Monday, September 30, 2013

Product Managers – What Do They Do?

A big challenge for any Products or R&D organization is deciding which markets to enter, what product features and capabilities to add, and when. We can’t do everything customers want, and they don’t always know what they want, or what is possible. As Henry Ford famously said, “If I'd asked customers what they wanted, they would have said ‘a faster horse’."

Product Management evolved as it became obvious that coordinating the process to decide what needed to be built (and in what order) was a full time job.  Every organization has a slightly different perspective on how Product Management is defined (Microsoft uses the term Program Managers). One of the unique (and some would say crazy) aspects of Product Management is that it’s not a degreed program at any college – go figure! While Product Management terminology can vary by organization, the basic best practice for this profession is consistent in all technology companies. In this article I’ll cover my own observations from a lifetime of Product Management.

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 R&D side of the business with market requirements - it's that simple.


Product Managers ensure that products have the features and capabilities to meet business objectives. Those objectives are usually revenue targets, but can include other measurements like market share, number of users, downloads, etc. Product Managers primarily achieve their defined goals by influencing other parts of the organization, such as Marketing, Sales, and Engineering, although Product Managers typically have no authority over these parts of the organization.

A commonly used definition of Product Management, the "product CEO", is completely inaccurate.  The term "CEO" implies direct control of resources and people, but Product Managers do their job strictly by influencing the other groups in the organization engaged in product development and delivery to market, especially R&D.  One of my past colleagues said it well:

“The ‘product management is the CEO of his/her product line’ statement is not correct. 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 company’s executives (as to why my business needs more investment and incremental funding) and 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. “

If I were a member of R&D, what should I expect from Product Management?

The most visible aspect of Product Management is defining the product roadmap and prioritizing features - using a deep understanding of many factors including the marketplace, competitors, core competencies, customer needs, partners, and so on.  

However, a roadmap and feature prioritization is useless to R&D (or any corporate department) without understanding how a release fits into the overall product business plan and what’s needed to achieve market success. Product Managers must establish a product vision and strategy that fits into the overall company vision, and be able to clearly articulate that vision to everyone they work with.  They must be able to explain where their product/feature is heading and how it helps the company win — and be able to distill these complex concepts down to a single slide and a simple elevator pitch.  Product Managers also need to ensure that every feature and capability they request fits into the product vision and strategy.

Once the overall product strategy is in place, Product Managers bring to R&D a deep understanding of the market’s requirements due to the close relationships they’ve established with Sales, SEs, partners, and customers.  They gather hard data (not just opinions) from sources such as detailed analyses of historical sales data, analysts and market surveys.  Instead of saying "the customer needs this," they say, "Customers need this, ABC Corp is a perfect example, and here is a list of their needs from my interview," or, "the data shows that x% of customers need this." Nothing in the market is absolute, but there are plenty of useful data points. My own personal favorite is blind win/loss analysis to truly understand what drives the purchasing decision and to identify product gaps.

The picture below is not exhaustive, but lists the main sources of data to discover potential features:


In this process, Project Managers must prioritize features based on which best support the product strategy and enable the product to win more market share. The criteria they use to make this evaluation can vary depending upon the market, competitors and product maturity.  As an example, product performance is often a key differentiator, especially in the early days of a product lifecycle.  However, over time, competitors often improve their solutions until they become “good enough,” and the market then differentiates in other ways. For example, in the mainstream motor vehicle market, all offerings give good enough “performance” in terms of top-end speed. However, miles-per-gallon is rapidly becoming the key differentiator due to the shift in the market created by the high price of gasoline.

Product Managers need to be top of changes in the marketplace and buying criteria due to this dynamic environment.  The key is to identify patterns that support the business case and product strategy, not to simply react to a single data point. Additional factors to consider when evaluating feature candidates include:



Unfortunately, there are often multiple possible paths to product success, and it can be almost impossible to prove which path is right — or wrong. If there were always one clear answer, there would be no such thing as a failed product by any company in any market.  Product Managers create a hypothesis based on the best possible information. When there are multiple answers, they pick the one that has the most likelihood of success and align everyone around that path. They need to be able to explain their hypothesis as clearly as they can to articulate their product vision and strategy.

Members of R&D, hold your Product Managers accountable for their rationale for feature prioritization. An easy way to represent prioritization rationale is to use single letter codes in the prioritized list, for example:

·         D – Differentiated Capability
·         C – Competitive Blocker Removal
·         R – Cost reducer

As mentioned above, Product Managers must also lead product strategy by aligning the non-R&D parts of the organization, such as Marketing, PSO, SEs, and Sales, so that every member of every group can communicate the great capabilities of the product with customers, partners, resellers, analysts, etc.  A key communication technique is holding a weekly one-hour meeting (known as the Product Action Team, or PAT), which includes key non-R&D personnel. Without consistent communication to maintain alignment, product-related activity can become disjointed or siloed, damping down success.

Product Managers must be inventive problem-solvers to get their product to market and build market share.  If R&D is blocked on development because they need a server, additional headcount, or any other business-critical asset, the Product Manager is the one that’s going to be heads-down to remove the roadblock.  In some cases a Product Manager must take the ‘ask forgiveness, not permission’ approach, using his best judgment and possibly a corporate credit card, for example, to eliminate an otherwise immovable roadblock. 


The key to success as a Product Manager is a close and supportive relationship with R&D, but part of any successful relationship is a healthy measure of creative friction and tension.  R&D, don’t be afraid to push a Product Manager for the market data you need or to challenge their assumptions. Effective collaboration between R&D and Product Management will always yield better results and a more successful product.