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  • JJ Rorie

A People-First Approach to Product Management

Episode 061

Bria King, a product coach and product leader with experience in social good, networking, online marketing, and hospitality industries discusses a people-first approach to product management. We discuss:

  • What is people-first PM

  • What are the benefits of people-first PM

  • How leaders and teams can move toward a more people-first culture



Connect with Bria:

Episode Transcript:


product, people, organizations, ideas, users, team, problem, empathize, approach, result, creating, important, involving, environment, bria, building, individuals, management, engineers, work

Intro (the incomparable Sandra Segrest) 00:04

Welcome to Product Voices, a podcast where we share valuable insights and useful resources to help us all be great in product management. Visit the show's website to access the resources discussed on the show. Find more information on our fabulous guests are to submit your product management question to be answered on our special q&a episodes. That's all at product And be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite platform. Now, here's our host, JJ Rorie, CEO of great product management.

JJ 00:38

Hello, and welcome to Product Voices. In product management, hopefully, if we're doing it right, it all starts with the person who has a problem that we're trying to solve. But in reality, as we go through our daily lives in product, we get so mired in the technology, the features, the solutions, the product itself, the day to day work, that sometimes it can be easy to forget about that person at the end of that problem. And even the people who got us there, right product management is inherently cross functional. So we're always working with a group of teammates, we don't do anything in a silo. We're building for various people and our customer base again who have various problems. And so we really need a people first approach to product to be successful. So today's episode is all about that a people first approach to product and what that means. So I'm really excited to have my guest here with me today. Bria King is a product coach on a mission to change the culture of product teams from execution focused to people focused. She believes people are our greatest assets to product and ultimately organizational success, which includes how we empower our internal teams and how we connect with our external users. She has 10 plus years of experience working with and building remote first teams, and discovering human centered solutions that drive real world outcomes. She's worked at four startups across social good networking, online marketing, and hospitality industries. Bria resides in Portland, Oregon, with her partner and two dogs. Bria thank you for joining me.

Bria 02:14

Hi, JJ. Thanks so much for having me. I'm excited about our conversation today.

JJ 02:19

I am as well, first and foremost, let's start with the most important thing. What kind of dogs do you have?

Bria 02:25

Oh, I have a four year old golden retriever. His name is Hank and I have a 13 year old Chihuahua and his name is Jake.

JJ 02:33

Oh, my God. I love Hank and Jake already.

Bria 02:36

They're on the opposite ends of the spectrum.

JJ 02:39

Yeah, right. Oh, my gosh, did they get along?

Bria 02:41

You know, yes. And no, I think it's a little bit of a yin and yang.

JJ 02:46

Yeah, I can imagine. Okay, so now that the important stuffs out of the way, let's let's talk about People First product management. So people first what does that actually mean to you?

Bria 02:54

So to me, people first product is is pretty simple in concept. It means that as a product leader, the most critical piece to your success and to your product success is really in empathizing with people. And, you know, we all know the importance when it comes to our users, you know, human centered design. But I think that we can take that even a step further and connect with our users. And I use that word intentionally connect, really listen to them without an agenda.It also to me really means going internally. And I think that this is the piece that can get lost sometimes, are we taking the time to create spaces for our product teams or squads to come up with ideas, learn from our users, and work on things that they're excited about?

Bria 03:52

I think, you know, product, as we know, it is a highly psychological role. And we're indirectly managing a lot of people. And so it's important for us not to forget about the people who are contributing to that product success, and recognizing really, that ideas can come from anywhere. And you know, by having that diversity of thought, will ultimately end up being more successful as a result.

