Sunday, July 3, 2011

Product Management Defined

Without a doubt this has been a very difficult post to write - every organization has a slightly different perspective on how Product Management is defined and executed. However, there are some elements that are truly universal.

Critical to the success of every Product Manager is to understand the organizational expectations i.e. the true scope of the role.  While some information can be gained from published duty statements and job specifications, often the best source is interviewing long term employees and if possible finding someone willing to act as a mentor.

Product Management is essentially a business alignment function between market requirements and development resources. This is often expressed as "delivering the right product to market", but in reality what Product Management does is align the development side of the business to meet market requirements - it's that simple.
Product Managers ensure that product(s) meet business objectives (normally revenue targets) but include other measurements such as market share, number of users, downloads etc. The main way that Product Managers achieve defined goals is through influencing other parts of the organization, such as Marketing, Sales, and Engineering - Product Managers typically have no authority over these parts of the organization.

A commonly used definition of Product Management - the "product CEO" - is completely false and not useful.  The term "CEO" implies direct control of resources, but product managers do their job strictly by influencing other groups, especially development.  One of my colleagues, Shin Nishizawa, says it well:

"I agree. The "product management is the CEO of his/her product line" statement is a load of horse-shit. Being able to achieve your means by influencing others is the most important skill for a product manager in a large, multi-product organization. My current company offers hundreds of different products so I find myself spending more time influencing my executives (as to why my business needs more investment and incremental funding) and my sales leadership (as to why their sales teams should be selling my product and making loads of money rather than selling something else) more than I spend influencing my engineering team why they should build something. Fortunately, I enjoy a good relationship with my engineering leadership which affords me the luxury to influence elsewhere."
The most visible aspect of Product Management is defining the product roadmap - by a deep understanding of many factors including the marketplace, competitors, core competencies, customer needs, partners, and so on. However, a roadmap is useless without an understanding of how the release fits into the overall product business plan and how to achieve market success i.e. Product Managers must lead by aligning the organization around a common product vision and strategy.
Equally important for Product Managers is working with non-development areas of the organization, such as as marketing and sales. Without product managers driving effective communication the other parts of product success can become disjointed or siloed, damping down success.

Top 10 - How I measure Product Management Success

  1. The single most important criteria is that Product Managers establish a product vision and strategy that fits into the overall company vision.  They are able to explain where their product/feature is heading and how it helps the company win, and can distill this down into a single slide and simple elevator pitch.  Use this pitch at the start of ever meeting to ensure that the team is aligned on where the product/feature is headed.
  2. Have a deep understanding of the market requirements and have close relationships with a number of sales, SEs, partners and customers.  They use hard data from analysts, surveys and not just opinions - Instead of saying "the customer needs this" they say "ABC Corp needs this" or "the data shows that x% of customers need this".
  3. They align resources around them to this vision and create leverage by getting everyone moving in the same direction.  Techniques include a one hour weekly meeting (known as the "Product Action Team (PAT)", and invite Dev, Marketing, Technical Marketing, Sales, Support etc. Product Management closely interlocks with these groups to get through the Product Lifecycle with everyone aligned.  
  4. There is a published roadmap that shows where the product is headed - both internal and external NDA versions. Sales and SEs know where to find this, and know who to speak with if they have questions.
  5. They show product/technology/market leadership in the company and externally using tools such as lunch and learn's, webinars, social media, external blog entries etc.
  6. They solve problems as much as they can, and don't escalate unless they truly need air-cover.  Product Managers speak with the authority of the product and have every right to move across the company solving problems. If a dev is blocked because they need a server, or headcount, etc etc etc , the PM is the one getting it done.  This is the ask forgiveness not permission standpoint - using judgment and swiping the credit card if it must be done to make sure there are no roadblocks.  
  7. They work as a team and learn and listen from their colleagues. 
  8. They relentlessly seek opportunities to improve their skills - technical, presentation, management etc.
  9. As well as their product/feature responsibilities they seek to make surrounding processes better - e.g. they sort out the mailing lists, help with a new feature request system, setup a lunch and learn.
  10. Although Product Management can be an extremely difficult job, great Product Managers are passionate and have fun - when "it's just a job" then it's time for a new career. There is an intrinsic capability of great Product Managers that I call the "GAS" factor ("Give a Shit") - they care passionately about creating and shipping great products that deliver true value to their customers.  The GAS factor can't really be taught, is hard to define, but when it's present truly great things happen.