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There Are No Shortcuts In Product Management

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There is no recipe for really complicated, dynamic situations”. Ben Horowitz

This is what Product Management is like – complicated and dynamic.

Yet it seems that everywhere you turn, people are looking for the Product Management equivalent of a list like ‘how to achieve a flat stomach in 5 steps’, or ‘how to become a millionaire by doing these 5 things’, or ‘5 things that will cure world hunger’. These headlines suggest that if you follow 5 steps, life will transform immediately. Unfortunately, there isn’t a recipe or shortcuts for extracting information from ‘difficult to find’ customers, managing stakeholders who have intricate requirements, and building products for markets that constantly change. It takes persistence and hard work.

Ben Horowitz tells it like it is.

There are no silver bullets for this, only lead bullets. We had to build a better product.

I started my journey as a Product Manager in an Internet Service Provider just before and during the dotcom crash. Jeez, I spent many a sleepless night trying to ‘find’ potential customers. Customer growth had stopped (and it actually never recovered) and I had the job of working on the customer forecast trying to figure out who would buy our internet service in certain areas of Australia. We needed to show our investors that we still had a viable business. Many nights you would see a team of us huddled around spreadsheets until 3 in the morning, counting the number of people, town by town who may need internet or who would leave their current provider for our product.

There were no shortcuts then and other than just digging in and doing the hard work, none that I’ve come across since that time.

Despite the lack of shortcuts however there are basics approaches that can help you become great at Product Management.

  1. If all else fails, always go back to first principles.

A lot has been written about Lean, Agile and the variations in between. All great stuff. It’s great because it has given us a new and pithy way to express and do things that give us results that lead to sales, revenue and growth. We know we can’t create a product that is desirable without engaging with the market and understanding the market problem. Lean Startup has taught us that by telling us to start with a clear value hypothesis.

But when things become too complicated, and we can’t figure out the difference between an MVP and an MVP experiment to establish product market fit, go back to first principles. If your product plan goes astray and you can’t figure out how to move that sales/revenue/growth needle, go back to first principles. If your competitors are killing you, go back to first principles.

The first principles of Product Management are:

  1. Who is the customer?
  2. What is the customer problem?
  3. Does the current / new product solve the customer problem?
  4. Is our current / new product better than other solutions in the market?
  5. Can we make money solving the customer problem?

Barbara Nelson sums it up well.

It is vastly easier to identify market problems and solve them with technology than it is to find buyers for your existing technology.”

As you can see, it’s not rocket science. Getting the answers to these questions is the first step to solving ‘the’ problem.

  1. Enjoy the discomfort of not being good at something.

Product Management is a broad domain. Activities shuffle between the engineering domain and the marketing domain and also, from strategic to operational. And Product Managers will be expected to manoeuvre smoothly in every direction. There will be plenty of times that Product Managers need to step in to fill the gaps because there aren’t sufficient resources to complete that piece of work.

As one of the last remaining Product Managers in a company during the dotcom crash, I was ‘gifted’ a portfolio of interactive TV products. Having limited experience in that domain, I struggled for several months to add value to any of the design or technical discussions. In order to fill the gaps, I had to do work that was unfamiliar and out of my comfort zone. Yet before long the technical gaps closed as I brought my business and customer focus to the discussion. I am a champion at designing interactive TV experiences now.

Becoming great at Product Management means stepping out of our comfort zone, not shying away from projects or activities that require us to acquire new skills. The discomfort usually leads to a steep learning curve as we find ways to increase our knowledge and skill in the subject matter.

  1. Develop self-confidence but don’t be arrogant.

Bo Ren from Facebook says

A good Product Manager is a scientist, armchair psychologist and janitor in a cross functional team”.

Self-confidence is a pre-requisite in order to fulfil all those roles as a Product Manager. Self- confidence is evident in the way that we communicate, project ourselves, deliver work and treat others. It is noticeable when we present our product narrative effortlessly and with passion. And, it is definitely noticeable when we have to deliver bad news.

