Lead on Purpose

Promoting Leadership Principles in Product Management


Before its time

My good friend Saeed wrote a great post on why Product Management is everything! He makes this claim based on a Harvard Business Review article written in 1991 by Regis McKenna called Marketing is Everything. Saeed does a great job describing how the claims McKenna made, about marketing, really pointed to product management; specifically technology-based product management. The only problem was, McKenna did not know about product management or have a good catch-phrase to describe it at the time. After several quotes from the article and well-thought-out supporting commentary, Saeed asserts the following:

It should be clear where McKenna was heading with this. This new type of Marketing–that understands technology, the market, customer needs, and the competition; that works with partners, suppliers, vendors as well as customers; that integrates the customers into the development process to produce superior products and services–is what we today call Product Management.

Whether he intended it to be so or not, what Regis McKenna, one of the luminaries of high-tech marketing was saying, was that the critical function that companies must adopt to thrive in the market is Product Management.

It’s enjoyable to see how the discipline of product management has evolved, and good to know its importance was understood before its time. So what’s the new discipline evolving today that doesn’t yet have a name?

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Know your market

Knowing the market and understanding customers requires getting out of the office. You need to listen to the people who are in the trenches using your product or perhaps your competitor’s products. Understanding their needs, their pains, their ideas for doing things better help product managers tune into the market. After all, it’s the people in the market who become the customers that pay for the products and services they need. To understand how products will be successful, product managers will know the target customers and what drives them to buy their products.

The work of interviewing customers is a critical aspect of knowing your market. Customers respond positively to one-on-one interaction with product managers. They appreciate feeling like they have a role in setting product direction.  They want to be innovative, and the act of a product manager taking time to listen to them talk gives them a feeling of empowerment that they are really making a difference. They also like to talk about themselves. Tuned in product managers take time to listen to and really understand their customers. They ask well-thought-out questions to lead the conversation, but let the customer do most of the talking. They listen to what’s being said and ask pertinent follow-up questions to confirm what they heard. They visit with customers at their place of business (and without the sales rep). Customers will gladly show how their company operates and how they use products if their input will be used, and if they feel they are not being ‘sold to’ by the people onsite (for this reason it’s best to go without the sales rep).

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The tuned in product manager

I recently wrote a post about the great new book Tuned In: Uncover the Extraordinary Opportunities That Lead to Business Breakthroughs. This book has wide application to different types of organizations, markets and individuals. Anyone looking for ways to improve their success will be well-served by reading and applying the principles in Tuned In.

I have found particular application to of the Tuned In principles to product management. Product managers succeed when their products succeed. Their products succeed when they solve previously unresolved problems, or existing problems in new ways. The tuned in product manager identifies problems that the market wants to solve and provides context to help the company create the solution. Successful product managers are:

  • Tuned in to the market: Tuned in product managers understand their customers and also their potential customers (the untapped market). Many great blog posts exist about understanding existing customers. Knowing your potential customers — i.e. the market — can be more tricky. Finding places where potential customers gather (either in-person or on-line) and spending time with them is one way I’ve discovered to gather important market data. Relevant industry trade shows can be a great option to meet with non-customers. Tuned in product managers discover unresolved problems and find ways to create products that will fill the unmet needs.
  • Tuned in to the product team: Tuned in product managers lead the product team with market facts. They know their team members, understand what inspires them and provide relevant product direction. They work to instill confidence in their ability to lead the products and the team in the right direction. They know what motivates the team to go above and beyond their normal abilities. They take the initiative to make important decisions, and then stand behind those decisions. They foster productivity on the team.

Tuned in product managers are the driving force behind the products that become resonators in their markets. They pay attention to details and provide context to enable their teams to succeed. And ultimately, they have fun doing it!

For more information on this topic please see the article Steve Johnson and I co-wrote: The Tuned-In Product Manager. Join us on July 11 as we present a webinar titled Tuned In Product Teams. Pragmatic Marketing has also published an article I wrote: Five Factors of Leadership. Check out the Tuned In landing page for other great events and articles associated with the Tuned In release.


Knowing your potential customers

Savvy product managers not only understand their customers, but also their potential (non-) customers. Finding and getting time with potential customers can be tricky. They do not have an established relationship with you or your company and may not even know anything about the company. However, they typically gather and associate with the same people who are customers.

One of the best places I’ve found to get feedback from non-customers is at industry specific trade shows. I recently attended a trade show that targets companies that make up the bulk of my potential customer base. We had a booth on the exhibition floor which a few members of the sales team staffed for the most part. I spent about four hours there in three days and spent the rest of the time in breakout sessions and talking with people at the show.

The sales guys were not overly impressed with the show leads. However, the show was a huge success for me because I spent three days talking and interacting with potential customers. Here’s what I learned:

  • Potential customers will talk about their business successes and struggles (both of which are valuable)
  • Industry specific (targeted) trade shows present an excellent forum to get valuable information about potential customers
  • Knowing what drives potential customers helps you develop a market-driven product roadmap
  • Gaining valuable information about potential customers takes a lot of digging. It’s hard work but well worth the effort.

Product managers need to gain a deep, visceral understanding of the potential buyers in their market. Though the value of trade shows has been called into question, attending the right shows presents an excellent opportunity to know your potential customers.