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Why Your Product Team Is Failing



I build teams that build products. It’s my thing that I do. Engineering, Design, Marketing, and Product Management. That’s what I did with the pretty-big Firefox team at Mozilla. That’s what I did as a consultant with tiny to medium-sized startups in Toronto. That’s what I’m doing now with the growing and amazing team at Hubba. I love it.

Are you in charge of a startup product team? Do you love it? Because, and I want to be honest here, a lot of the people I talk to who run product groups are not having a good time. They are not even having an okay time.

They are having a not okay time.

What It Feels Like

The hard thing about a busted product org is that the problem isn’t obvious. The engineers seem to know what they’re doing. The product managers have roadmaps. The designers are always busy and things look nice. But it just. doesn’t. work.

Your team seems to run fast, they ship a lot of code, but features take forever. You never feel like you know when something’s going to come out. When it does, it never looks like you thought it would. The engineers celebrate when they complete a heavy project, but the rest of the org doesn’t get why it ever mattered. People don’t respond to new features, and bugs in old features never get attention. Things break that we should have seen coming, and you have to drop everything to fix them. Which makes the other problems worse.

If you’re hyperventilating right now, I feel you. I’ve been where you are. I wrote this post for us.

Whose Fault Is It?

“Everyone’s fault. No one’s fault.” I think I’m supposed to say those things. That there are a hundred reasons for product teams to fail to execute well. I guess that’s probably true.

But in my own life almost every team I’ve seen struggle with this stuff fails for the same reason. There is one role in the product organization that we ask to be the integrators. The systematizers. And companies, especially startups, usually set them up to fail. We call those people Product Managers.

If your product managers aren’t on their game and well supported, you will have a bad time. Not because it’s always their fault. At all. But because when they’re in trouble, strength in other areas is unlikely to compensate.

How to Build Your Product Team

Any time I write a new job posting for a product manager, I brace for impact. Few people would apply to be heart surgeons, or forensic accountants, without any relevant experience. But lots of people apply to be product managers without experience. Everyone thinks they’d be good at product.

If none of your founders/executives have run product orgs before, it can be hard to know what to do. These candidates have so many amazing ideas. They have a lot of energy.

If you find yourself saying something like, “anyone can learn how to file bugs and run a standup, but what I like about this person is…” you’re about to make a mistake.

Hire Product Managers as Product Managers

There are lots of times in the growth of a startup where you should take a gamble on candidates with gumption, even if they don’t have the background. It’s a great strategy for building a more diverse team, and gives your senior folks mentorship opportunities. There are many times when it’s a wise and progressive call to make.

Your first few product management hires are just not one of those times. Your first PMs will set the tone for how your product team operates. And since few people have any kind of formal education in product management, your best indicator is significant, direct product management experience.

After those first few hires are in and operating well, go ahead and hire some trainees. Build a reputation for product excellence by training people up and setting the standard. Your people may get poached, but your inbound candidate pool will more than cover it.

That’s a high quality place to be, but not until you’ve locked on fundamentals.

Hire Product Managers, not Visionaries

Oh I know it’s unromantic. Great product needs vision. And good CEOs want partners in setting that vision. You want PMs who understand it and can bring their own light to it. I’ve heard all that. And it’s not wrong.

But the truth is that I need vision from my PMs about 5–10% of the time. I need brilliant, focused, measured execution from them all the time.

I didn’t say 0% vision, don’t straw-man me. Vision matters. But ideas are cheap and execution is very, very hard. Interview for the hard part. Hire for the hard part.

Product management is a real discipline, not a pretend catch-all title. That “anyone can learn” garbage up there undercuts the value of clear requirements, clean process, measurement, and accountability. Your product managers put the machine on rails and make sure it gets to its destination.

Vision is one of the tools they use to get there. The whole team benefits from clarity in the product’s narrative. You’ll meet candidates who blow you away with their list of ideas, prepared over the weekend looking at your product. It’s exciting.

But if they can’t tell you when a waterfall development process would be a better choice than scrum, or how they feel about personas as a user-empathy tool, or how they prefer to see new features instrumented, they aren’t your first product hire. Or at least, they wouldn’t be mine.

Hire Product Managers, not CEOs-of-the-Product

Poor Ben Horowitz. He said, “The product manager is the CEO of the product” and I suspect he’s regretted it ever since. His intention was noble enough — arguing for buck-stop accountability and whole-product view. But it has armed a generation of asshats with a terrible self-importance. He even wraps that post with a disclaimer these days.

Your product managers are not the CEO of anything. They can’t fire people who are hurting the business. They can’t sign partnership deals. They do not live the 500 daily struggles of trying to keep everything alive and growing. It’s facile to pretend that the analogy holds.

PMs are much more hub-of-the-wheel than root-of-the-tree or top-of-the-pyramid. They synthesize, they decide, and they orchestrate. As Andy Grove would say: Input, Process, Output. If you think of them as a CEO you’ll manage the good ones badly and keep the bad ones around too long.

