57: Cut through red tape

57: Cut through red tape

I enjoy being a product manager, although on some days I question whether my level of patience is suited to my chosen career. When working somewhere, I often spot opportunities for them to improve, gain a competitive advantage or reduce wasted effort, then become terribly frustrated when bureaucracy and organisational inertia prevent me from moving quickly enough to exploit them. If this feels familiar, read on.

Thanks to the “instant everything” provided by Amazon Web Services, Google and the like, it is easier than ever for a startup to start competing – and winning – against much larger, better established players. What was once were competitive advantages – a company owning its own datacentre and running its own hardware – are now a millstone around the neck in comparison with what’s on offer from the platform-as-a-service providers.

As a consequence, traditional software companies are falling further and further behind. Each successful startup raises the bar for users in some specific way, whether it’s simpler mobile interactions – consider how many apps have copied the swipe left / swipe right interaction popularised by Tinder – or basics like quality of customer service.

One of the most frustrating things about being a product manager is the way in which software organisations tend to lose market focus and agility as they get larger, and respond to greater executive scrutiny with layer upon layer of soul-destroying red tape. It’s not just that they’re losing their appetite for risk, they’re losing their appetite for change.

Every control mechanism, stage gate, project review board is just another way of minimising change, believing this to be the safest and wisest course. Avoiding changes of direction makes little sense for a software company – the road ahead is never arrow-straight.

Inevitably, at some point the executives turn to each and ask why the company is falling behind. They commission expensive consultants from McKinsey or Deloitte to undertake vast surveys and create steering groups, which simply discover what everyone already knew but failed to admit:

We’ve lost touch.

We no longer understand what our users and customers need.

We’ve forgotten what we’re good at.

We’re being usurped by smaller, cheaper competitors who focus on doing a few things well rather than lots of things in a mediocre fashion.

The challenge I see is for product managers to prove their worth in these kinds of organisations. We need not only to continue to identify the kinds of problems that are worth fixing, but also to do so despite all this bureaucracy that’s built up. We’re the ones that must negotiate the arcane system to the benefit of our products and users.

If you’re frustrated by the glacial movement of your organisation, use your product manager superpowers to influence, change and innovate. Break rules, talk to users, gather evidence, disrupt the norm. Remind the organisation what really matters. Find your most senior supporter and convince them to go out on a limb for you, then make sure as hell you do them proud.

Cut through that red tape. Nobody else is going to.

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Jock is a freelance head of product, author and conference speaker. He has spent nearly two decades working with technology companies to improve their product management practices, from startups to multinationals. His clients include the BBC, University of Cambridge, and the UK's Ministry of Justice and Government Digital Service (GDS).In 2012 Jock founded Product People Limited, a product management consultancy and training company. He is also the author of the popular book The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management and the blog I Manage Products.

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1 Comment on “57: Cut through red tape

  1. I cannot agree more – in my most recent role at an intelligence business, the senior management team were so wedded to historic practices and the missfounded belief that the quality of their data will continue to win customers despite complaints about accessibility, that they won’t embrace the value of digital to drive down training costs, increase cross sell and upsell opportunities and create interfaces that clients enjoy interacting with.

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