, “Marc, you know, yes, lovely product thinking, starting with the problem. But I’m working with stakeholders internally,” they tell me, and “I’m just giving a requirement.” I’ve heard this across a number of organizations over the years. “And how can I be curious if someone is effectively telling me what to do?” I hear that a lot. I don’t know about you. I hear that a lot. So I say, “well, you’ve got one superpower as a product person, as any person, but definitely as a product person. It consists of three letters and it’s not rude. And it’s why.” And that, for me, is the most basic form of curiosity, just to really understand why we’re doing something, why we’re not doing something.

Marc [00:09:35] And you can build on that with more elaborate questions. But the role of a product person, and I talk about this in my books, is not to have all the answers, as lovely as it would be, but it’s to have all the questions, the right questions at the right time to the right people. And that’s what I talk about when I talk about curiosity. Because you need to have that innate kind of sense of, “I’m not sure about this,” or, “how does this work?” Or, “have we thought of another solution,” or “have we considered this rationale?” And that I see when I work, particularly with more junior product people, is just giving them that confidence that it’s OK to ask those questions, to ask why we’re doing something or taking a step back or questioning and giving them tools and techniques to do that in a way that feels constructive.

Sean [00:10:19] I love it. So three letters, W-H-Y.

Marc [00:10:23] One hundred percent.

Sean [00:10:24] Connecting our people at a ground level in why we’re doing what we’re doing, which is always centered on, to your point the customer and who, like W-H-O, like who are we serving? And I think a lot of leaders get stuck on that. They’re trying to serve too many people. And without clarity on that, then why even… So getting people aligned on the same goals and giving them the freedom to, because you also said, it’s hard for me to be curious when someone’s telling me what to do, right. I love that line. So pointing them in the right direction, letting them go be curious.

Marc [00:10:58] Yeah, it’s one of the tricks, because, again, even in a scenario where someone is telling you what to do, there is an opportunity to be curious, even if it feels counterintuitive, like, “someone has already given me a solution or made a decision…” But again, we’re in a perfect position because we have to liaise with so many people and we have to influence so many people so we’re an important ally to have, is to ask, “OK, you’re telling me what to do?” Not entirely sure, but you don’t even have to say that. But again, the most basic question you can ask is why this solution or why we’re doing this or what problem are we trying to solve for whom? To your point earlier. And that for me, is ultimately the essence of being a good product person.

Sean [00:11:36] Yeah. There’s plenty of smart people that can tell us how to build a road map, right.

Marc [00:11:40] Yeah.

Sean [00:11:41] As an industry, you said, we have a good handle on building a roadmap. That’s not the issue. It’s how do you deal with the tension. So let’s talk about your second book here. The title I find fascinating, so explain the concept.

Marc [00:11:53] Yeah. So this book, this is a book I’ve really wanted to write for a number of years, because to your point, I found that we, as product people when I went to conferences and I spoke to my peers, we talked a lot about important skills like creating a roadmap or thinking about goal setting or doing user research, all really good stuff. But what I missed was more conversation around the things that we didn’t talk about as much, is the kind of reality of when things don’t go to plan or you’re working with people who are not on the same wavelength or your product is not necessarily doing what you want it to do because of the way you built it.

Marc [00:12:28] And interestingly enough, we would talk about those things, but mostly in kind of almost kind of product people anonymous type of meetings, right, in a safe space or around the water cooler. And it started and I thought, I’m going to talk about this because I feel the challenges, the tensions, the frustrations on a daily basis. And I’ve learned a lot of lessons the hard way of how to identify, but most importantly, how to deal or not deal with some of those tensions. And it initially started as a talk, which I started doing a few years ago, and I thought, “I’m going to try this. I don’t know what the response will be. People might be staring at me blankly thinking, ‘what is he on about? Doesn’t resonate at all.'” But I was so amazed and that obviously set me on to the path of speaking more about it and ultimately writing this book. When I, after I’d done the presentation, how many people came up to me and said, “Marc, I’m so pleased you brought this up, because I’m feeling this tension on a daily basis and never felt comfortable talking about it, or I didn’t think it was an issue for other product people.”.

