Sean [00:00:18] Hi, welcome to the Product Momentum Podcast, a podcast about how to use technology to solve challenging technology problems for your organization.
Paul [00:00:28] Hey, Sean, how’s it going?
Sean [00:00:29] Good, Paul I’m excited about our interview today.
Paul [00:00:32] Adrienne is a joy to speak with. She is a fantastic business leader and a pioneer in product management.
Sean [00:00:40] She’s leading the charge on that continent of Australia, building a product community, running a conference, I don’t know how this woman does at all.
Paul [00:00:47] Yep, she’s been at it since the beginning of our profession and I think she’s really leading the charge in the coming years ahead, pushing us into new uncharted territory.
Sean [00:00:56] All right. Let’s tap into that amazing brain of hers.
Paul [00:00:58] Well, let’s get after it.
Paul [00:01:02] Well, hello, and welcome to the podcast. Adrienne Tan is joining us. We are excited to have her. Adrienne is a highly experienced senior product and business leader with over 20 years of experience across multiple industries. Her experience in product industry, planning, business, stakeholder management, product design, and development are on center stage while she manages, coaches, and nurtures teams of product managers. She’s developed a growing profitable conference business with global reach focused on consulting and training. And most notably, she’s raised the product management profession in Australia through community events, coaching, sessions for 16 years. Adrienne, welcome to the show.
Adrienne [00:01:39] Oh, thanks so much for having me, guys. Looking forward to chatting.
Paul [00:01:43] You are an agency leader. You’re an industry pioneer and, you know, a large scale professional development and conference organizer. Is there a secret sauce to stay topically relevant? Is it to maintain cutting-edge tactics or to be a philosophical visionary?
Adrienne [00:02:01] I wish I had a secret sauce. I think we all do. That’s our problem. We’re looking for secret sauces. But I don’t think there is a secret sauce. You know, a lot of it is what I call sensing. It’s being very in tune with your market and trying to think ahead, plan ahead, and move your chess pieces to make sure that you’re constantly delivering value to the market.
Paul [00:02:26] You know, one thing that I detected when getting ready for this conversation is you run a coaching and conference facilitation business and yet you tend to play the role of facilitator rather than the one up on stage. It’s a bit of a paradox, but I find it very interesting that you’ve just owned that niche in your organization. How did you come to feel so at home as a facilitator behind the scenes in a very public event-oriented organization?
Adrienne [00:02:57] Yes, that’s a very good question. I can tell you that my team isn’t really, truly happy with me when I do that, but I think I’m much better behind the scenes, facilitating and leading through others. I’m not the type of person to kind of stand up and, I don’t know, I kind of feel almost embarrassed about the success. Maybe it’s a cultural thing and Australians really tend to think about making sure that we’re not the tall poppy because we don’t want to be kind of sliced down by others and that could be part of the way that we operate. It’s a really nice kind of space to be in, not being front and center, but really appreciating how others come together and deliver an awesome experience for our community.
Sean [00:03:46] Cool. I’m interested to know, you guys do a lot of publishing of some great content in the product space. You have your PALM model, you’re putting out a lot of really good content for product leaders. What are you working on these days? What are the things, the challenges for product leaders that you think are the pressing issues of our time?
Adrienne [00:04:04] Well, I mean, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, so I think that’s a pretty pressing issue. And I think that it really brings to bear all our training, really, where it’s like a perfect storm. All your work that you’ve done previously in terms of strategy as a business owner, thinking through how you would develop your products for 2020, suddenly came to a big stop. You know, appropriate services for your customers is one way to kind of outcompete this little virus, if you can.
Paul [00:04:38] Yeah. So you founded Brainmates early on in this current wave of product management as a practice and I’m curious to the answer to this question from your perspective both as a business owner and as a product manager. You’ve avoided selling tools or frameworks or gimmicks that are flashes in the pan, but you are passionate about having a grab bag of tools and techniques. What are some of your favorite tools or ideas that you’ve stumbled upon over the years?
Adrienne [00:05:05] Sure. Absolutely. I think that over the last 16 years, I’ve been in the product management business for 16 years, it was our kind of birthday/anniversary last week. And over the years we’ve seen so many different kinds of tools and templates that have emerged as a response, really, to trying to do better product management. And I’m cautious about using a lot of tools and templates. I prefer to operate on first principles. But some of my favorite tools, you know, are definitely the customer journey map. I think when you start with the customer front and center, when you try and understand the context in which they’re trying to get their jobs done when you try and understand their lives, I think that makes for an ultimately better product for the customer. And so the tool that I tend to always fall back on is that customer journey map. And there’s some great work done by some amazing service designers who’ve brought these tools to life. I mean, Jacob Nielsen is one of them. And, you know, Mark [inaudible] in Vienna, actually, Austria, not Vienna, have really done justice to bringing journey mapping to the forefront.
