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Agency & Accountability in Product Management

Episode 053

Agency and accountability are so very important to the success of a product manager - not only embracing this themselves but also having the organization set up in a way and the culture set up in a way that expects accountability and allows agency with product managers. On this episode, Amanda Ralph, Principal Product Manager at Papercut joins to discuss agency and accountability in product management.



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Episode Outline:

  • Why is agency so important in product management? 0:03

  • How can product leaders transform or empower when they’re in an environment where it’s more about feature-driven product delivery? 3:57

  • How product leaders can give their teams the agency they need while holding their teams accountable for value creation. 7:30

  • Why it’s so important to start with leadership and culture. 10:51

  • What are some things that may help a product manager who embraces the role but doesn’t quite know how to take hold of it? 15:11

  • How to tease out the right environment for a new product manager. 20:05

  • The importance of having a candid conversation with the product leader you’re interviewing with to better understand the environment before joining a new org. 24:01

  • The fun of product management is that you’re on a continuous learning journey, but it’s also hard. 29:18

Episode Transcript:


product, conversation, agency, terms, accountability, product manager, management, leaders, deliver, delivery, empowered, environment, important, question, role, outcome, resources, blocker, team, trust

Intro (the incomparable Sandra Segrest) 00:03

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 or 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 00:36

Hello, and welcome to Product Voices. We've got a great conversation today. All about agency and accountability in product management. This is something so very important to the success of a product manager - having agency having accountability not only embracing that themselves in the product manager role, but also having the organization set up in a way and the culture set up in a way that allows us embraces this and and asks this of product manager. So we're going to have a great conversation around this agency and accountability in product management and its importance. My guest today is Amanda Ralph. She is a passionate product leader. She has worked in some of Australia's leading public and private companies, including Quantas, the NAB, KPMG, and Medibank. She's currently a principal product manager for Papercut, an industry leader in print management software. In 2016, she co-founded Product Women, which now has over 6000 members across Australia and internationally. In 2017, she was recognized as one of the leading women in product in Australasia. And in 2022, she was recognized by productboard as one of the 25 most inspirational women product leaders. She's a regular contributor to international product management, blogs and conferences and as a council member of the global Association of Product Professionals. Amanda, thank you so much for joining me.

Amanda 02:09

Thanks so much, JJ, really excited to have this conversation and be on product voices sharing my thoughts with you.

JJ 02:18

I'm so glad to have you. And yes, I wish I was in Australia with you. We could do this in person, that'd be much more fun. But we'll do it this way for now. Come see you soon. So, so let's talk about agency and accountability. First of all, just you know, let's set the stage. What what does that mean to you? How have you seen it kind of manifest in the product management world? And why do you think it is so important in our product management roles?

Amanda 02:44

Yeah, I think when I think about agency, you know, if I think about agency more generally in my life, it's that sense of control that you feel and your capacity to influence, you know, influence and drive, drive to an outcome that you're looking to achieve, and really having the confidence to be able to do that. And so agency is really critical in the sense that it helps you feel psychologically safe, and you know, empowered and capable to actually manage and deliver to the things that you want to achieve, both in life. And in the product management context. That's just equally as important. So feeling like you have the trust and the empowerment of the business to actually deliver to what you need to deliver to. So I think agency is something that's really, really critical for product managers, in terms of you know, they've got strategic visions and product strategies that they need to execute against. And they need to have the confidence to be able to do that. Equally, though, they need to have accountability for the delivery to those outcomes. And I think that's something that has been a little bit missing in the conversation. If I think about accountability, you know, that's an acceptance of the responsibility to take account for for my own actions and to show up and said and set out to accomplish something that I said I would do, and take personal responsibility for delivering to that. And then again, in the context of product management, it's about trusting your colleagues, trusting your teammates, and knowing that you can count on each other to get things done. And that's a really important aspect of Product Management. I hear a lot of product people saying that they want agency that they want empowerment. And yes, absolutely. That's something that we all need to be effective in our roles in product. But you also need to be accountable for that. Henry Evans, who wrote the book winning with accountability says that accountability is clear commitments, that in the eyes of others have been kept. And that's a really important qualification, I guess that it's in the eyes of others that you have actually held to and capture your account, you know, your commitments. And Marty Kagan talks about this when he talks about product managers needing to sit and actually deliver to high integrity commitments. So I think that the sort of ying and yang if you like, if agency and accountability are just so important in terms of being an effective and great product manager,

