The Jason Knight Hypothesis: Popular Product Principles Can Be Adapted for B2B Realities

Jason is a passionate product management nerd, always curious to learn and pay it forward to the next generation. By day he leads the product team at DueDil. By night he picks up the microphone and interviews a range of product management professionals on his podcast, One Knight in Product

In this episode of the Product Science Podcast, we cover how to apply product principles to a B2B market. We also cover how to build a good & balanced relationship with sales, and the value of mentorship from company leadership.

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Resources

Questions We Explore in This Episode

For me, the most important thing is to keep the sales and account teams as close as possible, maintain open, honest and friendly dialogue. And get back to that point, that we are all actually working for the same company.

How did Jason get into product? How did software development become product management? What is system 1 thinking? How product management different for B2B businesses vs B2C businesses? What complications are common in B2B? How can commonly B2C product principles be redefined for B2B? How do you experiment and test in B2B? How can you gather user research in B2B when end users are not the financial decision makers? How do you give clarity to executives about users pain points and why your solution will help?

What happens when your company skips the discovery phase of product development? Should a product manager delegate the customer conversation to sales? How important is it for product to have direct conversations with clients? How are product and sales customer conversations different? How can product best work with sales & account managers? How do you respect sales or account managers customer relationship? Is product an internal or external facing department?

How do you know if a company is a good fit for product managers? What questions should you ask during an interview to know if a company is a good fit for you? How much do product theory and practice differ in real world environments? What compromises do product managers need to make when considering a company’s next steps?

How are many B2B companies started? How far can business expertise be expected to take a company and when does product fit in? What do many companies get wrong when thinking they achieved product market fit? Do closing and renewing customer contracts equal product market fit? What do product managers need to help executives to unlearn about proper product practices? How can past success limit future growth and success for a company? What are the pitfalls of being sales driven? In B2B, how do you balance a product that meets the needs of too few customers and that can reach a wider audience?

How do you develop a good company strategy? How do you create focus in a company strategy? How do you translate a product strategy into financial data? How can you show your strategy will benefit other departments in the long run? How do you ease tensions between sales and product? How do you balance a client’s direct request with product values and methods? How do sales and product strike a balance between short & long term goals? How do you find the fundamental unit of value for users?

How did Jason get into product mentoring? Do great product leaders all think alike? How much do product managers learn from one another? What are some of Holly & Jason’s favorite resources for learning product? What responsibilities do company leaders have for mentoring others? How do you learn to become a leader in your company? What are new approaches to mentorship and leadership styles? Is it more important for a product manager to influence or execute?

Quotes from this episode

“For me, the most important thing is to keep the sales and account teams as close as possible, maintain open, honest and friendly dialogue. And get back to that point, that we are all actually working for the same company.” Click To Tweet ”If there's no chance of customer conversation, I don't think you should necessarily be trying to be a product manager in that company. What are you doing, if you're not doing that? You're just talking to yourself, and it doesn't… Click To Tweet ”With B2B, it's really a case of trying to work out how to take the best product principles and translate them to those kind of suboptimal product realities, where you don't the flexibility of huge user bases, or infinite addressable… Click To Tweet

Transcription

Holly:
This week on the Product Science podcast, I’m excited to share a conversation with Jason Knight. Jason is a passionate product management nerd, always curious to learn and pay it forward to the next generation. By day, he leads the product team at DueDil. By night, he picks up the microphone and interviews a range of product management professionals on his podcast One Night in Product. Welcome Jason.

Jason Knight:
Holly, thanks for having me here. How are you?

Holly:
I’m so excited.

Jason Knight:
Yeah, me too. It’s also fun to be on the other side of the microphone for a change, and start to share some of my own ill-formed opinions with the world.

Holly:
I’m sure that we both got plenty of those. Well, I always like to start with a little bit of background. So what was your journey into products like?

Jason Knight:
Yeah, so my journey into product was as many people’s, very non-standard, I’d say. I spent quite a lot of years working for a large corporate, doing software development and alongside the software development, some of the things that we started working on, started to be a bit like products. So it was a market research company, headquartered out of Germany, with offices all over the world. So I’ve got to do a lot of travel and it was a lot of fun, having the internal mobility within that company to go and do lots of different types of things. And some of the stuff that I started to gravitate towards was more building cool products, that could be developed at scale and used to collect data on people in really in ways. And I caveat that by saying that this was all consensual collection, I wasn’t doing anything weird. But this idea that for example, we were trying to do a lot of stuff around system one thinking, so trying to use unconscious signals from people like getting them to record their voice, when they’re looking at something that we wanted them to rate. And extracting their emotional state and stuff like that, or using facial to tracking to see which bits of adverts that they liked, and stuff like that. So there’s a lot of really cool, interesting tech and data. Got a bit bored, of corporate life after a while, and decided then to move on into startup. So went into my first actual product role, actually only three years ago, the first role that had product in the title. But I’ve been basically, doing of product management and kind of fading into product management over the few years before that, and starting to build products, and scale products, and be more responsible for what goes in them, rather than actually developing them myself. So yeah, then the last three years have been two years in a company called Black Swan Data, doing loads of cool stuff with AI machine learning, predicting the future from social media conversations. And now these days, working for DueDil, as you say. We do a lot of stuff with big data for banks and financial service providers, to basically enable them to do load of core stuff, and speed up their processes, and kind of give a digital customer journey to the people that open the accounts with them, and doing all the due diligence that they need to do. Hence, the name, DueDil.

