Much discussion about digital transformation centers on operational topics such as Agile, DevOps, and continuous delivery, and not without reason. You can’t successfully compete in the digital economy unless you can quickly and efficiently deliver quality code that addresses the identifiable needs of the business and its customers.
But equating operational improvement with digital transformation is a like equating typing with writing. Type as fast as you want. Make zero grammatical errors, and produce page after page about kingdoms and intrigue and monsters. You’re still not going to write Game of Thrones.
Similarly, you can churn out tons of quality code that seemingly fulfills your explicitly stated business requirements and still fail to produce software that adds significant value for you and your customers. That’s why your digital transformation efforts in general -- and your software development activities in particular -- must be led by smart, fully empowered digital product managers.
Code is not value
Digital product managers are essential to successful digital transformation because code does not inherently create business value. Yes, you often have to write good code to deliver value. And, yes, it certainly helps if that code is guided by requirements and iterative feedback.
But if all you do is write code to specs, you’re an order-taker, not a value creator. Henry Ford may not have actually said it, but it’s true: If he had asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse. If John Pemberton worked off a recipe book, he wouldn’t have invented Coca-Cola.
Product managers do more than just ask customers for specs. They engage actively with target constituencies to understand their real needs and motivations. Then they direct their available productive capacity to rapidly and iteratively experiment, never accepting mere positive feedback as an indicator of transformative value. Instead, they keep tuning and iterating to continuously delight customers.
Better yet, as Jeff Bezos expressed it: “Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better, and your desire to delight customers will drive you to invent on their behalf.”
This is an extremely important point that bears repeating: A true product manager’s standards will always, always, always be higher than the customer’s explicit feedback.
Customers often tell you you’re doing a good job just because you gave them something incrementally better than what they had before. They rarely have a vision for the next quantum leap. If they had that vision, they’d jump to the vendor side in a heartbeat.
Product managers, on the other hand, know that success -- and perhaps even survival, these days -- is contingent upon breakthrough innovation. They don’t rest until they get there.
The Agile charade
Unfortunately, most software development organizations -- both enterprise and vendor -- delude themselves into believing they can succeed by simply moving along some operational maturity curve. So they focus on tangibles such as cycle times and re-work rates. When these numbers move in the right direction, they congratulate themselves for being “high performers.”
[For more from Chris O'Malley, check out DevOps: A Bullet Train with No Passengers.]
But the roadside is strewn with the carcasses of so-called high performers. You can be a high performer operationally and still not do anything that makes your customers’ lives significantly better. In fact, almost none of the metrics most IT leaders use to measure the performance of software production teams have anything to do with customer value.
Neither do their staff incentives. In fact, those incentives are almost universally siloed and operational.
Staying focused on value
Another useful analogy that illustrates the importance of IT product management comes from the world of sports. Operational managers are like position coaches in football. They try to get everyone to do their jobs well, and they make sure there is good coordination between positions such as offensive linemen and running backs.
Then there are head coaches like Lombardi and Belichick. These coaches build cultures that win championships. To these leaders, operational excellence is merely table stakes. They keep their teams focused on the real objective: that big trophy the best team gets at the end of the season.
Product managers are like these great coaches. They drive culture change and keep everyone focused on the results that really matter, rather than on personal stats.
Operational maturity, in other words, is a necessary condition for digital transformation, but not a sufficient one. To win at digital, you need digital product managers who lead and own success. And that success is founded on value to the customer, not average points per game.