Lesson Learned: Every important result should have one, and only one, directly responsible individual. Especially when it comes to product.
AKA, Embracing the Product DRI.
This blog post is part of a series of leadership lessons that I have learned from 40 years in tech.
I experienced this lesson, for better and worse, over four companies. If more than one person is responsible for a specific outcome, no one is responsible. While I’m sure the philosophy has been around in one form or another for decades, it was popularized by Apple, as the DRI or Directly Responsible Individual, and adopted by many other companies such as Gitlab. And nowhere is that lesson more applicable than deciding who owns “Product.”
Being an engineer, I will admit up front that I am biased. I strongly believe that Product and Engineering, and Design for that matter, need to be under one leader, with a strong technical background. Take this illustrative example of a project that has gone off the rails and is going to miss its deadline. The CEO asks the head of Engineering why the project is late, and they respond by placing blame on the Product Manager. They say that the PM was too aggressive in setting requirements, was unwilling to cut low-priority scope, asked them to build the wrong thing, and did not understand the amount of work and/or complexity to get the project done. They will probably throw in that the technical debt, from the sins of the past, caused problems that slowed things down. Sound familiar?
The CEO then asks the head of Product why the project is late, and they respond by placing blame on Engineering. They say that the engineers are not working hard enough, built the wrong thing, are too focused on technical perfection, and don’t meet their commitments. Sound familiar?
Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Where is the real problem and how do you fix it? Who knows? This is a no-win situation and the company will suffer accordingly. There needs to be one person who is responsible for managing and balancing all of these factors, to achieve product-development results. “One throat to choke,” as they say.
I have learned that the best formula for product leadership is:
- One person who is responsible for product development — for the right things being built at the right time for the business’s success.
- This leader owns “Product,” which is comprised of technology, design, and product management.
- They should have personal experience building products with their brains and their hands. Ideally with a technical degree or equivalent experience. They need to deeply understand the company’s tech, as well as their competitors’.
- They must also deeply understand how the product is used by customers, how it solves their problems, and the business’s strategic goals.
- They must build an organization of technical leaders who have a deep understanding of the customers and business, and product leaders who likewise understand the tech. And they should be able to seamlessly move back and forth between the big picture, i.e., business or organizational strategy, and the small picture., i.e., project details.
- There can and must be design and product management leaders with deep domain skills and knowledge, but they should report to the “Product” leader, right beside engineering.
This is the model I have seen work best, though never as pure as I am describing it. And it is the model I would recommend to any fledgling product company.