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The pace of technological change has led to companies, industries and leaders facing turbulence and chaos that has upended the established way of work. However, those who are able to leverage the chaos can channel it into creating new structures, products and innovations that can propel their teams and companies ahead of the competition.
Having years of experience in the tech industry, Natalie Seatter (Natalie), Chief Product Officer (CPO) at OAG, one of the leading global travel data providers, shared the valuable lessons she has learned in driving digital, data and broader business transformation, through developing highly effective and resilient teams.
- Finding Strong Product People
- Developing Structure From Chaos
- Natalie’s Experience in Tech
- Final Thoughts
- Lessons Learned
Finding Strong Product People
Natalie has spent the last two years leading the transformation of the Product organisation at OAG. She said – OAG presented a great opportunity to define a new strategy and direction for Product. I’ve built the team from the ground up and have drawn on lean startup principles and used enterprise agile coaching, to define a customer-led product strategy which the whole organisation is aligned on.
As part of establishing a new team, Natalie had to find Product people who she felt possessed these essential qualities:
1. Managing People, Relationships and Expectations
Product is at the epicentre of the organisation and as such our role is frequently about knitting the whole organisation together, through mechanisms such as Squads, so we can successfully build, launch and monetise products. A good product person needs to be able to listen, understand and balance multiple people’s expectations. In reality, this means saying “no” or “not yet” a lot so that we can remain focused on strategy execution and delivering value first. This can be one of the most challenging yet rewarding parts of the role.
2. Inherently Curious and a Desire to Learn Daily
I promoted one of our Product Owners into a Product Manager role because they never made assumptions; would challenge norms, and would always ask questions and leverage quant and qual data before making decisions. They demonstrated a voracious appetite to learn and I think this is a key attribute for product people. I always think of the Venn diagram showing what 5-year-olds and Product Managers have in common – they ask WHY all the time.
3. Maximising Empathy and Minimising Ego
One of our Product Managers spent years on the frontline in a CX role, so they have a strong grasp of customer use cases, how our products and data serve them and the general types of problems and questions that customers have. For me the best product people are ego-less. They really listen to people to understand where the value is for others, and that might be completely different to where they thought the value would be. I actually love it when our hypothesis is wrong as a Product team and when we learn something completely new and unexpected, but, ego can so frequently get in the way of people and teams doing this effectively and we miss so much in the process.
4. Making the Complex Simple
In our industry, data and domain are complex and can be inherently difficult to understand, so our Product Managers need to be able to make the complex simple to enable the broader organisation and our customers to understand what we are developing and why. This is a real skill and should not be underestimated.
Natalie shared that her perfect Product person is T-shaped, having great generalist knowledge across all business areas but also having deep expertise in their respective products and domain. They are passionate about creating value for customers, and also pragmatic about what to prioritise and how to create value for both the customer and the business.
Developing Structure From Chaos
Natalie’s time with OAG has led to success for her Product team and the business, with multiple products launched that exceeded monetisation targets. I asked Natalie what initial steps she would recommend for other organisations that face the same highly pressurised scenarios that she thrives in, and this is what she shared:
1. Assumptions are the Enemy
Don’t come in with assumptions. Every organisation is different, the people are different and you don’t know the legacy of people and decisions that were made in the past. Treat your first weeks with the company to observe and soak up as much understanding of the business, the culture, the people, and personalities and use what you learn to shape informed opinions and direction for the future. Be prepared to continuously iterate your thinking and early strategy based on what you continue to learn.
2. Immerse Yourself
I always embrace the opportunity to get immersed in my new environment. You should be focusing on observing, and using what you learn to identify what problems exist. Always listen to shared information, and understand the why, but don’t skip the step of finding information on your own. Look at the people, how they communicate, what their motivations are, how well they’re working together, and find the friction points to discover the opportunities.
3. Focus on Collaboration
This is the classic advice of understanding your audience while appreciating that your audience encompasses your co-workers, company leaders and your customers. Learn what their pain points are and work with them to define potential solutions. You won’t be able to keep everyone happy all the time, but you can have a lot of fun trying.
4. Slowly Build Your Plan
Treat the previous steps as something you need to tackle gradually, and don’t leap at the first insight or
‘a-ha’ moment you might have. Collect your learnings and use them to create a vision that can galvanise and mobilise people around a common goal. You have the mastermind view that you have developed from listening to internal and external customers. The people around you will trust you to create stability and direction, which only comes from a clear and well-informed strategy.
Natalie’s Experience in Tech
Natalie has worked in Tech for over a decade and said a common theme across her positions has been inheriting chaos. She said – Everyone is different, and we need them to be. Some people are overwhelmed by chaos, but I really enjoy the challenge of bringing disparate teams with different agendas and needs together in these situations. Galvanising and mobilising people around a common mission and goals and applying laser-like focus to achieve these is hugely rewarding. I believe the turbulence of Tech provides us with constant opportunities to improve what we do and how we do it, and we need to continuously iterate and develop our teams, structures, and more frequently than ever before, our strategy, in order to adapt to an ever-changing landscape.
Natalie has observed two fundamental shifts in Tech companies, the first being the emergence of Product teams as a staple for any well-functioning Tech company. She elaborated – Product was still relatively new as a discipline when I started working in Tech in 2012, but we are now in an era where Product is seen as integral to the success of any Tech business. Our value is in being obsessive about customer problems and needs, and using that voice of the customer to inform smarter product development decisions and investments.
The second change she has observed is the growing prominence of women in Tech. Natalie said that – 10 years ago women were still very much the minority in the Tech space, but today there are more women in Engineering, and Product in particular. There is still a long way to go, but I’ve seen and experienced first-hand how diversity improves the way teams work together, as well as enhances the quality of ideas and decisions that we make to deliver value for customers.
Before ending our conversation I asked Natalie for one piece of wisdom she practises every day. Here’s what she said:
While we talk a lot about understanding the ‘why’ of our customers or the ‘why’ of our business, don’t neglect your own personal ‘why’. Everyone should cultivate the ability to sit down and ask questions such as – Why am I doing this? Why do I feel like this? Why is this driving me mad? in order to develop greater self-awareness. As this grows, so too will your resilience, and you’ll achieve a better understanding of what motivates you and others to achieve success.
|1||Tech companies need to respect the trends – Product teams are here to stay, and teams that invest in diversity will benefit from new perspectives and ways of working|
|2||The ideal Product person can manage the expectations of others, is an expert in their craft, and goes the extra mile to understand the customer|
|3||When approaching a chaotic situation, as a leader you should be curious, seek to understand the causes, learn, and build towards a plan that gives your team clear direction and purpose|
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