Striking the Balance: Why Learning Programs Aren't the Sole Path to Product Team Development

A good few years ago programs such as Reforge were held in high esteem as an exclusive members only way to learn product mastery. There was an application process, a not insignificant fee associated with the learning and a slew of online seminars, documents and exercises – all designed to make you a better product manager.

The program gained so much traction in the community that many practitioners added ‘Reforge Alumni’ to their LinkedIn profile. Years later I’m not convinced that the emphasis placed on programmes such a Reforge is valid. Having witnessed so many product practitioners go through these types of learning and development courses I would debate that a better balance needs to be struck on the theortical and real-world application of the craft.

The pursuit of knowledge is a never-ending journey and product management is certainly no exception. With programs like Reforge often touted as the holy grail of product leadership development, it’s crucial to question whether they truly hold the key to unlocking greatness in the field. In this blog post, we’ll delve into why relying solely on programs like Reforge may not be the ultimate solution and explore alternative paths to mastering product leadership.

The Reforge Hype: A Closer Look

Reforge has undoubtedly gained acclaim in the product management community, promising to equip aspiring product leaders with the skills and insights needed to thrive in their roles. With a roster of renowned industry experts and a curriculum focused on growth, it’s easy to see why many are drawn to the program.

However, it’s essential to approach such programs with a critical eye. While Reforge may offer valuable insights and strategies, it’s not without its limitations. Let’s explore some of the plus and minus points of Reforge, using real quotes and citations:

Plus Points of Reforge:

1. “Reforge provided me with a structured framework to approach growth challenges in my product. The network of peers and mentors I gained through the program was invaluable.” – Testimonial from a Reforge alumni
2. “The content presented in Reforge is top-notch, with deep dives into advanced topics like retention optimisation and virality. It’s a great way to level up your skills as a product leader.” – Review from a Reforge participant

Minus Points of Reforge:

1. “While Reforge offers valuable insights, it can sometimes feel overly theoretical. I found myself craving more hands-on, practical experience to complement the learning.” – Feedback from a former Reforge attendee
2. “The cost of enrolment in Reforge can be prohibitive for some, limiting access to those who may benefit most from the program. Additionally, the time commitment required may not be feasible for professionals juggling multiple responsibilities.” – Critique from a product manager considering enrolment

Alternative Paths to Product Leadership Mastery

So, if programs like Reforge aren’t the be-all and end-all of product leadership development, what are the alternative paths to mastery? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Real-World Experience: Nothing beats hands-on experience when it comes to mastering product leadership. Take on challenging projects, experiment with different strategies, and learn from both successes and failures. Nowadays founders and the C-suite have had their fair share of product babble quotes thrown at them. Quoting from the literature has less impact than it did – instead showcase some previous projects you’ve worked on, even if they’ve not been successful. Your learnings may have more impact than those that remain intangible or theoretical
2. Mentorship and Networking: Seek out mentors who have experience in product management and learn from their insights and experiences. Additionally, build a strong network of peers and colleagues who can provide support and guidance along your journey. I’ve often brought in experts in their specialist field to talk to my teams about products they’ve been involved with or shipped. 
3. Continuous Learning: Stay curious and never stop learning. Explore a wide range of resources, from books and articles to podcasts and webinars, to deepen your understanding of product management principles and practices.
4. Cross-Functional Collaboration: Product management is inherently cross-functional, requiring collaboration with teams across the organisation. Take advantage of opportunities to work closely with engineering, design, marketing, and other departments to gain a holistic perspective on product development.

In my experience I found that many product managers or practitioners that embarked on the Reforge programmes could never fully realise the value of their investment. Whilst some of the material is useful, the time needed to compete modules or attend the online learning (cohort driven) is too much of a stretch for some. I also pose the question – if you’ve enough time to allocate to hours and hours a week of learning are you really delivering at your organisation?

There are a ton of cheaper courses available online as well as a variety of other options to further your product knowledge as outlined above. That being said, nothing beats personal development and learning. So if Reforge adds value to your knowledge and gives you more confidence in tackling the complex challenges of product management then go for it. But remember that nothing quite beats real world execution and delivery to market and learning from that.