Making products for other people
October 2, 2018
By Chris Moisan, Product Principal, Idean UK
About a year ago, I made the switch: I went from working ‘client-side’ to leading the product team for a design and innovation consultancy.
It was a big change. I’d spent most of my career working for different organisations of different shapes, sizes and maturity levels. I’d worked with very smart product teams; I worried that in consultancy world, I’d be doing a cut-down version of the role I was used to – confined to delivery capability or constrained by ‘the client’.
Thankfully, my fears were unfounded. In fact, since I’ve worked for a consultancy, I’ve had opportunities I probably wouldn’t have in-house.
Yes, there are differences, and yes, it’s a good choice for some people (but perhaps not everyone). So I wanted to share what I’ve learned so far.
Spot the difference
The first thing to say is that product management is slightly different in all organisations, but wherever you ‘do product’, the principles are broadly the same. So what are the particular benefits of working for a consultancy?
1. You get to work on a variety of projects
As product managers, it’s our job to understand context inside out: what do customers want? What’s the market doing? But most consultancies work across different sectors, using different technologies to tackle different client problems.
So when if you’re thinking of making the switch, get ready to learn fast – you’ll go through this process more frequently than you would in-house.
2. You develop different skills
As a product manager in a large organisation, you might work on a ‘narrow slice’ – a single feature or a specific journey.
Our product team often work on greenfield opportunities (we call them ‘Beta Businesses’ like Smarty). This lets you flex your full ‘product stack’ muscles – from strategy and spotting opportunities to testing and iterating; from build to launch and everything between. And we don’t clear off once we’ve created a nice design or prototype. We work with our clients to develop a sustainable business.
3. You start to see patterns
Computers don’t make products (yet), people do.
Working in a consultancy and working across different contexts, you start seeing success patterns – and anti-patterns too. You notice trends, particularly when it comes to organisational structure, culture and ways of working. You get more ‘training data’ than you would in one organisation, so you improve your chances of building a great product first time.
So is consultancy life for you?
It’s worth saying that no two consultancies are the same. (Maybe I’ve struck it lucky in terms of culture, type of work and clients.) And similarly, no two product people are the same – in growing our team, we’ve learned some are more suited to life consultancy-side than others.
We don’t have a mandatory list of what we look for, but generally, we’ve found these traits useful.
Are you versatile?
When you read about product management, it can start to feel like products are created in a set, methodical process: I call it the ‘sausage machine’.
But when you work for a consultancy, you have to be more flexible – the challenges you face can be varied and messy. You can’t be stuck in one mindset or have a uniform approach. Sure, we all need tools and techniques in our armoury, but the key is knowing which to use and when.
Can you explain your decisions?
Fiona, one of our product directors, said to me recently: ‘great products are the results of thousands of decisions’.
I love this, and wholeheartedly believe it. And it goes beyond sheer volume: what’s important is that you’re able to switch between strategy and tactics. When you work for a consultancy, you’re a partner for an organisation (rather than a part of it).
So you need to focus on how you make decisions as much as the decisions themselves: who needs input? Who do we need to persuade? What evidence should we gather?
Do you have the right experience?
Our product managers typically lead multi-discipline teams, and our clients count on them to deliver some pretty significant outcomes. This means that so far, we’ve only found it possible to hire ‘mature’ product people. I say ‘mature’ instead of senior; we don’t look for a certain number of years on the CV. We look for people who can help, lead, influence and coach others. This experience isn’t necessarily gained in product - it’s more a life skill and outlook that could have been gained anywhere.
And that’s all on top of the usual things you look for in a product manager: curiosity, empathy, and an analytical mind. Personally, I think the best combination is a mix of client work and consultancy work. After all, if the best product managers are empathetic, what could be better experience than walking our clients’ shoes?