Most of you are probably familiar with skills & expertise on LinkedIn. Among the many skills to choose from is product management. Being a product management professional, I have posted that on my profile and have been widely endorsed. But I was surprised to see that some of my colleagues who are recruiters, CFOs, VCs, sales people, etc. posted product management as one of their skills. That got me thinking, does one grasp what product management really is?
I strongly believe that Product management is not a skill, but rather a profession and as such is comprised of many skills such as: market research, market segmentation, competitive analysis, product planning, defining requirements and more to name but a few.
So why do so many other professionals list product management as one of their skills?
In my opinion it stems from not knowing what product management really is and confusing management tasks with product management.
A recruiter is managing job openings, a CFO manages the company’s finance, a VC manages investments in companies, sales people manage sales accounts, but that is not product management.
A product manager identifies needs in a market and designs* a solution (which can be a service, a product or a combination of both) to address those needs. The need is common among a particular segment of the market and the solution addresses that need.
So to all my contacts, colleagues and friends who claim to have product management skills, take a good look at your professional skills & expertise and ask yourself, does my title include the words product manager? If not, then you probably should not display that as one of your skills.
*The word design means coming up with an idea of how to address a need.
Anyone who has come across job postings for product management roles has seen requirements such as these:
- Bachelor’s degree in Engineering, Computer Science, or equivalent. MBA or advanced degree preferred.
- 8+ years of successful product management.
- Minimum 5 years of experience with “insert the domain expertise here” related technologies.
For technology companies it makes sense that a product manager would be somewhat technical; after all, you would be working with engineers, so having some understanding of technology helps. Same goes for MBA/other advanced degree (although you can learn business from being in the workplace). "Experience" I understand as well - you need someone who has done it before and worked as a product manager.
But when it comes to domain expertise, I beg to differ. How important is it to have domain expertise? One can argue that if you are a hands-on tactical person that worked for a competitor, then it really makes sense to hire someone with domain expertise. But, if you are going to envision the next big thing and shape the company’s strategy, then having domain expertise may work against you. Case in point: if you were to hire a consultant, you would likely consider someone who can leverage their experience in different industries to your benefit. The advantage of having a product manager with functional expertise and no domain expertise is a fresh look at your product and market. That person hasn't been “tainted” by the conventional method of doing things so he/she can actually think outside the box. Product managers are smart; given time they will come up to speed and become your market & domain experts.
So when you are planning on hiring your next product manager, figure what type of product manager you need: someone tactical or someone strategic. If it’s the latter, you will probably get the most out of someone who has had the opportunity to work with various domains.
In aviation there is an acronym called the 5 C’s:
Climb, circle, communicate, confess, comply. All these are meant to assist a pilot who has lost orientation; they give you an opportunity to look at things from a different view - hence the climb and circle. However, if that isn’t sufficient, you need to admit you are lost and contact flight control where you communicate your situation, confess your mistakes and comply with their instructions.
This has prompted me to create the 3 C’s of product management: Communication, consensus building and collaboration. These three are applicable in various stages of product development.
Concept: when you are embarking on a new product idea communicate with all stakeholders so that everyone is aware of and understands the new road ahead. Build consensus between all parties so that you have a buy in from management, sales, marketing, engineering,and support. Finally, collaborate with all departments to make sure you are on the same track and supporting each others’ efforts.
Development: in this critical stage, communication is key. Address issues early in the process and prevent them from becoming major hurdles later on. Consensus is achieved when you know which features will not be part of your final product and collaboration goes without saying.
Release: your communication is outward facing; customers need to be informed of your product and what is included (as opposed to what was anticipated and may have been scoped out). Build consensus with your sales team as to how best sell the product, and collaborate by training your sales force and customers on how to use your product.
If at any point during the process things go wrong, communicate - make sure everyone knows what is going on, build consensus as how to proceed, and collaborate. With an informed team everything is possible, even turning a product around.
On the opening night of the Olympics, we decided to make popcorn to enhance our viewing experience. As we’ve done many times before, we placed a colored paper bag in the microwave with kernels, hit the start button and lo and behold-- the bag caught fire. As a person who plans ahead, I had a fire extinguisher in the kitchen. I attempted to use it when everything went haywire; I pulled the stopper off and pressed on the lever, and nothing happened. I kept pressing and pressing to no avail until my better half calmly grabbed a wet towel, placed it over the bag and quelled the flames.