Paul [00:06:15] So I want to pull on that for just a moment, because most of the folks listening to this are established product managers, senior product managers, perhaps directors of product management and when we look back over the past five or 10 or 16 years of our careers, there wasn’t really a journey map to look out at where we were going in the long run. We weren’t looking at an experience in our career that was really well established. When you look out over the next five or 10 years in the product management community, personally, I see things becoming a bit more standardized, perhaps having tracks in universities that are focused more on the practice. But what are some of the things that you can point product managers to today, perhaps that you’re even looking forward to sharing at your conference coming up, that you think we can lean into and get better at?
Adrienne [00:07:03] Well, I think one of the things that has not serviced us well is the fact that we’ve been really enamored with the Agile, lean practices. And whilst they are enormously beneficial tools and methods, I think that sometimes we’re so far down in the weeds that we forget what we’re trying to achieve from what outcomes we’re trying to drive for. So we have this concept of zooming in and zooming out. And the product management profession has zoomed quite deep into the machinations of delivery that we haven’t zoomed out far enough to figure out that we’re trying to drive a business. So I think we need to step back. And again, you know, the circumstances that we’ve fallen into should make us step back, zoom out, and figure out where our businesses are heading.
Adrienne [00:07:54] And some of the tools, or I guess the framework that we’ve applied in our conference is this concept of the seven P’s of product, reimagining, you know, the seven P’s of marketing, really. But the idea and the intent behind that is that we zoom out and think about our product from different lenses. You know, we talk about price. What’s the price of our product? Where does that put our product in terms of pricing, in relation to other products? In terms of our practices, how are we treating our people? Our people are the engine of our product growth. Are we servicing them well? Are we treating them like humans? The concept of promotion, which we think is in the realm of marketing, but really these days it’s also in the realm of product because we need to build products that self promote themselves, essentially, that have inbuilt mechanisms that enable customers to discover new features and functions so that they have the desire to buy or, you know, upgrade. We talk about place, where is our place in relation to other products? So I’m going back again to this whole concept of first principles and looking at tools that were designed in the 60s and 70s to really reframe and rethink a modern way of doing product.
Paul [00:09:10] What’s old is new again.
Adrienne [00:09:12] Yeah.
Paul [00:09:13] Yeah, indeed. I think that you know, this time that we spend in the trenches in JIRA, writing user stories, in the scrum ceremonies, in the demos, is it is obviously important, but it seems that there’s almost becoming, you know, product managers who thrive in that analysis, day-to-day managing, minding the product, so to speak. But I think that there also need to be people leading the product and keeping that visionary aspect alive and looking for what’s next.
Adrienne [00:09:43] Absolutely. And sometimes when we’re in the scrum ceremonies, we fail to, again, zoom out. They should be connective tissue to what we do on a day-to-day basis, that user story that we write, to our vision and our strategy and where we want to take our products business.
Sean [00:10:00] Yeah, that’s the performance side of the P’s, right, like making sure that the products are actually performing for the business and delivering on their promises by solving problems.
Adrienne [00:10:10] Absolutely. And we, you know, very often we’re so, again, enamored with discovering and designing new things that actually the things that are already in the market is where all our investment has already been made and we really need to nurture that. We need to make sure that we extract the return from products that are already in the market. And the performance aspects enable us to essentially get signals to see how well it’s performing and whether we need to make course corrections along the way.
Sean [00:10:41] Yeah. At the bottom of your PALM model, you have the words self-awareness.
Adrienne [00:10:45] Yes.
Sean [00:10:47] I want to hear your thoughts on this concept of self-awareness as a product leader.