Holly:
Well, I’m curious to hear a bit about your experiences, especially because there’s a lot of sexiness around B2C product management. And I feel like B2B product management doesn’t get as good of a wrap, but you’ve been doing B2B. So tell me more about what that’s been like for you.

Jason Knight:
Yeah. Think sexiness is an interesting concept for B2B. It’s been kind of a mixture for me, the types of things I’ve been working on. In theory, if you look at it, some of this stuff around machine learning and prediction and stuff, could be considered kind of sexy, although actually nuts and bolts wise, you’re still selling software solutions to quite large companies, who take a long time to buy them. So, that is still a thing. And I’ve also luckily been invited to do some mentorship this year, where I’m talking to a lot of other people from other B2B companies, actually that are in a lot worse state than any company that I’ve ever worked for. That have some of the typical B2B cliches, like only six potential clients, that they could ever possibly work for, for example. Or, so horrendously sales led, that they have to basically do just absolutely anything that customers ask for, in the order that they ask them for, or they do them in the order that the contracts are renewed in. So there’s lots of dynamics in B2B, but if you then go to some of the fantastic books that we all know and love, like Inspired, Escaping The Build Trap, Continuous Discovery Habits, all of these great books out there, that are shining beacons of the way that product management should really be done. I love those books. I’m not going to say anything against them, but in many cases it feels like the reality that they represent, just isn’t the one that a standard B2B, day to day product manager actually inhabits. And then, it’s really a case of trying to work out how to take the best of those principles and translate them to those kind of suboptimal realities, or certainly suboptimal product realities, where you don’t maybe have some of the flexibility of huge user bases, or infinite addressable markets, which a lot of the experiments and ways to test things just seem to be predicated on.

Holly:
Yeah. So tell me more about how you do the experiments, or testing, in your roles.

Jason Knight:
Oh, we just do whatever the CEO says. No, we try and do our best. I think one of the things I have to call out, with my current place, is that we went through a merger towards the second, third of last year. So there’s been a lot of internal wrangling, and trying to work out what the future is and what our company does, and what our product offerings should be. So we’ve taken our foot off the pedal, with regards to immediately useful discovery, because we’ve been doing a lot of internal discovery in a way, to try and work out who we all are and how we all fit together. But before that, we’re very keen, and very active in trying to get in front of as many customers as possible. And we are now ramping that up again, now that everything’s calmed down, and we all know what we are going to be. And we all know who’s got what job, and what’s going on, going forward, and what our product offering is going to be. So I’m now kicking off a new drive, to identify all of the different types of persona, and all the types of user that we want to talk to. And not just users, but the stakeholder, customers, the economic buyers at the business side, as well. So we can get that top level strategic view, but also get the practitioner at the frontline type view. Like the people that are working in the banks, that are using our systems day to day, that have no say actually buying them themselves. But at the same time, are key users, and we kind of have to support their use cases. And they’re the ones that actually have a lot of the pains, that we maybe don’t get from those super senior people, who don’t know that they’ve had to buy an extra subscription, or a free subscription to some site, just to get some extra data that we could give them, for example. So yeah, we’re starting to kick that off again, and I’m really keen to basically, get to that to Teresa Torres, once a week type conversation, with at least someone, to then start to identify some of these things, and just keep that going, going forward. But yeah, it’s been on hold for a bit. I’ve certainly worked in companies, where there’s basically been no discovery. That’s obviously, a challenge, because you’re either relying, purely on sales conversations and reported conversations, and reported needs and desires. Maybe they didn’t ask all the right questions, because they were trying to get to some outcome, like a sale, or a renewal, or something like that. And they didn’t necessarily go as wide, or deep as you might expect, or need. I don’t like that as a model. Even in B2B, I don’t think that’s acceptable. I think that it should be … I think I’ve described it in the past, when talking about this in other talks and stuff. It’s almost just a line in the sand now for me. If there’s no chance of customer conversation, I don’t even think you should necessarily even be trying to be a product manager, in that company. It might be a bit of a bold statement, but what are you doing, if you’re not doing that? You’re just talking to yourself. You’re just living in your own heads, and relying on secondhand information, and telephone game and stuff like that. And it doesn’t help you make good decisions. So I think for me, even though it is trickier in B2B, I do think it’s a fundamental value, that everyone should be striving for.

Holly:
I totally agree. I’m curious if you have any tips on working with sales, or account management. What kind of gatekeepers have you come across, who have been like, “But I don’t want you to talk to across without me there”?

Jason Knight:
Well, it’s interesting actually, because I spoke to a salesperson on my podcast a little while back. And I kind of posed a question to him, “Do you think that product people should be getting out, in front of customers, and having these discussions, maybe even without you, sales guy?” And he was like, “Well yeah, sure. I want you to be able to talk to these people and you can be our closest friends and advocates. But at the same time, don’t just kind of go around me and don’t let me even know that the conversation’s happening, because these people are managing relationships, and they’ve got a book of businesses themselves to manage, and take care of, and nurture.” So I’m definitely a big fan of keeping the sales people, and the CS team, and the account managers in the loop, because these are our colleagues, right? We’re not sitting there, opposition, or in silos. I’ve certainly worked in places, myself in the past, where even from a leadership level, there’s this kind of attitude that no, it’s okay, the sales people are doing it. The CAS people are doing it. It’s not really a priority for the product team. Product team can just go and do product team stuff, whatever that is, because I don’t actually know. And one of the biggest things that really disappointed me, in one place that I worked at was, I was looking at an organigram, that was put up with a map of all the different teams in the company, that someone had put together for onboarding of new users, or new staff members in the company. And they had all the different teams. They had sales, and CS, and account management operations, and product management. And for some reason, there was this line, internal and external, or outward facing and internal facing. And they’d put product management on the internal facing part of that. And I was like-

Holly:
Listeners, can’t see it, but my face is scrunched up right now going, “Huh?”

