Is Product Management the missing puzzle piece in Europe?

In his daily work with early-stage Industrial Tech founders, our Principal Gregor Haidl places particular emphasis on deeply understanding the customer and defining a successful product. Effective product management is a cornerstone, vital not only for start-ups, but for companies of all sizes and industries. Gregor sat down with Elias Lieberich, who brings an extensive background in product management. 

Having spent over a decade at Google and YouTube building some of their biggest products with teams in the US and Europe, Elias is now co-founder of Product Matters, dedicated to improving product management in Europe. In our interview, Elias shares his unique expertise with our HTGF network and sheds light on the importance of customer centricity, the innovative power of engineering teams, and the lessons Europe can learn from the US.

Elias, you worked over a decade at Google and were leading some of their larger product efforts. What advice do you have for European tech companies?

In the US, the focus on modern product management and emphasis on engineering is much stronger. Successful companies follow an easy recipe: identify a customer problem worth solving, come up with a good candidate for a solution, get the team and stakeholders excited about it, try out and refine the idea closely with the customers and ultimately ship something that has an impact, both for the customer and the business. The focus is on the engineers, designers, and product managers that create the value. Somehow in Europe that message gets lost among all the frameworks, tools and processes.

Easier said than done, I am sure US companies also have some central tools in place to decide on what is being built.

The best ideas and products I have seen start in small groups and then take more and more shape as more and more people are convinced and buy-in. Of course, there are longer term strategies, but how these strategies are brought to life often is a decentral, social process in which the best ideas compete for resources. Let me be honest, there is no clear path from A to B, no matter how many roadmaps you draw. You might even end up in a whole different path. This can be pretty messy and stressful, but from my experience such journeys with their many detours are absolutely necessary to create a truly successful product.

Elias Lieberich Prodcut Matters
Elias Lieberich, co-founder of Product Matters

How do European players differ in their approach?

European tech companies run their engineering teams very differently. They are typically more hierarchical and process heavy. They are afraid to leave the pre-planned route. Management often is much more in control of what is being built. This severely impairs engineers’ and product managers’ ability to figure out what their customers actually need. The outcomes often are overburdened bureaucracy, slowing down development, creating inferior products, and demotivating the entire engineering team.

This leads companies into a downward spiral. Management sees little or no progress, as development is slow and results are meager. The solution is often seen in the business and sales teams, as they supposedly know exactly what their customers need. Business then tries to create more clarity for development through more processes so that they can “just build stuff.”

More processes, more project management, more demotivated teams, lower output, worse products. A vicious circle.

How do you come out of this vicious circle? 

Getting out of a bad situation always requires a huge effort. Change is hard. Rearranging parts and pieces, such as introducing a new process or cutting another one,  won’t change much. You really have to hit the reset button. Europe has exceptional engineers. Combine that with modern product management and you pretty much have a winning combination. In this product-model, we let engineers do what they do best: come up with solutions to problems. To get that to work, you will need to throw away a lot of the old ways and learn how to deal with ambiguity. Rather than trying to prescribe an exact plan for your team to execute, you will need to allow your team enough space to try things out and to find the best possible solution. More often than not, the best solution will be very different from the original plan or something entirely different altogether.

There are individual success stories that give hope. Problems like that do not only exist in Europe. Let’s take Microsoft as an example. For many years the company was trimmed for business, but innovation was limited and the company was overtaken by its competitors. Today, Microsoft is stronger than ever and has a real product person at the helm with Satya Nadella.

Do European startups do it better than the big corporations?

Unfortunately, not really. This approach to product management, it is not a matter of size, it is a matter of culture. At Product Matters, I am working every day with companies of all sizes globally. In comparison, European companies tend to build up enormous process structures early on. Modern Product Management is a culture of how to approach problem solving – and it is not sufficient to read a few books. The best way to transform in that direction is to actually experience it. On the bright side for start-ups it is much easier to quickly try it out compared to a giant like Microsoft. For large organizations – we see the best results in piloting this way of working in small yet strong teams – rather than trying to convince everyone on day one. Once you demonstrate real success, it is much easier to make the case for the rest of the company. 

Looking at our early stage startups. What steps would you recommend for better product management?

Unfortunately, there is no paint-by-numbers recipe. What I would say is that start-ups deal with high amounts of uncertainty and that is exactly where great product teams can shine. Start-ups often thrive on the initial idea, the elevator pitch. That might help you raise money and hire talent, but that’s not a selling product yet. 

That’s where most projects really fail – startups never truly check their initial idea and simply build stuff no one needs. To me that is frustrating because it is easy to avoid. Most of the time it is not even that hard to test the assumptions. What is hard is changing plans, roadmaps or even killing ideas you once fell in love with.

I recommend starting by articulating (in writing) what the problem is that you want to solve, and what value your idea will bring to the customer against the specific problem at hand. Next, you want to parse out the main risks you see in actually creating that value. You’d be surprised how few start-ups (and teams in larger companies) actually have that written down. The real engineering and product work is finding out the real problems customers have and iterating on a solution that people are willing to pay for. 

A great real-life European example is Decentriq – they are deep tech innovators in the confidential computing space. Starting out they had cutting technology and the smartest people in the team, mostly ETH alumni. For them by far the biggest challenge was literally the transition from a vague problem to a very specific and clear value proposition for a clear customer profile. Their software has vast potential in all sorts of markets and industries. Early on, they applied the customer-value centric product-model and found a real application with paying customers

We are inviting you to join our HTGF Academy live session on December 5th  where you have a chance to hear Elias Lieberich speak live and answer your questions on the topic of Product management in Europe, we will also have Dr. David Sturzenegger, CPO at Decentriq as a special guest. Register now.

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