JJ 05:33

Yeah, I really like the way you've, you've talked about them and how they're, they're intersected, of course, but but also the, my side of, of the story, if you will, and I have to have the confidence in the in the agency to to do the job well, but then the other side of that is, is my stakeholders, right and their perspective, and I think that's a really good way to look about it, or to look at it. So I want to ask you, in organizations that, you know, tend to be kind of more feature factory driven, right? How can product leaders transform or empower when they're in an environment where it's more about just building features? Right, and maybe the product managers aren't empowered as much as they could be, should be? Is there a way that product leaders in organizations can try to help transform that, that that team dynamic that culture even from doing to leading, if you will?

Amanda 06:38

Yeah, I think that doing to leading is really, really difficult. And it's particularly difficult when you're trying to shift from that feature type, product delivery, which, ironically, is where I see sort of product owner role more sitting and good, you know, and great product people, they own both the problem and the outcome. And you need to shift from that feature delivery requirements gathering, order taking type delivery cycle to, you know, what I would frame as strategic product management. And it's really hard, it's complex, and it's often really ambiguous. And that makes it a little bit uncomfortable, a little bit uncomfortable for the product managers, and a little bit uncomfortable for the product leaders who are trying to drive that transformation and that shift. But to your question in terms of how, how product leaders, you know, go about that to give agency that they need, whilst at the same time holding their teams accountable for that value creation. It's really challenging. Personally, for me, I find it very challenging, but in the challenges, what I love that that's what I find so satisfying and so inspiring about product management. A lot of it really starts with, you know, I trust, embedding trust with your team, trusting that they know that they have your backing, trusting that they know what they need to do to deliver to outcomes. And I think that's an area of focus in terms of product leaders, driving clarity, making sure there's alignment, making sure that their teams understand what it is they're trying to achieve. So what are the outcomes we're we're looking to deliver to and making sure that they know the role that they play in delivering to those. And again, you know, JJ, I think that's the hard thing, because from a product perspective, your role as a product manager is both broad and deep across the business in terms of delivering to those outcomes. Right? I think Marty Kagan talks about a lot in in his book empowered. And, you know, he rightfully, I think says that it starts with leaders. And, you know, it's shifting, again, if you're trying to shift from that feature, factory type delivery into Empower product team, the product leadership needs to move from command and control to, you know, providing context coaching, helping your team really understand and explore the problem space, and then help them work through into solution. And that's another thing I think I see is a bit of a blocker in the context is in those feature type environments is also often a rush to get straight to the solution. So giving your teams the space and the agency to actually explore and understand the problem really go deep into the problem without going straight to solution. And then once you've understood the problem space, also then giving them the agency and the trust, I guess, to actually fail in terms of the solution that they're exploring. And that again, you know, going back at me, you touched on it in immutable. But that ambiguity is is what is so challenging and is what is challenging from a trust perspective and challenging personally, in terms of that sense of discomfort that you have in that ambiguity. But if you're not feeling that, my personal view is, it probably means you haven't done enough heavy lifting on the thinking and the exploration. Because if you're feeling too comfortable, you probably really haven't understood the challenge or the problem space enough.

JJ 10:51

Yeah, that's actually a great point. And, you know, I think it's so important that in a game, Marty talks about this, lots of lots of folks have talked about how important it is that it start kind of starts with leadership starts with the environment. Because no matter how much a product manager is capable, or willing to embrace agency and the accountability that's placed on them, if they're not in a, in a safe environment, if they're not an environment, like you said that they, that failure is okay in the context of this, that we can learn from it, that we can move from it if that, if that fear of failure is so great, that doesn't matter how much they want to, again, accept responsibility and accountability, etc, that they're going to shy away from it for that. So I love the kind of stages you've said it because it really does start with leadership with culture, with setting an environment that allows for this type of, you know, true agency, if you will.