Jason Knight:
Well, but again, this then gets back to the problem, which we were definitely having there. And I’ve definitely seen in the wild. People that I’ve spoken to, people that I’ve been having these mentoring sessions with, and just people that are complaining about it online. This is a very common dynamic. You’ve got all these people, sitting there, being forced to basically do stuff that someone else said. And they’re very much seen as a way to “Optimize engineering,” or pass messages backwards, and forwards. Now there’s nothing wrong with having people that can pass messages backwards and forwards, if you need them. But it’s obviously not product management, or not product management in any way that we would describe it. So again, it’s difficult, because I’m becoming more fundamentalist with this as I age. It’s something that I’m starting to feel like, this should be obvious to people, that you don’t hire a salesperson and then just step on their them stop them being able to sell stuff. You might have an idea about some of the best people to sell to, but you’re not going to just get in the way of them selling stuff. You’re not going to go to your CS people and put the phone down whenever someone tries to call them, because you don’t think that they should be doing it like that. You bring people in to do a job. You bring people in, with expertise, that can fulfill a role and serve a need, that you have in your company. You don’t then, immediately bring those people in, and just shut them down, because what’s the point? You might as well not have brought them in. And I guess ultimately, the biggest problem you have here, is that you just have people hiring product teams, or companies hiring product teams … Obviously, companies don’t hire people. People from the companies, hire people, but they’re hiring product teams, but they don’t really have any understanding of what a product team actually does. And then it just the delivery team, or an optimization team. And pretty much, no one’s happy with the results. So yeah, I definitely try and steer clear of that sort of thing these days.

Holly:
Yeah, absolutely. If you’re going through an interview process, how do you figure out ahead of time, that’s the home that you’re looking at?

Jason Knight:
Yeah. It’s an interesting one, because no company, really is going to sit there and tell you that they’re a crappy product company. No one’s going to sit there and tell you that they do it all wrong, because A, they might not think that they do, but B, even if they did think that they did, they’re not going to say that, because they want to get a product person in. So there’s a couple of ways to look at it. I think I try and work out signals. There are ways that you can go into these discussions and say, “Well, hey, what was the last feature that you delivered, and how did it come about?” And actually, the interesting thing is, whilst no company is just going to sit it there and say, “Oh yeah, no, we read Inspired, and we hated it, and we burnt it,” or anything like that. Or one story I heard, where like they bought Inspired and used it as a door stop, or something like that, because they just didn’t get on with it at all. It’s like, well okay, fine. You do you. But no, one’s going to sit there and say that they don’t like all of this stuff, or that they don’t like product thinking, but asking people how some of these decisions get made, or did get made in the past, so specific, people are probably going to describe something that they thought was kind of okay. And you can start to pick holes in it, not to them. You can pick holes in it, mentally in your head, and digest it later and say, “Well, actually yeah. Some of the things that they just described, just they smell wrong.” That’s kind of subjective in a way. You can look at it and go, “Well, maybe you just misinterpreted what they said.” So you want to ask them a bunch of different types of question, about how decisions are made, and how things got on the roadmap. And even some things like, what’s their percentage revenue mix. What’s their biggest customer. What percentage of their revenue does that customer represent? Because of course, if that number is very high, you’re very likely to be being bullied by that customer, because that customer can pretty much ask you for anything. And if you say no, they can take their money and close you down. So again, that’s not necessarily a smoking gun, but if you add that onto how decisions are made, how much of a services mentality, you can tease out of them, as well. So for example, if your biggest client came to you tomorrow and said, “I want a button that does this,” Do you just do it? And many companies will proudly say, “Well, of course we do. We’re customer obsessed, blah, blah, blah.” So, okay, fine. But actually, that’s not what that means, but they think it does. So they’ll tell you, so just trying to build up all these little signals, and trying to add them up and work out … I don’t know if there’s a formula, or an equation that we can use, but some kind of idea, that you can just then tot it up on your fingers and say, “Yeah, this really isn’t the place for me.”

Holly:
So do you have a sense, from the conversations that you have, how prevalent that environment is, where it’s not the place to do great product?

Jason Knight:
Well, I would say, certainly based on some of the mentoring conversations that I’ve had, it’s almost all of them. But of course, there’s a certain level of self selection, in the mentoring as well. Because maybe the people that are happy and working for fantastic companies, aren’t needing so much mentorship, or mentorship from me. So, maybe that’s just a fact of life, of the types of people that you’re going to speak to like that. But again, you don’t have to look too far, either from mentoring conversations, or looking at articles. If I go and post something on Twitter, or Medium or something, talking about some of the troubles with that type of stuff, tends to resonate quite strongly with quite a lot of people. So I think it’s pretty widespread. I’m sure there are some companies out there, doing it better than others, but I also think that there are some certain dynamics of say, B2B companies, selling to big businesses that are never going to go away. And you kind of just have to make peace with that, and try and do your best. So can I put my hand on my heart, and say that every single thing that I’ve done, in the last year that I’ve been at this company, has been exactly by the book, like Inspired says, like Escaping a Build Trap says, like Continuous Discovery Habit says? Absolutely not. There have been times that I’ve had to either hold my nose and do something I didn’t want to, or just accept that something wasn’t ideal, and do it anyway. But I don’t think it’s healthy for people to sit there, and beat themselves up over the fact that they didn’t hit page 80 of a book. They should definitely absorb the principles, and try and do what they can to make as much of a meaningful change as they can. But we all have to realize that we work for businesses. And ultimately, those businesses have needs, and they may force things upon us from time to time, or there may be market dynamics or customer dynamics, or frankly, even politics that make certain things hard. You have to either accept that and make the best of it, or just go and try and find another place, that’s slightly less bad.