Be curious about how they listen and seek counterpoint during the synthesis phase. Challenge them on how they make trade offs in the deciding and planning phase. Measure them based on their results in the orchestration and delivery phase.

(I’m sure someone will tell me that’s exactly what a CEO does. This is the internet after all. It’s still a broken and unhelpful metaphor.)

How To Know It’s Working

When you’ve got good product leadership the chaos starts to make sense. You ship fewer features, but they speak directly to customer needs. They come with instrumentation so that you can measure their impact. Great ideas get amplified, missed attempts are spotted and quickly culled.

When your product team is working, the product connects directly to the strategy of the business. You can see how the roadmap elements move the needles you care about. You can elevate the conversation from “Ship this feature by Friday,” to “How should we tailor our onboarding to maximize engagement for different kinds of users?” Your PMs start to surprise you with vision and creativity that is rooted in reality. It makes sense. It matters.

This rarely happens right away. In my experience, good PMs often start with the safe, obvious bits. It helps them get processes in place, and ensures that they put up some immediate wins to earn the respect of their engineers and the broader team. On that foundation, I expect to see them take broader autonomy and scope pretty quickly and make the product their own.

A product manager that’s still running someone else’s roadmap a year in is effectively a project manager. A product manager that throws the roadmap away on day 1 in favour of their new vision is very likely a liability.

What if it’s Too Late?

You’ve already hired them, haven’t you? The ideas people. The CEOs of the product. And maybe you’re reading this and it makes some sense to you but you don’t think your existing team can get there.

You might be right.

But let’s choose to believe in them. Most people can learn most things. And I’m a really big fan of treating people like adults. So talk with them about this stuff. Ask them what they think of it, and what supports they need. Ask them if they agree.

And they may not. And it may be that they are not going to work out in your organization. And that can be okay.

If your team does agree they need a change, they’ll still need support to make it real. And so my second piece of advice, worth whatever you paid for it, is to hire an experienced product leader to drive that cultural shift.

Most product leaders love building things, and this is a good meaty role for the right candidate. Give them the founder’s vision. Expect them to want to see pitch decks and understand the state of the business. Get them to meet your existing product folks to see the potential that’s waiting to be unlocked. You can do it.

Sorry not Sorry

If any of this stuck, I’ve made your job harder. You had such a huge candidate pool before! You could hire exciting people with great ideas! Now you have to go hunt, and you need them to have well developed operational chops. There are fewer of those. And they are more hotly contested by savvy organizations that know what they’re trying to build.

But I’m not sorry. They’re out there. They work hard, they rarely get the credit, and they deserve to be courted. It can be thankless to wrangle a team of engineers and designers week after week. Particularly when the output is “reliable, measured, upward progress” which is easy to take for granted. So if I drive up their market rate a bit, I’m not sorry at all.

Go find them. Add your vision to theirs and their system to yours. Make something amazing.


About the Author

This article was written by Johnathan Nightingale of the Co-Pour. The Co-Pour is dedicated to leadership lessons with relevant articles and insights on the subject. Johnathan is also the CPO @Hubba and editor of

Callum Connects

Jason Feng, Co-Founder of Pillpresso



Mr. Jason Feng is re-engineering the healthcare industry.

What’s your story?
I am an engineer at heart. I enjoy the process of problem solving and have been actively developing innovative solutions to existing problems. Me and my co-founder settled on the problem of poor medication adherence among the elderly. This was a problem which struck a chord with us because we all have loved ones who have to take multiple medications on a daily basis. The complex medication regimen, coupled with declining cognitive abilities of the elderly tend to exacerbate the lack of medication adherence, which may lead to disease relapse and hospital readmissions, ultimately increasing the burden to caregivers and the society.

What excites you most about your industry?
The problem of medication adherence is not a new one in the healthcare industry. In fact, lack of medication adherence is a well-researched problem in many countries. Solutions which have been developed to address this problem face three major issues:

  • Entrenched mindset within the healthcare system, many of which are used to and unwilling to change from the legacy systems which were implemented decades ago.
  • Complex nuances in healthcare delivery across different countries, making it hard to “copy” and “paste” solutions which have worked well in other areas.
  • Because poor medication adherence is multifactorial, and many solutions focus solely on a few aspects, and do not employ a holistic approach.

Nevertheless, entering this industry at this time excites me because we are in the midst of a global shift in healthcare models; one where the industry is moving away from a service-based model, towards a more value-based model. This shift means that traditional players such as insurance companies and pharmaceuticals are under increasing pressure from patients and payers to demonstrate the value of their products under real-world use. Medication adherence data is one crucial missing link in this puzzle to deliver better care to patients. Being able to build a business around these incumbents and pioneer a new way of care is something which I look forward to.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I am a Singaporean. Most of my experiences throughout my life have been in Asia.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
I have not worked in other Asian countries outside of Singapore, so I can’t comment on other Asian countries too much. Singapore has a relatively low barrier for starting a business, and all business rules and regulations are clear and transparent. The startup ecosystem is also rather comprehensive and easily accessible. Being a small country, Singapore has a very limited market for products and services. However, due to its size and efficiency, it serves as an excellent test bed for new ideas. Being a travel hub, travelling to other Asian countries is cheap and easy.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Fail fast, fail often. The greatest lessons are never learnt through success.

