In this episode of the Product Momentum Podcast, Sean and Paul welcome Christopher O’Donnell, Chief Product Officer at HubSpot. Their conversation kicks off with a discussion of Trust, closes with Christopher’s definition of Innovation, and checks nearly every box in the product manager playbook along the way.
In a lively give-and-take that combines big ideas and “boots on the ground” pragmatism, Christopher explains how a product mindset, with clearly articulated goals and guardrails, brings a level of team autonomy that delivers product solutions and “delightful surprises.” Autonomous teams, he says, find better ways to solve problems than if leadership had simply given them their marching orders.
“Creativity comes from the constraints,” Christopher adds. When we give people products to build and problems to solve – along with those goals and guardrails – we not only get better solutions; we get empowered, autonomous teams.
“Let’s be clear. Autonomy is not chaos,” Christopher adds. “Autonomy is not doing whatever you want and optimizing for yourself or your team above the customer. Autonomy is the ability to make high-quality decisions without consulting a lot of people. But you don’t get that without the guardrails.”
Above it all, Christopher reminds us of the human story attached to our work. “I don’t care what you build; every day and every interaction involve users of our software. They’re real people, with real people problems.”
The ultimate goal of every product manager, he says, is to build the solution the world needs.
Listen in to hear Christopher’s thoughts on these topics:
[02:34] The Impact of Trust. When you have organizational trust, you can attract really great people. You can retain really great people, and they will accomplish bigger, better things than what you could have told them to do.
[03:40] Product ≠ Project. We don’t give people projects. We give people products, with clearly defined goals and guardrails. And they own the successes and failures along the way.
[04:30] The Shift into Problems. Even better than giving people products is giving them problems.
[05:29] Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation. Hire their hearts and their minds.
[07:23] Titles do not matter. If it were totally up to me and I could start from scratch, everybody on our team would just have the title “Product.”
[07:38] As a resource, there’s no limit to intrinsic motivation.
[11:07] Creativity comes from the constraints. In the same way that necessity is the mother of invention, creativity is borne from constraints.
[12:52] Mainsail. Invoking Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
[15:26] A playbook, but not a process. It’s the mindset that things are not fixed in time, that we’re always here to adapt and learn.
[16:16] Autonomy. What it is; what it is not. The autonomy is real. Teams are actually making decisions for themselves.
[18:55] Size (of your release) matters. From a quality perspective, the larger your releases are, the harder they are to do in a really quality way. Smaller releases bring higher quality.
[21:02] Demo in production, or it didn’t happen.
[22:49] The problems Scrum solves. One is not being able to get to production and getting in front of customers. The second is getting hassled by everybody else at your company. Scrum is going to help you there.
[29:09] Scrum is a valuable set of guardrails.
[30:04] Building real empathy for your customers. Just how important is it?
[31:40] Relax; all the front-line product managers are faking it. Product management is a game of incomplete information.
[32:53] There’s always a human story. Users of software are people. And they have people problems. I don’t care what you build, there is a human story.
[34:37] What skill set(s) product managers need to be successful. Curiosity and truth-seeking, absolutely.
[37:29] If the engineers lose faith, there is nothing I can do for you. If none of the teams is excited to work with you, you’re done.
[38:36] It all boils down to interpersonal effectiveness. The growth mindset. Intrinsic motivation. Double down on that, and you can’t go wrong, whatever you work on.
[38:51] Innovation. I think it’s one of two things. It’s either solving a problem that hasn’t been solved. Or solving a problem in a very different way.
Christopher’s Recommended Reading
The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book That Will Change the Way You Do Business, by Clayton M. Christensen
Blue Ocean Strategy: How To Create Uncontested Market Space and Make Competition Irrelevant, by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne.
Prior to this role, Christopher led the product team building the HubSpot CRM and HubSpot Sales Pro. Upon joining HubSpot, Christopher led the re-write of the HubSpot Marketing product, culminating in HubSpot Contacts and the release of HubSpot3 in 2012. Previously, Christopher was Director of Product at Performable before it was acquired by HubSpot in 2011. He has also been a startup founder, advisor, and product/UX leader.
In his free time, Christopher pursues his decades-long passions for building technology products, producing music, and playing guitar. Christopher graduated from Brown University with a BA in Computers and Music.