Holly:
What? Politics make things hard? Shocked.

Jason Knight:
Well, yes. It’s not just the Democrats and the Republicans. We’ve all been sat there in a room, when you’ve got two senior stakeholders at war with each other, just tension in a room, electric of where, if you’re lucky you get out of it without the chair being thrown, or broken over someone’s head, or something like that. But these things happen. And of course, it’s also fair to say that … Well, it’s a bit of a sweeping statement, but a large number of B2B companies are actually set up by people that aren’t necessarily, particularly tech savvy, or tech founders, or the types of people that would even think about reading any of the books that we care about. Maybe they’re people that have come from an industry, and have got a load of industry knowledge, and loads of contacts in industry. They’ve maybe worked for a company in that industry. And they sit there and say, “Ah, I’ve got this problem. I need some tool to do X,” so they leave, and they go and start a company to do X. And that’s fantastic, as a kind of starting point, but because they’ve got that industry expertise, they’re sitting there saying, “Ah, well we know everything.” And then lead to some of these behaviors. So I think, if I read for example, Lean B2B, which is a great book about being lean in B2B. New edition coming out this year, I believe as well. But if I read that book, there’s a lot in there about, for example, trying to validate that problems even exist, and that there’s actually a market for them. And a lot of the things that you’d see in any product management book or any lean book, but focused on B2B. And very much focused on people that think there’s a problem in an industry, or think that there’s a problem for certain types of business. And then they’re going to go and find out if there is a problem, and then try and solve it. So very classic product management. Find a market, build an MVP, go and do all that stuff. And that’s not necessarily how all of these actual companies are being created, because many of them, I believe, are being created by people that just saw a problem, and just tried to work out a way to get there. Hired some cheap developers, somewhere offshore, to try and get that done, did it all by opinion. And then, they get to this tipping point, where they think they’ve got product market fit, because they’ve got a few customers, probably because they had a little black book that they could phone up, but they actually then struggle to get past that. But it’s also too late, because by the time they get the product people in, the product people were just like, “Oh, well we want things to work a certain way.” The leaders are like, “Well we want them to work a different way. And also by the way, product people, you are slowing everything down now.” And it’s like, because we are sitting here, you and I saying, “What a fantastic idea it would be to do loads of research, and experimentation, to understand that we’re building the best things, that solve the biggest problems, for the most people. And we can solve them in a sustainable way, and scale it, and all that stuff.” And we obviously, also have to be conscious of the fact that we don’t want to spend all of our time doing that, but we definitely want to spend some of our time doing that, and do just enough research to get there. And these people are like, “Well, but if I say something, we used to just be able to do it.” And just trying to break that chain, or demonstrate the value of doing some of the stuff that we want to do. I think that’s a really tricky balance, when people have been used to just doing anything that they want, whenever they want, and just shouting that they used to be a customer, or that they used to work in this industry and therefore they know best.

Holly:
Absolutely. That’s actually something that resonates really deeply with me right now. One of my clients exhibits some of those symptoms of, “Well, we used to, we used to, we used to, we used to do it this way. We used to be fine.” And it’s like, okay, you achieve some success that way, and that’s not going to be fine for the next phase.

Jason Knight:
Yeah. I think there’s this illusion of product market fit, like we say, where you just sit there thinking that you’ve got as far as you have, through some kind of actual expertise, or amazing technology, or some kind of magic that you’ve got there. And that can just continue to sustain you. Whereas actually, there’s a limiting factor, or a limit to how far that can take you. And you’ve probably built something for too small a number of people, that maybe fits their needs, because they’re the people that you were talking to first, and that’s fantastic. If you just want to keep running a business like that, then fine. Just keep running that business and off you go. But if you actually want to scale it out to new use cases, or to new people, or get a bigger slice of a bigger pie, you need to actually start bringing some of that rigor into it, because otherwise, you’re just going to be sitting there, making a platform for a very few number of people, and struggling to get anyone else on it. Or, if you do get them on it, they get really disappointed, or worse still, they just sit there asking you for loads of features, that you never said you had, but they expected you to have, because maybe they had a different vision for what this product did, than maybe the other people did. And you just end up then just chasing your tail, trying to build stuff, that people are asking for, and you become a feature factory, or bunch of project managers again. Because that’s the only way you can continue to make that money, because the original clients are probably topped out. They don’t want to spend any more money. There’s not really any expansion opportunities with them anymore. They’ve got what they want, and then you’re struggling to find new clients, because the only way you can get them on is to built new features into the platform. Which obviously then, is a bit of a hide into nothing, because it’s never enough. No one’s ever sat there and said, “Right, we’ve built enough things now. Well the clients are happy now, and they don’t need anything else.” There’s always something. So it kind of points to an absence of strategy in some circles, because you’re sitting there saying, “Well, the only strategy we have, is just build what’s in front of us. If anyone waves a few dollar bills at us, or pound notes at us, or whatever, we’ll just build that, because that’s the easiest way to get money.” And they never actually take the hit to try and build something more sustainable, and something that can actually scale with them.

Holly:
Yeah. So, you mentioned strategy. What does a good strategy look like to you?

