Lead on Purpose

Promoting Leadership Principles in Product Management


Leadership and Product Management

The key to successful product management is working well with other teams. Product managers hold a unique position in the company: they depend on people from other groups, but they do not have managerial authority over those people (in most cases). Their success depends on their ability to build consensus and inspire the other team members to do great things. Therefore, a product manager must earn the trust of people in the organization and influence them to do their jobs effectively and efficiently. Product management — at every level — is a leadership role within the organization.

Here are the key roles that are crucial to your success as a product manager, and why they are important:

  • Engineering/QA: The relationship with the engineering/development team is paramount for product managers. Product managers need to provide direction for how a product should be built, and through your understanding of the market, give them assurance they are building the right product. Give them what they need, then take a step back and trust them to deliver.
  • Customer support: They form the front line to the customers and are always the first to know when things go wrong. They get the most up-to-date, critical information from customers of any group in the company. Work closely with the support team to assure your products meet customer needs.
  • Marketing: When most people hear the word ‘marketing,’ the duties of PR and marcom are how they usually interpret it. It’s crucial for product managers to work with marketing to ensure they understand the new product and know what it’s capable of doing. With this information marketing communicates the product effectively to customers and the market in general. Their questioning and probing of a product’s value is important to its success.
  • Product Marketing: This group is responsible for outbound product communication — i.e. they tell the world what the product is, the features it has and the reasons for making the purchase. Product marketing helps product management understand how the product will be received. Working together, product marketing and product management understand the market, build the right product(s) and effectively communicate to the people in the market.
  • Sales: Without a solid sales team the company will not succeed. The relationship between sales and product management is important (though somewhat difficult a times). The sales people who “get it” will feed critical information back to product management to improve the products, but they will not expect things to change overnight or for their next sale. When the PM makes a concerted effort to have a strong relationship with sales, their product success will increase.
  • Accounting/Finance: This group is often completely ignored by product management. Smart product managers know the value of having allies in the CFO’s office. At the end of the day, if the product doesn’t make money, nothing else matters.
  • Executives: A product manager’s relationship with executives varies depending on the size of the company; the larger the company, the more removed. In big companies product managers need to work effectively with the directors and VPs of the groups listed above. They should know these leaders personally and be able to walk into their office and have a discussion. The same holds true for the CEO and executives at smaller companies. The PM needs to work closely with them and provide solid evidence regarding product direction. You need to evangelize product management to executives and show them — with data and continual successes — the importance of sound product management practices.
Product managers who can work successfully with these (and other) groups in their companies will release great products and have success throughout their careers.

What other roles are important for success in product management? What have you found to be important in your organization? Please leave a comment and let me know about your experience working with other teams.

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Three practices of successful product managers

At the most basic level, a product’s success is measured by how well it sells in the market and the profit it brings to the company. A company’s success is ultimately a roll-up of all products and services selling for a profit. This seems straight forward, and yet in my experience company leaders too often lose track of this important goal. They focus on this marketing campaign or that new technology, and lose track of what’s most important. Granted, sometimes they focus too much on profit at the expense of other important directives, but that’s a topic for another post.

In most companies product managers have a lot of products and significant responsibilities. It’s easy for them to get bogged down in the countless tasks that are thrown their way every day. With all the meetings, floods of email, and requirements to manage, the thought of focusing on a product’s profitability can be illusive. It’s not impossible, however. By focusing on three simple, yet powerful, practices, product managers can channel their products toward profitability:

  1. Know your market: Get a clear understanding of the market where your products compete, and work diligently to stay in front of new trends and technologies. Make customer calls and customer visits often. Work with the sales team; understand how they sell your products. Know what works. Know the weaknesses of the products (and take action to correct them). Understand why people pay (or don’t pay) for your products. Be the voice of the customer to your company.
  2. Provide clear direction: One of the key directives for products managers is to provide clear direction to the engineering/development teams. Good product managers write understandable and timely requirements and prioritize them effectively. They provide solid product design (most effectively with the help of good designers). A key to giving clear direction is for product managers to project their confidence and full support to the work engineering is doing. Earn their trust. Inspire them to do great things, especially when developing your products.
  3. Launch successfully: A successful product launch depends on a coordinated launch plan involving many different groups. Product managers are in a unique position to facilitate successful product launches. Start with a tight, focused beta program; learn from the testers and change accordingly. Help product marketing set the proper tone for the launch by understanding the new product’s strengths. Work in tandem with the customer support teams to monitor product acceptance and make changes where necessary. Work with the sales team to make sure they understand the new product and hit the ground running when it releases. After a successful launch, monitor the product’s uptake and financials and make sure it continues to succeed. This, of course, loops back to knowing your market and making sure your product meets the needs of the people in your market.

