Product Champions: Leading Products For The Win

07-06-22 Drew Clemens

Are you accountable for the delivery of a software development product? Then you are a Product Champion. Learn more about the balance between strategic and tactical leadership, the resources you'll need to succeed, and the pitfalls you have to avoid.

Your job is…complicated. You wear more hats than a bar full of bull riders. Your day is a flurry of stakeholder meetings, business reports, design reviews, and engineering standups. You’re not exactly sure what your title is supposed to mean—and you’re fairly certain your coworkers don’t know either. But if there’s one thing you do know, it’s that folks are relying on you to deliver your product for some sweet, sweet return on investment.

Your actual title may be product manager, product owner, senior engineer, marketing director, or UX designer—even chief rodeo clown if we’re sticking with the bull riding metaphor. Regardless of what your email signature says, you’re playing a critical role and are accountable for your organization’s digital product. You’ve been tasked with the responsibility of making sure the right product makes it into the hands of your users.

We’re here for you. You’re among our favorite people.

Focusing on The Role

You may have some crystallized views on common product titles such as product manager and product owner, or you may have no experience with those titles at all. There is no one right answer. For that reason, I’ll avoid common industry titles from now on. We’ll be talking about the role that you’re playing rather than the title on your business card.

If the accountability for a digital product rests on your shoulders, you’re a Product Champion.

Trumpets blast in the background, and an unseen wind lifts your cape and perfectly kempt hair.

That’s right, you’re a Champion. In a general sense, you are accountable to work with the business to

  • Identify and refine product goals
  • Consolidate and distill stakeholder needs
  • Gather resources and prioritize work for the product team

Putting It All into Context

A Champion’s strengths and experience play into how they carry out the role, but the context of an organization’s culture significantly influences what’s required of the role as well. Larger organizations generally have more numerous, specialized roles; while smaller organizations have general roles that wear many hats. Some value innovation while some require more control. The Product Champion is the conduit between strategy and delivery. Consider the people, processes, or conversations involved in moving from strategy to a delivered digital product. Your place in this ecosystem provides significant context to your role.

Let’s walk through some context scenarios.

In every case, someone needs to provide strategic direction for a product, and someone needs to provide tactical leadership to deliver that product.

Two diamond shapes. The diamond on the right displaying the words 'Strategic Leader'. On the left, displaying the words 'Tacticial Leader.'

Strategic product leadership includes gathering business insights from stakeholders to create objectives. Tactical product leadership focuses on collaborating with the business to further refine these objectives and then delivers.

A diagram displaying the process of stakeholders relying on strategic leadership to collaborate with tactical leadership to finally delivering the product.

Depending on your organizational context, your role as Product Champion may lean more toward the strategic, the tactical, or include both.

Scenario 1

There is a strategic leader representing the business, such as a marketing lead. As Product Champion, you collaborate closely with the marketing lead to refine objectives and then work with the product team to determine tactics on how to deliver a product that achieves those objectives.

A diagram displaying collaboration between Strategic Leadership - Marketing Lead and Tactical Leadership - Product Champion.
Scenario 2

There is a tactical leader who oversees delivery, such as a lead engineer. As a Product Champion focused on strategy, you collaborate directly with them to ship new features or products.

A diagram displaying collaboration between Strategic Leadership - Product Champion and Tactical Leadership - Lead Engineer.
Scenario 3

If your organization has a more condensed structure, your role as Champion may actually encompass both strategic and tactical responsibilities. In this case, you are balancing business needs and delivery needs.

We’ve seen the Champion role in this third scenario be efficient and successful, wildly stressed out and unsuccessful, and everything between. This largely depends on the complexity of the product and the number of stakeholders. If you’re in this role and stressed, my fellow Sparkboxer Julie has advice on how UX can really help.

A diagram displaying the overlap in responsibility a Product Champion has between strategic and tactical leadershp.