Jason Knight:
Well, a good strategy for me, is something that gives you a plan to get somewhere. So where that somewhere is, obviously we’d go back to the books and call that a vision. So we have a business goal, that we want to achieve of a vision, which is how we believe that the product’s going to get us there. And then a strategy, that maps, broadly speaking, what areas we are going to focus on. And obviously, focus is a big point. We need to make sure … When I was speaking to someone earlier, who has just recently started a company, inherited six initiatives, that all have to be delivered at the same time. All have been set by the CEO. I don’t know what criteria they use, to set them. But ultimately, she’s not going to have a very good time doing that, in my opinion. And that’s what I said on the call.

Holly:
She is not. Yeah, listening to that it’s just like, oh no.

Jason Knight:
Yeah, it’s a butt clincher. But it’s obviously, pretty common. But if we flip that around and say, well, we need to decide where to put our chips on the table. We know a strategy doesn’t have to be so simplistic, that it’s just four words on a page or something. We need to have a bold vision of where we want to go, and a strategy that has some actionable areas, that we want to work on to get there. And some ways to measure that’s been a success. And I think that measurement is also something that people miss out on sometimes. Their strategy is, build this new widget, but apart from people using the widget, they don’t have any actual idea about how that actually contributes to the success of the product, or the success of that part of the product. I think the reality is, in many cases, the strategy is just, we need to resell, or upsell, or renew, or get new clients. And everything is just financial. That’s the only metric. Of course, we need to make money. We’re not going to sit there and say, we don’t need to make money, but trying to work out a way that is actually reflective of the work that you’re putting into the product … Because, any good sales people can sell an average product. Doesn’t take a lot of sales nous, to be able to sell something that’s just okay. Anyone can make a just okay product, and get good sales people to sell it to people. Maybe they renew, maybe they don’t, but if you keep selling it to people, maybe that’s okay. So how can we, as a product team, work out what success looks like for the product, and what delight looks like for our users, what’s the value that we’re delivering to them, and how can we continue to increase that value? And then obviously ideally, translate that into a scalable thing, that can actually drive growth and revenue, for the business. Because, if we are sitting there chasing sales revenue, on the flip side, we can make the most fantastic product in the world, get the worst sales people in the world, and still fail to sell it. And then, all the things that you’re doing are completely irrelevant. And then part of that, comes down to actually agreeing that strategy, and socializing it around the company, and making sure everyone’s on board with that, and that they’re actually selling something that you’ve got. And of course, you’ve hopefully done all the research, or the discovery, to make sure that strategy’s actually based on fact, as well, and not just untested hypotheses, or gut feelings, and all that stuff. So, there’s a lot to it, but I think that actually having that strategy pulled together, shared with everyone, agreed with everyone, and making sure then, that you’ve targeted the right people, that you can actually then go and take the things that you’re building through that strategy out, and actually have a chance of selling them. Because otherwise, again, you’re just stuck with either people saying that the product doesn’t do enough, and having to keep doing specials for people again, or loads of people complaining at you, because they can’t sell it to anyone. So yeah, the strategy has to convert to some form of financial outcome in the end of course, because that’s the biggest thing with B2B. You’re generally working through a sales team. So the sales people need stuff that’s easy for them to sell, and a market they can go and attack with it. But as long as you can demonstrate that the decisions that you’re making, are making it easier for those people to sell, then you should be in, at least a fairly defensible position.

Holly:
Yeah. So one of the things that, what you were just talking about reminded me of, is I’ve often seen companies where there’s significant tension between sales and product. And I’m curious, is that a thing that you’ve seen, and if so, how have you tried to resolve it?

Jason Knight:
Yeah. I remember sitting at a pub once, with a fellow colleague salesperson, or account guy, and he lent over to me at one point and said to me, in all seriousness that, he appreciates that I’m a smart guy … Thank you very much, and that my heart’s in the right place … Thank you very much. But he didn’t really understand why I thought that anything that I was important, was important. As in, he just didn’t understand what went into my prioritization, or mental processes around why we decided, for example, to do this, or do that. Not even just these specific things that we’re doing, but like why we’d even try to do that type of thing at all, like notional area. And why we didn’t just do whatever the client said, because he’d been talking to them, and that’s what they wanted. Now, if you’re in a situation like that, obviously, it’s very difficult, because you have a cultural problem, where the sales people are conditioned, to go out there and just try and find out whatever the customer needs. And they’re very much incentivized to just come back, and try and get that, and crash onto the roadmap, or try and work out a way to get that through, so that they can close their targets, get the deals, and so forth … Or, potentially get renewals. So I think that pointed to a very unhealthy relationship. I wasn’t actually very happy with that conversation, because I felt that I’d failed. I felt that I’d failed, because I thought that I’d been communicating with this team reasonably well, but it obviously hadn’t hit home. And that could have been me, that could have been them. I don’t work there anymore, so I guess it doesn’t matter. But certainly in my current company, I like to think I’ve got a very good relationship with sales. We talk to them regularly. We try and keep them as up to date as possible, with things that are going on. They keep us up to date with things that are going on in the market. We have a good back and forth, with the CS teams, and the account managers as well. Of course, there’s always pressure, because these people, to some extent, are working on different rhythm. Because we are sitting there, trying to make the long term plans and try and get us there step by step. Whereas, they’re obviously working on a more sort of say quarterly cycle, or in CS terms, annual for the renewals, or just as problems come up. So there’s certainly different dynamic, and ups and downs, and ebbs and flows of when people want stuff. But I think for me, the most important thing is just to keep these people as close as possible, maintain open and honest and friendly, like I say, dialogue. And just get back to that point, that we are all actually working for the same company. I think one of the things I see from some product people is, the shields go up, when it’s about talking about sales. They’re sitting there, and they maybe just shut down sales people’s conversations, or they don’t want to listen to them at all, or they completely try to ignore sales feedback, that comes from discussions that they’ve had, because they’re sales people. And that’s not the same as product discovery, and all that stuff. It’s okay, fine. But at the same time, let’s just accept that these people, however they’re trying to get there, and however much we might want to get there, in a different way, the ultimate goal is broadly speaking, the same as ours. A successful company, that’s making loads of money, scaling up, and everyone being happy, and delighted with our services. Now again, we might sit there and say, “Well, we think that the way to get there is this.” And they might sit there and think, “Well, the way we get there is that.” Hopefully, those two things aren’t too far apart. And if they are, you have to have a discussion about that. But let’s not, at the very least, try and second guess their motivations, and think they’re trying to, somehow destroy the product, or destroy the product team, or anything stupid like that. Because ultimately, these people are doing what they know, to get results, the way they think that they see fit. And it’s our job, not to just rail against that, but to try and work out a way to cross the chasm to them, or try to bring them closer to us. It’s not just about them getting more producty. We also have to get more salesy, and understand what mode debates them and what they need. I think an interesting thing that I heard from the same sales guy, that I interviewed was, he loves product managers, when they make him look good. Well, that obviously sounds a bit childish in a way, but at the same time, it’s also true. If you’re building relationships with people, trying to sell them stuff, and have this real relationship based selling going on, you need to look good in front of these people. And you need to know that the product does cause stuff, and that it solves these problems, and have a really clear idea about what it does, and doesn’t do. And how you can win against the competition, and what your actual position is in the market. And I think that there’s just this natural tension, between say sales and product, as you called out. And I don’t think it’s just sales that need to move towards us. I think we need to move towards them as well.

