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An Interview with Hugh McLachlan

By Isabella Reynolds
An Interview with Hugh Mclachlan

Hugh Mclachlan, Head of Product at SafetyCulture and one of our speakers at LTP DIGITAL 2022 | USA is a long-time lover of great Product Management.

Hugh is a versatile business leader with a background that spans industries from start-ups to our largest bank and managing teams from 2 people to more than 450. Hugh’s launched new products, retired old ones and wrestled others through challenging adolescences.

Hugh is all about creating truly great products and cultivating the dynamic teams that build them.

Hugh caught up with us to share his love for Product Management and where he hopes to see this amazing profession heading in the future.

What do you love about Product Management?

For me, Product Management is kind of the place where ideas come to life. And for me, I find ideas absolutely intoxicating. I know when I’m onto good ones, because I find I can’t read books, I can’t do anything, because my mind just keeps ticking over.

It’s a space where we get to spend a lot of time with the problem and understand lots of different potentials. And it’s even more than that. Because, then we get the great opportunity to really bring that to life and to have that become impactful, rather than just another musing. We really get to make a real difference for people.

Where do you see the profession heading?

It’s kind of young and old at the same time. In some parts of the market, I feel like product is pretty well defined. I think increasingly, we do have a sense of what the product best practices are. And yet, in many parts of the market, it’s still pretty new and businesses are still introducing Product Managers.

There’s still a lot of variation in what they’re expecting from the role. So for me, we’re still going through that maturing period. We obviously just had the recent launch of the Association of Product Professionals, which is beginning to put a bit more rigour and structure around Product and adds more definition around what the role is and how it can contribute to organisations being successful.

The good news for me, is that we’re beginning to see broader acknowledgement that Product roles are important.

We’re seeing that organisations are putting more investments into Product and we are seeing a lot more roles becoming available.

But how companies use the product function, I think is still working through its identity stage.

And do you see companies becoming Product-Led in the future? Will it be a standard?

I don’t know if it’ll be a standard. I’d like to think it would be a standard. But at the same time, I’m quite mindful of the challenge to do that.

It really does depend on what Product-Led means as well. But if you take Product-Led as what we recognise as the best product practices, there’s still a lot of things that happen in the traditional organisation that a business needs to share and address or change to both transitions and adopt these Product’s best practices.

For example, the traditional organisational model, based largely on the industrial area and scientific management, has been about the executive function making a lot of decisions.

Whereas in product-led organisations, we want to see much greater use of the intellectual capacity of all the people.

There is a process of distributed decision making to key areas like Product where the team is closer to the customer problem, the operational challenges, understand what’s happening on the sales pipeline, and can make faster, more informed decisions.

By doing that in dialogue with the executive, is incredibly important. But that is quite a shift for an organisation to fully trust other parts of their team to make big decisions.

The next thing is really how your views on financial outcomes shift. I think there’s a potential challenge when you’re a small organisation of cash flow.

I think equally there’s a challenge when you’re a large organisation trying to hit quarterly earnings targets. When customers come to you with opportunities that require customization, organisations tend to adapt to what they need. But often, that’s the kind of thing that can dilute your product proposition and can damage your ability to be impactful to a broader market over time.

It’s going to require organisations to be more balanced between where they choose to say no to short term opportunities that could help them achieve their short term targets, as opposed to how they stay true to their proposition and the problem that they want to solve in the market to deliver long term gains.

The next thing that’s difficult is a lot of organisations have built their own opinions on what’s happening with a market, and there hasn’t been a lot of work done externally outside the organisation to really validate and build confidence.

In essence, organisations have been making a lot of bets. And I think, the product best practice doesn’t necessarily change, but we need to try to make more informed bets.

We can do that by speaking to more customers and doing more discovery. But for organisations that have been backing themselves for a long period of time, potentially being quite successful from it, investing in that feels like a waste.

Beginning to acknowledge that that’s important and it can actually help increase the number of successes that we get, is something that takes time for the business to understand and adapt to.

Lastly, I think the other thing that works against us is there are just not enough experienced Product practitioners. There are a lot of new people in the market and a lot of energy around what it should be, and from what I’ve seen, there’s also a lot of people that are extremely well-read, and really have a passion for what product is.

But I also see us at times being overly dogmatic with some of our practices. I believe being dogmatic on anything too much can actually impact the overall outcome and in some cases, potentially damage the perception of the value important practices.

For example, I’ve seen designers who get hugely excited about doing design sprints, and as a result wanted to do sprints for absolutely anything they were asked to design.

They wanted to stop the whole team and spend a week doing discovery, even if it was relatively minor changes, such as moving a button or changing some language.

Rather than using in-app experiments or real-world feedback, Sprint’s became the only tool in their toolbox. And I think that is both naive and dangerous because it begins to create the perception of “Ohhh… that’s how a design team functions”. And this can majorly slow you down and I don’t think that’s fair to the broader team.

I think that’s more of a measure of where we are as a market; we’re still developing alot of these practices.

As I said earlier, I think the practices are increasingly well understood from the materials out there in terms of how to do it, but I think there’s still a gap in how to implement them effectively.

What do you think happens if a company fails to adopt good product practices in the long term?

Long term is the keyword, because I think in the short term, not much. More and more startups get through because they usually solve a core problem.

I think what becomes harder over time is to be sustainably competitive and innovative. The more you are relying on thinking from within the building or the more opportunistic you are around taking any money that’s presented rather than protecting the core proposition of your product, the less sustainable you become.

Whereas the more quality product practices that you recognise and implement increase your likelihood of success.

Hugh has transitioned many companies over the years into product-led organisations and will be sharing how you can successfully navigate this transition as well.

Join him at LTP DIGITAL 2022 | USA on March 9, 2022 where he will be speaking on TRANSITION.