These three practices cover the most important bases for creating successful products. You should plan time to focus on these elements on a daily and weekly basis. If you are in a leadership position in product management, take time to evaluate your team and make sure they are focusing on these key practices that will lead to profitable products.

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Book Review: Here Comes Everybody

“Revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technologies–it happens when society adopts new behaviors.” Clay Shirky, author of the book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, provides an eye-opening look at how technology is changing the way we think, work and live. The book helped me understand more clearly how the Internet has changed the way we interact and get information. Here are several ideas I found incredibly insightful:

  • “The tools that a society uses to create and maintain itself are as central to human life as a hive is to bee life.”
  • “The basic capabilities of tools like Flickr reverse the old order of group activity, transforming ‘gather, then share’ to ‘share, then gather.'”
  • The Internet is allowing amazing things to happen: “Large decreases in transaction costs create activities that can’t be taken on by businesses, or indeed by any institution, because no matter how cheap it becomes to perform a particular activity, there isn’t enough payoff to support the cost incurred by being an institution in the first place.”
  • “The Web didn’t introduce a new competitor into the old ecosystem, the Web created a new ecosystem.”
  • “In the same way you do not have to be a professional driver to drive, you no longer have to be a professional publisher to publish. Mass amateurization is a result of the radical spread of expressive capabilities, and the most obvious precedent is the one that gave birth to the modern world: the spread of the printing press five centuries ago.”
  • Regarding Wikipedia: “If even only a few people care about a wiki, it becomes harder to harm it than to heal it.”
  • On forming groups: “The net effect is that it’s easier to like people who are odd in the same ways you are odd, but it’s harder to find them.”
  • “The most profound effects of social tools lag their invention by years, because it isn’t until they have a critical mass of adopters, adopters who take these tools for granted, that their real effects begin to appear.”
  • “What is likely to happen to society as a whole with the spread of ridiculously easy group-forming? The most obvious change is that we are going to get more groups, many more groups, than have ever existed before.”
  • “The dramatic improvement in our social tools, by contrast, means that our control over those tools is much more like steering a kayak. We are being pushed rapidly down a route largely determined by the technological environment.”
  • “Anything that raises the cost of doing something reduces what gets done.”

Changes are happening at a breakneck pace; we can either embrace them and use them to our advantage, or ignore them to our peril. If you want to gain a much deeper understanding about how society adopts new behaviors, Here Comes Everybody is a must-read.

The Product Management Perspective: What can you say when your boss walks in and throws a new book on your desk? My answer was something like “sure, I’ll read it when I have some time.” And soon after I started, I found the time. Shirky’s book is an excellent read for product managers. He challenges assumptions such as how you make money on products: “If a large enough population of users is trying things, then the happy accidents have a much higher chance of being discovered.” He causes you to dig a lot deeper to find answers to your perplexing product problems: “In business, the investment cost of producing anything can create a bias toward accepting the substandard.” He tells us (something we already know of course) about our product: “it must be designed to fit the job being done, and it must help people do something they actually want to do.”

This last quote sums up nicely the role of product manager: “Because of transaction costs, organizations cannot afford to hire employees who only make one important contribution–they need to hire people who have good ideas day after day.” That’s our job…good ideas day after day.

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Social media summit

This past week I had the pleasure of attending a social media summit. This half-day event included three speakers: Mitch Joel, author of Six Pixels of Separation and Julien Smith and Chris Brogan, co-authors of Trust Agents. The presentations were excellent. I had the privilege of spending a few minutes talking with Chris; he was an absolute gentleman. Though the talks were fast and furious, I wrote as fast as I could on Twitter and wanted to share some of my thoughts with you:

From Chris’ talk:

  • @chrisbrogan giving a new presentation: mindset (babymind), business, currencies, trust
  • People who grew up on the “will click anything” web are poised for success – they’re not afraid of breaking things
  • most of us are in relationship businesses but we don’t know it
  • @chrisbrogan “community is my favorite business tool”
  • tell stories, use human interaction to get your message out
  • “stories sell things in a way your stupid copyright never will”
  • @chrisbrogan promotes others twelve times more than he promotes himself; when he needs help from others it comes immediately
  • blogging is @chrisbrogan ‘s way of letting people get into his head
  • One of the biggest mistakes we make on the web is we forget to ask about the ‘other person’
  • from @chrisbrogan “small, private communities are where some really cool things are going to happen in the next few years”
  • The real opportunity is to switch from “recipes” to “restaurants” – take the info you’re learning and put it to work to gain
  • 3 things to pay attention to: 1) mobile (not just a “Foursquare” checkin)
  • 3 things to pay attention to: 2) private networks/communities (cermo, others) – not Farmville
  • 3 things to pay attention to: 3) Social CRM – a real opportunity to get closer to both the dollar and the customer
  • a question to ask yourself: “how can I be helpful faster” @chrisbrogan
From Julien’s talk:
  • Quotes from @julien “The channel is forever” “controlling you future means controlling the channel”
  • “Build a network *before* you need it” “A network doesn’t just help you with jobs, it makes you happy”
  • Networks dissipate over time; you need to be consistently working to improve them over time
  • “Building a tribe is critical” you need to offer people a place where people gather and care – @julien
  • “pattern breaking” every time you create an emotional response people remember you
  • the Internet is the best (only?) place where you can convert social capital to monetary capital … @julien
  • @julien recommends the book Connected – http://amzn.to/aFCKU7
  • More from @julien: “be the lead goose” if you become the lead goose, everyone will follow you; you will help your network #leadership
Unfortunately I didn’t start taking notes during Mitch’s talk (he went first).

My #1 takeaway from the conference was this: the more you give to others and look out for their best interests, the more you’ll get back in return.

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Seeds of success

Everyone wants to succeed, but where does success start? We all have a deep desire to move forward and see our dream become reality, but how do we make it happen? The venerable “Dean of Personal Development,” Earl Nightingale, put it in these terms: “Success can be defined as the progressive realization of a worthy ideal.” In other words, you become what you think about.

Nightingale compares the human mind to fertile land. The land doesn’t care what types of seeds the farmer plants, it will return what it’s given. The mind, in much the same way, will return either success or failure depending on what we have planted. The key is to set specific goals for what we want to achieve (plant the seed) and then work hard and nurture those goals. Believe in your ability to achieve them.

The people at Simple Truths put together an excellent three-minute video that describes the seeds of success. If you were a fan Nightingale’s Our Changing World radio program you’ll be delighted to hear his voice again. If (like me) you have no recollection of that program, you’ll still benefit from the great message. Take a few minutes and watch this video.

Decide what you want and “plant” the goal in your mind.

The Product Management Perspective: Product success usually starts the same way as personal success: someone has an idea. The rules that apply to personal success also apply to product success (with some adaptations): discover the value of ideas for new products by doing market research; understand the personas, the potential users and buyers of the products; then “plant the seeds” of the product by writing clear requirements and designs. The process takes time and multiple iterations; it requires vision and hard work. Be the leader in discovering and cultivating great ideas.

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Interview with the Cranky Product Manager

One of the most intriguing online personalities is the Cranky Product Manager. For those of you not familiar with the Cranky PM, she is “a fictional product management professional at a fictional enterprise software vendor named DysfunctoSoft.” She blogs about what she calls “fictional stories” of product management and product marketing professionals. The stories are fun to read and something tells me most of her examples are not fictional.

The Cranky PM has a wealth of knowledge and contributes considerably to the product management industry. Today I published an interview with the Cranky PM on my podcast the Product Management Pulse. It was a privilege talking with her and finding out more about this mysterious online personality. She is real and she is really smart. We discussed entrepreneurship, sales, leadership and several other important topics.

During the interview I got the sense that it’s a bit lonely being in her shoes (or pumps if the picture is accurate). She must understand what Batman feels like. Anyway, it was a fun interview and I invite you to listen in; I’m confident you’ll enjoy

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Don’t hesitate

Just do itThe famous Nike advertising campaign taught us to just do it! When an opportunity arises, it’s a wise person who takes advantage.

Why does it seem so difficult, so risky at times to jump at new opportunities? Perhaps it’s the fear of what we might lose or what might happen if we take a risk. Dr. Wayne Dyer, prolific author and speaker, shared this insight into personal opportunity:

You’ll seldom experience regret for anything that you’ve done. It is what you haven’t done that will torment you. The message, therefore, is clear. Do it! Develop an appreciation for the present moment. Seize every second of your life and savor it. Value your present moments. Using them up in any self-defeating ways means you’ve lost them forever.

This same philosophy also applies to companies and organizations. Leaders who understand the markets they sell to and take advantage of new opportunities will receive the same rewards Dr. Dyer expresses for individuals. Leaders must be wise; however, those that look for and take advantage of new, favorable-looking circumstances will reap the rewards.


Guest Post: Market Sensing is not Crop Dusting

Today’s post comes from Jim Holland. Jim’s passion is enabling product marketing teams. With a lifetime of  experience, he has a fresh and unique perspective in guiding and managing product teams and has a knack for sensing markets, synthesizing ideas and turning them into reality. Enjoy the post and don’t hesitate to tweet your comments to Jim directly.