Not understanding what went wrong and why I couldn’t get the extinguisher to work, my husband looked closely at it, and showed me there were two levers you had to push at once, proceeding to dirty my counter with the fine white powder.
What are the lessons learned?
1. Don’t use paper bags that have ink or color on them when you make popcorn in the microwave. Usually we use regular brown bags, but in the absence of one, we thought a colored bag would work as well. Clearly, it didn’t, due to the dyes and chemicals.
2. Keep a fire extinguisher on hand and know how to use it. Review the instructions in a non-emergency situation so you are sure you know how to operate it
But, the product manager in me is upset with the fire extinguisher manufacturer. When it comes to products, my mantra is: Smart, Simple, and Easy to use. As an emergency device, it should have been trivial for anyone to use under any circumstance (the kitchen was relatively dark when this happened). How come it didn’t?
Probably because no one ever thought about simplicity and ease of use. Sure, with no fire and plenty of light and time to review instructions, everything works as planned. However, one should plan for situations where everything goes wrong. That’s when your product should still be smart, simple, and easy to use.
As one of the organizers of product camp Boston last month, I was pleased to see so many attendees. We had nearly 40 sessions ranging from marketing to product management to running a start up.
With so many takes and aspects of product management, it got me thinking: Can product management ever be standardized?
Those of you familiar with PMI
probably heard of the PMP certification. This is an industry wide initiative that certifies project managers and is widely accepted. The PMP is constantly evolving and is updated by the project management community.
However, when it comes to product management and how it is implemented, no standard applies. Each company has its own definition of what product management is, making it hard to standardize this profession. Several for-profit organizations offer training and certifications for their Body of Knowledge (BOK) and methodologies, yet there is no accepted standard across all industries.
The question is whether there can be a one size fits all standard. Can a company in Hi-Tech run product management the same way a Bio-Tech company does or a financial institution? Furthermore, are companies willing to revisit how they run product management and invest in training and certifying their product managers?
To achieve a recognized standard there needs to be a clear (and hopefully non-profit) leader in the market that, through working closely with existing for-profit organizations, will come up with one certification that all groups support.
In my 15+ years in technology I have had the privilege of working as a product manager who reported to various department heads. In some cases I reported to engineering, in other cases to marketing, and more recently to the head of product management.
Why isn’t product management its own department in every company? What are the risks and challenges when product management reports to engineering or sales & marketing?
When product management is part of engineering, ideas and products are driven by technology. The product manager ends up getting involved in designing the solution rather than identifying the market needs. Engineers expect the product manager to be the solution architect, and as a result, the product manager’s job ends up being compromised. Engineers are the product experts; the product manager should be the market expert.
When product management is part of sales & marketing he/she ends up generating marketing plans, sales presentations or becoming the demo person. While all these tasks are important, they are not product management. Sales tools, sales presentations and demos should be handled by sales. Marketing documents and collateral should be handled by MarCom and/or product marketing.
All this confusion stems from the fact that the role of product management is not well defined. In companies that are market driven, product management is a department of its own. Product managers do the market research, identify the market needs, create the business plan and work closely with engineering to define a new product. They work with marketing to get the messaging and positioning correct and with sales to address their unique needs. Companies who place product management under other departments end up having a hybrid person that is neither a product manager nor anything else. Companies should strive to have a person doing a great job wearing one hat rather than a mediocre role wearing multiple hats. More is less.
So when evaluating your next position ask yourself, do I want to join a company that doesn’t understand the importance of the role of a product manager?
I recently read a book titled “Do What You Are” (by Tieger and Barron-Tieger) recommended by Tess George of Speakwell training
, and it made me think: what kind of personality makes a good product manager?
Myers-Briggs define people by four dimensions of personality:
· How we interact with the world and where we direct our energy
(E) Extroversion ------Introversion (I)
· The kind of information we naturally notice
(S) Sensing----------------Intuition (N)
· How we make decisions (T) Thinking------------------Feeling (F)
· Structured/Making decisions or Spontaneous/taking in information
(J) Judging---------------Perceiving (P)
I have observed that most product managers are either ENTJ or ENTP and here is why:
As a product manager being an extrovert is a must—you need to be able to interact with customers, peers, and management, and that means putting yourself out there.
Intuition means trusting inspiration, leading new ideas & concepts and being imaginative. Intuitive types are oriented toward the future—another key attribute.
Thinkers are logical, tend to be critical and are motivated by achievements. They make decisions based on analysis and consider it more important to be truthful than tactful.