JJ 04:22

Yeah, I really like how you got kind of, it's very connected. I like how you use the word connected by the way, I use that as well, because I think that's a very powerful word, and sometimes semantics matter. So I like that, but but I like how you've, you've you approach it from both internal and external people and, and teammates, and then external users. I think that's really important. And you mentioned something that sometimes the the internal focus or viewpoint is missing. So I want to dig a little bit there. One of my questions for you. And this is a good segue is to talk about why do you think people first product management is missing in some environments? I think it's fairly common knowledge that or should be that, yeah, we deal with people. And we're building products for people and that sort of thing. But again, it does get kind of lost in the hectic world that we work in some time. So why do you think people first product management is sometimes missing in organizations? And are there maybe some elements that are particularly missing or that you see getting lost in some teams?

Bria 05:32

Yeah, I mean, I think that it's a number of things. First and foremost, I think it really comes down to kind of the traditional way that some of us have gone about product management to a degree where, you know, you have your roadmap that you're working on, you have stakeholders that you're committed to reporting back to, who want to see that roadmap who want to know, like, when are you going to be delivering on certain things, and rightfully so as stakeholders of a business, they want to know when they can expect certain results. And so we tend to get really tied up in the people aspect of managing stakeholders. But as a result of that, I think we end up becoming so focused on those outputs, that we're not really taking the time to take a step back and start to think about how can I incorporate the people who are working towards this product? How can we, you know, take a step back and learn from them, get ideas from them, involve them more in the process, and not just solely on the output of getting, you know, from zero to one. I think that that's the first piece. The second, I would say is more intrinsic in nature. And you know, I don't want to speak for everybody. But I know, you know, for me personally, as a product leader, you're developing a vision. And you often set these expectations on yourself that you're the one that needs to be coming up with the best ideas. And as a result, I think you have those sorts of insecurities that, you know, I need to be the one coming up with them, I need to be talking to our users. And so we kind of isolate other people in part of that process. Or maybe the other thing is, we don't believe that our team is really interested in being involved in that process. And I'll give you an example. So I a couple years ago, held a hackathon with our team. And one of our engineers came up with a really genius and simple idea of just connecting to different datasets based on a workflow problem that our users were experiencing, and trying to prioritize some of their work, and sending a report that helped them ultimately prioritize their work much more efficiently. And, you know, on one hand, I have to admit, I was like, Why didn't I come up with this idea.

Bria 08:18

But on the other hand, it delighted our users who weren't, didn't even ask for this feature. But it was a result of, you know, an intimate knowledge of what types of problems and challenges in the workflow that our users were experiencing, and being provided the time and space to come up with an idea that, you know, was very simple, but hugely impactful.

JJ 08:48

That's a great example. And it really highlights the importance of an environment of People First environment, obviously, but but an environment that allows different roles to bring different things to the table. Sometimes, organizations put roles in little boxes, the engineers do this, the product managers do this, the, you know, product owners do that marketing does this, and don't cross those borders. And then other organizations have no lines at all, and it's just total chaos. But really, it's it sounds like a really good organization, organizational environment is to have, you know, enough clarity around roles, but still allow everyone to participate in the problem analysis in the brainstorming, and you know, like the hackathon, etc. Sounds like a really a really good balance there.

Bria 09:37

Yeah, I think that that is huge. I mean, at the very least, I think the most important thing is to make sure that you're involving you know, your design lead or your tech or engineering lead. But ideally, you're also involving the individual engineers, your QA person, if you have data scientists, whomever is really on your team in the conversation that you're having with users. And you know, I'm not suggesting you include everybody all the time on every single conversation, but having that direct exposure is critical. And I think it helps really build the why behind what they're doing. And you know, I'm a huge fan of Marty Cagan at Silicon Valley product group. And he quotes quite often, you, you want a team of missionaries, not mercenaries. And you know, even if you have a team that might be more interested in, you know, I want to get my work done. They still care about the why behind, like, why are we doing this? Or what is the intent behind this ticket? What problem is it going to solve? And by giving that exposure on an ongoing basis, helps to foster the environment around the why, and then ultimately helps to helps them to come up with more ideas around how we can solve problems and more unique ways? And what solutions are going to help us get there.

