SA’s most progressive companies have embraced three product management lessons

By Calton Nhando, digital consultant at IndigoCube

Some top South African businesses are maturing their product management capability to improve agility so they can get to market quicker, with products more relevant to their customers, with the ability to adapt to market forces.

They’ve learned three major lessons en route and some smaller ones.

When I last checked on LinkedIn there were already more than 1 000 product managers at the four biggest banks, two cellular companies, and one media company in South Africa, which demonstrates the field’s growing significance in the country. They’re developing their product-led thinking, as opposed to project thinking, to be more relevant and closer to the customers to improve the customer experience.

Steve Jobs famously noted that you must start with the customer experience and work backwards, that you cannot begin with the technology or the product and work your way forward. He’s right.

We’ve seen companies be successful because they think about shipping their product and less about projects. Companies like Discovery think end-to-end about products. They’re customer-centric throughout their customers’ lives. From young to old, Discovery focuses on delivering products that are relevant to their customers. That laser focus has resulted in changing people’s behaviours. Their health products kick-started a healthcare revolution. They encourage people to improve their driving habits. Even the banking now has behavioural elements. It’s a clever, data-driven business model that manages products through their lifecycles and their relevancy to customers.

One of the barriers to businesses emulating that success is that their people are still led by a project mentality. They’re traditional and comfortable. In project land we have timelines, which are very important because projects are contracts. We sign off against the deliverables, tell the stakeholders and funders that we will see them later, and then we’re contractually obliged to deliver. But history shows that it’s very difficult to deliver with any hope of successfully driving business at the end of it. One of the major problems is that projects focus our attention on product features and KPIs.

What we need to do is bring our focus back to value propositions linked to customers. More people are adopting this approach because it helps them overcome a major challenge. The traditional, project approach requires the upfront investment of time, money and resources. The returns follow. Or so people hope. There’s no way to tell beforehand if a project will result in a successful product.

Under product experimentation we develop a hypothesis, ensure that it connects with the business strategy, iterate the smallest possible version of a product based on that hypothesis, release it to a select audience and gauge the response.

Establishing the link between the product and the business strategy is a key point. Before you think about new products or features you have to define the goals and outcomes you want to achieve. We all like to think in features but that’s more KPI-like thinking. We rather need to be accountable for business outcomes and that means we have to redefine the value proposition linked to the customer.

Product management is a growing and maturing trend in South Africa. The three lessons we’ve seen organisations learn demonstrate that. They have been learning to change their thinking from projects to products; organise their teams to be closer to customers; and be accountable to customer value propositions linked to business outcomes.

This design thinking approach helps companies map customer journeys in ways that provide meaningfully improved customer experiences.

About IndigoCube

At IndigoCube we use our in-depth experience and expertise in combining of skills development, process transformation and leading-edge technology to enable an appropriate level of business agility that allows organisations in the fast-moving digital age to adapt to market demands more efficiently. We focus particularly in the areas of Lean Agile Transformation, DevOps Optimisation, Lean Product Management, Business Analysis 3.0, and Automation to boost productivity and long-term return on investment.