This week, Ayodeji Fasore - Vice President, Product Management & Operations for Appzone Group - takes over The Flip.
Today’s edition feels a bit serendipitous for me, as I’m deep in company-building mode for The Flip, doing the (boring yet vital) work of operationalizing and systematizing. As Ayodeji outlines, setting up product teams for success requires a comparably systematic and strategic management-led approach. And from his myriad experience building product teams with Appzone, Interswitch, and Africa Prudential, there is a lot we can learn.
By: Ayodeji Fasore - Vice President, Product Management & Operations - Appzone Group
I’ve been privileged to build a couple of product teams from the scratch, and I can tell you this is no mean feat. While there is no one-size-fits-all playbook, there are lessons I aim to share from my experience setting up product teams at Interswitch, Africa Prudential, and Appzone Group, which I believe to be broadly applicable. While much of what this edition discusses are global best practices, it becomes clear during implementation the importance of adapting and crafting for cultural, product, or market contexts. This is particularly crucial considering the wide nature of the problems being solved by product-led companies across African markets and sectors.
When I joined Africa Prudential, I was tasked with leading its journey to digital transformation. We were well recognized in the financial sector, listed on the Nigerian Stock Exchange as a public company, and we aimed to build a niche for ourselves in the digital technology ecosystem. One of my key responsibilities was to set up the product team in a bid to become a product-led organization.
The first thing I did was chart a course in 30-day increments - the 30-, 60-, and 90-day plans. While cliché, this plan always seems to have worked for me across my career, and I find it helps me think, plan, gain stakeholder alignment, and most importantly, implement a nimble strategy.
The first 30 days are spent learning about the organizational goals and vision, culture, structure, market positioning, key stakeholders, and yes, internal politics, which are undoubtedly part of any organization. This initial knowledge is essential to drive impact in the next 60 days.
The next 30 days were spent laying the groundwork for building a solid product team, which included running gap analysis and gaining stakeholder alignment. Every high-achieving product organization needs key resources who are instrumental in implementing the standards and best practices to ensure success.
A gap analysis is one of those management exercises that can be an impactful tool for startups and growth-stage companies alike. In essence, it’s an attempt to compare the actual performance of an organization with potential or desired performance.
When I joined Africa Prudential - initially a subsidiary of United Bank for Africa, before being spun out and listed on the NSE - our goal was to build a product-led organization and carve a niche for itself within the digital technology ecosystem. We had a very clear ideal state of the organization which, when compared to the current stage, enabled me to develop and implement a plan to drive the desired change.
In particular, and with the help of key team members, we started by documenting findings in the areas of culture, existing structure, team anatomy, product vision, existing standards & best practices, and productivity tooling.
From there, the plan required buy-in.
Gaining Stakeholder Alignment
While at Interswitch Group, I was part of a team that developed a mobile banking-as-a-service product. My team was responsible for managing the mobile banking products for some of the biggest banks in Nigeria, including FirstBank, Zenith & GT Bank. In that role, it was clear from the onset, particularly in a B2B role, how important stakeholder alignment would be to the success of my work as a product manager.
Prioritizing stakeholder relationships and communications includes not only key members of the management team, managers of respective teams, team leads, peers & subordinates, but I was also intentional about prioritizing the engineering and human resources teams respectively as they were key to delivery and hiring. In particular, I have found two series of questions especially helpful - “What, How, Why?” and “What’s in it for me?”.
The “What, How, Why” required me to go beyond what is being built, and how we are building it, to why it needed to be built. As product leaders, it’s our responsibility to sell the stakeholders this picture. This often requires connecting with stakeholders on a level beyond work, and yeah, often over drinks.
Meanwhile, the “What’s in it for me?” approach requires showing the team and stakeholders how the plan will benefit them and make their work easier. For some, that might look like how new processes would reduce the turnaround time for them, or for others how it would increase efficiency.
I can’t say how important it is to hit the nail on the head with this one.
As the saying goes, no man is an island, and every product organization requires the right resources to help drive the product vision, standards, and best practices while leveraging the right structure. While trying to hire at Africa Prudential I had to define the type of structure the team was going to have, taking into consideration factors like budget, preferred team size, industry or sector, product portfolios & availability of resources.
I also had to be clear on how I wanted to organize the teams. We hired the product managers based on product portfolio types, which in this case meant dedicated PMs for the digital technology consulting space, e-commerce, and multiple PMs for the financial technology sector, where we had a larger presence. Other ways I’ve seen the team structured is based on customer segmentation, product customer journey, and product life cycle.