Holly:
Absolutely. One of the elements of it that I’ve seen, that I’m curious how it works, where you are now, for example, since the place that you’re at, you do feel like there’s a good relationship between sales and product. Is how are the two teams incentivized? What does good look like for sales, and what does good look like for product?

Jason Knight:
Well, sales have targets. That’s how sales normally works. They have, I guess, quarterly targets and they’re incentivized to hit them. And CS have renewal targets and they’re incentivized to hit them. Product actually, is a bit of an interesting one at the moment, because we’re still trying to work out, in this post merger world, what our north star is, and some of the metrics that we might need to go for, because we’re bringing two products together. And we’re trying to work out, actually what success looks like, because our product, obviously does what it did before, but it’s not just going to be our product anymore. And it’s not just as simple as trying to add up two metrics and make a new one. So we’re still going through that journey, but yeah, I’m very much pushing for this, outcomes over outputs type thing. And trying to work out a way to measure an outcome, come up with a KPI that measures that. And then, that’s what I would us to be measured on. Again, if we look at it, we’ve got to sit there and say, “Well, that number has to drive business value, as well.” We have to be able to sell stuff to people, or renew with people, because if you can’t do that, doesn’t matter how good our product is. So we’ve got to be conscious of that. But for me, it’s about trying to work out what I’ve grandly termed, the fundamental unit of value, that we can deliver to our users, and just try and make sure that now goes up all the time.

Holly:
I love it. The fundamental unit of value.

Jason Knight:
Yeah. I’m still not 100% sure about that as a term, but I’ve been trying to crank out a few things, that I might be able to trademark at some point.

Holly:
Have you ever read Josh Almond’s piece, The One Metric That Matters?

Jason Knight:
I almost certainly have. I’ve certainly heard of the concept of the one metric that matters.

Holly:
Yeah. It’s one of my favorite approaches. I think it gets said the same thing. What is the fundamental unit of value that we’re providing?

Jason Knight:
Yeah. Maybe I just copied it off of him. The problem that I find these days, is having had all these conversations with all of the people that I spoken to on my podcast, all of the social conversations, and all of the mentoring, and all of the just general chats, is it’s sometimes very hard for me to understand, or realize which of my opinions I’ve just copied from other people. So I’m always very conscious of trying not to be a plagiarist.

Holly:
It’s difficult. I think that’s true for all of us. And there’s certainly plenty of times as well, where organically, we come to the same conclusions as somebody else. And maybe we’ve never heard of them, and haven’t read their work. And then one day we do, and we’re like, “I swear, I didn’t copy that.”

Jason Knight:
Well, that’s the thing. And actually, I say that half jokingly, with regards to plagiarism. Because I actually think that, for the most part, most of the things that we think about product management … Aside from obviously having been steeped in some of the earlier classic books, like Inspired, most of them are things that just all product managers just seem to believe, more or less, through the experience of what they’re doing. So I don’t feel 100% bad, thinking something, or saying something, which it then turns out that someone else said, in a slightly better way. I’ve always, for example, classified myself as a really cut price version of Rich Mironov, because many things that I say, having worked in B2B for all this time, and obviously, Rich being a big B2B guy as well. There are actually no new ideas. Between us, we both see the same things, or have seen many of the same things in our careers. He’s just had a more successful one, with more companies, and has written about it for longer. So again, what he’ll see and put out there, is much more eloquent, and well written, and much better research. He speaks on it with a lot more authority, but the fundamental point is, oh yeah, well actually dealing with sales people can be hard, or putting these specials into roadmaps can be hard. That’s not a controversial thing. So I don’t think I feel too bad about having the same opinions. But I always like to joke that I’m just plagiarizing Rich Mironov, 90% of the time, just because he’s always got a better way of saying it than I have.

Holly:
Rich is pretty awesome. I do like his writing.

Jason Knight:
Yeah, no. I definitely want to be Rich, when I grow up and rich. Rich and rich.

