PRODUCTHEAD: Back to school

PRODUCTHEAD: Back to school

PRODUCTHEAD is a regular newsletter of product management goodness,
curated by Jock Busuttil.

product slowly


Every other team is allowed to be uncertain about the future — so should product

There are different types of question for strategy, opportunities and interventions

Avoid investments that are neither defense nor offense

What people say and how they really feel can often vary

a favour: please share this with other product people

every PRODUCTHEAD edition is online for you to refer back to


It’s back to school time. Schools and universities are starting their new academic year with a fresh intake. Businesses are returning to work with a renewed sense of vigour.

At this time of year, senior executives traditionally return from vacation, dust off the corporate strategy and start tinkering with it. This can create problems when they’ve not been close enough to their teams’ work throughout the year.

A bit of a shock #

They jump into the detail — a bit like jumping into a swimming pool that’s a lot colder than expected — and are shocked and surprised by how different reality is from the optimistic projections made at the beginning of last year.

All through the year, the teams have been working away to the best of their ability given all the constraints, confusion and unknowns they’ve encountered along the way. Sure, things have been harder and taken longer than expected, but nobody has 20:20 foresight, right?

Engage panic mode #

The senior executives, still reeling from the reality shock, instinctively assume that the team is struggling.

Their response? To put someone more senior on the case.

Except that someone is lacking the day-to-day context to make informed decisions, yet is under pressure from senior management to be seen to be taking decisive action.

So the team ends up being disrupted further. And they now have to contend with the pressure of a new set of problems accompanying the change in senior stakeholder.

Progress slows further.

Don’t play it safe #

When under pressure, there can be a strong temptation to play it safe.


Take risks, but calculated ones. Don’t bet all your chips on a single outcome. Instead, have a balanced portfolio of bets, some riskier, some less so. Learn from both bets that pay off and those that don’t. Figure out at what point you would fold and cut your losses.

It is a rare and pleasant surprise when something we’re working on turns out to be easier and quicker than expected. Usually we find ourselves side-swiped by some unforeseen glitch or snafu, whether technical or people-related, for which we then have to figure out a solution or a workaround. That’s just the baseline activity of product management.

Don’t give up! #

There’s always a disheartening stage when you realise that things are taking longer and turning out to be harder than you’d hoped. You’ll get through it.

Show what you’ve done rather than talking up what might happen. Embrace your personal and professional support networks. Ask for help.

Speak to you soon,


Postscript #

Some weeks, the words for PRODUCTHEAD flow more readily than others. When I’m struggling to write something insightful, I sometime resort to releasing my inner cynic and making a misguided attempt at satire. By writing anything for a while I can then get back to writing something.

This was one of those weeks.

In a boardroom somewhere, there’s a senior management team getting together for the first time in a while. This is what I imagine the CEO is thinking:

I open the meeting with a motivational call to action. One quarter left in the calendar year. Got to get things moving — get busy people! It’s time to start annual planning.

(More like: time to start the annual in-fighting as everyone scraps for a bigger slice of a smaller budget than last year.)

Please spend the next three months conjuring up ambitious plans and rose-tinted financial projections. I’ll claim the best-sounding ideas as my own to land me a puff piece in Visionary CEO Monthly. Then I’ll watch the CFO go to town on your planned spending to make the numbers work.

While we’re figuring out what we need to spend on, we should probably revisit the strategy. Anyone remember where we were going? How much progress we’ve made? Anyone?

Wow. This multi-year strategy we committed to is a lot harder and more costly than we thought. Maybe we should reduce scope a bit? Best not to bite off more that we can chew this year, and tie our hands for next year’s budget.

We can probably cut those product initiatives that haven’t started to pay off yet. That Customer Success team seems awfully expensive. We already have the customers on board — why do we need to spend so much on them after the fact? Let’s just get some FAQs on the website and get them doing direct sales instead. Nobody’ll notice the difference.

I’m really good at being decisive.

