Jun 10, 2023
Mastering Context - Why's and How's
The Key to Boosting Product's Success and Life
Context is key. With the appropriate context, success is attainable. Gregory Bateson rightly said:
"Without context, words and actions have no meaning at all."
A few years back, I was part of a company delving into IoT and connected cars. I had just been handed the leadership of a mobile team. It wasn't a walk in the park. The project was already a year behind schedule, with the adopted direction mirroring the previous app.
The CEO, seeking a different path for the app, asked me to take the reins. The goal was to deliver within the tight deadline of four months. The product manager handling the app lacked the necessary tools and, crucially, the context to succeed.
With this new responsibility, I assessed the situation. I carved out new pathways towards the successful delivery of the app within the given timeframe. I knew I needed to guide the project in my style to triumph. It meant creating the proper context for me and the team I was to lead.
I studied leaders such as Dave Logan, Tony Hsieh, Steve Jobs, and DHH. I came to understand that these individuals made their own rules. They aimed to win on their terms, not dictated by market trends or common expectations.
Conditions influence us, particularly as product creators. Today, we're constantly bombarded with information, prompting us to question how we live, eat, communicate, and sleep.
As I evolved in my career, I identified multiple rings that directly influence the product. The mental representation of these contexts matters.
I want to introduce the concept of "Rings of Influence."
We have to imagine four concentric circles. Each larger circle represents a broader sphere of influence.
In the context of product management, these rings could be:
The Product Creator Context - The innermost ring relates to who we are as people and professionals. It includes how our environment and the people in our lives influence us.
Product Context - The next ring deals with factors directly related to the product. This includes the product's maturity, available tools and skills, and the product team's culture.
Organisational Context - The next ring encapsulates the organisation itself. It includes the company's dynamics, politics, financial situation, and strategy. These factors shape the product team's environment and can influence the product's development.
Broad External Context - The outermost ring represents the external influences beyond the control of the product team or the organisation. This includes the state of the economy, industry trends, technology advancements, and geopolitical situations.
As I mentioned, these 4 "rings of influence" impact our work and the results. By understanding and responding to these contexts, Product Creators can make more informed decisions. They can also strategically navigate their products through various contexts. Finally, it can significantly improve our chances of success in product management.
But how do we approach this?
Let's break it down and describe each context.
Broad External Context
The first context is external. It extends beyond the company and includes economic and environmental factors.
As a teaching fellow of Digital Transformation and Product Creation in AI, I always take time during one session to give observation exercises to my students. The goal is to identify the habits, technologies and services they all use daily and see what they have in common. It includes the kind of shop they go to, the food. Everything is important.
When we become more observant of our world, we all share a common influence. Whether it's through the economic situation of our country or the Eastern world, the politics engaged or what we use. The general condition is based on geopolitics but also on how technology evolves.
Let's take an extreme example - the COVID Pandemic. Before COVID, certain tech advancements were desirable but challenging to implement. However, the pandemic sped up their adoption. Think Paywave or Facetime communication for the elderly population.
Personal entertainment and communication technologies increased due to people being confined at home. Information exchange transformed dramatically, with a significant uptick in mobile data usage.
Moreover, remote work, once a privilege mostly enjoyed by tech folks, became commonplace. This sudden embrace of technology may have taken five to ten years. Still, it was now being accepted widely across the ages of the population due to the circumstances.
We have seen the same thing with AI. Only a few were adventuring in this world even a year ago. With the launch and significant adoption of ChatGPT, AI became almost a weekly discussion in some businesses.
For us product creators, it means how the world revolves can help us introduce new products or working methods. We can't go against the world. And the common knowledge people have is the one of the world, no more.
It can also be helpful when discussing the two points below as the information is input.
The project I discussed earlier was strategic under the influence of the CEO. Before I joined, a VC bought the company and implemented the new management. The new CEO wanted to implement a new management style and direction. Hence, the mobile app was the strategic position of this project. However, only some agreed, so I needed to explore the organisation Context. I created a map to help me navigate internal dynamics and advocate for my team and product.
Here are the ways I follow to explore the organisational context:
Understanding the Company Strategy - What are the mission, vision, and values (CEO and VCs)? What are the short-term and long-term goals?
Identifying the Rings of Influence - There are many "rings of influence" inside an organisation. The one I described comes from a product perspective. We must spot all the "rings of influence" within the company. What are those rings? What are the dynamics between them?
Reviewing the Company's Resources and Capabilities - What is the current company's financial situation and resources? It could be technological, human, or economic. What skills and abilities are there in the company?
Analysing and Mapping Stakeholders - Relationships in a company are like a spider web. It's intricate and complicated. Each person, each 'node' in the net, has power, interests, and personal goals. Understanding this and creating a map can help us handle these relationships better.
Spotting Internal Processes and Infrastructure: Are any systems, workflows, or processes directly impacting the product? This can range from best practices to frameworks like agile or waterfall or how decisions are made.
Whether we're the boss or not, we always work for someone. It could be investors, the market, or even our families at home.
Understanding the organisational context can differentiate between a typical environment and hell for product creators. I've talked about 'Feature Factories' in another article. It's something all product creators want to avoid.
The Product Context looks at the specific conditions around a product and the team that looks after it. In simple terms, it includes these aspects:
Product Maturity - What is the state of the product? Where in the lifecycle is the product?
Tools and technologies - What are the tools to develop, manage, market, and sell the product?
Product Team Maturity - What are the skills and knowledge within the team? What is the team's experience with the product or the technology used? What are the relation and working patterns with the rest of the organisation?
Culture mapping - What is the product, market and company culture? What is the culture of the team? What are the dynamics, and how does it influence the development?
Competitive landscape - Who are the key competitors? Is the market saturated? What is the technological maturity of the market?
Understanding these points can help us make better strategy, design, and development decisions. It's essential to keep this in mind when leading and explaining our plan. It will guide how much information we need to share or the work needed to achieve our vision.
Last thoughts and Quest of the week
The Product Creator Context can be found in how to productise oneself.
The critical thing about these "Rings of Influence" is that the outer rings affect the inner ones, and the inner ones can impact the outer rings.
This week's challenge is to use the model to study the "Rings of Influence" in your current situation.
By doing it, we'll be more ready to talk in our users', team's and organisation's language, strengthening our bond with them and making us more capable of meeting their needs better.