Adrienne [00:10:52] Yes, it’s actually right throughout our PALM, I guess, model, and I guess we developed this framework or model because there’s been an over-focus on the technical aspects of doing product. So, you know, because of the proliferation of tools and techniques and templates, we’ve hung on to that as a clutch. And we forgot that really in order to make products, we need to be more human and we need to front up to our businesses and ask ourselves, “what kind of leader do I want to be? How do I want to lead my people?” You know, it’s great that you can make, create, craft a great roadmap, but if you have no ability to see your place and how you might drive that roadmap and you have no ability to lead the people in your business, well then there’s no point to that roadmap. It’s really just an artifact. And I think sometimes we find that to be the case in many businesses. You know, we over-engineer these concepts but fail to engineer ourselves and consider how we might drive and make a change in our business. And it all starts with us, right. If you don’t understand who you are, what kind of person you want to be if you don’t understand your triggers if you don’t know what makes you great or what makes you poor in the business… Well then, there’s not a lot you can grow into. So it all starts with yourself. It all starts with understanding who you are and who you want to be.
Sean [00:12:23] Yeah. On the next layer up, you have the separation of technical skills versus adaptive skills.
Adrienne [00:12:29] That’s correct.
Sean [00:12:30] Can you talk about that a little bit?
Adrienne [00:12:32] Yes. Again, going back to that concept of we rely on our technical skills to do our job. So when we’re hiring, for example, we’re looking for people who have demonstrated the ability to put a product in the market, launch your product, drive the performance. But we forget often about what else they bring to the business. And so the whole idea between technical and adaptive is that we need to look at the human side of who we bring into our business to make sure that they’re an appropriate fit, to make sure that they gel and work with us, that they bring balance to our business and balance to our teams. Hence why our model is predicated on both sides of the skill sets, which is technical and adaptive, as opposed to just the technical sides which we so often focus on.
Sean [00:13:22] So adaptive skills, if I can rephrase what you said, are more of the people skills, versus the technical skills.
Adrienne [00:13:30] Yeah. Technical skills are things like, hey, you can do A B tests. You can do a design sprint. You can create a, you know, a product strategy and roadmap so you can, you know, participate in some of the Agile ceremonies. So you know how to do all of that. But do you know how to show up? Do you bring empathy to your work? Do you bring vulnerability? Are you open? Are you too open? So those are the kind of questions you need to ask yourself in how you show up every day at work.
Paul [00:13:59] Yeah, and I think the way that you phrased it in our chat before the program here is in a very quotable line: develop thinkers, not doers. And what I took from that, I know that can be interpreted a couple of different ways, but the way that I interpreted it is that we’re called as product leaders to challenge people to grow in themselves and grow their teams and not just get better at efficiency and frameworks and getting into the minutia, but getting better at finding out what makes people tick. Because ultimately what we’re building isn’t just the pixels and code that we ship, it’s the experiences for the people that we serve.
Adrienne [00:14:40] Absolutely, yes. The things that we put in the market are to serve our customers and so we need to be empathetic to who they are and empathetic to the people who build our products for us. Because if we aren’t, then I think it shows up in the product, right. You can see the disconnections, the silos. And I think Julie Zhuo, she’s an ex-Facebook designer, speaks to that as well. She talks about the fact that if your business is broken internally and it’s very fractured, well then that is represented in the product and the customers will have also a fractured experience, which is something that we want to avoid, you know, where its market is very competitive. And so who you are, essentially, and again, I quote somebody else. Ben, I think, Horowitz, what you do is who you are.
Sean [00:15:29] Goes back to the old programming adage of, “garbage in garbage out.”.
Adrienne [00:15:32] Yes, that’s correct. That’s right. You know, back to the point of being thinkers. We should be giving people the ability to think more broadly as opposed to just do a specific task. You know, we often talk about problem solvers. Well, how do we create problem solvers? Well, we need to give them the opportunity to be able to think for themselves as opposed to prescribe a set of tools and methods for them to simply follow. Not to say that that isn’t important. You still need to make your tools important, but you need to give people the opportunity to think about which tools they want to use and how to apply them.
Paul [00:16:09] I want to dig into that one specifically for a moment because, because I am, if I’m being honest with myself, I am more of a tools kind of guy. I am more of an engineer at heart. It’s just who I am. So there are disadvantages and advantages to a lot of the sort of proliferation of frameworks that have come out. Spotify has made their model public. Basecamp has come up with Shape Up. Dropbox has a model online, and it’s very tempting for digital organizations, for Agile transformation agencies, to take these models and frameworks and adopt them wholesale. What are some of the pitfalls that might come out of a situation like that?
Adrienne [00:16:48] Oh, well, I mean, that’s a really great question. But I think you can’t be somebody else. And I think we teach our children that, don’t we, at a really young age, “hey, it’s great to learn from others, but you can’t be that person.” And that applies to companies as well. It’s great to learn how others succeeded, to understand, and to potentially utilize some of the gems they might have, but you cannot be somebody else. You cannot be another company. And that goes back to culture, right. What makes you stand out? What makes you different in a market? And if you’ll like some other company, well then, you’ve already lost your secret sauce.