In our case, we adopted a matrix structure: the product managers reported vertically to the chief product officer and simultaneously were part of horizontal product squads each driving unique value propositions.
And while hiring, we worked closely with the human resource team to adopt a few critical hiring strategies, including in-house sourcing, outsourcing partnerships, graduate trainee programs, internships & career switching opportunities. While we talk a lot about talent scarcity, these strategies helped us find the best talent despite the resource crunch that many organizations are experiencing.
Meanwhile, as we see increased layoffs in the tech sector, as a result of macro conditions and overhiring, it’s a pertinent reminder about the thoughtfulness required when constructing the team anatomy.
I’ve always found it most impactful to keep teams as nimble and as small as possible. You may have heard of Amazon’s two-pizza team structure, in which every internal team should be small enough that it can be fed with two pizzas - which is the team structure we currently adopt at Appzone Group. We ideally don’t have more than 7 to 9 people per squad.
In terms of product scope, the product manager's work was divided into three major parts: product development taking the product from ideation to launch, product management - i.e., taking and driving our product across the standard product lifecycle (introduction, growth, and maturity) - and lastly product strategy, where the thinking behind the product was defined around pricing, expansion, partnership, and monetization strategies.
Culture, Standards, and Best Practices
Upon joining Appzone Group and being tasked with the responsibility of setting up its product team, I understood that even more important than the resources the culture of the team would essentially define the way of life.
We prioritized diversity, inclusion, collaboration, and digital transformation, which are some of the key foundations for a product-led digital organization. Some key mindsets which helped us in setting up a product-led organization at Appzone, and which form an important part of our culture include:
- A customer-centric mindset: this is extremely important to the success of a product organization. This mindset ensured that we always built to solve a customer’s problem.
- Agile approach & scrum framework: building and implementing the agile mindset helped us prioritize learning, understanding, collaboration, and implementing speedily so as to deliver high-performing results. The scrum framework fueled the agile process with key activities such as sprint planning, sprint retrospectives, and daily standup sessions.
- Data-driven decision-making: mining, refining, warehousing, and analyzing data before making informed decisions became a way of life, and is a crucial part of any digital (and also increasingly legacy) organization.
- Human-centered design: while designing we ensured the user is always at the center of the process and therefore involved across the entire value chain. This drastically improves the user experience of our products.
- Continuous integration and continuous deployment: introducing the required level of automation in the software development life cycle helps enhance the team’s continuous integration, delivery, and deployment processes.
At Appzone, we are scaling an indigenous core banking solution for financial institutions across Africa and have built other ancillary products such as agency banking, digital lending automation, and card issuance solution. Ensuring these products are able to deliver on their promise required us instituting these best practices and standards.
There are many different activities, across many different parts of the product strategy, development and management processes, that require standardization and templatization. In the initial stages, this includes customer research, market research, competitive analysis, and product performance research. Later on, documentation is built around product requirements, functional requirements, user stories, user personas, user preferences, acceptance criteria, business requirements, and more.
This ensures the inherently cross-functional nature of product building to operate more efficiently. With proper documentation, we are able to rely on product designers to help bring the designs to life in an interactive way using the design thinking approach comprised of user and customer journey designs, empathy, emotional mapping, wireframing, low and high-fidelity designs, and usability testing. After the product is brought to life visually, the product team then works with engineering to implement the solution in an agile way relying on the scrum framework.
After testing has been completed, the product is then deployed to the live environment or production after which the product team takes ownership of driving the product launch. And even after the product has been launched into the market, it requires continuous enhancement and management across the product life cycle.
Defining product and portfolio strategy means spending a lot of time thinking about areas like product pricing, leveraging partnerships to increase the addressable market, product bundling and unbundling, service offering delineation, product positioning, unit economics & business models, distribution channels strategy, and product storytelling.
In recent times at Appzone, we’ve started to put checks and balances in place to ensure these standards and best practices are maintained, as well. We focus on ensuring standards around the scrum methodology application, as well as tracking and compliance around product management standards, and the software development life cycle (i.e., specification, prototyping, product design, development, testing, release, and deployment).
There are increasing levels of nuance and complexity to building products that solve important problems and create delightful experiences for end users. Particularly as Africa’s tech ecosystem grows, and its economies continue to undergo digital transformation at scale, these pertinent product lessons, I hope, are helpful to emerging and seasoned product professionals alike.