Amanda 11:56

Yeah, and I think as product leaders, you know, in that context, as well, we're providing the context, we're providing the clarity, helping get alignment, and I sort of like to think about it, that we're providing the guardrails as well, and the boundary thresholds within which that product exploration and that product strategy starts to take place. And as you move into execution, as well, and part of that, in terms of driving both the agency and the accountability is also making sure that there's really clear alignment and understanding of what are the measures of success? What are the metrics that you're going to use along the way, and then as you move into delivery, and once you've, you know, you've launched your product, what does success look like so that you can actively measure that. And that is something that as a product leader you use in the conversation with your teams as well. So from a delivery perspective, you know, this is what this is what we think it looks like, in terms of time to market time to value, here's what we think the value realisation actually looks like. And we would expect to see when this product is launched, and you drive that conversation, not just at launch, but right throughout the process. And then when you move into managing that product from a portfolio sense, and again, that helps drive the accountability, because the product team then know, that's what I'm on the hook for, I'm not just on the hook for, for building this thing. I'm on the hook for building it to quality, building it to time in terms of the need to get to that value realization in market. And then when it's in market, I've, you know, I'm also on the hook for how it's performing. And if it's not performing to expectation, then there's a conversation around. Okay, what's what's the strategy, what do we need to do to actually, you know, iterate, pivot, uplift the performance of this product that we've, we've delivered. So I think if you're not having that conversation throughout, that really doesn't, doesn't bode well for that accountability piece. And I think, you know, in terms of the context of agency and accountability, my observation is that great product, people, they get it, they understand that, you know, ownership comes, you know, it's, it's a ying and yang, I've got agency, I'm empowered to do something, I'm trusted to do something, but I'm also on the hook, and I'm accountable for the results that need to be delivered. And they get that at times, I see see instances where people want the agency but don't necessarily want the accountability. And right. You can't have one without the other. That's the hard part, you know, the building and and, and the, you know, solving the puzzle problem. That's, that's hard and fun. But equally, you've got to see it through and you've got to be accountable for for the outcome that that actually produces.

JJ 15:11

Yeah, definitely. And I see that as well. It's it's fun to, to, you know, to be the boss of, of your domain, right. But it's it's the accountability, the responsibility, that that's placed with that that's not always so much fun. But that that leads me actually to another question that I have for you. So when product managers are in an environment where, you know, let's just assume they're in an environment that is somewhat conducive, right for agency and accountability, and the culture is good, and the leadership is good. But, you know, not not all people are, you know, or naturally embrace that it's sometimes hard, especially if you've moved into a product manager role from somewhere else where you didn't have that much responsibility or that much agency, if you will. So So what are some things that you found that may help a product manager who embraces the role, they love that they're in a product manager role, but they don't quite know how to, you know, really take hold of that agency and, and feel empowered, act empowered, and then also embrace that responsibility or accountability that there that's been put on them by the organization?

Amanda 16:24

Yeah, I think it's a really great question, JJ. It's, it's, you know, part of the accountability and responsibility as a product leader, is to consistently and, you know, progressively keep, keep affirming, and validating that agency and that trust, obviously, that trust has to be built over time, but keep coaching and having those conversations with your product team. So, for example, how might that manifest in a meeting, you've got a meeting where your product manager is talking to, you know, their delivery, the progress of their initiative and product that they're working on? You can give them sort of scope and encouragement, I guess, are to us, how might we sort of type questions, you know, how might we, you know, ensure that that you know, that that is achieved, or if there's a problem or a blocker, I encourage them to put that on the table early, you know, flush that to the surface, let's have that conversation. But make sure that that conversation is done in a way that, you know, they're affirmed for raising that issue early, and that they're not, you know, they're not afraid, afraid to raise the issues and raise the blockers. And then, after the fact, again, go back and validate with them, affirm with them. So that was a great conversation. I really liked what you did there in terms of, you know, flagging, that there's a blocker, or there's an issue there that we need to manage to. So keep affirming that proactive kind of assertive ownership on their part, across all of the interactions that you have. I do personally really like OKRs, as well as, as sort of measures of success, because I think they drive alignment, they drive clarity in terms of what are the outcomes that you're looking to achieve? What are the key measures of success that you really need to be focused on? And I think they also provide an opportunity for you at each of those interactions and conversation points to bring it back to how are you feeling in terms of, you know, how we're tracking? Do you think we're actually on track to actually achieve this outcome that we've identified over here? So I think they can be a good tool in terms of helping with that? I think, personally, the other thing for me, is actually, you know, I think sometimes we underestimate the importance of fun. And that might sound like a strange thing. But I think fun in terms of what we're doing is serious business. There's some serious value on the table. This is high value stakes, right? If we don't get this, right, but if you can wrap a little bit of fun around that. It gives people a bit more confidence. As a team. They feel like they're part of a team. They feel like they're working on something that's really hard and challenging, but they're not out there on their own on an island, worrying about, you know, is this all gonna land on me? I think that's really important as well from a product leadership perspective to drive that kind of environment to foster that true cost and opportunity to have very real and open conversations.