Marc [00:13:27] And in the book, Managing Product = Managing Tension, I dive deep on that. So I talk about the very nature of product management and how that can lead to all kinds of tensions. But not only that, I also talk about ways of managing that tension and how effectively tension can be a good thing if you want to get to results or creativity. Like we talked about before, if you want to innovate. And it’s not just me talking about that. I’ve spoken to a lot of product leaders in our industry who also shared their kind of tips and tricks and their learnings along the way.

Sean [00:14:04] I think there’s something to that. If the pain’s there, it’s there for a reason. Like, let’s figure out… You’re right. That’s where innovation comes from. It’s like, finding those tensions and figuring out how to release them or how to embrace them.

Marc [00:14:16] No, I think you’re totally right. And again, that’s the premise of my book. But at the same time, talking to people, my own experience in writing this book is that it’s easier said than done. I find that embracing that tension, as you say, is a skill in its own right, and it’s also easily misunderstood. And that’s where I believe unhealthy tension comes in, because some people will use that kind of healthy tension almost or looking for that tension, embracing it, as an excuse to bully other people or to make ruthless decisions. So what I talk about in the book, and give some techniques for as well, is how can you make the most of that tension in a way that feels constructive and that’s healthy and that leads to that innovation that leads to that creativity.

Sean [00:15:04] Awesome. All right, well, how do we pull organizations up? So if I’m a technology company in Silicon Valley, of course, then we’re all drinking the same Kool-Aid, right. But what do you think?

Marc [00:15:14] I think there’s a couple of things there. The first thing is really taking people on a journey. Again, it’s one thing to think about, “oh, I’m going to create a product function,” particularly for organizations where product management is a relatively new thing and product mindset is a relatively new way of thinking. So it’s very easy to say, “I’ve seen the Spotify model,” if that’s even a model, that approach, “I’m going to create a few tribes and squads and from that day we’ll be a product organization. It doesn’t work like that. In my experience. If you want to pull up organizations, you really need to take people on a journey. A lot of that comes down to having a shared kind of purpose, shared goals, vision, but also engaging with people in and outside the organization early and often.

Marc [00:16:00] And again, some organizations do that excellently. Others are still on that journey. Again, particularly that kind of cross-functional collaboration comes back to my point about instilling that product mindset beyond the domain of product management. To do that successfully, you really need to treat everyone in your organization and outside your organization as partners to product and take them on that journey. Don’t assume that because you’ve just read the right books or you know what a good product looks like that everyone else is already on that same point. You really, again, if you want to pull up organizations in that direction, you need to take them on that journey. And simple tool, if you like, is having shared purpose and shared goals and that vision and repeating that, I find as a product person, you spend a lot of time just repeating, repeating, repeating, but as a way to get people to buy in, to join you on a journey.

Marc [00:16:53] And the other thing is about creating a shared language that resonates with people as a tool. So my favorite example is from about 10, 11 years ago, I’d just been to a lecture by Eric Ries from, you know, he wrote the Lean Startup, of course, in London. So I was obviously very pumped afterwards and I went back to work and I started talking about assumptions and hypotheses. And people just looked at me and just stared at me like, “what is he on about?” But when I then had that same conversation and I replaced the words assumptions and hypotheses and just instead talked about risk and tackling the biggest risks first, people were all ears and wanted to know I would go about that. So again, if we’re talking about pulling up organizations and taking them on a journey, that shared language is a really important tool there.

Sean [00:17:43] I would agree. I think that’s foundational. All cultures, I believe, were founded in language. So like what your team uses to define success, for example, like with the language around that looks like. It’s critical to your vision.

Marc [00:17:54] Totally.

Sean [00:17:55] And how you describe your customer, like how you create a shared understanding of who it is that you’re serving.

Marc [00:17:59] 100 percent. And I think also the other caveat I would make is, you know, we should be careful to treat product management or the problems that we face as one kind of singular, universally applicable kind of thing. Because I would also say, even when you asked me the question about pulling organizations up, a lot of it depends on the stage of maturity that those organizations are at. So it’s very different if you go into a company which is very much at what I call the market development stage, where it’s very much about finding product-market fit, figuring out an MVP, problems and challenges and opportunities are very different to going to a more mature company where they’ve got an established market presence, they’ve got an established customer base and established products.

