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The Future of PM: Process Takes a Backseat

Michael Luchen
December 13, 2019

With 2020 on the horizon, a lot of product managers are wondering how their role and requirements will shift in the next year. I sat down with Michael Luchen, Senior Product Manager at Crema, to see what his predictions were for the future of product management.


michael luchen thinking

Q: Reading through this interview you did earlier this year, do you believe the future of PM is this sort of intangible quality of motivating people to do their best work? A combination of creating the right environment and the right culture?


Michel: I’ve served as a PM with multiple client partners over the last 6+ years, ranging from small business and startups to large enterprises. My client portfolio has transcended different industries—from non-profits to wearables, like Adidas. Through these experiences, I’ve started to see the spectrum of where product management gets done today. I’ve also witnessed what the different organizational and cultural expectations are.


In addition to that, I’m always on the lookout for thought leadership within product management. This helps me see what the trends are, like new and evolving frameworks. I’m also a Certified Scrum Professional, which basically means I am a certified Scrum Master with a bunch of relevant experience under my belt.


I lay all that out there not to be like, “Oh, look at all this experience and exposure I have”. I say this because I’m realizing that there’s this very subtle undertone of burnout with all of these frameworks, jargon, and processes. I don’t think frameworks, process, and structure are necessarily bad for growing product management for the future. But as organizations start looking to startups who have found successful ways of working, the challenges that these executives are running into is less about what processes they follow and more about how to cultivate a productive culture.


The real challenge is how we should culturally support awesome product teams. That right there-- the cultural aspect and the people aspect--is where I see the future of product management really going. It’s a return to the foundations of the agile manifesto. This foundation is the key parts that were defined way back in 2001 by this group of people who have championed and defined agile philosophy. They focused on individuals and interactions over processes and tools, working software over comprehensive documentation, customer collaboration over contract negotiation, responding to change over following to plan, etc. That’s all really simple stuff.


As an industry, we have complicated this concept with all these certifications and frameworks, focusing more on following processes, finding the best tools, and compiling artifact documents. PMs are just saying, “this is how you do it” and moving forward from that. I think it becomes insidious over time, but it’s also two sides of the same coin; there are leaders in our industry who want that, but they also want the other side of the coin as well (which is the future of product management).


Q: It sounds like you’re talking about a focus on culture. Do you see that as a role of the PM or HR? Should the PM spearhead that effort, or just play an important role in it?


Michael: I think it’s both. It’s a good question, especially for people working inside organizations where they may not have as great experience with culture. One of the things I’ve realized working at Crema is that we have the privilege of having a greater sphere of influence with these types of things. Which I think makes Crema who we are.


I do believe though that PMs who are working in very siloed teams inside of a large organization can be champions for this change of culture. I 100% believe that this is true of Crema to a large extent.


If you’re a PM at an enterprise, you are part of a team. As a team, each individual brings their own strengths, challenges, and ways of looking at the world and product challenges. That unique mix of human variables creates opportunities and challenges to work through as a team.


I think it’s incredibly important that the PM should look into that and in meetings, for example, read the room. One of they key thoughts around this is that you might go along with the meeting agenda, but you also need to have flexibility. Read the room! Look at people’s reactions to gauge what’s motivating them as individuals. What are they trying to do? Where are they trying to grow? Where are they coming from? With this knowledge, you can help guide the whole product team forward from a cultural perspective.


Q: Do you think the psychological aspects will play a larger role moving forward as a PM?  Will it be less about crossing things off lists and taking notes and more about emotional intelligence and studying your team?


Michael: Yeah, emotional intelligence is definitely a key factor for sure. I don’t want to discount process along the way. Again, I think it’s two sides of the same coin. The metaphor I’ve been thinking about the past few years is this: the ‘processes’ are like bumpers on a bowling lane. You have them, but you still have to throw the ball down the lane (ie: moving a task to done). Everybody on the team still has wiggle room between the bumpers to get there. It also helps give you some perspective when you’re aiming to throw the ball. Process is a guideline, but, ultimately, the most mature and successful teams are going to look at their culture and the psychology within their team if they’re being effective.

team smiling and laughing in office


Q: Where do you think this movement is going to start? Do you think PMs are going to be the ones that say “hey we need to change our company culture” or do you think its going to be business owners?


Michael: In an ideal world, these types of changes are always going to be top down. Although, I don’t think that’s going to be what happens most of the time. It’s rare, so I think it’s going to be from the front line to the bottom up. That’s why I think it’s so important for PMs to be leading this, because you are the ones working with the team. When I say ‘working with the team’, I don’t mean you’re managing the team; I mean you’re working alongside the team as a peer. And you’re doing that a lot with your client partners as well. Whether its internal or external clients, you’re there on the front lines interacting with them on a day to day basis.


You need to be adaptable as changes in specific workloads take place. You need to focus on continually working and being a sponge. Humble yourself and be open to these kinds of things. This will in turn impact how the product manager will lead that movement. Ultimately, ideally, this bubbles up to company leadership, who can move forward from there.