Holly: Yes. I was just thinking like, “Oh, that could mean two different things.” Both of which would be nice.

Jason Knight: There you go.

Holly:
So you’ve mentioned mentoring a couple of times. Tell me a little bit about how you got into that.

Jason Knight:
Well, there’s a couple of things. I, In between Christmas and the new year was sitting there thinking, “I want to give something back to the product community.” Obviously I’ve been doing the podcast, which is something. Talking to people, sharing stories. That in itself, isn’t for nothing. But I was thinking, “Wouldn’t it be nice to try and support people? There’s a lot of people out there that seem to be having a bit of a tough time.” Again, if you look around onto socials and stuff like that. And I was thinking, “Well look, I’ve definitely benefited, certainly from coaching in my time. And it’s always been nice to have local … or these days, virtual meetups, or just chat groups and stuff, to just spitball tough issues,” Which, product management can be a really lonely profession. Certainly, when you’re the only product manager in a company, or one of the few product managers in the company. And especially, if the company’s not being a particularly well run product company, either you’re kind of under attack, or under a lot of pressure, a lot of the time, as well as it being a lonely profession. So I think for me, mentorship has always been a core value. It’s something that I’ve believed, from a very early age, is absolutely necessary. I dropped out of uni when I was … Well, one year in. So what, 19, 20, however old that was, and slummed it around in call centers for a bit, whilst I was trying to find out what my career path was going to be. And I got into a bit of a funk to be honest, because it’s not easy to drop out and feel like you’ve failed, and work, not a great job. Let’s face it, working in a call center isn’t great. And I was lucky enough to meet older people then, that I worked with, that you go for a drink with after work. And they, themselves, would be able to share some of their stories and try and motivate you, to realize that some of the things that you are feeling, or some of the things that are happening, some of the stresses and strains that you’re having, are actually just normal parts of making your way through your career. So I’ve always been lucky to have people that I could bounce those types of ideas off, as I came up through my career. I think for me, it was wanting to give something back and then having that kind of general mentoring ideal in my head, I was like, “Oh, let’s just put a tweet out. Anyone wants some free product mentoring? 45 minutes, just a one off session. Here’s my Calendly.” I know we can’t share Calendlys anymore, because of that other post that went out on Twitter. But “Here’s my Calendly, hit me up.” And I, very quickly found myself overwhelmed with 76 mentoring requests.

Holly:
Wow.

Jason Knight:
Now that shows a couple of things. First of all, that I should have locked the Calendly invite down sooner, because actually that’s quite a lot. It’s one a day, to be fair. So it’s not the biggest burden. And actually the conversations have been really interesting, but it’s still a lot. But secondly, it shows that there’s a lot of people out there, that are really … Not struggling. None of these people are necessarily struggling, that I’ve spoken to so far, but there are certainly issues. Some of those are issues that I’ve got direct experience with, because they’re things that I’ve seen in my career, or things that are just very common and you hear about from everywhere. And some of those are a bit more niche and specific, like these people that work for people with total adjustable markets of four people, or whatever. There’s obviously some outliers out there, but it’s actually been really rewarding for me, because I’ve only worked for a few companies myself, and I’m never going to work for hundreds of companies in my career. So to actually just be in a situation where I can start to really understand product management from all these different angles, is a real growth thing for me. But I also just try and do my best, to help people understand that, whatever happens, A probably they’re not at fault. Almost all of the time, they’re not at fault. There are certainly things that they could optimize, or change, or try, but they’re not bad people. That the situations that they find themselves in are more, or less normal. They’re not the only people that have been there, and that they’re not the only people that are struggling to live up to anything that you see in the books, that we all talk about, again. It’s natural, for things to be different. Don’t feel bad about it. Just try and do what you can, to change what you can, to be a bit closer to what it is that you feel resonates and works for you the best. So yeah, it’s been an interesting journey. I’ve still got three months more to go, so there’s a lot to do. But I think also, I just think it’s just a really interesting thing. I’m really glad to see a lot of the community forming around product management, for example, on Twitter, and people being very helpful and supportive of each other. And trying to big each other up, when they need it, and offer support and resources, and just a sense of camaraderie around. That’s really something that’s been developing over the last few months. And I very much see this as an extension of that, in a way, just a way to … I’m getting quite old now. So to use some of my experience, and more stories that I can tell, and sort of empathy that I can develop with people, that are maybe in less than ideal situations, and just try and bring them along.

Holly:
Absolutely. Yeah, I really love that. Mentoring has always been really big to me too. You’re making me want to put out a similar call, although I’ll definitely learn from your mistakes and lock it down to a limited number, be like limited time only, first 20.

Jason Knight:
Make sure you lock it down. Well, this is a feature request for Calendly, though, because with Calendly, you can specify a maximum number of events per day, for example. But you can’t specify a maximum number per week. So if I could have done that, then I could’ve just got one a week, for the rest of the year, and it would’ve been completely no effort at all. As it is, I’ve got one a day, for three months. And to be fair, absolutely fine. Again, you can fit it around your work day, and they’ve been really rewarding conversations, so I don’t begrudge it at all, but it was a big surprise. Wow.

Holly:
Yeah. I know. Sometimes when you open up some opportunities, you just get flooded with responses, right now. The last time I even just made a job posting, I was amazed at how quickly and how fast, how many applicants came in.

