By DAVE BERARDI
TWENTY years ago, digital product managers were practically unheard-of. Now, the leadership role is burgeoning, with a flush of appointments such as digital product officer (DPO) or chief product officer (CPO).
Organisations — and their CEOs — are increasingly focusing on product, and the role of a CPO is becoming essential to growth.
Product-led companies focus on creating something that pleases users. Small teams practise iterative discovery, fuelled by UX and other telemetry data. A product-centric approach improves outcomes, rather than increasing outputs. This generates value for the company, which is essential for any digital organisation that is setting its sights on growth.
Yet, despite an increasing number of organisations hiring CPOs, many sadly still fail to understand the true value of the role.
When effectively deployed, CPOs can create and implement a clear vision for product. That increases the overall efficacy of the organisation, improving customer experience at the same time. At the core of CPO role is that outcome focus. It has to be compelling to encourage employees to “do the right thing” for product development.
This vision must be matched with excellent execution — which is where product managers and product technology teams come in. When equipped with a solid sense of purpose and structure (by their CPO), product managers can be more effective than when left to their own devices.
CPOs, though, walk a fine line between creating a digital product strategy and delivering on it. As with any part of any overall business strategy, a digital product strategy must be aligned with the organisation’s objectives and KPIs for the year ahead. A strong vision for product must also be constantly adapted and re-adapted in accordance with the work carried out by product teams.
CPOs lead the way by navigating the uncertainty and risk of investment in a product. “Product” must be a process of experimentation and problem-solving, the only way to improve outcomes, and this constant process of iterative working allows teams to generate the best possible solutions over time. The cone of uncertainty can only be addressed through an adaptive approach.
A good vision for product must be supported by an organisational mindset unafraid of risks. The role of a CPO involves measuring value in a customer- and data-centric manner, often focusing on the micro-level of specific, individual outcomes. This involves experimentation, and can, unfortunately, also lead to failure.
But failure should be seen as a catalyst for workshopping actionable lessons, and refocusing on how the final product will create value. CPOs should empower their teams to be confident in “failing fast” and learning from mistakes.
In the world of business, it is increasingly apparent that product officers must have a seat at the executive table to ensure that their vision and strategy is effectively disseminated across the organisation, especially in technology and engineering departments. Product is one of the few organisations that works across almost every team, and CPOs need an executive vantage point from which to execute.
In some cases, it can be appropriate to combine chief product officer and chief technology officer roles, due to the remit proximity of product and technology teams. This can be useful when discussing strategy, as a CPTO can give insights on the intersection between digital product and technology. CPTOs build and run software as revenue generating software and services, after all.
But organisations sometimes make the mistake of putting their CPO within a sub-section of their executive team, as they underestimate the potential power of an independent product team. The necessary outcome-focused approach of the product team often differs from that of marketing or finance, and can result in friction. It also results in product-as-afterthought syndrome — when it should be front and centre in terms of overall strategy.
If a CPO is appointed for the first time, or the organisation is undergoing significant digital transformation, the CPO can be an unpopular member of the executive team. That is understandably difficult for CEOs. Nevertheless, the unpopularity of CPOs may even prove essential to true transformation. Their role involves acting on great opportunities, rather than actioning every good idea; they have to say “no” to many suggestions. An effective CPO knows how to act on opportunity at the right time, in-line with their overall vision.
If a CPO has recently been brought in, the change is significant and never free-of-charge. A whole new department may have been created, taking on tasks that others may have previously been working on. It brings a whole new way of working, basing decisions on data rather than intuition or opinion.
Executive teams must accept this and provide the necessary air cover to handle it. CEOs must support their CPOs to execute their broader vision for product, especially in a difficult period of transition, to achieve the desired outcomes.
The increasing number of CPOs within businesses is a vote of confidence in the need for a strong product strategy that filters down through an organisation from its executive team. An executive-level vision for product encourages the development of innovative solutions, ultimately resulting in a more successful product and customer experience.
CEOs who appoint a chief product officer will see the tangible output benefits. To truly take advantage of the full potential of a digital-centric organisation, appointing a CPO and upholding a strong vision for product is not merely an option, it’s a necessity.