Q: What does that mean for agencies like us, where our selling point is our culture and product teams that work like this? If enterprises and larger companies start mimicking us (in terms of efficiency and agility), does that pose a risk for us?


Michael: No, I think it poses an opportunity. It makes our job to sell to them easier, because we practice that. I’ll give you an anecdote.


With a lot of our traditional, full-stack projects, we have clients that come to us and say, “Hey Crema, we want your help building this project.” Then we go into a multi-month long sales process that builds trust for that duration priced engagement. We show them our process, how we work, etc.


What happens often is that we end up working with a primary point of contact (typically the product owner) who has a set of stakeholders (internal or external) to report to. That product owner is going to have that gut instinct to turn inward and think about what they know works best to achieve results. I don’t think this is a bad thing, but it’s a challenge for us. Several months down the road working with clients like this, they end up looking at our process and saying, “Whoa, we trust you guys now. We want to do this ourselves.”


Another way that might go is that they see the content you’ve helped create that helps explain things upfront. They think it’s awesome and say, “We don’t need to build anything right now, but we want to learn from Crema how to do this stuff.” That’s where the coaching comes in.


Engaging with clients like this has been a distinctly different approach, as they go straight to valuing our coaching and guidance on product development. This is generally different from being engaged with clients that want to develop a specific product. In that instance, the result isn’t necessarily them learning how to do product development from us—it just happens to be a by-product. The result is that they’ve got this product that they can bring to their stakeholders or customers and deliver what they promised.


Q: Can you see us offering this type of coaching as a service in the future?


Michael: Definitely. From there, it’s about finding the opportunity to grow that account. How do we do that? There’s a lot of practical things we can do, but one of the things we keep coming back to setting some recurring time every week on the calendar. This time isn’t for the executives who we’re working with right now, but their PMs who are actually in the thick of things. We can provide PM therapy, giving them space to talk about challenges they’re facing. We can share how we might’ve overcome that challenge in the past, which is probably going to be around people and psychology. We could also talk about the tools we use to alleviate pain points.


One of the challenges we’ve faced with clients is that they may have teams in different offices across the world and reporting can get tricky. There’s sometimes a lack of transparency, but there are also some grassroots efforts they have about setting up Asana. A way to bridge the two sides of one coin--process and people--is saying, “Cool, Asana has a thing where executives can get emails auto-sent so that way they don’t have to learn Asana.” You have to empathize with executives, because they aren’t going to learn Asana the way we want to learn Asana.


At the same time, there’s value in the reporting and transparency that Asana offers, because it is directly connected to the people that are doing the work. Working within existing systems while also empathizing with people who are engaging and plugging into those systems is an example of these two sides working together.


Q: That’s interesting. So how do you foresee tools responding to this change?


Michael: I think some tools right now, like Asana, are supporting this change. Personally speaking, one of the things I look at whenever I’m looking at a new collaboration tool is whether the tool is something that is really siloed and closed off. Or is it something that you can basically plug into existing tools one way or another?


Some tell-tale examples of that would be if they have some sort of an API that can be accessed. Do they have the ability to integrate Zapier so that you can automate reporting to a google spreadsheet if you wanted to? Do they have unique URLs? Or specific content within those tools? Miro actually is a good example for us. If you go into Miro and right click on a sticky note within a board, there’s a copy URL function. You can copy a direct URL to that sticky note and send it to a client. Then, when they click on it, it will zoom it right to that sticky note, giving some context around them.


Q: Can you think of a story or experience you’ve had that helped you form this prediction?


Michael: Not a specific story, but I’ve been thinking more just around my experience at Crema working with all of these different clients. Getting the experience under my belt has given me the opportunity to see that process doesn’t matter as much as people think it does.


It’s going back to taking hard stances on the important things. Process doesn’t matter as much as people. Process is good for easing stakeholders, but it’s not always great for teams. Teams need it, but it’s so easy to have the tendency to over-engineer processes.


With a new project, you create some crazy Jira workflows and spend a bunch of time doing that. But then when you’re done with that perfect workflow, guess who has to use it. It’s not you--it’s the people who are developing, designing, testing, strategizing, etc. and that’s not their job. Their job is to create great product experiences. When you take a step back to empathize, you realize that process doesn’t matter as much as results. How can PMs create those bumper lanes with process/guidelines to guide productive relationships and create great results?


One example of that is our duration and price contracts. I would consider these a guideline-type process, because contracting is a very long, singular process that can take months (especially for our clients). The comparison with duration and price is that once we have the contract signed, we’re able to set the contract to the side and focus on doing awesome stuff with our clients. If we didn’t have duration and price and instead had scope/waterfall type engagements, then that contract is going to be brought up every time we meet and talk about what we could do next. That’s not a great situation to be in when you’re having to handle a process like that. It stifles creativity, everyone’s potential output, and potential growth. This all stifles the potential results for the client.


Q: Do you anticipate any negative effects from this change?