Sean [00:17:28] And that’s why you have championing the product culture at the top of your PALM pyramid, right?
Adrienne [00:17:33] Yes, absolutely. I mean, people are our competitive advantage. Culture is a competitive advantage. If you take that and you want to adopt somebody else’s culture, well what is your competitive advantage? How will you differentiate? It’s easy to make products these days, right? We can bring in some tech. We can create something that looks appealing. But in order to succeed, you need that internal kind of differentiation and that comes from your company culture.
Sean [00:18:06] So if you could expand on that a little bit, what is it that you guys teach about culture and building a great product culture?
Adrienne [00:18:13] It’s kind of interesting because, in our course material, the culture side is pretty empty. And the reason why it’s empty is because we ask people to fill that in themselves. So our accelerating into leadership course is three days full of rich content, but the last aspect is pretty… The slides are empty, you know, the processes and tools are empty. And the idea behind that is that now that you’ve learned the model, now that you understood how to build a team, you need to now start to consider how you start to change your culture in your business. Now, we can’t give you the recipe for that. You’ve got to create that yourself.
Adrienne [00:18:58] So what we ask people to do is we ask them to start to consider about, well, how might they currently change their strategizing and planning process? Is there something that they can do differently? What about their resourcing and staffing process? How might they onboard people differently? What about enabling and empowering? How might they teach their teams differently, support them differently, give them different tools and techniques? What about market sensing? So we go through the pyramid and we ask them to consider how they might change elements of that for their business and come up with their own recipe for product culture. And each business is different. We have people that come from government, people that come from not-for-profit organizations, software businesses, and we can’t impose a culture on them and we can’t teach them how to create one, but we can ask them to reflect and talk about how they might want to make a change in their business to essentially put customers at the core of the work that they do and consider how they might design and develop products that appeal to them, and therefore, also subsequently deliver some benefit to their organizations. That’s a challenge for your product, trying to look at both sides of the coin, right, the customer side and the and the organizational side and bring balance to both.
Sean [00:20:15] Yeah, I have found, I think the most powerful teams, the most successful products, definitely have some things in common in their culture, like this sort of core empathy for the customer. And when the team has a shared empathy and they’re really driving towards solving very specific problems for very specific people, I find the culture stronger and they build better products together.
Adrienne [00:20:39] Absolutely. I completely agree. I completely agree. I mean, there’s some fundamentals that don’t shift. If you don’t think about your customer and you don’t really care for them and you don’t design services to solve their problems, well then that isn’t a winning formula. That’s a completely different kind of culture and it’s definitely not a product culture. So there are some fundamentals and being customer-centered is one of them or customer-focused.
Paul [00:21:06] So I want to talk for a minute just about what Brainmates is doing and how you’ve been central to Australia’s revolution of product management over the past decade and a half. 2020 will be the fifth conference that you’ve put on?
Adrienne [00:21:22] Sixth. It’s the sixth conference, yes.
Paul [00:21:25] Sixth conference. So you’ve been facilitating, hosting, organizing a conference as a product for six years over six iterations now. What are some of the lessons that you’ve learned in putting together this organization for product people, by product people, and bringing together some of the best minds? What have you found are some of the key learnings that you’ve grown from in this unique experience?
Adrienne [00:21:53] I think one of the key learnings is to be ready for anything, that you might have a plan, but that plan doesn’t always play out to expectations. So be ready for pivots, be ready for changes, in all aspects, really. I mean, when we first started, it was simple things. You know, the speakers didn’t show or the quality of the content wasn’t good and so your original intent of the speaker lineup had to change. People didn’t get visas at the last minute, so they couldn’t come into the country. So you always have to be prepared, just like the Girl Scouts really, be prepared. And this year? Well, this year was a bit of a doozy, but we thought, no, our love of bringing the community together still stands. And so we wanted a way to make sure that our community had an opportunity to come together virtually. And there are lots of challenges for that. You know, people loved coming to the conference previously because they could meet and hang out with their friends. They could meet new people. And so this year, we tried very hard to figure out a way for them to continue to do that.