Who inspires you?
Elon Musk

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Successful launch of Falcon Heavy and the recovery of the 2 side cores. The way the 2 cores landed was like something you’d only see in CGI. Very well calculated.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Applied for NOC (NUS Overseas College)

How do you unwind?
Go rock climbing.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Nepal. I’m an outdoors guy. Being able to trek around the Himalayas is probably the best form of relaxation for me.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Creative confidence, by the Kelly Brothers

Shameless plug for your business:
Pillpresso is an award-winning health-tech startup that aims to improve medication adherence. We’re developing a medication management system that empowers seniors to manage their medicines independently and deliver proactive healthcare in the community through technology. Comprising individuals with complementary skills across business, engineering and medicine, our team is driven by a desire to improve healthcare and the human condition.

Grand Prize Winner of the 2017 Tech Factor Challenge

Grand Prize Winner of the 2015 Modern Aging

How can people connect with you?
[email protected]

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
Download free copies of his books here:

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Will Financial Liberalisation Trigger a Crisis in China?



The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been liberalizing its financial system for nearly 4 decades. While it now has a comprehensive financial system with a large number of financial institutions and large financial assets, its financial policies are still highly repressive. These repressive financial policies are now a major hindrance to the PRC’s economic growth.

The PRC is at the beginning of a new wave of financial liberalization that is necessary for supporting the country’s strong economic growth. The country’s leaders have already unveiled a comprehensive program of financial reform, which includes 11 specific reform measures in three broad areas: creating a level-playing field (such as allowing private banks and developing inclusive finance), freeing the market mechanism (such as reforming interest rate and exchange rate regimes and achieving capital account convertibility), and improving regulation.

But could financial liberalization lead to a major financial crisis in the PRC? What would be the consequences for financial stability as the PRC moves to further liberalize its financial system? If the PRC repeats the painful experiences of Mexico, Indonesia, and Thailand, then it might not be able to achieve its original goal of overcoming the middle-income trap.

International experiences of financial liberalization, especially those of middle-income economies, should offer important lessons for the PRC. In our new research, based on cross-country data analysis, we find that financial liberalization, in general, reduces, not increases, financial instability. This powerful conclusion is valid whether financial instability is measured by crisis occurrence or by fragility indicators, such as impaired loans and net charge-offs. The only exception is that financial liberalization does not appear to significantly lower the probability of systemic banking crises, although it does lower the risk indicators for banks. These results have higher statistical significance and are greater in magnitude for the middle-income group than for the entire sample.

The insignificant impact on banking crises, however, should be interpreted with caution. One of the possible explanations is that under the repressed financial regime, the government supports banks with an implicit or explicit blanket guarantee. This reduces the probability of an explicit banking crisis, although the banking risks may be even greater because of the moral hazard problem. In fact, government protection of banks could also increase the probability of a sovereign debt crisis or even a currency crisis before financial liberalization.

If financial liberalization significantly reduces the likelihood of financial crises, especially in middle-income economies, then why did some middle-income economies experience financial crises following liberalization? We further investigate whether the pace of liberalization, the supervisory structure, and the institutional environment matter for outcomes of financial liberalization.

We obtain three main findings. First, an excessively rapid pace of financial liberalization may increase financial risks. The net impact on financial instability depends on the relative importance of the “liberalization effect” and the “pace effect.” In essence, what the “pace effect” captures could simply be the prerequisite conditions and reform sequencing that are well discussed in the literature. Second, the quality of institutions, such as investor protection and law and order, also matter. International experiences indicate that investor protection can significantly reduce the probability of financial crises. Third, the central bank’s participation in financial regulation is helpful for reducing financial risks during financial liberalization. This is probably because central banks always play central roles in financial liberalization, especially in the liberalization of interest rates, exchange rates, and the capital account. If a central bank is responsible for financial regulation, its liberalization policies might be more cautious and prudent.

Our research findings offer important policy implications for the PRC. (1) Further financial liberalization is necessary not only for sustaining strong economic growth but also for containing or reducing financial risks. (2) Gradual reform may still work better than the “big bang” approach, and sequencing is very important for avoiding the painful financial volatilities that many other middle-income countries have seen. (3) The government should also focus more on improving the quality of other institutions, especially market discipline, to contain financial risks. (4) It is better for the central bank to participate in financial regulation. The new regulatory system should focus exclusively on financial stability and shift from regulating institutions toward regulating functions. It should also become relatively independent to increase accountability.


About the Author 

This submitted article was written by  and  of Asia Pathways, the blog of The Asian Development Bank Institute was established in 1997 in Tokyo, Japan, to help build capacity, skills, and knowledge related to poverty reduction and other areas that support long-term growth and competitiveness in developing economies in the Asia-Pacific region.

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