Month: February 2011

Guest Post: 8 Important Points about Marketing Strategy

NOTE: The following is a guest post by Mike Boudreaux. If you want to submit your own guest post, click here for more information.

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I’m a huge fan of Al Ries and Jack Trout. My top two favorite marketing books are Marketing Warfare and Positioning, both by Ries and Trout. I enjoy watching the Ries Report videos in YouTube.

Jack Trout on strategyAl Ries went a long time without posting video until just recently. Hopefully he’ll start posting new ones again. I also just found some interesting audio feeds on Jack Trout’s website too. I can’t wait to listen to them on my iPod.

I’ve had another book by Trout on my nightstand for a few months and I haven’t found the time to open it up until just today. Boy, was that a mistake! What was I thinking?

Jack Trout on Strategyturned out to be one of the best and most useful marketing strategy books that I’ve read. In the preface, Trout describes the book as a “short course on what I’ve learned about strategy in my long journey through the business world.”

He has extracted the important principles to follow from his many books that he has written on strategy in the past. This relatively short book of 8 chapters and 150 pages is a golden nugget! Don’t wait to read it like I did. Get a copy and read it NOW.

The 8 chapters each explain how strategy is all about survival, perceptions, being different, competition, specialization, simplicity, leadership, and reality.  It is hard to summarize a summary, but here is an overview of the key points. The book is a treasure trove of concisely written quotes, ideas, references, and examples. This isn’t going to do them justice, but I’m really excited to share some of the major insights that I collected from the book. These are my notes. You can read them here, but I urge any product manager to read the book.

It’s all about strategy.

Success is all about having the right strategy, and marketing and strategy must be combined. “Marketing is what drives a business. And a great business strategy without proper marketing will often fail in a highly competitive world.” Strategy must be the one word in the English language that has more definitions than any other.

I have no idea how many different definitions for strategy that I’ve seen, with many of them being more analogy than definition. Trout offers his own: “What makes you unique and what is the best way to put that difference into the minds of your customers and prospects.” Personally, I am a bit disappointed by this definition because it doesn’t consider your resources or opportunities.

My favorite definition for strategy is from Michael Porter’s HBR article What is Strategy, “Strategy is making tradeoffs in competing. The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

1. Strategy is all about survival and in a tough world, using strategy is how you will survive.

Trout describes the tyranny of choice, and how there has been an explosion of choice in the marketplace that leads to increasing competition. This is driven by the law of division, which is an unstoppable process whereby product categories continue to divide into more categories. This is only getting worse, as change is accelerating and the world is becoming increasingly complex. What really works isn’t implementing programs like CRM, TQM, and other tools and fads. What works is “devising and maintaining a clearly stated, focused strategy.”

2. Strategy is all about perceptions. Perception is reality. Don’t get confused by facts.

This is really all about positioning and if you’ve read Trout’s Positioning books then you’ll get this very quickly. Minds are limited, they hate confusion, they’re insecure, they don’t change, and they can lose focus. So, there are things that marketers can do to deal with this.

For new products, tell the market what it isn’t – like a horseless carriage or sugar-free soda. Present information as news to trigger interest. Keep your message simple and avoid confusing concepts.  Because minds are insecure, they try to manage risk by following the herd and they respond to social proof in the form of testimonials, bandwagons, and heritage.

Don’t set out to change people’s minds, because they are difficult if not impossible to change. Let your brand be a focused expert and don’t fall for the line extension trap.

3.  Strategy is all about being different. If you don’t have a point of difference, you’d better have a low price.

Trout starts out by saying how not to differentiate: quality and customer satisfaction only keep you in the game. He then describes how to differentiate: Be first, own an attribute or a category, be the sales, technology, or performance leader, brag about your leadership, have a heritage, have a magic ingredient, make products the right way or the old fashioned way, promote your hotness, or get the press revved up about how hot you are.

4. Strategy is all about competition. Know your competition. Avoid their strengths. Exploit their weaknesses.

This is all about Marketing Warfare, and some of the things that Trout says here are highly contentious and edgy. “Business today isn’t about reengineering or continuous improvement. Business is about war. It’s not about better people and better products.”

