Lead on Purpose

Promoting Leadership Principles in Product Management

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How cloud is changing product management

Guest post by Mauricio Prinzlau

A product manager is generally considered to be leading the product, as if the product were a business by itself. The product manager holds responsibility for various aspects related to product management, including developing roadmaps and strategy, and coming up with feature definition for the product. The position may also include responsibilities for forecasting, marketing, profit and loss responsibilities. At its core, product management takes care of the entire gamut of activities related to managing requirements, gathering user feedback and making enhancements for a product.

Product management is a critical function due to the need to rapidly implement product features and refine them based on feedback. There are several ways in which the advent of the cloud is changing product management. According to research by Berkaweb, Cloud hosting is expected to grow by 18.3% a year on average over the coming years.

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Flexibility and letting go

For the past several months I’ve been immersed in the experience of working with top designers and learning how to take their work, write relevant requirements at breakneck speed and work closely with development to build our new products. We’re essentially changing the focus of the product from enterprise to consumer. Talk about a learning experience! It’s been nothing short of transformational.

The key for me has been a willingness to let go of past working habits — procedures I was very comfortable with — and embrace new ideas. One quick example: my main product serves a two-sided network. Four months ago, the “customer” (in my mind) was the paying/enterprise customer. Today that view has completely changed. Now the ‘customer’ is the end user (sometimes called ‘consumer’) who comes to the web site to use the free service. My product management focus has shifted significantly to the experience of the end users. The change has resulted in an entirely different product that (two weeks into the beta) is showing positive signs.

Letting go of old habits and ideas is not easy and requires flexibility. Those who are open to change learn to trust themselves and others. Watch for opportunities to try new things and be flexible as you go. Letting go of old beliefs can lead to new visions.

The Product Management Perspective: See above (and, of course, don’t get set in your ways or the change will be painful).


Three reasons PMs need an iPhone

iPhoneRarely do I make specific product recommendations at Lead on Purpose. However, five weeks ago I purchased an iPhone 3GS (granted, I’m not an early adopter) and the experience has been phenomenal. In only a few short weeks I have come to depend on its functionality for my work in product management and product marketing. I have come up with the following three key functionalities that make the iPhone imperative to the work product managers and product-marketing managers do every day:

  1. Camera: PMs often have ‘white-board’ conversations with development and other groups where they map out requirements and other valuable information. Being able to quickly snap photos and easily put them in your deliverables is incredibly valuable.
  2. Apps: The iPhone has many applications, which are valuable for two reasons: a) Many companies are looking at producing mobile applications. The iPhone platform is the best for mobile applications. You need an iPhone to look at existing (potentially competitive) apps so you can better understand your market(s) and write effective requirements that will move your product line in that direction. b) There are many applications that will help you do your job more effectively. Several come with the iPhone and many others are available.
  3. Voice memos: Customer visits are an important aspect of the job. One of the frustrating aspects for me over the years has been trying to take adequate notes during the visits while still paying attention and asking meaningful questions. With the Voice memos feature you can record the conversation and then go back to the conversation and round out your notes. I used this feature twice today and am absolutely hooked.

I realize there are other valuable devices that can be used in place of an iPhone. I know of several PM groups that have acquired a digital camera, and voice recording devices are not uncommon. However, to have all this functionality in one device is absolutely worth it.

Bonus: Ok, there are several other not-necessarily-for-work reasons to get your iPhone:

  • The Internet access is phenomenal
  • Email synch works flawlessly (both to corp email and Gmail)
  • The text (SMS) messaging app on the iPhone is the best (i.e. easiest) I’ve used
  • The Maps app comes in handy when traveling
  • Oh, did I mention it has an iPod built in?
  • UPDATE: The iPhone has a phone! I know, I’ve had many people tell me that the phone part of an iPhone is weak at best, but for me (in my short five weeks), it’s worked well. I’ve had roughly three dropped calls out of hundreds I’ve made so far. Finding the person I want to call is much easier than any phone I’ve used, and the voicemail interface is slick.

The Product Management Perspective: The iPhone is a serious device that will help you do your job more effectively. If you get pushback from your boss, feel free to quote me or you can tell him/her to contact me directly and I’ll be happy to plead your case.

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Fundamentals of leadership

Companies and individuals often go to extremes in their search for success. They look for the most sophisticated processes hoping they will get a leg up on their competitors. In all their efforts to make their organizations more complex — thinking that will make them more successful — they forget the fundamentals.