Ultimately, as a Product Champion, it’s important to understand your organizational context. If you are accountable for a product, you must establish who is responsible for the strategic objectives and the tactical delivery of the product—both for yourself and those around you. Perhaps most importantly, you must establish the collaborative practices that govern the space between the two.

Software projects rarely fail due to technical problems, but they often fail due to people problems. If it hasn’t already been done, you must do the hard work of establishing these responsibilities in your unique context—it could be some of the most important work you do.

What You Need as a Product Champion

You don’t need us to tell you what you’re aiming for—a better product, happier users, an effective team, sustainable work-life balance, right? You know what you want. Here’s what you need as a Product Champion to achieve your goals.

  1. You need to be empowered with authority, have established relationships with strategic and tactical collaborators, and have access to a platform for gathering resources.

    These basic needs provide the foundation for a Champion to be successful. This foundation is essentially organizational recognition and empowerment of the role that allows you to deliver.

  2. You need your product to provide value to the business by delivering value to the user. User needs come first. Products cannot thrive on business stakeholder feedback alone.

    If your organization does not have a strong culture of market research, user research, and analytics, you will have to advocate for growth in this area and educate others on their value. In the meantime, there are lean ways to gather user research to provide strategic direction. Or you could work with us. Wink.

    User needs and business stakeholder needs should not be at odds with one another. If they are, it’s likely due to a lack of education in one or both directions.

    • If user needs are being communicated well, the business is likely to recognize the mutual opportunity for value and come into alignment with them.
    • If business needs are being communicated well, then the product team is better equipped to research and test the right things which aligns the product with both user and business needs.
  3. You need your product team to have access to all that is required to meet the product goals.

    This is where your “platform for gathering resources” comes into play. If you don’t have what you need, go get what’s needed. This includes funding, training, and people. Your team needs the appropriate balance of skill sets to deliver, either as part of the permanent product team or through access to subject matter experts.

Gathering the Right Talent

Obviously, there is no formula for a perfect team. Each product and problem set are different. However, in our experience, you must have strong representation in at least the following areas to deliver web-based software products today:

  • User Experience: Not all UX professionals are the same. They may lean toward research, information architecture, usability testing, design, or a number of other disciplines. UX is required to develop strategy and facilitate its translation to a tactical plan for the product team whether they are a permanent team member, an outside subject matter expert, or you—the Champion.

  • User Interface Design: UI designers are the visual translators, building on UX strategy, who ensure that the presentation of your product is accessible, usable, delightful, and on-brand. It should be noted that while this discipline has been focused primarily on visuals in the past, it is growing to include other interfaces (e.g. audio) given the rise of non-screen devices and accessibility for those visually impaired.

  • Strong Frontend Development: Modern frontend web development is far more complex than in previous decades. The discipline carries a heavy responsibility with an emphasis on responsive web design, accessibility, progressive enhancement, performance, and design system thinking. In order to deliver quality web products, your team must possess these skills in either specialized frontend team members or full-stack engineers with strong frontend skills.

  • Software Architecture: In the end, you’re shipping code. That requires significant engineering experience to architect a series of intersecting systems to move that product code through source control, end-to-end testing, data management, and deployment to proper environments. Many organizations are shipping product code alongside other, overlapping digital products and business systems. Every team needs an architect to create and maintain a big-picture technical strategy.

  • Team Management: We’re all for self-organizing teams—strong professionals do not need micromanagement. However, high-performing teams do require leadership and facilitation. Often this role is played by you, the Champion. However, depending on workload or organizational complexity, team management may also be shared by other leaders, such as project managers, Agile professionals, UX/UI designers, or engineers.

    Other roles worth mentioning include business analysts, testers, and QA engineers. These are sometimes occupied by discrete team members and other times responsibilities absorbed by other team members or stakeholders.