Jason Knight:
I think it’s just really indicative of the lack of support, that many people are getting in their companies. And I’m not going to necessarily blame the companies. Again, you can’t blame companies, it’s the people in the companies, but I could probably argue that we should address a little bit of blame. Perhaps the leadership of those companies, or to the product leadership, if it’s in place, that they’re not providing some of the support, and nurturing, and coaching, and mentorship that they need to provide. But I would also potentially argue, that some of these people could probably do with some coaching, and nurturing, and mentorship, at the upper levels as well. And maybe it’s just this cascade of people, that are just all struggling a bit, in their own ways. Because that’s another thing, it’s not like product leaders get an easy time of it either. They’re sitting there, struggling away, just as much as anyone else. And they probably need just as much coaching and mentoring, just from a different set of people, that have been at that level themselves before. So yeah, I don’t really like to use the word blame, but it’s certainly the responsibility of business leaders, product leaders, to try and answer some of the questions, and address some of the concerns, that these people have. Because sure, it’s great for them to get mentoring, and there’s a certain type of problem, and certain dynamics, that are always going to require some level of neutral person, to shout at basically. But I do think that a lot of the people that, certainly I’ve spoken to so far, just seems to have a real lack of actual leadership, protecting them, and helping them, and nurturing them. And that’s something I think we should really change as well.

Holly:
Do you have any thoughts on how we go about changing that? Is it that the leaders aren’t there at all, or that the leaders aren’t being supportive enough?

Jason Knight:
Well, I think for me, when I first moved into leadership … And this was way back when, when I was still very much focused on tech, it was like, I was just made a boss and left to it. I wasn’t really given any real coaching, or any mentorship, or any training even. It was all very, “You were the best individual contributor, now you’re the boss. Go get them.” And it’s like, well yeah, no, that’s cool and all, and frankly, I probably made a pretty bad hash of it, to start with. And I’ve hopefully got better over the years, but I think it’s not easy, because what we are saying is, that there needs to be education when you move into leadership, about what your responsibilities are. And some of the things that you need to do, to help to support your staff, your team, and how you can help to bring them up, and develop them, and nurture them. All that stuff. But there’s not a central body, we can go to, to make them do that. All of these companies are having enough problems from time to time, just actually even doing product, in vaguely similar ways. Let alone having some kind of way to impose good coaching practices. There’s this whole movement now, around like, the future of leadership is coaching style, not dictatorial. We should be coaching and nurturing. And I think that’s a very positive thing, but again, there’s no one that can enforce that. So I think there’s a couple of things. On the one hand, you can sit there and say, “Well, if you are an individual contributor, and you’re not getting the support that you need, there’s an argument that you should make more of a fuss about that.” But of course, that relies on the people that you’re making of fuss to, caring. And they don’t always, but if they do, then hopefully you can maybe reconfigure that relationship a little bit more. Maybe get a few more one-to-ones in. Maybe if you’re getting one-to-ones, get those one-to-ones to be not just about a list of tasks that you did last week, but actually, talking a little bit about your career, and your job and how you’re doing as well, and what you might need to develop in. And another thing is, just hoping that the general tide of leadership from people that maybe start to believe that this is a useful thing to do, and start to believe in this coaching leadership style, as they become leaders themselves, hopefully they start to bring some of that with them. But I don’t think again, that there’s any ISO standard leadership company, that can just go out and push a button, and now everyone’s a different type of leader. I think it’s going to be a much longer change than that. And I think people are going to need coaching and mentoring, for a lot longer, until that becomes more established.

Holly:
That makes sense. Well, I think we’re getting close to being out of time. Do you have any final pieces of advice, for aspiring product leaders, or early career products leaders out there?

Jason Knight:
I think my advice for an early product manager, would be to ask a lot of questions, and try to leave your ego at the door. And that’s obviously easier for some people than others. But you see a lot of stories online, again, from time to time, about people with really poor opinions of product managers, because those product managers are maybe slightly dictatorial. Probably because they’ve been forced into like a dictatorial situation, by a company that doesn’t really know how to do this stuff. And they end up being squeezed into a box, and then just reacting the only way they know how. But I think from a product management perspective, I think it’s really important not to lose track of the fact that you are there, to be a collaborator, and you’re there to influence, not order, and also try and keep as much of a view on just not just executing. It’s really common for product managers to sit there, feeling that if they’re not executing, if they’re not shuffling the backlog around all the time, and making people [inaudible 00:40:48] and stuff that, somehow they’re failing to do their job. I remember speaking to one guy once, who was like, “My team is just kind of getting on with it. I don’t really feel like I’m contributing at the moment. What am I doing?” It’s Like, “Well, actually that’s good. You shouldn’t be sitting there, riding the team all the time, trying to get them to work faster, or whipping them to do more work. If they’re executing what you’ve agreed. That’s good. Now, it’s your job to think about what’s next, rather than worrying too much about all the nonsense that’s going on now. The teams can to look after themselves. They’re adults. So try and give the team that you’re working with, the space to do their job. And while they’re doing that, you can work out what they should be doing next.

Holly:
Excellent. All right, so where can people find you, and your podcast?

Jason Knight:
Well, they can find me, and my podcast on Oneknightinproduct.com. That’s night with a K. So, one, K-N-I-G-H-T in product.com. They can also find me on Twitter, One Jason Knight. And I’m also on LinkedIn. I think just Jason Knight. You can probably find me, but I’m sure you’ll put all of these links into your show notes anyway, so hopefully they can just click them.

Holly:
Certainly can. Yes, they’ll be able to just click them on the show notes. Awesome. Well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you today, Jason. Thank you so much for being a guest on my podcast.

Jason Knight:
No, thanks for having me. And I’m looking forward to putting your episode out on my podcast soon, as well. So people can get the double bill.

Holly: Yes, awesome.