The product organisation

Martin Eriksson’s Venn diagram1 is an excellent representation of modern product organisations, and the role of product managers in them. The product managers sit at the centre of the product organisation, balancing and conducting the three key participants in the product organisation—business needs, UX and design, and the tech/development teams.

This post is not about Product Managers. Read Martin’s post for them. This is about the whole product organisation2, the interactions between the parts, and using the wonderful Venn diagram to represent it.

Why, what, how

I like that this Venn diagram also neatly captures the three decisions that are made in the modern product development process —

  • why are we doing any of this,
  • what are we building to satisfy the why, and
  • how are we building what we’ve decided to build.

The rationale for making a product, the why, is mostly provided by the business team, the sponsors, often the Hippos. Outside of a few organisations with empowered product teams, this decision usually exists as a one way flow. The business teams decide why the product needs to do what it needs to do, and the product team delivers on it. In the empowered teams, the product team may conduct user research and/or data analysis to verify that the why is valid before proceeding. If they find conflicting evidence, they may use the data to revisit the rationale with business team or leadership.

The second decision, what, is where most product managers spend most of their time. This is where they may map the provided why into specific features and products based on data analysis, user testing, or hypothesis (sometimes masked as experience). The product managers may then work with the UX and visual designers to turn the features into prototypes. These prototypes may then be tested, iterated, and refined, till we come to a final definition of the desired product.

The final decision, how, is then handed over to the engineering team. They will take the provided product definitions and designs, and code them into being. In more evolved product organisations, the engineers may be encouraged to interact with the users, the researchers, and the designers. They may be encouraged to better understand the user needs, and to provide feedback early in the product design cycle. On the other hand, in more engineering-focused organisations, the engineers may be encouraged to focus on the quality of how they create products, not what products are or why they create them or who uses them. In such organisations, the engineers’ interaction with the other participants is often limited to asking for clarifications when the design/definition may be unclear, and in deciding the ordering of tasks to be completed (sprint/product backlog management).

This reality of product organisations brings us to my other favourite aspect of that Venn diagram.

The overlaps

Martin’s diagram draws focus to the central overlap where the product managers work. I also like to think about the remaining three overlaps and how they induce discomfort in the organisation (making PMs even more pivotal).

Let’s start with the engineers. The engineers usually don’t have much direct overlap with defining business needs or decisions. Their interaction with the business and leadership is therefore largely restricted. Many engineers are also not very comfortable about facing the users. This can lead to reduced interaction with the UX research teams, and with need explorations. This further handicaps the engineers from providing deeper feedback into defining the what of the product.

The what team (UX) may interact with the business team to share insights from user research. They may also share the state/direction of designs and prototypes during iterations for feedback from business owners. But as custodians of the product design and direction, and as custodians of what users want, they may not often be very welcoming of inputs from outsiders—hippos suggesting features from their favourite apps or for their particular departmental needs, or engineers suggesting ideas based on latest platform design templates.

Finally, the business team, the sponsors, the Hippos, the owners of the why. They’re usually the highest ranked, in the larger organisational hierarchy, amongst all the participants in the product team. This often makes them aloof, and largely outside the product organisation. It takes a highly self-aware business leader to encourage, engage, and adapt to, feedback from rest of product organisation about the rationale of the operation. To accept challenges to the description of their why.

These base hurdles to direct, frequent cooperation between business, UX and tech are what makes the product managers important. The nature of these overlaps in a particular organisation defines the reality of product managers’ roles—from misclassified project managers to conductors of an orchestra to mini CEOs.

A few product organisation types

Another great quality of this Venn diagram is its adaptability to represent numerous types of product organisation. Here are three (of many).

The Indie

The solo entrepreneur, the indie founders, the do-it-all dudette. They don’t have much choice, they just have to wear all the hats. Sometimes all together, at other times one or few at a time. The circles don’t have a perfect overlap because the solo founder may still seek outside help on one or more areas, some or all the time. But they are solely responsible for owning all the product decisions—why, what, and how.

Incidentally, this Venn diagram may also represent tightly knitted product teams where everyone multitasks. The kind where product engineers get involved in user interviews, where designers and engineers strive to understand what the data reveals, and where the business sponsors listen to feedback when the research doesn’t agree with their directions. These teams appear to be, sadly, even rarer than indie founders.

The two founder startup

2-founder-startupThis is a typical two founder startup—a tech person and a business person. The business person owns the why and the what (along with who and many other hats), while the tech person focuses on delivering the how.

This Venn diagram also mirrors how many product organisations with strong engineering culture work. The business team, the product managers, and the designers work together on defining the why and the what. This what is then handed over to engineering to deliver how they consider best. The engineering organisation focuses on excellence at converting the product definition into reality, and doesn’t focus too much over the product or users’ experience of it (within PM defines boundaries).

Beyond the startup

business-orgThe startup will hopefully turn into a scale up, which may one day become a large enterprise. Somewhere along that journey, the product organisation turns into this shape.

Business, UX/UI, engineering, even product management, live within their own independent hierarchies. They work together on products, but they live in, are measured by, and adhere to norms of their own vertical organisation. This draws them apart, makes interfaces rigid, and interactions distant.

This is also when innovation slows down, and often the enterprise calls in management consultants like me. We will usually bring together small teams of people from these verticals, and get them working together, quite like in the Venn diagram up top. If it’s a short term project, we’ll call it a design sprint or an ideation sprint. If it’s more permanent, we’ll call it the skunkworks or the innovation division or the new product development team. In reality, all we do is break small chunks from the organisational silos and get them to operate like the product organisation that from way back when

  1. I make a small change to his original—rotate it by 60° clockwise so business and UX are above tech. 
  2. This post may be read in the context of a software product organisation. With a few changes, it can apply to most product organisations. 