Overcoming Blockers and False Starts

If you’ve already been in the Champion role, you likely have a list as long as your arm filled with challenges, roadblocks, and false starts that you’ve experienced. At Sparkbox, we’ve lived these experiences right alongside you in a variety of industries and organizational structures. Some hardships may already be waiting for you on day one—sometimes even before you attend your first stand-up or planning meeting. Others present themselves later as you make your way. Here are some common challenges:

Issues For Your Boss

These are issues that affect your role as a Product Champion but may be outside your jurisdiction. Generally, these are problem situations that your boss needs to address ahead of time to create an environment where success is possible. If you’re a Champion and these issues weren’t addressed ahead of time, humbly (but urgently) work with your boss to address these concerns.

  1. More than one person believes they are the ultimate Champion of the product.

    This is a messy situation. When one person believes they have been tasked to own a product and they run up against others that believe it is their role, it often turns into a turf war. It gets political, hurts long-term collaboration, and rarely ends with a better product. Accountability rests with one person, and the proper authority figure (e.g. your boss) needs to name that person publicly.

  2. No one believes they are the Product Champion.

    Generally, this is a situation where the business knows they need a product, and they hire a team to build it without naming clear leadership. In the leadership vacuum, team members might step in to fill parts of a Champion role without a holistic perspective or clear accountability. This can have mixed results. Often, the accountability rolls up the food chain to a boss that is too busy and too far from the day-to-day to provide proper leadership. In any case, the product needs a clear, intentional Champion, named by business leadership.

Issues For You, Champ

There are innumerable hurdles you’ll have to clear in your role, but here are a few significant challenges that may come up as you guide your product and team toward success.

  1. You have accountability but others do not recognize your authority.

    Ugh. I know some of you feel this one. It hurts when you know you’re going to have to give an account for the product’s success, but the stakeholders or the team don’t respond to your direction for the product.

    A Champion must be a great communicator, facilitator, and arbiter. Before bringing in your boss to emphasize your positional power, do all you can personally to gain trust and respect. Go to your stakeholders and team. Explain your role and how you can help them, the users, and the product. If you’re able to do so, your earned authority will be far more effective in the long-term than your positional power.

  2. You have objectives but not proper resources.

    You don’t need an MBA to make a business case, and a business case is exactly what you need to provide. Estimate the effort it will take to deliver high-priority features given your current team and tools, and then clearly illustrate to the business how additional resources will allow for more desirable results. Making this business case doesn’t always mean more resources will be available, but it puts you in the best position to have shared expectations with your stakeholders.

    If proper resources are still unavailable after making your case, you’ll need to keep a lean mindset, focusing on minimum viable releases. In addition, you’ll have to communicate this mindset to the business stakeholders to set their expectations to this level of polish and features in the releases.

  3. Your stakeholders want features, but your product needs so much more.

    Anything that you or your team provide is part of the product. This includes documentation, training, and support for customers or marketing teams. These are not features, but they are requests from the business. Development environment maintenance, tooling, refactoring, and reduction of technical debt are also part of the product’s lifecycle.

    A significant part of your job is balancing feature work with chores and non-feature work, but you’ll save yourself some pain if you can help all stakeholders understand the value in a balance of them all. A Champion must educate stakeholders on the work and time they all require.

  4. You don’t know everything.

    Hopefully, you’re not surprised by this one. It’s likely the most significant issue you’ll face. There are so many unknowns in software. You need to get comfortable knowing that you do not know everything about your own product, and you never will.

    There are features that you don’t even know you need yet. There are risks you haven’t dreamed of. There are dragons hiding in legacy code that will seem untamable when they rear their heads.

    For your own peace of mind, accept that these unknowns exist, and they always will. For the peace of mind of your stakeholders, educate them about this reality as well. Otherwise, you’ll likely find yourself defending against situations you never could have foreseen.

Closing

Empowered. Delivering value. Fully capable.

These are the qualities that we’ve seen lead to successful product teams and by extension, successful Product Champions. It’s rare for a team to develop these qualities overnight, as they generally come with time and the experience of training and a lot of trial and error.

But understanding them does give you something to aim for. And if you don’t have a goal, you can’t win. Go be a Champion.

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