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Design-Driven Leadership is Product Management

Updated: Jul 15, 2023


article by ronke

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The very essence of leadership is creating a space that enables our teams to dream big, imagine, and bring what was once unthinkable to life - therefore, changing humanity. That is innovation.


What makes a product great? It has a couple of components; functionality, efficiency, convenience, excitement, and captivation. But, most importantly, the product taps into our emotion-based brain. To make any product that includes the above attributes, we must cultivate, encourage, strengthen, and nurture our multi-disciplinary teams' creative power and diversity, providing a safe space to fail.


In bringing a product experience with actual customer value to the market, we must have individuals from all walks of life to foster creativity, breakthrough advancements, and imagination to meet our customers where they are. Our customers represent an ever-changing demographic with evolving needs. To understand their needs, even those they may have yet to acknowledge, we must have people on our teams who represent them. This is regardless of whether we work on B2B, B2C, or BDD products and services.


The beginning of creating an experience with these characteristics begins with collaboration, partnership, and connection with our UI/UX design partners.


Product and Design Partnership

Every product that makes a difference in a customer’s life has one thing in common that makes it so compelling - a user experience designer and a product manager working together. Collaborating with the PMM and UX Researchers, they investigate and interview customers to gather necessary information, looking for groundbreaking solutions to bring to life.


The product manager and designer relationship works so successfully because there is effective communication, transparency, and, most importantly, trust. Product managers share the good and the bad with their design partners, and they bring their UI/UX colleagues to all meetings with customers and partner dependency teams, and leadership. Furthermore, they share product vision, strategy, customer and business value, metrics, and data, which help user experience partners find creative solutions to problems.


Sometimes, like in any other relationship, there are conflicts, but they work it out and compromise when needed. After all, what binds them together is their shared belief in their organizational core values, which is where the love of their product comes from. Product managers and user experience partners know they do not have all the answers, so they will take low-fidelity artifacts of a feature or product to their customers, interdisciplinary partners, and leaders to drive discussion. These conversations will identify missed requirements; sometimes, we will find other inventive ways to solve our customers' problems. Additionally, it enables more focused conversation around ideas that solve the customer's problem.


What does design-driven leadership mean?

Design-driven means, as product leaders, we focus on defining, discovering, and bringing a product experience with true customer value to the market.


I firmly believe in having high-fidelity deliverables like mockups that can drive conversation with customers, multi-disciplinary partners, and leadership. This means utilizing the depiction experience, wireframe, and prototypes to convey storytelling. The story is told in two parts, the current workflow and the proposed journey that solves the customer problem.


But, even more indispensably, the experience enables the story to travel easily. Cross-functional partners, whether in engineering, user experience, technical support, customer success, marketing, or sales, will be able to repeat the story and transmit how their product is a differentiator, solving real-world, consequential problems for their customers. Customers become their companies' heroes by using the product to solve an existing problem.


Design-driven leadership is product management

When product leaders let the user experience drive the dialogue with customers, cross-functional partners, and leadership, communication is improved immensely. But, more importantly, our audience transforms, leading to alignment and inspiration. Let’s dive into what this means for product management.


1. Transformation

Whether we are trying to gather requirements, validate hypotheses, or engage in customer interviews, research, or usability studies, a transformation occurs when we put an experience in front of a customer—starting with changing our relationship with them.


When we then walk them through a composition that showcases a new product, feature or simply solving their pain points, we are indeed transforming them from the world they are currently into the world where we have solved their problem, saved them time, or provided a new avenue to help them manage and grow their business. They envision the benefits immediately, and as a result, they are transformed. They have now seen what is possible; they become emotionally invested and want to help, so they point out missed opportunities within the blueprint experience. As a result, they help us make the customer-user workflow even better.


Transformation can also transpire with our cross-functional team members and leaders. When we routinely share readouts of our hypothesis, learning plan, market research, customer interviews, and usability studies with them, they better understand how all the information and data points have been incorporated into the outline in front of them. They become transformed because we brought them along in the journey; we have walked them through the pain points of our customers and the new experiences we plan to offer. They develop empathy and are invested in helping us bring the experience to fruition.


2. Alignment

When we put a new or modified design illustration in front of a customer, they become invested, aligning with our goals and objectives. Being aligned helps us see each other‘s points of view and lessens the disconnection between our customers.


During our prototype walkthrough sessions with customers, we communicate that we understand their pain points and challenges and have a resolution. While it may not be perfect, we have shortened the distance. As a result, they are less likely to stop using our product or services, and they will give us time to build the ideal solution they need. Remarkably, since we have included them in the story of our product all along, they have become our advocates and references for new customers who are thinking about using our product and services, making the idea of going to competitors not as imperative to them because they are transformed and aligned. They have seen what we can do to help solve their concerns, enabling them to manage and grow their businesses.


Regarding alignment with our multidisciplinary partners and leaders, we have also transformed them through our prototypes. We have elucidated through readouts findings from our usability studies, plans, research, and customer interviews. Furthermore, we have delivered our researched customer journey, customer value, and business value, and they recognize how our product or feature can contribute to the larger organization's vision and strategy.


Because we have done an excellent job of disseminating the story of our product and its usage, our customers have become heroes in their organization. In addition, because our story travels through word of mouth, our partners can relay the anecdote to their leadership and provide context when needed without us needing to be in the room.


It is much easier when we have achieved accurate alignment with our cross-disciplinary partners and leaders because they were part of the storytelling development. Even if we cannot build the “north star” of our product, they will support the first iteration, and they will endorse strategy for future releases and provide needed resources.


3. Inspiration

When product leaders let sketch drive the exchange and discourse with customers, their cross-functional partners and leaders become inspired. That empowers members to be transformative, see what is imaginable, and are afforded a certain sense of purpose. When we have a purpose, we are going to make headway.


An inspired customer will stay and become a source and reference for new businesses, and this is because we listened to their challenges and we responded by bringing them in on the solution we plan to build. We removed any barriers and aligned by soliciting their feedback. And after the solution is developed, we have clients ready to beta or pilot for us, and they will be excited and eager to do it because they were part of our product expedition.


When we product managers do an excellent job of telling the story of our product, we inspire and galvanize the entire organization as we have brought them along in our storytelling development. Then, when the product is built, it is even more awe-inspiring.


Final thoughts

Design-driven leadership is product management, enabling us to have valuable discourse with our customers, interdisciplinary partners, and leaders. This is especially valuable when team members are unable to visualize the figure. This storytelling experience enables more focused discussion, highlighting missed requirements, use cases, opportunities, or new ways to innovate. As a result, we transform, align, and inspire, which is the key to winning hearts.


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