The head of sales is complaining that their team has nothing new to sell. The head of engineering says everyone’s already working to stop the existing platform from catching fire. But if we recruit a new innovation team, he says, we can quickly prototype and sell new products that our customers are asking for. And the best thing is that we can create an entirely new platform alongside the one that’s on fire. We’re going to call it the Completely Rapid Agile Platform. There are some really cool frameworks the engineering team wants to try out for it. It’ll be easy and definitely won’t take long at all. It will practically build itself.

The head of sales loves the sound of this. They hate it when they have to say ‘no’ to customers. They’re so enthused, they’re going to double their revenue forecast in response. That’s just like money in the bank.

It’s going to be a great year.

what to think about this week

The rest of your company is experimentation-driven, you should be too

You’re surrounded by experimentation-driven teams in your company, but they’re able to communicate their ways of working in ways that the execs can accept. Product managers are stuck with old tools and old arguments.

The product team is the only one asked to give the certainty of a timeline roadmap with delivery dates. The team ends up adding buffers and setting expectations around the roadmapping work so that this work takes longer than it should. No other team works in this way.

Experimentation beats crystal ball-gazing

[Janna Bastow / ProdPad]

Asking better questions

In this post I am going to briefly describe a board design I use to elicit questions. At the day-job (Amplitude) I use this with customers/prospects to tease out questions we can answer with analytics and quantitative data. But it works well for questions to guide qualitative research as well.

Practice powerful questions

[John Cutler / The Beautiful Mess]

Product strategy is really about offense vs. defense

You’ve probably been there: The teams are shipping, but it’s unclear how much the work will actually impact your overall business metrics.

Product leaders must be able to create clear, opinionated strategies that grow their business today and set up for future growth tomorrow.

Unfortunately, many struggle with balancing their portfolio of different product bets and driving meaningful impact on the top-level business metrics.

Different types of work need different toolsets

[Ely Lerner / Reforge]

That’s not what they are hearing

I was chatting with a friend recently. She was struggling with her job, and her efforts to talk to her manager were falling flat. The conversations were going like this:


I’m really worried about X.

It’s not about what is being said. It is about what is being felt.

[John Cutler / The Beautiful Mess]

recent posts

The 4 unintended side-effects of risk aversion and what to do about them

When we become more worried about risk, four unintended things also tend to happen: bottlenecking, erosion of trust, ossification of process, and a risk appetite that tends towards zero. Here’s what you can do about them.

It’s all about the safety net

[I Manage Products]

The agency trap

How can product management fit into an agency business model when requirements or specifications are often contractually set in stone by the client up-front? Spoiler alert: not easily

Product company or agency?

[I Manage Products]

Whatever this is, this web3 product manager role is not a product manager

Jason Shah says that joining a web3 company can be “an opaque process and a risky decision”. I’d add “ethically challenging and morally grey” to that description.

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

[I Manage Products]

can we help you?

Product People is a product management services company. We can help you through consultancy, training and coaching. Just contact us if you need our help!

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Helping people build better products, more successfully, since 2012.

PRODUCTHEAD is a newsletter for product people of all varieties, and is lovingly crafted from a glossy new coat of paint.

Read more from Jock

The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management book cover

The Practitioner's Guide To Product Management

by Jock Busuttil

“This is a great book for Product Managers or those considering a career in Product Management.”

— Lyndsay Denton

Jock Busuttil is a product management and leadership coach, product leader and author. He has spent over two decades working with technology companies to improve their product management practices, from startups to multinationals. In 2012 Jock founded Product People Limited, which provides product management consultancy, coaching and training. Its clients include BBC, University of Cambridge, Ometria, Prolific and the UK’s Ministry of Justice and Government Digital Service (GDS). Jock holds a master’s degree in Classics from the University of Cambridge. He is the author of the popular book The Practitioner’s Guide To Product Management, which was published in January 2015 by Grand Central Publishing in the US and Piatkus in the UK. He writes the blog I Manage Products and weekly product management newsletter PRODUCTHEAD. You can find him on Mastodon, X (formerly Twitter) and LinkedIn.

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