Own the product from conception to completion and beyond
In my early product management jobs, I focused a lot on the process of product management. A CEO of a startup I worked for told me that my approach to product management was “very academic” in nature. He viewed himself as a “get it done by any means necessary” entrepreneur, while I viewed myself as a”get it done right” product manager.
The startup was a very sales/deal driven company, as many startups tend to be. Putting product management in place in such an organization is not easy. But having a process focus is very important for a product manager. Every other function, from sales to marketing to development to finance to HR implement processes.
But because product managers work across these functional units, people don’t realize or understand that even in small companies there must be a repeatable and scalable process to conceive, research, define, develop, test, launch, promote, sell, support and sustain winning products!
And while product managers have a direct responsibility in some of these 10 areas and indirect responsibility in others, PMs absolutely have a core responsibility to oversee and align the activities of other teams across this entire process. I’m not talking about managing those people directly or telling them what they should do. I’m assuming people know how to do their respective jobs. What I am saying is that if you want to be a great Product Manager, take ownership (not necessarily full control) over the process and lead the teams in alignment through it.
Get alignment from the very beginning
From the start, as you (and/or your PM team) are doing your research, clearly define the context and vocabulary necessary to effectively convey the research results to the intended audiences. This vocabulary, whether related to personae/roles, business functions, consumer needs, product architecture or functionality or something else, will become key to bringing everyone into the same frame of reference. This is important because it helps to minimize misinterpretations and miscommunication during the product development and launch process. If people aren’t aligned early on in the process, you are likely to see confusion or conflict later on as requirements are implemented incorrectly or with unacceptable constraints.
As an example, before becoming a product manager, I worked at a company that was developing a fairly sophisticated reporting and visualization framework for business and financial data. One of the engineers was tasked with the requirement to create a flexible means to allow users to format and display numeric and character text (including time, date and multiple international currency values) dynamically for display in pop-up boxes when on-screen entities were moused-over. Are you with me?
He went off, did some research and without a lot of internal discussion, implemented functionality to address the requirement. I was responsible for documenting the functionality. When I saw what he had developed, I was stunned. He had created a flexible — but incredibly complicated — formatting subsystem. Yes, it could do everything and more relative to the requirement, but I’m certain only the engineer and a few other technical people could actually use it. The documentation for this functionality took 60 pages (out of a 600 page reference manual). When people in the company saw how complex it was, the functionality was removed from the product.
What went wrong? A number of things including lack of internal communication, lack of oversight, and lack of involvement from the product manager. Where was he during all this? I don’t recall exactly, but I think he was out, working with sales and trying to close some deals. Helping sales is good. Don’t get me wrong. But not when it comes at the expense of the product being built.
Get your hands good and dirty
During the development cycle, work to keep other teams such as marketing, product marketing, sales, sales consulting, support, channels, alliances and professional services informed and educated on the development status and product functionality. For smaller consumer products or websites, this may not be a difficult task, but for larger enterprise or data center software, this can be a daunting task.
For a major release of a large product, a development cycle will last 12 months or more. There are many decisions that are made during this cycle that need to be conveyed to downstream teams to ensure they can plan ahead for the impact of the new release.
Don’t stop until adoption is clear
Once the product is released, you need to stay focused on the product. You can’t let up and simply go start gathering requirements for the next release. Stay engaged with early customers, partners and the customer facing teams such as sales and professional services. If early customers are upgrading to the new release from a previous version, track those upgrades and follow up with the customers to see how the upgrade went and what comments they have about the new release.
Join members of the sales team on customer and prospect calls and listen to how they are describing and selling the new release, and what the reaction is from the audiences.
- Are the salespeople on message?
- Are the sales consultants adequately trained?
- Do the demos hit on target?
- Is the market need that you researched and identified oh so long ago, still as relevant and critical as it was back then?
These questions (as well as others) should be the focus of product managers (and product marketers) after product launch.
All too often, I’ve seen people work on a release, have it launch, and then essentially forget about it as they start focusing on the next release. Big mistake. If sales is struggling to sell the product, as the Product Manager, you need to take the challenge on and work to identify and remove the barriers.
Don’t look at it as someone else’s job because it isn’t. Would a CEO let a struggling VP of Sales flounder for a quarter or two? Absolutely not. As a PM, take your cues from the CEO and within reason, do what a CEO would do. Don’t wait for others to tell you what needs to be done. Take charge of your product, make sure it is built right and then ensure it trounces the competition.