We’re seeing a rising tide of interest in the art and science of product management. The product manager is the person who translates customer requirements into product features at the start of a development process, and who translates the features back into customer benefit messages at the end. As the point of contact between market reality and engineering reality, a product manager is the linchpin who can make a product into a market success – or doom it to irrelevance. But product management isn’t well understood within many corporations. They often fail to give product managers the support, training, and empowerment they need to succeed.
Product Management = Compelling Innovation
Globalization and product management makes product management more important than ever before. Efficient and low-cost companies in other parts of the world, some of them government subsidized, now have much greater access to markets in the first world. Many of these companies specialize in the rapid, low-cost production of generic copies of successful products. A company based in the developed world can’t win just by making a good product at a reasonable price. To survive, western companies must innovate – and they must make sure their innovations are compelling enough that customers will pay extra for a non-generic product. Making that happen is the essence of product management done right.
What Product Managers Aren’t
Unfortunately, at many high tech companies the product manager often gets pulled into the middle of the development process as a problem-solver. When there’s a risk of a schedule slip or a conflict over resources, the product manager often ends up attending meetings and researching options, which eats into the time available for their core tasks. We’ve worked with companies where the product managers are so overburdened that they can no longer truly lead their products. They can’t do the up-front work necessary to define a winning product strategy, or the back-end work to make sure it’s marketed properly. The result is inevitably mediocre products that don’t hit their sales goals, and product lines that aren’t well differentiated from their competitors.
To get consistent and insightful leadership from product management, a company needs to take several steps. Failure in any one of them can cause the process to fall apart. The steps are:
- Create a corporate culture in which product management can succeed. Engineers must be willing to take the lead from product managers on feature decisions.
- Support product managers with information and peer groups that can help them succeed, especially timely and flexible market research.
- Train product managers to listen properly to three key audiences – customers, competitors, and their own executives. The trick is not to produce what customers ask for, but what they need.
- Hire product managers and engineers who can work together. It’s better to hire "B" players who work together well than "A" players who won’t cooperate.
There’s a lot more to good product management than the basics we’ve listed here. Contact us if you want more information.