The other dimensions are where this gets a little fuzzy.
Are you better off making decisions upfront based on info you have (J) or should you leave some options open to change (P)?
Are you product oriented (J) or process oriented (P)?
Do you set goals and work towards achieving them on time (J) or do you change goals as new information becomes available (P)?
Circumstances often lead us to behave in certain ways, particularly at work where decisions need to be made.
The bottom line is regardless of your personality type, you are the customer advocate and the product champion. Remember to use your personality to your advantage to connect with customers and colleagues alike.
How many times have you heard the expression “A picture is worth a thousand words”?
I accompanied many sales people on customer visits and found that when talking with customers, no matter how good your pitch is, there is nothing like seeing and interacting with the actual product.
No fancy brochure, presentation, webinar, technical spec or even a great discount will sell the customer on your product, unless they have had the opportunity to use it and see for themselves how it addresses their needs.
I can already see my fellow colleagues raising an eyebrow and wondering: does it mean that for every product I am building I need a demo? In theory that would be ideal, but we all know it is not always practical. There are other ways to get customers to touch and feel the product. Here are some suggestions:
- Sign up some of your potential customers as your beta users giving them the opportunity to see the product for themselves. This process achieves two things: your customers get to test drive your product and make useful suggestions, and they can serve as advocates and references for it.
- If your product lends itself to a Flash demo, you can show the customer the way your product will look and some features it will have. If they buy into the concept, you are onto something.
- Create a prototype that highlights the key features your product has.
The more exposure and feedback your product gets early on, the better its chances of making it in the market. If your product has already been released, make sure your sales people demo the real thing. After all, would you buy a car without test driving it?
A couple of years ago I led a Product Camp Boston discussion about start ups and product management. That got me thinking, is it more important to have product management in a small company or in a large one?
Some of my entrepreneur friends claim that they are product managers. After all, they identified a need, did market research and built the product. But once VCs are involved, the founder has to manage them, so who manages the product?
At large companies product management exists, but more often than not customer needs are compromised for reasons beyond the product manager’s control.
My claim is that every company needs product management, regardless of its size. All companies need someone who will assess market needs, talk to customers, drive the strategy and define the product. The difference is in the execution.
· Voice of the customer – Product managers should be the customers’ advocates. This is often achieved by visiting and interviewing one’s customers. Traveling and meeting face to face may be limited due to lack of funds at a small company, whereas a larger company may not face the same problem.
· Vision & strategy – VCs often limit the expansion of the small company if it is not aligned with their view. Large companies often have a vision, but are too slow to execute.
· Best practices – Small companies tend to do “true” product management, while large companies tend to stick with “this is the way we’ve done it before”.
So whether you are in a small company or a large company, the bottom line is make product management work. If you have limited travel funds, be creative—use online video tools to communicate with your customers. When vision is limited, bring data to support your findings and make a convincing argument. Finally, being a product manager takes effort, good communication skills, and above all, diligence. Remember, having a good product requires not only vision, but also a great product manager to drive it.
Many of my fellow product management practitioners are often placed in a difficult situation where customers request certain features for their products, but the product manager's hands are tied. It's not that they don't care about the voice of their customers, rather management's vision is different. On one hand, senior management makes promises to Wall St. or the investors, which appeases the company's shareholders, but neglects the opinion of the customers. How does a product manager ensure that s/he does not lose sight of the customers?
1. Look for common threads.
Ask yourself: will the direction my company is taking address my customers’ needs in the long run?
If you have done your homework as a product manager you should know what your customers expect from you. Look for a common thread between the customers' needs and the shareholders' interests. Sometimes they are in fact very similar.
2. What if there is no common thread?
Make sure your product offers something that satisfies your customers in addition to what was promised to your shareholders. There is always room for more customer features. It may be a hard sell to upper management, however it must be noted that the the consumers pay the bills. If you lose your customers' business, it will be detrimental to your shareholders. Have data to support this point; executives will agree with your reasoning if you have the numbers to support it.
3. You are overruled by the executives.
In the case that your customers' requests go unanswered, be prepared to discuss this with the customers. Being frank and honest goes a long way. If executive management is unresponsive, you may want to schedule a meeting between the customer and management so each party can voice its concerns. This step is especially important if it is a major customer who will be affected.
If after taking these measures management has not satisfied the consumer, be ready to concede defeat. Perhaps it is time to find a company that is more attuned to the consumers' needs.