Imagine this scenario…
The Director of Sales Operations (the Director) just asked you to implement a new system to support the sales bonus program. The Director started the effort and identified key aspects of the program, but realized she can’t pay the proper amount of time to the implementation. She has asked you to take over day to day responsibility for implementing the system, but wants to be kept up to date and wants to be involved in any decisions that may impact key aspects of the sales bonus program. What do you do?
Welcome to the world of product ownership for internal products – systems that support business processes and are not intended for sale outside of the organization. I describe this as a product, because like products that are sold outside of an organization, internal products rarely have a short life and require ongoing support and maintenance to keep up with changes in the environment, organization, and process they support.
Here are some of the initial steps you should take in a similar situation to start work on an internal product off right.
Establish a Relationship with the Business Leader
The first thing to do is reflect on the nature of your relationship with the business leader, who in this case is the Director. In the case of an internal product the business leader has some product management responsibilities. They have a view of the market need (in this case supporting the sales bonus program) and (hopefully) have an overall view of the needs of the product.
The Director indicated that she is willing to defer decision making to you on most things, although she wants overall say when core aspects of the sales bonus program are impacted. This is a good thing. In order to make the most of that responsibility, make sure you have a good working relationship with the Director of Sales Operations.
You need to be able to tell her both good news and bad news. You will make decisions in her name. You may even have to influence her to avoid decisions that on the surface appear good, but where she may not be aware of all the potential impacts. It certainly helps if you have worked with the Director before, but the nature of that working relationship can add complications to the overall relationship. You may have to approach things differently if your report to her (either directly or indirectly) versus if the two of you report up through different parts of the organization.
Get to know the Director’s preferred communication style. How does she like to get updates, how frequently, and via what mechanism? Find out her preferred means of making decisions and how much information she prefers when she has a decision to make. You may be able to find out some of this information from her, but in many cases, you’ll need to observe her in action or talk to other people who work with and for her. Often people do not have good self awareness of how they make decisions but observant people who work for them often have a good idea.
You may also want to find out a bit about her interests outside of work, but only if she’s open to that sort of thing. Some people are very particular about keeping work and private life separate, others like to broadcast their interests. Does she like to exercise? Does she have kids that participate in sports, or band, or drama? Does she like to travel? To visit national parks? Discover if there are things that you may have in common. A simple glance around her office may give you some clues. This is helpful so that you have something to discuss aside from the product.
Discover the Desired Outcome
Once you’ve established a good, or at least a workable, rapport with the director, it’s time to dig in and find out her views about the sales bonus program and the intent of the program. More likely than not, you’ll have to dig here a bit to find out what problem the program is intended to solve as the director may want to describe everything in terms of a solution. Use some socratic questioning to get the specific details.
Once you have the problem identified, find out how the Director would like to determine success. Identify her success criteria for the sales bonus program and as much as possible, find out how she would like to measure those criteria.
Then find out who else is impacted by the sales bonus program. Identify not only the people that agree with the Director’s plans, but also identify people that she is concerned may not be as supportive. You’re going to want to determine the best way to work with those people as well.
Finally, set the stage for a discussion with the broader group of people that will implement the product. Let the Director know that you would like to have a session with her, the key stakeholders she identified, and the team that is going to implement a solution. Let her know the structure that session, and explain that the purpose is to establish a shared understanding between everyone working on the product about the problem you are trying to solve.
At this point the Director may protest a little bit saying that she has already told you the problem and that you just need to tell everyone and get started. Let her know that the approach you use is not intended to change the desired outcome, but rather involve the necessary people in a discussion so that they can understand and internalize it. That will only work if she’s involved in the discussion. Otherwise, people will create their own impressions of what the product is intended to do.
Establish Decision Making Guardrails
During that discussion, or in another one fairly early on in your work, establish a clear understanding about decision making. Since the Director has indicated her desire to cede some decision making responsibility, you need to make sure you have a clear understanding of which decisions you can make, and which decisions ultimately fall to her. A modified form of a RASCI chart may be helpful for this discussion where the A (usually taken to mean accountable) is used to indicate who has ultimate decision making authority and R means who is responsible for making sure the decision gets carried out.
Another thing that’s good to discuss around decision making is which constraints are the most important. I like to use the constraints matrix, created by Jim Highsmith to guide that discussion. It’s helpful to have that discussion before you have any real decisions to make about the product. Emotions tend not to be as high, and you can get a clear understanding about which is the most important – what the product will do (scope) how much it will cost to get the product to where you want it (cost) or when you want the product available (time).
This is also a good time to discuss the idea of decision filters with the Director to get her thinking about the key deciding factors when determining whether or not to build a particular aspect of the product. She doesn’t necessarily need to come up with her decision filters yet, as that’s a good discussion point to have with the team so that they are invested in those decision filters as well.
Build a Shared Understanding with Your Team
Once you’ve set the stage with the Director about her desired outcome, and how you’d like to engage the other people who are going to work on the product, it’s time to kickoff work. During that session, get the Director, key stakeholders, and the team that will work on the product together to build a shared understanding. Some things that you’ll do during this kickoff include:
- Craft a problem statement to help everyone understand the desired outcome
- Establish decision filters.
- Assess the risks inherent with the product. The Context Leadership Model is helpful for this.
- Agree on initial roles and responsibilities for the team
- Determine success criteria for the solution
- Agree to next steps and their owners.
Depending on the nature of the product you may already have a solution identified (for example if you are making revisions to an existing internal product) or your next step may be to determine whether to buy an existing product or build one from scratch. The Purpose Based Alignment Model is a helpful tool to guide that discussion.
How Would You Get Started?
That’s a rundown of the steps I’ve found most helpful when facing a situation similar to the one described above.
How have you approached similar challenges? Please share your experiences in the comments below.