Introducing Skull Mountain


skull mountain, craig-davies, Product Management...

Craig Davies talks to Lee Cross at Skull Mountain about their mission to put profit back into product management and driving cultural change on a global scale. 

​Craig: Could you give us an insight into Skull Mountain, and the journey so far?

Lee: It’s been a really interesting journey. We launched the business back in 2016, which feels like a very long time ago, given all we've been through in the last year.

The core of our framework is our belief that it's not good enough just to be more efficient and deliver more things in tech. The dark art is getting the right product, to the right customer, at the right time with good commercial skillsets and commercial growth.

It's not just about delivering more efficiently, it's about driving growth, and driving growth as a whole organisation.

It's been an interesting journey for us, starting out doing something different in the agency world, evolving into a consultancy. Now we're a framework and the journey has been to make the product growth mindset and product skillset far more accessible for clients. They can pick and choose what they need from that and go drive success off the back of it.

Craig: There’s a lot of people that are in unfortunate situations with the jobs that they do. With this pandemic, it’s interesting to see people have a commercial focus. We’re obviously very fortunate to work with businesses that want to grow, invest, be more efficient and strategic with the way they build things. People have been more open about investment. Investing in certain areas that can create better commercial value. The funny thing is, it seems like a lot of these companies have companies within themselves, because they’re so big. They’re so disparate across their different teams, departments, functions and geographies. Sometimes the communication within those teams isn’t particularly efficient across departments. Being able to plug something in relatively pain free, given the amount of people that are involved in these processes, it’s hugely beneficial.

It would be interesting to understand how you think businesses can shift focus of their roadmap to optimise those new value needs?

Lee: Yeah, it's been a very interesting, I'd say probably nearly nine months. In terms of validation and conversations that we're having, and we felt a really big shift in conversation from a delivery focused output, processes and big long-term projects.

I think, given the pressure that everybody is under in all sectors now, 95% of our conversations are about ‘How can I accelerate our business and our teams to the right answer as quickly as possible? I haven't got time to talk about having more time to invest in experimentation, we need to have the right answer today, because we're at war with our competitors, with the market with the changing world.’

The level of conversation we're having has exploded around how we can come into an existing business, work with what they've got, and have a much bigger, quicker impact.

The framework really lends itself to that. I think there's been a change in the last two or three years in digital businesses where people are starting to wake up to the painful reality that there's been such a massive focus on output, efficiency, time and budget. People have not focused on driving revenue, they've not focused on success KPI’s. They've not focused on ‘How are we getting to where the business needs to be in three to five years?’ They’re still just delivering loads and loads of things, and they need to deliver less with higher quality.

There's a better product market fit that also drives towards long term business goals. It's no longer good enough to just have massive engineering teams that are very good at delivering things.

If you're drilling for oil in the wrong field, a bigger drill is not going to help you.

We've seen a big, big shift of focus away from output conversations to value conversations. That's a very broad statement, but it's true. People are talking everyday about more commercially minded things, more commercial growth.

The other shift that we've seen is that the product conversation has been hijacked by tech people. Myself included, going back. I come from a tech background from digital products. From my experience, you could have a big impact with a digital product. You could change the world through code, because it was all new and exciting. I think we then lost sight of the effects we were having.

Tech people have quite a letterbox view of the world sometimes, and actually, where we see big success is when you have a much more holistic coverage of products and more holistic overview of success.

Managing the entire customer lifecycle is having the understanding of what propositions attract what customers, what converts them best, what the best onboarding is and how you retain them.

if you look at the KPIs there, they go across the entire organisation. We've seen some of the best innovations from our clients come from the legal department and the finance team.

Craig: That's what customer management looks like in a product strategy roadmap, and how you extract that value.

Lee: Yeah, it's no longer led by tech in our world.

First off understanding where a business needs to be, to be successful, is tricky. A lot of businesses have got brilliant leadership, they've got good insights.

The second challenge is translating that into a series of roadmaps. Albeit tech, product, customer, marketing, HR people, skill sets. Then having KPI’s that drive that.

A great KPI, for example, is looking at acquiring retention, rather than driving acquisition. How do you acquire retention? A shift in the way that you're measuring numbers and looking at a holistic conversation around the people who stuck around for longer, the people who make more money. Then you’re all holistically driving the same goal. Rather than having a marketing team do fantastic propositions, but the tech team onboarding the wrong people, in the wrong way.

Craig: How do you think businesses can develop more commercial skills into their products and wider teams?

Lee: The more we learn, the more analysis we do, we see that there is a very broad scale of businesses looking at output over value.