Incomplete numbers

India’s premium smartphone segment grew 29% YoY in 2019; Apple was the fastest growing brand, up 41% YoY, and OnePlus maintained its No. 1 position

—The Economic Times (via Techmeme)

This headline is bothering me. It appears to present the idea that the Indian market is (finally) turning towards premium smartphones. But these numbers only present half the story.

It’s great the the premium smartphone segment grew 29%, and Apple’s sales (I presume) grew 41%. But from what base did they grow?

Also, how fast did the overall smartphone market grow? If the overall smartphone market grew by more than 29%, then the market share of premium segment actually shrank.

Half the numbers, half the story. Still makes it to the front page of Techmeme :/

Continue reading Incomplete numbers

Penny’s insight—women in science

From an episode of The Big Bang Theory…

Bernadette is being featured as one of the sexiest scientists in California by a fashion magazine. Amy criticises it because it highlights Bernadette’s looks not her scientific achievements. Penny defends it with something on the lines of…

if fashion magazines highlighted female scientists, I might have become a theoretical physicist.

Amy and Bernadette’s smirks suggest that this may just be a joke in the series. But this statement is practical marketing1.

Marketers know to advertise where their audience hangs out, not where other marketers hang out. Featuring women in science magazines is an example of the latter—useful for career advancement of women already in science, but not useful for outreach to new audiences.

To encourage more women into science, we should be featuring more women scientists, more often in magazines that non-science women read. If women prefer reading fashion mags then that’s where more women in science (or business or tech or sports or politics) need to be featured.

Continue reading Penny’s insight—women in science

Post Microsoft

10 years ago Microsoft software was dominant in my usage – Windows, Office, Messenger, IE, and probably more.

Today, the only Microsoft product that I use is Visual Studio Code (I switched from Sublime Text last year).

I haven’t used Windows, IE or messenger in a decade. I do occasionally use Excel and Skype, when someone insists, but have neither installed on my devices.

Continue reading Post Microsoft

Mom asks: What’s monetary and fiscal stimulus?

Currency - Money - Economics - Fiscal - Monetary

(When my mom – ex middle school science & economics teacher – asks about monetary and fiscal stimulus)

When does an economy grow?
At a simple level, when earning/spending increases.
People and companies spend more when they have more money.
They get more money from increased borrowing, or increased income.

The government, when confronting low inflation and low growth, wants to increase this spending.
It has two sets of tools – monetary and fiscal – to stimulate this growth.

Monetary tools target increased lending/borrowing, and fiscal tools intend to increase income directly.

Continue reading Mom asks: What’s monetary and fiscal stimulus?

(Dis)Honesty in pricing communication

(Dis)Honesty in pricing communication


Fuel prices at the pump go up as crude recovers.


Fuel prices at pump hold high as crude drops. Oil companies explain it being due to long-term contracts / futures.


Newspaper increases prices, explains increase due to rising cost of newsprint and logistics.


Newspaper offers digital-only subscription at same price as print-only subscription.


Airlines add-on surcharges as crude hovers over $100/bbl.


Airlines record unprecedented profits on base of crude prices dropping by half. Surcharges remain as at peak.


Disincentivising the Indonesian forest fires

Indonesian forest fires
We didn’t light the fire…

Just saw a small BBC investigative piece on Indonesian fires. These fires cover the whole of SE Asia in smog and increase health risks for almost a billion people.

Under pressure from neighbouring countries, and International organisations, Indonesia has announced measures to prosecute those who light these fires. That’s the kind of measure you take when you want to send an impression of action, without disturbing the status quo in any meaningful way. Identifying, and prosecuting, the fire creators 1 is hard. Even more so when the local law enforcement earns more in handouts from the forest burners than from their official salary. But at least the western nations will be quiet for a while, right?

Here’s first of two better, much more effective deterrent policies 2:

Any land (plantation or forest) that is burned is disallowed for plantation of any sort for a period of 20/30/40 years from the time of last fire.

The period may be defined by how long it takes a forest to grow to a sustainable state. But that’s not the main purpose. The main purpose is to disincentivise clearing land by burning – both existing plantations and new forest lands – by taking them out of circulation for a really long time.

Also, thanks to advances in drone and satellite technologies, it is much easier to identify parcels of land that were burnt, when they were burnt, and if they are being planted on. All without having to rely on local personnel who may be bought or bullied.

However, this policy requires the Indonesian government to actually want to do something. Anything. At the moment, they don’t. So, here’s another policy idea:

Punitive tariffs on raw and processed produce exports from Indonesian plantations based formulaically on the amount of area under fire, continuously aggregated over the preceding 20/30/40 years.

The tariff should be a large multiple of the difference in cost between clearing land mechanically versus clearing it by burning. This policy, like the first, removes the incentive of burning land, replacing it with an overwhelming, long-lasting cost. And, again like the first policy, the metric of implementation (area of fires) can be measured remotely using satellites without any need for feet on the ground.

If effectively executed, it should provide a strong enough incentive for the Indonesian government to act on the first policy.

Continue reading Disincentivising the Indonesian forest fires

Flying business within Europe

Bad: Seating is the regular economy 3×3 with middle seat left empty. Which is fine, except that the leg room is no better than that in coach 👎👎

Good: Lounge access, specially the breakfast. Blessing for two starving souls! 👍

Best: Not remembering we were flying business till we were already seated in the lounge.
Getting invited to the lounge felt a pleasant surprise. Having 2×2 seating was even more so (we even discussed which could be this small jet aircraft in the BA fleet that has 2×2 seating).

Conclusion: If the surprise of flying business, having forgotten that we paid for it months back, is the best part about flying business, there’s little reason for anyone to be paying to fly business within Europe.