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What is Product Management/Leadership?

star_trek_classic_communicator_inhandI’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: “Different isn’t always better, but Better is always different“.  Companies and organizations that fear change will cease to  move forward and cease to innovate.  And it is the job of Product Leadership to create, nurture and manage this change.

I have recently been out in the market looking for opportunities to advance my career.  I’ve been working in Product Management in one form or another, for nearly two decades.  In the course of interviewing for various positions, I often found myself trying to articulate what exactly Product Management was, and what value it had to offer – or more specifically, what value I had to offer.  I naturally assumed that leaders and managers in tech knew exactly what the Product department did.  I discovered that that was not necessarily true.  At all.

So, what is Product Management and how can great Product Leadership drive innovation and success in a company? Good Product Management is a sustainable competitive advantage. It provides process, structure, and focus for creating innovation and customer delight. Product Management helps Product-driven businesses create new markets, and Customer-driven businesses deliver customer delight. It is the job of Product Leadership to evangelize Agile processes, advocate for the customer, and drive not just User Experience, but Customer Experience.  It is said that process is the scaffolding of productivity.

Is there a difference between Product Management, Product Marketing, and Project Management?  Yes.  In startups and smaller companies, these disciplines are often all aggregated together.  However, at scale these are generally separate functions. In the broadest of terms,  Project Management is “how and when” a product is delivered.  Product Marketing tells the story of the product.  And Product Management is “what and why” the product exists in the first place.

“The job of a product manager is to discover a product that is valuable, usable, and feasible.” – Marty Cagan, Founding Partner of Silicon Valley Product Group

Product Managers are essential contributors at the intersection of business, technology, and user experience. In any company, Engineering will have ideas, Marketing will have ideas, the Business will have ideas, Marketing and Sales will have ideas.  People sometimes think that coming up with ideas is the most important part of the job.  In practice however, execution of an idea is much more important.  Product leadership isn’t just design or engineering or business or marketing. It is all of these things in a sandwich of stress and competing expectations.

“Product management is the glue that holds together all the various functions and roles across a company that speaks different languages.  It’s like the universal communicator in Star Trek – a hub of communication between all these different groups.” – Ken Norton, Product Partner at GV (formerly Google Ventures)

An important and unique distinction among Product Managers and Product Leaders is that they usually have no direct authority over the teams and processes they manage.  Transparency, communication, and trust are the tools of a Product Manager.  If you’re managing a team of creative people – developers in particular – you will be judged on how well you are able to protect them from distractions and what they are able to create. It is not about mindlessly barking orders at subordinates, but empathetically motivating creative personalities toward mutual goals.

“Traditional management is great if you want compliance, but if you want engagement, which is what we want in the workforce today as people are doing more complicated and sophisticated work, autonomy and self-direction just works better,” – Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (Riverhead).

Great Product leaders lead by influence and example. They need to be people-first communicators who can rally everyone behind a vision without much formal authority.  In his book Drive, and based on studies at MIT, Daniel Pink suggests that to motivate employees who work on anything above and beyond basic tasks, we need to focus on three factors:

  • Autonomy – Our desire to be self-directed.
  • Mastery – The urge to develop better skills.
  • Purpose – The desire to do something that has meaning and is important.

Product Management is often not about individual success, but about getting the best out of others.

On vision, prioritization, and planning:

Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon –  “Be stubborn on vision, flexible on details.”

In order to set your team up for success as it scales, it’s important to consider what the core product and design principles for your organization are and articulate them clearly so everyone in the team understands them and can apply them in their work. As an example, Paul Adams, VP of Product at Intercom, uses the following three principles as the foundation on which everything they do is built.  I think these three principles are a useful starting point for any Product Management process.  Says Paul:

  • The first principle is that we think big but start small. This means thinking about a big vision and then ruthlessly cutting the scope so we can ship.
  • Because our next principle is ship to learn, which means shipping as fast as possible so we can learn as fast as possible.
  • The third principle is to design from first principles – to start with a blank sheet of paper instead of copying a competitor or assuming the best solution exists in the world already.

“Dream in years; plan in months; evaluate in weeks; ship daily.” – DJ Patil, Vice President of Product at RelateIQ, and former Chief Data Scientist of the United States Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Fail Fast.  For a Product Manager, deciding  whether to work on new problems or improve on existing ones is essentially an exercise in understanding what is most important to the customer.  Discovery is all about the effort you as Product Manager put into understanding your customer.  Great Product Leaders spend the majority of their time focusing on the discovery process.  And while talking to your customer about their needs is paramount, they can’t always give you the answers you need.  You oftentimes have to show them the solution before they even know they have a problem.  It is always a balancing act between discovery and delivery.  Discover for value then deliver on that value.  Prototypes, and the observations that go along with sharing them with users, are exceptionally powerful ways to gather this data.

“If a picture is worth a thousand words, a prototype is worth a thousand meetings.” – John Maeda, Global Head of Computational Design and Inclusion at Automattic

The Agile Manifesto:
To wrap up, I always like to be reminded of what Agile development is all about at it’s core.  The Agile Manifesto:

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.


 

I was inspired by and borrowed liberally from the following books – which I highly recommend if you are interested in this topic and more:

“Product Leadership: How Top Product Managers Launch Awesome Products and Build Successful Teams”, Richard Banfield, Martin Eriksson, Nate Walkingshaw

“Inspired: How to Create Products Customers Love”, Mary Cagan

“Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”.  Daniel H Pink

“The Lean Startup: How Constant Innovation Creates Radically Successful Businesses”,  Eric Ries

And I am eagerly awaiting Eric Ries’s new book: “The Startup Way” . For more information visit thestartupway.com

 

 

 

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