Sean [00:18:43] So they’ve got a hut to protect. When you’re in a startup mode, you don’t have a lot of risk.

Marc [00:18:47] Absolutely. You know, people talk about moats and things to protect, exactly as you say, Sean. But I think the key thing for me is that mindset that we talked about, that product mindset still applies across the different levels of maturity. But the actual things you need to do to pull up the organization or to take them on that journey are going to be very different depending on the stage that they’re at.

Sean [00:19:08] So I’ve heard you say online that organizations get at least a product people and then they want to turn everyone into a product person. Do you think that’s a bad thing?

Marc [00:19:16] I don’t think it’s a bad thing, honestly, because, you know, again, it’s inherent to that kind of product mindset. And, you know, like I said, I would love everyone to be a product person at the end of the day. Where it does get tricky is when you then don’t explain what the boundaries are,

Sean [00:19:32] Mmm, the guardrails.

Marc [00:19:32] It’s the guardrails, hundred percent. You know, it’s so important not just for the product managers, but also for the product development teams, be it engineers, designers, QAs, people working on the product to have clarity on which people are involved, who’s accountable for what, who’s got a say in what. And again, you don’t have to be super dictatorial about it. Again, we established that it’s not a one-person kind of thing, but is important, especially if you have people who have that product mindset or are interested in the product, which again, is a great thing. But if you’re not careful, I’ve seen this happening in organizations where people with the best of intentions, it just gets very messy and you’re creating this dysfunctional family almost because no one is entirely clear about who makes the decisions, who’s accountable, who can influence. So yeah, guardrails are absolutely critical.

Sean [00:20:25] Outstanding. OK, question for you. How do you define innovation, having been in this industry for so long and having done such great things for the industry? How do you define innovation?

Marc [00:20:36] For me, innovation is, like I said before, it’s new ideas to solve existing problems. I always start with the problem, as I said, and innovate new ideas to solve problems or new ideas to solve new problems. That for me, innovation. I think I’ve made the mistake of thinking about innovation very much in that kind of radical innovation, something that’s completely new, completely disruptive. You know, think about the first streaming platforms. That’s innovation that was new, that was completely starting from scratch. Whereas you could argue that if you look at companies like Carspring and Shift in the US, what they’re doing is innovating an existing industry, which is the automotive industry, and turning that on its head. But that’s more kind of incremental innovation than the kind of radical innovation. So I do typically try to make that distinction.

Sean [00:21:26] Cool. What are you reading these days? Any books that you would recommend? Besides your own, of course.

Sean [00:21:31] Of course. I would definitely recommend… No. Can I be cheeky because there are three books that I am really looking forward to reading that are on my Kindle, but I think that people listening might find interesting. One is a book called Building for Everyone by Annie Jean-Baptiste from Google. It talks about creating inclusive products. So that’s definitely one I’m looking forward to reading very soon. I’ve got another book which I’m curious about, which is called The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier, which has been around for, I think he published it a good few years ago. But again, we touched on coaching really briefly, but particularly as product people… Yes, I can see that you’ve got it as well. It’s a really, you know, especially in any role, I would say, but particularly as product people where a lot of what we do is around coaching and supporting others… Yeah, I’m really looking forward to reading that book. And last but not least, a book called The Open Organization by Jim Whitehurst, where, again, it’s about transparency and how we change organizations to keep pace with changes in society, with changes in people. So, yeah, I’m curious, just the title alone, The Open Organization, intrigues me.

Sean [00:22:41] Excellent. Well, Marc, it’s been an absolute pleasure spending some time with you today. And thank you so much for all of the things you’ve done for the product leadership industry, from Mind the Product, I mean, a lot of that has probably been volunteer work and then writing those two incredible books, and we’ll post links to all that stuff out here for the audience. And again, thank you so much for joining us today.

Marc [00:23:01] Thanks a lot, Sean, really enjoyed it.

Paul [00:23:06] 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.