Michael: Yes, if it’s not correctly monitored.


Q: Who monitors?


Michael: People who are basically guardians of the culture or company. You’re going back to a more nebulous focus on people. If there’s a team or a PM who isn’t experienced with people, it could lead to those peers getting taken advantage of due to a lack of processes to fall back on. Again, not that it wouldn’t be there, but that it’s not emphasized.


Q: What do you mean ‘being taken advantage of’?


Michael: I mean if you’re focusing on the ethereal people and just, “we’re doing cool stuff together and moving forward,” then you’re pointing towards the team first and foremost and putting process second. By “inverting” process and theme, you may end up taking advantage of that situation to request more of the team than their worth. That’s why I think it’s more important to put processes second, but it’s also important to have the guardrails (like using duration and pricing). In our contracts, we have clauses outlining that a work week is 35 hours, Crema manages the team, etc. If those things aren’t thought through, then, theoretically, we could be burned out on 80 hours a week per the client’s request.  


Another reference I’ll make is that there’s an article by Marty Cagan from the Silicon Valley Product Group. In it, he talks about how medium and large enterprises are looking at Facebook, Google, Amazon, etc. are saying, “Hey, we want to be like them now, because they’re startups.” This is a misnomer, because they’re not startups--they’re giant enterprise conglomerates, some of the biggest in the world now. The executives who admire these companies don’t actually know what that ‘it factor’ is or means.


They want to be agile, so they implement a framework or a methodology (like SAFe). If you go to the SAFe website, it’s an incredibly complex process for enterprises to manage agile. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad. As a product management team, we actually did an enrichment earlier in the year talking about SAFe. It could be a valuable tool that we use to consult with enterprises in the future, but at the same time, it could be a stepping stone towards what they’re really trying to get at. A lot of it comes down to trust and transparency. Focus on the people producing the work rather than the work itself.


Q: Is the output just team retention, or what are you thinking this transition will do?


Michael: I think retention is a bit of it, but there’s also a greater focus on the results created for awesome products. When you start focusing on supporting the product teams and coaching the individuals within those teams (the craft team model, for example), then the output of awesome products is going to flow naturally. People are going to feel empowered.  A dev might say, “With my experience as a back-end developer, I think we should use these various tools to create this awesome new flow”. Having a team that feels empowered to make their opinions known will allow these kinds of things to surface.


two product managers sitting at table in meeting


Q: What is the PM doing if you’re not spending as much time managing charts and processes?


Michael: They’re going to be focusing more time on the product. The title of the role is “product manager”, so there is more of a focus on the actual management of the product, right? Rather than a management of the process to get the product. That means that you spend more time writing user stories, collaborating with designers, developers, and the product owner, and conducting user interviews. There’s now time for anything under the umbrella of ‘product’.


Q: What do you think that ratio should look like for PMs investing time in process versus people?


Michael: I don’t know if I want to go so far as defining a ratio, as each project is different. I’ve definitely felt this tendency myself. There’s always a desire to create this golden process that’s a one-size-fits-all—then we’re set! That’s where you start to see all these certifications and frameworks that are burning out the people in our space. I hesitate in giving a percentage allocation, but time spent on process is generally the largest right at the start or slightly before a product development team starts running. That’s because at that stage, you’re setting up those bumper lanes in the bowling alley, so to speak. When you have those set up, you can take as many runs as you want.


I would challenge PMs reading this article to figure out what makes sense for your individual style as a PM, your company’s style, your client’s style, and your team’s style. Keep in mind that it’s going to change slightly from each project that you’re working on. It takes time to figure out, and I know it goes against the grain. But it’s necessary.  


Skills for product development, management, etc. are hard, but what’s really hard (and where a lot of people break down) is the comfort with the ambiguity, soft skills, and the emotional intelligence of things. I think that nails it. I’ve seen clients that want to hold on to process so closely, and I have to tell them to take their head out from under the water for a second, look at the team they’re with, and focus on them for a second. I have to remind them to get away from process, because process isn’t going to fix any challenges that we have as a team right now. Process can be a guideline and might be a result of fixing those challenges, but it goes back to people over process. Back to the foundational manifesto.


Q: Do you have any next steps or resources that PMs could read into? Books or articles that could help them bring this to their company?


Michael: Right now, I’m a really big fan of Todd Henry’s book Herding Tigers. I think it does a good job talking about these same principles: focusing on people/tigers (or whatever metaphor you want to use) over the processes.


And for readers seeking support or coaching from a talented team at Crema, reach out in the contact form below! We’re not Scrum coaches or consultants. I mean, we can be, but that’s not what we necessarily believe in as Crema. There’s things that fit you and your culture that you have as individuals. Every client we have has a different culture from ours. It’s not a one-size-fits-all bridge, and we recognize that.

You can hear more about Michael’s thoughts on Product Management in Louder Than Ten’s Digital Product Managers: The Lifeblood of your Agency. For more information about our consulting services, contact us.

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