JJ 11:08

Yeah, I love that. So so that's really good advice for organizations and how they can kind of start to evolve into this people first approach. What other ways would you advise organizations, if they wanted this kind of start shifting over to this approach?

Bria 11:27

Yeah, so I think that there's two big parts of it. One is the more difficult one to solve. But, you know, speaking to folks who might be leaders at organizations, of course, a lot of it is going to come at the top, you know, it's first about establishing a culture of putting your customer first. And as a result, meaning that you're carving out the time for your team to be involved in taking that customer first approach. I think it's also getting a little uncomfortable with having, you know, open mindedness that ideas can come from ever from anywhere, and being open to pivoting certain things, when you learn about a new problem, or somebody comes up with an alternative idea, or we conduct an experiment. And we realize, hey, we actually need to pivot, this isn't really adding value to our customers. And so I recognize that that can be more difficult to do, you know, changing an organizational culture, depending on how large your organization is, and how product has been integrated into the organization historically creates potential barriers to, you know, making that shift. But I do think that there's some tangible things for product teams and product leaders individually to start to do as you move into a people first approach, the one we've already talked about, which is really bringing your teams along and part of the process both of learning and empathizing with your users and being brought into, you know, creating, what the solutions are developing the ideas, but I also think it's critically important for product leaders to set up one on ones with their, the individuals on their product team, you know, it could be once a quarter or what have you. But you know, as a product manager, as we mentioned earlier, you're you're indirectly managing people, and you're ultimately also prioritizing what they're working on in their day to day. And so by creating those one on one environments, I think one, you're opening up the opportunity to create, you know, psychological safety, potentially for some of your more introverted individuals on your team. But you're also creating an opportunity to learn what, what are their goals, you know, what do they want to work on? Is there a new type of technology that they're interested in? Do you have the time and space to be able to put them on maybe a feature you're working on, that they could learn from and kind of shadow? So I think by combining those two things, and really creating the opportunities for them to understand the why, and also to be able to share an impact what they're working on on a day to day basis, is really what helps to create that motivated team that is working towards something that's, you know, more mission focused for them.

JJ 14:44

It's really great advice and yeah, spot on. As I as you were talking, I was thinking about some of the organizations I've worked in and with that seem to be, you know, these people first types of, of environments and they had exactly that. Right, they had the leadership at the top that really bought into it and brought it and led from the top. And then the product teams that were doing all of the things that you mentioned, I think that's, that's really critical. So I love that advice.

JJ 15:13

I think I want to now turn us a little bit. And it's, we've been talking about this in a way that assumes this is the right approach. And I think you and I both strongly agree that it is. But let's, let's go back to the basics for a minute. And let's just talk about some of the benefits of this. Like, why, why do companies need this so much? Like what are the benefits of taking a people first approach to product management? It'd be, you know, kind of leading from that, that question I just asked if some organization needs to change, and maybe there's some leader or middle manager who's trying to influence the culture to change what are some of the kind of tangible ways and benefits that they could take to their argument to to transform an organization to people first,

Bria 16:00

I think at the end of the day, it leads to better ideas, which ultimately will lead to better outcomes, more, you know, motivated and invested teams, happier customers, as a result of that. And, you know, all of those things being taken into account.

Bria 16:23

The analogy that I like to use here is you can kind of think of a product team as a band. And I'll use an example, Queen, being one of the greatest bands of all time, you have different types of bands, some that you know, have somebody write their music for them, ones where maybe there's one or two people who contribute to writing the songs, and then others where it's highly collaborative, and you have multiple individuals, really everybody in the band who contributes to writing songs. And Queen is a great example of this because, you know, Bohemian Rhapsody, the one that we know the most about, written by Freddie Mercury. And we will rock you was written by Brian May, Another One Bites the Dust by John Deacon, Radio Gaga by Roger Taylor, these songs spanned from 1975 to 1984. And each of them if you think about all of those different songs are very different. But I think as a result, they appeal to the time, the type of music, maybe different individuals, so maybe broadening who they were able to appeal to as a result of it.

