Monday, May 21, 2012

Product Management Bookshelf

Great product management requires a combination of learning, leadership, facilitation, and strategy skills.  To gain and maintain proficiency, new and experienced product managers alike can benefit from reading books on these topics.  My product management bookshelf includes a number of texts that never cease to benefit me.  I find myself referring back to the books to refresh my skills, rekindle my product management passions, and cite interesting passages to friends and colleagues.

Here are some of the top books I recommend product managers read.  The books I'm listing aren't books on product management per se, but they cover skills essential for effective product management.  If you're an executive overseeing a product management or product team, consider buying these books for the team's product management bookshelf.

22 Immutable Laws of Marketing: Violate Them at Your Own Risk
Al Ries and Jack Trout

This classic book enumerates and explains the principles that an organization should apply when making strategic marketing decisions.

A product manager leads the process of making such product decisions as which market problems to solve, the unique value proposition the product should embody, and which buyers and users to target.  Market knowledge is necessary to make informed decisions but is not sufficient.  Timeless principles of marketing are also essential for synthesizing this knowledge and applying it to actual strategic decisions about the product.

Your product manager has identified unsolved problems in the marketplace and how the market perceives competitors.  But how should the product team decide which of the unsolved problems to take on and what brand promise(s) the product should make that will resonate in the market?  Ries and Trout tell us that the Law of Focus, the Law of the Opposite, the Law of Sacrifice, the Law of the Mind, the Law of Candor, and other "immutable laws" should determine these types of decisions.

Running Lean: Iterate from Plan A to a Plan That Works
Ash Maurya

This new book is by a thought leader in the lean startup community who has refined and synthesized the best ideas of Eric Ries, Brant Cooper, Alex Osterwalder, and Steve Blank, and has melded them with a thorough understanding of both marketing and development.

You've heard about agile development. Is it really just for development, or does it encompass product strategy, marketing, and sales? Lean startup clearly encompasses all of them. In particular, you won't optimally define all aspects of your product strategy up front. Your product strategy is a set of hypotheses that you can methodically validate or invalidate using qualitative and quantitative measurements over time, enabling you to iterate and "pivot" as needed to optimize them.

The book tells us what goes into the business model for a product, describes each of its components in detail, how to make explicit the testable assumptions that underlie the hypotheses, and how to go about testing them quickly in your prospect interviews and by developing and releasing a minimum viable product (MVP).

At first glance, you might think this book is about entrepreneurship and product development.  It is, but it also squarely addresses questions central to product management at any organization.

Marketing Warfare
Al Ries and Jack Trout

My friend Prabakhar Gopalan makes a great case that strategy is not war, but this book nonetheless applies the warfare principles of Sun Tzu to marketing.  In particular, when your product team is making fundamental decisions about the unique value proposition and positioning of the product, it's essential for the team to understand these principles.

Ries and Trout describe how, depending on the competitive landscape, you should adopt an offensive, flanking, or guerrilla strategy. When conceiving and adjusting your unique value proposition, your product manager needs to identify the biggest competitor, understand its biggest strength in the market, identify the weakness within that strength, and turn the biggest weakness of your own product into a strength.

Not a lot of product managers are familiar with these concepts; your product managers can differentiate themselves and give you a business advantage if they understand and apply them.

Dirty Little Secrets: Why buyers can't buy and sellers can't sell and what you can do about it
Sharon Drew Morgen

If your product manager buys into the conventional wisdom, she understands that prospect problems lie at the root of many of the strategic decisions required for product success. This wisdom, in my opinion, is absolutely valid. However, it doesn't address an entirely separate set of factors that determine product success.

Before any buyer or user will adopt your solution, she must navigate all of the behind-the-scenes issues, emotions, and personalities that in many cases have nothing to do with the problem. The book teaches product managers this lesson and also to appreciate that they will never know - and don't need to know - what all these issues are. Product managers will learn from the book, however, some important skills they can apply to assembling the right people for prospect interviews and to facilitating those interviews.

In addition, a key challenge product managers face is getting buy-in for product decisions and driving the organizational change needed to execute on those decisions. To address this challenge, a product manager benefits greatly from understanding systems thinking, decision facilitation, and change management. The book explains how a "seller" (for our purposes, the product manager convincing the organization to adopt a new product strategy) applies this other set of skills that precede but enable the "sale".

Becoming a Technical Leader: An Organic Problem-Solving Approach
Gerald M. Weinberg

Especially when it comes to technology products, a product manager is a technical leader. He can't just inform the process of making product decisions; he also needs to unlock the synergistic talents of the entire product team to make and execute on the decisions. If the product manager has a technical background, it can be helpful, but it doesn't qualify him to be a technical leader.

This book teaches the soft skills and self-awareness necessary to transform a domain or technical expert into a problem-solving leader who brings out the best in others. "MOI" stands for:
  • Motivation. Provide the motivation for individuals and teams to work together towards common goals.
  • Organization. Create and integrate with processes that enable teams to work effectively.
  • Ideas. Manage the flow of ideas to foster innovation and problem-solving.
Got other product management books you'd recommend?  Add them to the comments, or tweet them with the #prodmgmtbookshelf hashtag.