JJ 20:05

Yeah, I actually love that that last point about fun, I have personally not seen an environment that was terribly successful, that didn't have an element of fun and levity, and could get down to business when needed. And everybody did their job very well and work together, but was, you know, very light when needed to be. And I agree, there's, there's a, there's something about those environments that lead to trust and, and more just comfort, comfort, to allow yourself to take ownership, but also fail if, if that happens. And so I agree with that. I think that's all really great advice. Curious, actually, if you've if you've seen so when a product manager who may, you know, be comfortable with responsibility, they have confidence in themselves. So, you know, would feel fairly successful. And, you know, agency and accountability, if you will, is looking for a new role? Is there a way that someone who's looking for a new product manager role can basically interview the company that they're interviewing with to try to tease out their environment, and if it is an environment that, that not only, you know, allows empowerment, and empowers product managers, but also holds the right level of accountability? Just curious if you have any advice there?

Amanda 21:33

Yeah, it's a really great one. It's hard, isn't it? It's, I think, it's hard to find that it's really hard to find out, I think, as I've progressed, I've become much more focused on actually the reverse interview. So understanding, you know, for me, the personnel report is really, really critical, you know, the leadership that I'm going to get, and, and also that that environment, I think, there are some sort of some key things that you can ask, you can ask how a team structured, ask questions around, you know, when you are exploring a problem, and developing a new, a new proposition, what does that look and feel like? So try and understand is that, you know, just the product person, or is it the product, engineering design kind of team exploring that problem, if you start to hear words like feature, if problem exploration is not something that's coming up in the, in the conversation, if the conversation is not going down a path, which is around understanding customer needs, understanding customer problems, and then solving for those, that's probably a bit of an indicator that you might be going into more of a feature type. Role, you know, asking around, I like to ask questions around how does the business actually manage when things are not tracking to plan? So, you know, be quite written up asking, you know, how, what's the what's the approach that the company takes if you're in delivery? And, you know, it looks like you're actually not tracking to where you thought to the outcome that you thought you were delivering to what what's the approach the company takes, in terms of the team in terms of, you know, pivoting in terms of understanding and working together as to what what the strategic response to that would be? I think that gives you a lot of insight as well. And it's not something that's often it's kind of interesting, because it's not something that's often discussed, in terms of failure failure on the part of, you know, the company that you're interviewing for, is not usually a common part of that conversation. For the role I'm in now, actually, I, I actually asked if I, if I could be connected with some people. My question was more around the product leader that I'm now working for. And I really, it's so important to me that I really wanted to make sure that you know, the fit was going to be right in terms of how he and I would work together. And I actually asked if I could speak to someone who had worked with him in the past, but not necessarily in the current company, and have an independent conversation. And he was really great. He really lent into that and enabled that conversation. And I was able to have some very, you know, frank and direct conversation around, what did that look like? What does that feel like? How did he respond to exactly some of those questions around, you know, failure? You know, how did he manage that as a leader, and that gave me much greater confidence It's in terms of coming into this role. So I think you can do the same sort of thing in relation to the team environment and the context that you're going to be working in.

JJ 25:10

I love that that's a great idea, actually, to have kind of that, that almost off the record kind of candid conversation with someone who, who really has worked with with that person before and, and give you the good and, you know, maybe the bad or the things to look at or, again, just style, because it doesn't mean that anyone is wrong, necessarily. But just style and fit. And I think that's really important

Amanda 25:35

It's kind of gearing yourself for product market fit right, like you're trying to, that's exactly what it is good product market fit in terms of a view and your capability and how that's going to fit to the organization and the team that you're interviewing for.

