Product management and organisational transformation

The role of a product manager should expand to include organisational transformation.

by Maish Nichani Updated 08 Jul 2019

The sponsors of the Product Management Festival (PMF) Singapore include the likes of Grab, Google, Atlassian, Facebook, AWS and Flipkart. These organisations are digital natives. Their leaders understand digital. Their people, processes and platforms support digital-first work.

Product managers (PM) from these organisations are empowered to build the right product for the right audience to deliver the right value. They know that their organisation will help them reach their objectives. Seems ideal, right? Now, let's change the context: What happens to a PM working in a traditional organisation?

The challenge of working in traditional organisations

Traditional organisations include those in:

  • Manufacturing
  • Oil and gas
  • Utilities
  • Healthcare
  • Legal
  • Maritime
  • Government

These are the engines of an economy. You can't move a country without them. However, they are digitally naive. Their leaders don't understand digital and their people, process and platforms do not support digital work.

When the world talks about "digital transformation" they talk about change in traditional organisations. As a PM in a traditional organisation, would you focus only on the product?

Let's consider a scenario. You join a traditional organisation as a PM. You are smart, experienced and know how to lead a portfolio of products.

You arrive on the first day and find that the product portfolio is not aligned. Different product teams are at varying levels of maturity, and they seem to have their own agendas. Nothing entirely outside the norm here.

Arrows going in different directions.

Chaotic portfolio of products

Being the smart, experienced leader you are, you establish an overarching digital vision for the organisation and develop a deep understanding of the target customers. You build guardrails to align the different products so that they point in the right direction. Well done.

As you are brilliant, you also take the opportunity to prioritise the products through a 3 to 5 year roadmap based on quick-wins, big-change and disruptive outcomes.

Portfolio of projects across different time horizons.

Aligned portfolio of projects across different time horizons.

All looks good?

The problem is that you have not addressed the organisation's DNA. You have introduced scale without thinking about sustainability.

You may have outsourced the entire roadmap to a contractor and met your product-based outcomes. However, you would have missed the whole point of digital transformation, which is transformation itself.

I can't help but think of John Lennon's lyrics when it comes to ignoring transformation:

You can shine your shoes and wear a suit
You can comb your hair and look quite cute
You can hide your face behind a smile
One thing you can't hide
Is when you're crippled inside

So, what is a PM to do?

Focus on transformation through the OrgOS

We are experimenting with a reframing concept at PebbleRoad, which is proving to be very useful. Our concept is based on the organisation operating system, or the OrgOS.

Just like a computer, every organisation has an operating system that controls how work gets done and how value is generated. Like a computer's OS, the OrgOS gets frequent updates to ensure that things work more effectively and efficiently.

Although I am not too fond of the mechanistic metaphor, it is very apt. An alternative metaphor is that of a living system that adapts and evolves in response to changes in the environment.

The concept of OrgOS is not new. Every top tier consultancy has its own version of the 'organisational operating model', another term for the OrgOS.

Here are a few:

PwC's model focuses on people, organisation, processes, governance, culture, measures and motivators and tools and technology.

PwC's version of the operating model

KPMG's model focuses on services, functions and processes, organisation and governance, technology, sourcing and location, performance management and people.

KPMG's version of the operating model

Bain's model focuses on structure, accountabilities, governance, ways of working and capabilities.

Bain Consulting's version of the operating model

There is even a book on the subject called the Operating Model Canvas.

The canvas focuses on suppliers, locations, value delivery chains, the organisation, information and management system.

Operating Model Canvas

It is important to note that the components in each model vary. This is inevitable as the consultancies specialise in different industries.

The role of the PM in digital transformation

The first thing a PM should do is identify components that are relevant to their organisation. Then, the PM should establish a 'transformation contract' with senior leaders of their organisation.

The contract may go like this:

As a PM, I am going to uncover tensions in the OrgOS while building the product (e.g., tensions in procurement, data, approvals, and talent). These tensions will highlight obstacles to nimbler ways of working.

As a senior stakeholder in the organisation, your support is needed to address these gaps. It is only by addressing these gaps that we can hope to transform the organisation. Otherwise, it would feel like we are applying digital lipstick—a label that is detrimental to the objectives of our transformation.

For every product release cycle, you can create a heatmap of the tensions faced in the OrgOS. Over time, data will show where the OrgOS needs to change the most.

These opportunities should be raised to senior management as a case for new transformation products. The transformation product we usually land up with is a unified data management platform.

Tensions identified while building the product present opportunities for transformation products such as strategy, data management and ways of working.

An example of an OrgOS heatmap

If you build products and address tensions in the OrgOS repeatedly, transformation is inevitable. The combination of product-market-fit and product-organisation-fit can be powerful. We call this the double-loop approach.

An invitation to PMs

There are many more details to using the OrgOS that I will cover in a follow-up article, but the ask is clear: we need more PMs that are conversant with the workings of the OrgOS. It is the only link we have to address organisational transformation. It is this link that gets us a seat on the table and gives us the mandate to impact the business.

PMs have many specialisations. Some are marketing-driven, while others are technology-driven. We invite more PMs to be transformation-driven. With more PMs taking on this role, we hope to rev up traditional organisations, the real engines of our economy, and drive sustainable digital transformation at a national level.

Maish Nichani

Maish Nichani


I enjoy helping organisations achieve their potential in an ever-changing and complex world. I lead product and transformation conversations.

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