Ownership and Accountability

A Single Throat to Choke and A Product Mindset Framework for Outcomes

A glutton for punishment, I was watching my soccer team, Real Salt Lake, the other night. Their season has been far from Chelsea-esque, much to my chagrin (at least one of my teams did well this year).

Hang with me for a second as we talk soccer. I promise it’s relevant.

Real Salt Lake has been meh for a while. Hints of exceptional with stretches of mediocrity. It’s a far cry from competing for championships not that long ago. (Again the pain of being a fan of Utah sports teams).

One major problem we’re currently facing as a team (and fanbase) is a lack of ownership (literally) and accountability. The previous owner was accused of workplace misconduct for some remarks he made, and was forced to sell the team. But he couldn’t sell in the specified timeframe. So the league took over the sale. So there is basically no owner of the team right now.

Without a single person or group that actually cares about the performance of a team, do you think that team will perform well? Or get the resources for changes? Or be held accountable to make changes? No. And that’s part of what we’re seeing.

Another problem is an extension of that. There doesn’t seem to be accountability when performance lags. Freddy Juarez, the current coach, has had a mediocre season. But not changed tactics at all, even after consistently being out-coached. But who will hold the coaching staff accountable?

To add insult to injury, post-game interviews are generally very soft, highlighting the positives and glossing over the negatives, even in losses. The commentators rarely criticize or question. And the press conferences I’ve seen don’t hold the team’s feet to the fire like they should.

So with no accountability coming from the top, and no probing questions coming from below, you get a mediocre season where you may-or-may-not make the playoffs.

I’m not one that calls for rash changes because teams aren’t doing well (we’re not England or New York). But it’s important to self-reflect and understand what is working and what isn’t, and be flexible enough to adjust.

I’m certain a mediocre season is not the outcome the team or the coaches or the management want. I don’t believe that most people strive for mediocrity in what they do. But that can be the outcome of a poor system and poor incentives. And when you lack ownership and accountability.

Changing the system is often where product management and product thinking come into our modern technology teams and organizations. This involves not only the product manager as a person within a product team, but as the mindset and framework for an organization to create better ownership and accountability.

An Owner

In one of my previous roles, we liked to call the product manager the “single throat to choke”. Because they were the owner of the outcomes, especially when those outcomes were bad.

If metrics seemed off or a product wasn’t performing, the product manager was on the hook for an explanation. (Interestingly, few people were interested when things were going as expected or going really well…)

This jibes with how companies like Amazon and Apple view product development.

At Amazon, they have individuals and leaders with a “single-threaded focus”. They expect the leaders of a team or division to be focused relentlessly on a single area so that it gets the attention it needs. They know if a person gets too divided, they can’t focus. They also know that if a team or product doesn’t have a leader with a single focus on it, it won’t make any progress. See my note on Working Backwards for more on this.

Apple also has the concept of “directly responsible individual”. A person who is specifically responsible for a feature or product. Again, it is about a single person who is focused, responsible, and accountable for the outcomes.

A Framework

Product management and a product mindset also work as a framework within a team and organization.

Focusing on outcomes forces us to ask deeper questions of ourselves and our teams. Rather than feel-good questions like “What can you learn for the next game?”, we need to be asking “What specifically went wrong?” “Why did you wait to make substitutions so late in the game?” “Why are you not making any tactical changes even when you’re not scoring?”

We have to understand what success looks like so we can measure against it. Is it making the playoffs? Is it increasing our goals per game? Is it decreasing goals against us?

For our products, having a framework for success is critical. And using product management and a product mindset within our teams and organizations to force those questions is critical.

When things go wrong, “What specifically went wrong?”. “Why did we do X instead of Y?” “Why did our choice lead to that outcome?”

Before we get started, we also understand what success looks like. Is it increasing users? Is it increasing retention? Is it increasing revenue? By how much? Understanding these metrics enables us to focus on important decisions and measure how well we’re doing. They also enable us to make changes along the way. If we need to make a tactical shift mid-game, we can understand that, rather than using the same game plan game after game.

Having true ownership of products, features, metrics, and outcomes ensures that someone cares about those things, can focus the right attention on them, and can ultimately drive their success. If there isn’t ownership, there can’t be success. Watching teams, whether professional sports teams or product development teams, without ownership and accountability is always disheartening. They don’t win like they should be able to. But with real ownership, asking tough questions, and holding ourselves to a high standard, we can achieve amazing outcomes.

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Other Good Links

Getting Into Product Management: A Conversation With Piyali Dey (podcast) - Piyali Dey is a product manager with Microsoft. In this episode, she shares tips on getting into product management, including the skills new product managers need, how to leverage existing experience, and interviewing and networking tips. We also discuss what you can do to build your portfolio, how to avoid common resume mistakes, and whether you need certifications and specific education. Finally, we discuss the importance of diversity and inclusion in our product teams. Join us for another great product conversation. 

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