JJ 25:51

Yeah, I love that. That's great. I think we need to get that on a t shirt. Yeah, I'm the product, you're the market, do we fit? Okay, so final question for you is, and I know you yourself are a resource and do a lot of, you know, writing and contributing. And so we'll link to some of those resources on But I would love to hear your thoughts on resources that you've loved over the years, whether it's you've met, you've mentioned a couple of Marty Kagan and etc. You know, whether it's kind of general product management, or specifically around how to, you know, build an embrace agency and accountability, any good resources you would share?

Amanda 26:31

Um, yeah, look, I really, like I've mentioned Marty Cagan, I really like Brene Brown, you know, this, the whole piece about really being vulnerable, and having the, you know, reflect reflection on your own your own growth and development. And I think that's something that I have privileged a lot more in the last, you know, five to 10 years of my career, and I probably should have done in a more focused way earlier in my career, like, you know, I look back and say, I was so busy, I was busy with life, busy with my career, and ambition. And all those things are great. But you know, if I'd privileged a little bit more of my time around that self reflection, introspection, and then being having honest conversations with myself about what was my own growth trajectory and development trajectory, and applying that, so I do like Bearnaise, you know, voice in those things. I actually really take a lot of inspiration and guidance from product women, which I co founded with Adrienne tan, and Laura, Cardinal nearly six years ago now. Because there's so many women that come through that product community that I learn from every single time I interact with them, you know, there's always a learning. And I think, again, it's kind of you know, like the conversation around product market fit when you're interviewing for an organization. I think more and more, I try and apply product frameworks and product learning to my own actual growth and development. And, you know, you touched on on it immutable about the mindset and the truths of great product managers, and I think holding myself accountable to am I really tracking to those truths? Am I actually growing and developing and that mindset of continuously learning continuously exploring? So I do like, you know, I love going to meet ups, I do a lot of reading, I actually try and read every morning, I've got a bit of a thing for my myself, which I try and hold myself to, which is I get up early. And I either listen to a podcast, so I love Product Voices for the for that reason. I listen to a podcast, or read an article, just to set and frame my day and remind myself of what I need to do in terms of my focus around continuously trying to be good at product management, because it's hard.

JJ 29:18

Yeah, I love that habit that you've developed. And it is hard. It's hard to keep learning. We did a an episode earlier in the year about how part of the fun of product management is that you're on this continuous learning journey, but it's also hard. It's like, are we ever going to get there in my everidge is gonna know what I'm supposed to know? Or do I constantly have to learn and learn and learn? And so there's like this. Yeah, it is, right. I mean, there's this there's this kind of satisfaction in the end in any scenario and and there's no real end and product management, right? I mean, usually our products go on forever after we leave the company. Our Learning goes on forever. And so, you know, it's it's, it's, again can be very invigorating and fun. But it also can can, you know, be difficult. So I love that you found something, just that specific last example of just a short little habit of, you know, continuing to learn and do that. But I, that's all really great examples and great resources. And I really liked that it's not just product resources, I think that's an important point, that product is something that there are a lot of people who do a lot of great thinking around. And so you know, continue to listen to and talk to those folks. But there's also so many other things that we can learn from, that can make us better product people. So I love that. So thank you for sharing, sharing those resources.

JJ 30:42

And, Amanda, thank you so much for joining me, I've loved this conversation, I've loved the wisdom and the insights that you shared, I appreciate you being here with me. And maybe next time you're on, I will come to Australia, and we can record in person, just because I really want to be there.

Amanda 30:56

I would say I love that. Thanks so much, JJ. I've really, really enjoyed the conversation too. I think, in preparation for this conversation, I also, you know, had conversation with various people. And I think there was pretty universal agreement that product management is hard that you need to practice, you need to keep refining the craft. That it's not for the egotistical and it's not for the weak willed, you know, you need to be strong and resilient. But I think the great thing is that we've got such an amazing community that that reaches out across the world. And people like yourself and the product women community, I get so much energy and inspiration from that in terms of the ability to have these hard conversations and be vulnerable, and share the thinking and that's just such a privilege in such a great place to be.

JJ 31:52

Absolutely, absolutely. I love it. Thank you. And so thank you again for being here and for having this conversation. And thank you all for joining us on product voices. Hope to see you on the next episode.

Outro (the incomparable Sandra Segrest) 32:03

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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