To develop self-confidence, at least for me, knowing the subject matter intimately is the first step. This means answering pretty much any product, market and industry question thrown at us. Secondly, it means using our “spidey product sense and backing ourselves when we’re making some pretty important decisions. “Do we launch now without the feature that delivers the most customer value or shall we delay the launch by 2 weeks?”  A Product Manager develops the gut feel “spidey sense” to answer this question with experience, but developing this experience means having the humility to be wrong sometimes, to own the mistakes and learn from them.

There is a difference between self-confidence and arrogance. A self-confident Product Manager takes the time to explain why we’re heading down a particular path and an arrogant Product Manager tells people to head down a particular path. Don’t be the arrogant twerp. The product will be developed begrudgingly instead of the love it deserves.

  1. Get experience in different sized companies.

The difference between Product Management in a small, big and in-between company is pronounced. Neither one is better than the other. They both have their merits. Working at different sized companies allows us to become more proficient at a broader range of activities in different environments. It means we’ll be able to wield more of our skills. The experience gained from one type of organisation prepares us for the other, enabling us to become a better Product Manager.

In a small company, a Product Manager (if one exists) is called upon to tackle a lot more; from strategy development to backlog and launch management. There are no safety nets in a small company and as the Product Manager, we may be the difference between the company’s success or failure.

In a large company, a Product Manager focuses his or her efforts on a narrower range of activities. There is a need for more role specialisation in large companies. Planning and risk reduction are key drivers because there is a lot more to protect in a large company. It’s also no secret in a large company that Product Managers have to bring their ninja stakeholder management skills. We have to simultaneously protect our product from ‘feature bombs’ and play well with others to get things done. We have to strategically navigate through the organisational maze to get our product plans realised. We have to manage a larger number opinionated stakeholders, which if mastered well, is a mighty fine skill to have in any job.

  1. Create your own kit bag.

According to Aha, a Product Manager should ideally be focused on 2 or 3 of these areas; engineering, design, customer or business.  Our natural skew towards one or more of these areas naturally influences what is in our ‘kit bag’. The Product Manager’s kit bag contains a set of tools, templates, techniques, knowledge, prior experience and know-how. It is what makes us great at our craft. It is something that we bring to every company, helping us do the job without prior knowledge of the industry or the subject matter. There are some tools and techniques that are essential to the role regardless of where the natural inclination of the Product Manager lie.

Here’s the essential items in my kit bag. This is what I use to take me from one client to the next.

  • Presentation
  • Roadmapping
  • User Stories
  • Product Strategy
  • Customer Interviews
  • Value Proposition
  • Financial Reports
  • Problem Statements

Different companies dictate what a Product Manager brings out of his or her ‘kit bag’. The level of skill and maturity lies in knowing when to bring out the appropriate tool from the kit bag. More importantly though, a great Product Manager keeps his or her ‘kit bag’ up-to-date, removing tools that are not being used and refreshing the contents through ongoing training and interactions with the Product Management community. Have you thought about the contents of your kit bag?

  1. Be addicted to Product Management.

The economist Kenneth Rogoff said

Being very good at anything involves being somewhat addicted

All the great Product Managers I know are addicted to Product Management. There are two parts to this addiction. The first is to be great at our craft. To seek out others who are great at it too. To hang with, and learn from them. The second is an obsession to get a product that best fits our market. That means leaving our desk, speaking to customers directly and finding solutions that solve customer problems exceptionally well.

At its core though, the addiction gives us the drive and the ingenuity to solve difficult problems.

  1. Hit goals.

There are no short cuts to hitting organisational goals… but it’s the ultimate expression of a great Product Manager.

I’ve been practicing Product Management for just over 15 years and every day I add a small piece to my growing puzzle. Not only are there no short cuts to great Product Management, but I don’t believe there’s a destination. Only good practice.

Please add your feedback in the comments below.

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1 Comment

  • Keith says:

    Thanks for the reference to Aha! in this post, it was a great read and had lots of nice insight and quotes.


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