Crop DustingRecently while traveling to a new fishing spot, I had an experience that could only be replicated in Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller “North by Northwest.” While driving along a rural highway, a crop dusting plane dropped in from nowhere, passed over the car and onto a field dusting everything in sight. If you’ve ever seen an actual field being dusted, it’s an amazing feat. Imagine flying a single engine plane at extremely low altitudes, maneuvering into position, as you dive over treetops, houses and power lines dropping a fine mist about 30 feet from the ground at precisely the right time and then, throttling yourself to safety avoiding the same obstacles and more. Can you image the rush? What type of training and preparation does it take?

If you compare the skill and precision of crop dusting to market sensing techniques, shouldn’t product management employ similar planning, preparation, techniques and proper ground support before taking off?

Think about it. When product management and its leadership jump into the cockpit of market research to better sense markets, is there a flight plan that will result in delivering useful information? What market problems are you discovering or need to understand?  What artifacts and information currently exist? You can’t overlook the treetops, roof line and the power lines in order to dust the fields. Market sensing plans and preparation are only complete once you’ve had a safe landing with your research and credibility intact.

While planning and preparation are basics for any product management activity, do you find yourself missing the target and spraying the wrong field due to incomplete techniques or lack of ground support? If so, are you setting realistic personal and team goals that include measurable milestones? Make your goals achievable and prioritize what’s most important. For example, if you lack real information on why sales haven’t materialized, try conducting win/loss analysis. For some insights on win/loss see the Strategic Product Manager and On Product Management. If you aren’t connecting with economic buyers, are you sure who they are? David Meerman Scott wrote; “Basing your work on buyer personas prevents you from sitting on your butt in your comfortable office just making stuff up.”  In both of these examples, discussing the right approach is what’s important.

Finally, ground support (a.k.a. internal resources) is key to supporting your efforts before and after market sensing. Do you regularly connect with sales engineers, customer support, client relations, development and others to include all aspects of those who interact with your customers, prospects and market? Do you ask for their input in reviewing your plans? As time and resources are always a factor, product management should be creative in finding ways for team members to share the experience.

As product management and its leadership adopt precision in market sensing, they will build internal and external credibility and provide a softer landing when credible market information is used to make product decisions.

If you like the post, please comment. If you’d like to connect with Jim, he may be reached on Twitter at jim_holland or drop him an email at jbhprivate[at]gmail[dot]com.

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Win with Win/Loss analysis

I’m away this week, so I “pre-loaded” my blog with a link to a great post.

One of the best ways to learn about what we do wrong or right in selling our products is to talk with the people who tried to buy them, either successfully or not. Steve Johnson shares valuable information on Win/Loss analysis that will help product marketing managers understand the buying behaviors of their customers and translate their findings into better products.

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Launching a new product

One of the more difficult tasks for a company is launching new products. Quite often much emphasis is placed on designing and developing products, and the actual launch goes unplanned (or under-planned) until it’s too late.

What problems have you faced when trying to launch a new product? What effect did it have on the product launch? I recently learned about a new System Design program at Cornell University structured to help you master the skills to take your products to a successful launch. I’ve teamed up with Caridan Marketing on the following offer for Lead on Purpose readers:

Caridan Marketing Labs is an interactive and social media marketing firm based in New York City. As eCornell’s marketing agency, we partnered with them to launch a new Systems Design program. Their newest online certificate, A Systems Approach to Product and Service Design is authored by Professor Peter Jackson, Director of Systems Engineering at Cornell University. In six two-week courses, leaders will master a proven eight-step methodology and structured process that can be used to take an idea to the point where it can be handed off for completion.

In working and talking with driven leaders it has been shown that the projects that are most difficult to manage are usually related to new product and service launches.  Scope creep, unclear requirements, and inter/intra team miscommunication can become a recipe for disaster! What some leaders are missing is a proven methodology that will help them to understand how to design and develop products and services the right way from the beginning- and avoid common pitfalls in the process.

In this program, leaders will:

  • Learn a structured methodology for designing products/services the right way
  • Avoid the pitfalls that can lead to “designs gone wrong”
  • Earn a certificate from Cornell University in under three months

We’d like to offer a contest to you, the readers, where you can post your biggest challenge you when launching a new product/service. We will give all entrants a $100 discount on the tuition for eCornell’s program. We will also select the best ‘story’ and provide that winner with a 10% discount on our program when they enroll. We will also share the winning story on our website at www.ecornell.com. The deadline for all entries is August 15th, 2009.

You can find more information about our program at www.ecornell.com or please take a look at our recent press release eCornell Press Release.

Please share your story as a comment to this post by August 15, 2009 and you’re entered to win!