Paul [00:23:04] Yeah. I think the work that you’re doing is so crucial. I think product managers have, at times, had a bit of an identity crisis in terms of where they fit in organizations, what their career path might look like, and it’s been very interesting watching product management conferences crop up over the past decade or so and really finding this voice of product managers really at the core of businesses and not just digital or software teams, but really, business teams in general at a really key, strategic place in organizations.
Adrienne [00:23:40] Yes, I’ve always believed them to be the key part, the engine that drives the business. People that make the products, the people are the ones to change the world. That’s what product managers do, change the world.
Sean [00:23:57] I like that. It’s the people that change the world. I’ll be using that in the tagline for this podcast. Well, you’re doing great work out there and you’ve built an incredible community in Australia. I’d like to hear you talk about that a little bit.
Adrienne [00:24:10] Oh, it’s amazing. It’s fantastic. I just love them to bits. You know, last night we had… We’ve got lots of meet-ups, lots of groups. We have product women and last night they were talking about purpose-driven product management. How do you make sure that you inject purpose at the core of your product? And we have people of all sorts stepping up, talking, volunteering, sharing, writing, blogging. And what’s so wonderful about it is that, when I started, I was the one doing all of that. And now it’s so nice to sit back and watch others take the reins. Others have the opportunity to kind of contribute and give back, and that’s what people want. They want to contribute. They want to give back. They want to feel like they’ve got purpose in their life. And being a part of the community absolutely gives them some of that. I mean, at the heart of it all, I tell my team all the time at Brainmates: whilst it looks like we sell training and consulting and a conference, but if you strip it all back, if you go up that value tree, what we sell is belonging and we all want to belong at some level. And that’s our business. It’s all about belonging.
Sean [00:25:25] Yeah. Well, this goes back to self-determination theory. You know, all the science behind human motivation tells us we need to have purpose and purpose is really about how we’re connecting to others and how we’re making the world a better place for others, for sure. And that’s why purpose is the second P in your seven Ps of product management.
Adrienne [00:25:43] Yes, absolutely. I guess the purpose answers, why do you want to solve the customer problem? What drives you to solve the customer problem?
Sean [00:25:51] Exactly. OK, here’s a question for you. How do you define the word innovation?
Adrienne [00:25:58] Great product management.
Adrienne [00:26:01] Great product management.
Adrienne [00:26:03] I’ve been talking about that actually for a very long time. I don’t see innovation as separate to what we do. Innovation is a result of great product management and great product management stems from understanding customers, understanding your business, and making sure that you deliver something to the market that ultimately gives your business some reward.
Sean [00:26:28] That’s a great answer.
Adrienne [00:26:29] And that’s innovation, yeah, great product management.
Paul [00:26:33] Love it. The last question I have for you before we let you go is, what is inspiring you these days? The way that I would normally ask it is what book have you read lately that you’d recommend to others, but it seems like many people are listening to books more than reading or finding podcasts or articles. But I’ll ask, what book have you read that you’d pass along to a product manager who’s coming up in their career?
Adrienne [00:26:55] I like all of Ben Horowitz’s books, as well as A More Beautiful Question. And I reflect on the book because I looked at it again this weekend as I was teaching a class. And my challenge to everybody at the moment is to not have answers but to learn to ask a more beautiful question. I’m challenging myself too, by the way. Sometimes I think, that wasn’t really a well-structured question. I think if you ask a good question, a better question, you’re going to get better answers. And I think we always focus on the better answers but never focus on the better question. So, yeah, A More Beautiful Question is the book I love.
Paul [00:27:38] Excellent. Great answer, great recommendation. Well, Adrienne, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Your energy is just a joy to have a chance to experience one-on-one and I really want to thank you for the time that you’ve taken, especially in this time leading up to a very busy week in a few weeks.
Adrienne [00:27:57] Yes. It will be very busy. And look, I really enjoy conversation so I’m happy to chat. Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed our chat.
Sean [00:28:05] Thank you for all the good work you’re doing in our community, and for the audience, since everything’s virtual these days, you know, you don’t have to be in Australia to get the benefit of the work that Adrienne and her team are doing. So take a look at their conference, take a look at their content. I highly recommend that you get involved.
Paul [00:28:22] Cheers.
Paul [00:28:27] Well, that’s it for today. In line with our goals of transparency in listening, we really want to hear from you. Sean and I are committed to reading every piece of feedback that we get so please leave a comment or a rating wherever you’re listening to this podcast. Not only does it help us continue to improve, but it also helps the show climb up the rankings so that we can help other listeners move, touch, and inspire the world, just like you’re doing. Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next episode.