Bria 17:40

And I think that that is an important piece to consider from a product team standpoint, if you're involving everyone in the process, you're going to be able to, you know, address issues with users in a more unique way. You'll be able to keep up with the times from a technical standpoint. And I think you'll just ultimately end up having better ideas and better outcomes as a result of it.

JJ 18:12

Yeah, I'm really, really in the mood now for some Queen. Gotta go listen to some because those are all great.

Bria 18:18

So I'm never not in the mood for Queen.

JJ 18:20

I know. Right? It's so good. But I love that analogy. Right. And your point is, is spot on that. Yeah, some great bands have, you know, one primary. And that can work in some cases. But Queen's a great example that that really fits the product management mold and the end bring. Everybody bring their talents to the table. I think that's great. So love that. Maybe I'll change the theme song of Product Voices to Radio Gaga or something. I love it. Yeah, Another One Bites the Dust. Oh, I can't do that. That hits home too much for our products.

Bria 18:55

Yep. No, not that one.

JJ 18:57

Yeah, I love it. Okay, so let's just kind of summarize. I mean, how would you - final advice, if you will, on actions that someone can take today to really move the needle on this?

Bria 19:10

Yeah. So I mean, a lot of what we already talked about, at least as it pertains to the internal aspect would be inviting your engineers to use our interviews, again, like, everybody doesn't need to be included on every single one all the time, but work with your engineering managers to understand team capacity, time commitment, things like that, and making sure that you're bringing them along. At the very least, I mean, I think a lot of us do a good job at ensuring that we're doing readouts or trying to share the insights, but I do really think it's important to hear it first. The other is scheduling one on ones with your product team to understand, you know, what, where do they want Go, what do they enjoy doing? What are their goals? What are their motivations?

Bria 20:05

And I think one of the things that I kind of alluded to, but I didn't touch on too much in detail, which is to consider alternative ways to involve your team so that you really do have the opportunity to hear all voices. You know, we often have meetings, and sometimes there's there are individuals who feel comfortable sharing in those venues. But either by creating those one on one environments, or you know, identifying asynchronous opportunities to get ideas, I love mural. There's Miro, tons of other things out there where you can give people more of the psychological safety to share their ideas in more unique ways. I think similarly, when we think about how we're connecting with our users, while we're having these calls, it's trying to take the the empathetic approach, you know, oftentimes, we want to ensure that we're getting users feedback along the way, but we kind of have an agenda for those conversations. And I'd really encourage people to take a step back, and, you know, we mentioned and hit on the word connect, but really connect with your users for the sole purpose of just building a relationship building trust. And I think by by creating that psychological safety in those conversations, you'll start to learn more about like, what are their what's their journey? What are the problems or pain points that they're coming across. And you'll really be able to more deeply empathize with them. And you know, hopefully, your team who's joined that call will also have the opportunity to empathize with them. Because it's important to know that even in scenarios where we are working on maybe issues that are problems that we have, we're not always the customer. And so I think by building more of that empathy with different types of people helps you to come up with those better ideas.

JJ 22:20

I love that advice. And I just think it's, it's practical, but but really meaningful ways to bring that people first approach and environment and culture to an organization. So I think that's great. Thank you so much for sharing that. Bria King, this has been such a great conversation. Thank you so much for your ideas, your stories, your insights, I've loved learning from you. And I appreciate you spending the time and sharing your thoughts on this. Thanks for joining me.

Bria 22:53

Thank you so much. This was great.

JJ 22:55

And thank you all for joining us on Product Voices. Hope to see you on the next episode.

Outro (the incomparable Sandra Segrest) 23:00

Thank you for listening to Product Voices hosted by JJ Rorie. To find more information on our guests resources discussed during the episode or to submit a question for our q&a episodes, visit the show's website product And be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite platform.


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