Art Petty has some great lessons for leaders in his latest post. He gives four current examples of leaders who overlooked the fundamentals, then says: “How does this happen in a world filled with balanced scorecards and legions of certified quality professionals constantly measuring, monitoring and striving to improve performance?  I suspect that my own answer is that while we have ample tools available for our use in building, the one tool that we haven’t yet mastered is staring back at us in the mirror.”

One of the fundamentals missed by many organizations is people management. Art continues: “Fewer organizations than you might think are doing anything to engender employee satisfaction…which is ironic given the mountains of data that indicate that employee satisfaction flows through to customer satisfaction and strong financial performance.” The people in all parts of the organization need to be “on board” and believe in the purpose of the organization. That’s just one of the fundamentals of leadership.

The Product Management Perspective: Product managers must focus on the fundamentals: market inputs, problem statements, features, requirements, etc. As they focus on getting these things in order, product managers will gain the trust of their teams. When the teams know they are working on the right things for the right reason, they will do amazing things.

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Fixing the conversion-poor company

Conversion-poor companies, as defined in The Innovation Value Chain, most often generate good ideas but they do not screen or develop the ideas properly. Great ideas often die in the budget process due to fear of the unknown. Managers hesitate to take risks and instead emphasize the incremental and certain, not the novel. The inability to convert ideas into products/services can create a risk-averse and bureaucratic process that slows or stops execution.

Companies that lack the ability to move ideas forward to the next level should focus on two innovation practices: multichannel funding and safe havens. Creating multiple channels for funding will help companies avoid the situation where a good manager doesn’t like a particular new idea or doesn’t consider it good enough to use his or her resources to fun it. Other business units can use their funds to open up different options–from discretionary seed money up to full-scale venture funds.

Safe havens provide a way to shield new ideas and potential businesses from the short-term thinking and budget constraints that occupy many organizations that focus on short-term gains. Safe havens can be critical to the conversion of good ideas into profitable products and services.

For more information on this topic, see Leadership and innovation and Identifying the weak link in product innovation.

The Product Management Perspective: Much of the ‘meat’ of converting ideas into products comes in the form of features and requirements, the building blocks of products. The extent to which product managers understand and articulate ideas effectively will determine, to a large degree, the success of their companies. Major ideas are often driven at the highest levels of the company; however, success comes as a result of implementing the correct steps along the way.

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Leading the positive impact

New ideas for product features and functionality come from many sources: customers, analysts, non-customers, sales reps, developers…the list goes on. Product managers carry a huge responsibility for gathering and promoting the right requirements for their products at the right time and for the right reasons. An important goal of product managers is to make a positive impact on the success of their products. They are in a key position to bring together the right market and strategic information to assure the products’ success.

To lead out in this effort, product managers must have a plan for gathering, sorting and measuring the multitude of requirements that come at them. Managing these activities can seem overwhelming. However, it can also be the most thrilling part of job. Here are a few tips on managing the details and leading the positive impact:

  • Know your customers: Spend adequate time learning how your customers (and non-customers) do business. Spend time listening to them and observing how they use your products. It takes time and money to meet with customers, but the end results more than pay for the up-front cost. If you’re feeling pressed for time or your not sure about the value, here are three reasons to visit customers.
  • Leverage requirements management: Gathering and sorting requirements can be time consuming and costly. Fortunately new and excellent tools have emerged to help product managers deal with the myriad of data they must consume. I found a great article by René Bellei, CEO of Ryma Technology Solutions. He makes many great points (I recommend the entire article to your reading) about the need for sound requirements management. One point that really caught my attention was cost savings that come from sound practices. He says:
The costs of rectifying poor products lie not just in the cost of re-development, but in the loss of market confidence which can result in lost sales, client references and overall profitability. By involving a broader set of stakeholders in the software product management roadmap and by establishing a solid product management process, many of these revenue and cost effects can be addressed and avoided at the onset.
  • Measure the impact: To fully comprehend the success of new products or features, product managers need to evaluate the significance of proposed changes and measure the impact the changes have on existing customers, sales to new customers and customer retention to name a few. Jeff Lash recently wrote a great post on the need to measure the impact of product changes. He cites four steps product managers need to go through before engaging in product development. He also anticipates reasons why product managers might resist measuring the impact and counters them with the reasons why good practices will save both time and money. He states:
Though this may seem as though it is creating more work for the product manager, it in fact will make his or her job much easier. Product managers need to be able to quantify “success” for any given change, rule out changes that are less likely to be successful, and measure all work which is implemented. This allows the product manager to ensure a higher likelihood for success and also show the impact of the change to gain support for future changes.

Product managers possess both the opportunity and the burden for their products’ success. Those who focus on the opportunity and lead the effort using proven tools and techniques will find success and satisfaction.