We do a lot of work in the gaming industry. These businesses are close to the money. Essentially, in every change you make on a product or service, you can very easily measure the financial impact of that. It's very easy to be commercially minded in that arena as there are very quick feedback loops.

If you're looking at things like the technology, side performance of your product, you can very quickly link slowing down with making less money or speeding up and making more money. You can measure ROI easily.

When you look at going from an output environment to a value environment, we're talking about cultural shift. A cultural shift comes from lots of little changes. Those changes are so much easier to adopt in a fast feedback loop environment than a slight one.

Things like how you measure success, what success looks like, bringing people closer to what success looks like and measuring things. It's about lots of micro-changes.

Craig: These loops are one of the more optimum ways to ensure businesses shift that mindset from delivery output to value output.

Lee: If you look at traditional roadmaps, it's all about features and functionality.

A lot of roadmaps we see only really exist in the next three to six months. They seem to be investing and standing still. When you don’t link the roadmap and everybody working on it is saying ‘How are you servicing our long-term needs? How are you servicing the problems we need to solve to achieve our goals?’ Being that future state and taking up a holistic look, changes the roadmap.

It changes it from dictated features and functionality. It's shifting the world away from an old school, heavy project management environment where everyone's worried about deadlines and output. Having a team with a common vision and having the ability to measure success for everybody that's servicing that goal. That should all live in a roadmap, it should all live in your product function and in your methodology.

Craig: I think sometimes on my own admission, I could have more of a commercial view on things, just from our own perspective. I quite enjoy the process of understanding the challenges and giving quite a significant amount of free consultancy. Just the level of intrigue and interest you enjoy with the people that you're dealing with.

Lee: We wouldn’t exist if we didn't both genuinely get a kick out of seeing clients succeed.

It's not just a case of taking products off the table. We looked at the world in 2016 and we just saw 1000’s of siloed bits of expertise, no one really cared about the overall commercial picture of a business. They just wanted a brief and want to do good work. That's great, at the right time. No one was offering the ability to work flexibly and to get you to your goal, it was very much ‘this is it, you buy the service’. We work by giving clients the ability to constantly refine what works and constantly move towards success.

Craig: So why are Skull Mountain offering this framework and where does the value lie?

Lee: The value lies in the ability for us to rapidly make an impact.

We found when we were doing consultancy, we'd work with clients typically for six to eight months. We'd have a lot of our impact in the first two or three months.

We saw amazing people in every visit we've had, we've had clients ringing us up saying ‘Can you come in and basically help me replace this team, they're not performing, I want to double the output of that team, we need to grow in this at the other.’

Then within two or three weeks, they've done a complete return. ‘This team's great, we've just unlocked all the headaches we had’.

If we make it more self-serve, we've got the assets, we've got the processes, we've got the methodology, we've got the training, we've got the tools, we know how to glue it all together, we know what the right structure of that is. We’ve tied that in with our clients, offering it as a service.

We recognised that there are brilliant people in most organisations, products and brilliant strategies. Often the way people do things and the methodology that they lack, is what causes issues.

We’ve seen a lot of businesses move into the Agile space, they hit a big brick wall a year into that transformation and they don't know why. It's very clear to us that it’s because they're still working with requirements.

They're still working with project people who are mandated to go to a stakeholder. A bunch of requirements come out of a conversation somewhere. They become gospel or they sit in a roadmap.

Then what happens is you get all these amazing experts, designers, marketers, engineers, who are brilliant, but they get specifically told what to do every day. They come in, get given a workload for two weeks and they haven’t got a view of the world or feel they’re solving any problems. They've been prescribed what to do.

If you take all of that out and you work closer to value delivery. You work closer to the big problems to solve and delegate. You free everyone up! There's no overhead!

So, you've just cut your costs in half. Yes, people are delivering more things, but there's more innovation, it will just flow naturally. You're just unlocking the capabilities that are already there.

You're increasing the ability for people to be more commercially minded and more growth minded, you've given them the structure to do that. Also, you get better oversight ironically. You can move away into a nice roadmap where you can start trading your business, every week, you’ll be servicing your goals. You can bring in skillsets from the entire business to solve these problems and that's transformational.

Craig: It's very powerful. What is Skull Mountain’s mission?

Lee: We believe the product mindset, methodology and skillset should be commoditized across teams and people in businesses. We still believe in product managers and CEOs, even the awesome product functions, but they often end up being a siloed island within an organisation if no one else knows what the hell product is or how it works. 

So, our vision is that for any client that we work with, they have a product skillset across the board and our mission is to get that across hundreds of clients globally.