Monday, August 26, 2013

4 Problems Companies Face in Making Product Decisions


Why is product management important?

Whether or not they employ product managers, companies make daily decisions about how to develop, market, and sell their products. As they make these decisions, companies typically face - or are trying to overcome - four general problems.

The Problems


Products don't provide value to prospective buyers and users.

Products that don't deliver value generally don't succeed in the marketplace. Value comes from solving problems that prospective customers face. "Cool" technologies and feature-laden products, if they don't help customers solve or avoid compelling problems, don't provide value that lead to usage or sales.

Effective product management identifies a set of prospect problems that drive an overarching value proposition, and it empowers the entire product team to deliver and communicate that value.

Developers don't know what to build, and why.

Developing a great product requires a shared understanding, not only of what the product should do, but why it should do it.  In some cases, developers field varying - even conflicting - feature requests from sales and other colleagues and aren't equipped to prioritize them in a sound manner. Moreover, when developers don't know the motivating reasons for implementing product features, they are unable to fill the "gaps" and make the best judgment calls when questions about appropriate product behavior arise. Some developers aren't as motivated to work on products or features unless they recognize the value to buyers and users.

Great product management works with designers and developers to create a shared understanding of the product requirements, which are the least stringent conditions that must hold to solve or avoid the problems.

Sales and marcom can't consistently
articulate the value of products.

When sales and marcom don't have a thorough understanding of buyers and users and the problems they face, it makes it difficult for them to generate and convert leads. In such an environment, sales and marketing messages lack the clarity and consistency needed to foster brand awareness and perception of value.

The best product management develops crisp value propositions, consistent with timeless marketing principles, that sales and marcom can use in messaging prospects.

The process of learning the market is slow and unreliable.

The initial business model for a product is a set of hypotheses. For any particular product, some of these hypotheses almost invariably turn out to be wrong. Guesses about what will appeal to the market may reflect our peculiar personal preferences and not rest on a solid foundation. In other cases, prospects themselves lead us astray, requesting features they'll never use.  The marketing tactics or sales channels we thought would be the most effective don't meet our expectations. 

Companies learn these lessons over time, but often in a painful and expensive manner.  Great product management immerses itself in markets and employs iterative feedback loops to test and modify business model hypotheses, thereby producing more educated hypotheses and quickly discovering mistakes.

Final Thoughts
These problems have many manifestations.  Moreover, as with all problems, we can ask "Why?" and determine problems further up the problem chain.  These four problems ultimately lead to less revenue, wasted time and money, and frustration.

In the next entry, we'll explore the ways that companies make product decisions as they experience, or attempt to address, these problems.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Talents of Great Product Managers

The Responsibilities

Product managers lead the process of making strategic decisions about what should go in a product and how to market and sell it. Ideally, they base these decisions on in-depth knowledge of the market - prospective buyers and users, the problems they face, and the competition - and apply sound marketing principles to make the decisions. They build a shared understanding of the market, the business model, and the strategy among members of the team.

Talent, not Industry Experience

But how can a hiring manager identify a product manager that will excel at performing these duties?  As Buckingham and Coffman advise, the most successful managers select candidates based on talent, and not so much for experience.  Thus the typical product manager job posting that lists experience in the industry as a prerequisite is misguided.  Read more on the topic of industry experience and product management.

What Is Talent?

According to Buckingham and Coffman, a talent is “a recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied”.  Unlike a skill, a talent spans every aspect of a person's life and doesn't manifest itself merely in a particular field or professional environment.

The Talents

Acquisitive and emergent learner.  The primary talent of a great product manager is that she pro-actively acquires knowledge, learns without direction, and constructs new knowledge from the patterns she observes.  Researcher Martin Rayala distinguishes among four types of learning: transmission, acquisition, accretion, and emergence.  The most talented product managers don't rely on learning through instruction (transmission) or on learning through experience (accretion).

Principled.  Great product managers align activities and details with larger goals and principles.  Acquiring market knowledge is necessary but not sufficient for making sound product decisions.  A great product manager is relentless in applying timeless marketing principles (which are often counter-intuitive) and in asking how activities and decisions help the company and the customer.

Disciplined.  Great product managers impose structure on work and life.  They aren't satisfied with "unconnected dots" and, in their professional lives, are constantly striving to make sense of market data and synthesize it into a coherent overarching model and strategy.  This characteristic is closely tied to emergent learning.

Adaptable.  Great product managers adjust beliefs and actions in response to new information.  While relentless in adhering to principles, they know market realities determine product success, and they recognize that up-front hypotheses about the market require testing through build-measure-learn feedback loops.

Facilitative.  Great product managers recognize, cultivate, and activate talents and opportunities.  They exhibit leadership by identifying and activating the talents in team members.  They uncover challenges that prospects face, recognize opportunities, and facilitate the people and processes to nurture and pursue them.

How to Identify Talent

Resumes are a poor way of identifying and evaluating talent.  Instead, conduct brief interviews of product management candidates, probing into their passions and approaches to life, work, and solving problems.  As a general rule, you'll gain the most reliable and important insights into candidates' talents from what they say about everyday life situations, not how they describe their work-specific skills.  Using these methods and identifying these talents, a hiring manager can find a promising product manager candidate who hasn't even previously played the role.