Don’t be customer-oriented, be competitor-oriented. Successful marketing campaigns should be planned like military campaigns. Companies need to learn how to attack and to flank their competition, how to defend their positions, and how and when to wage guerilla warfare.

Strategy should be built from the bottom up with tactics dictating strategy, and not the other way around. A strategy isn’t a goal, it is a coherent marketing direction. Find one tactic that works, and then turn it into a strategy. Find a tactic that you are skilled at when compared to the competition.

5. Strategy is all about specialization. It is better to be exceptional at one thing than good at many things.

Be better than the competition at one thing. Build your strategy around your core competency. A specialist has power over an generalist. Be an expert, and people will give you more credit than you deserve. A generalist won’t be given credit for expertise in many fields – you can’t be expert in everything. Position yourself as the specialist.

Specialization is the counterpoint to growth, and specialists need to stay specialists or else you will erode your perception of expertise. The ultimate weapon is for a specialist to become generic, where your brand represents the category.

6.  Strategy is all about simplicity. Big strategic ideas almost always come in small words.

Simplicity is the holy grail and complex strategies are doomed to failure, but people don’t trust simple and they admire complexity. I’m an engineer and I often see this same trait in fellow engineers like myself. We like to create complex and fascinating designs, losing sight on our ultimate goal of providing robustness and efficiency.

Simple ideas are best, and they’re rooted in common sense. However, people don’t trust common sense and want some grand strategy instead. When developing strategy, treat market research like intelligence gathering.

Don’t get mesmerized by the data, by focus groups, and test markets. People talk one way and walk another. Use research to measure perceptions of you and your competition and how well you own an attribute or word in the mind. Don’t use complex language – it is confusing.

7. Strategy is all about leadership. No one will follow if you don’t know where you are going.

Leadership isn’t as complex as people make it out to be. Drucker says how to be an effective leader in a few sentences. “The foundation of effective leadership is thinking through the organization’s mission, defining it and establishing it, clearly and visibly. The leader sets the goals, sets the priorities, and sets and maintains the standards.”

To find the right direction, go to the front lines. Get honest opinions. Be a visible storyteller, cheerleader, and facilitator. It’s not about the numbers, it’s about perceptions. It’s about thinking long term and hanging in there. To be a good leader, adopt the qualities of a good general.Be flexible, have mental courage, be bold, know the facts, and be lucky.

I recently had the rare opportunity to see a strong leader in action. He exhibited all of the qualities that Trout described. The most pronounced were his storytelling and cheerleading. You can’t help but be inspired and motivated when you’re around a person like this.

8. Strategy is all about reality. Goals are like dreams. Wake up and face reality.

We’ve seen big corporate icons fail – Polaroid, AT&T, Xerox, Levi Strauss, Enron, Lucent, etc.  They all lost touch with the reality of the marketplace. The growth trap is created by Wall Street.

Growth is the culprit behind impossible goals. People do damaging things to their brands in order to force unnecessary growth. Goals muck up marketing plans by introducing unreality into the marketing process. Managers try to force things to happen rather than looking for things to exploit. Bigger isn’t necessarily better. With bigness comes conservative behavior, organizational problems, personal agendas, and struggling CEO’s.

I have first-hand experience with the goals trap and so this resonates with me. Growth outside of the core strategy can cause the organization to lose focus. Losing focus can draw attention away from your strengths, and your ultimate goal of driving home profits will suffer.

Now go read the book, along with the other books by Jack Trout if you haven’t read them already.  You’ll be glad you did.

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Tweet this: Guest post  by @MikeBoudreaux – 8 Important Points about #Marketing #Strategy #prodmgmt (@onpm)

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Mike is a product manager at Emerson Process Management and he is the marketing director for ProductCamp Austin.  Mike has global experience marketing products for the refining, chemicals, oil & gas, solar power, and defense industries. He holds a BS degree in Chemical Engineering from the University Houston and a MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

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Worth Repeating: How to be a GREAT Product Manager

by Saeed Khan

Back in 2007, just a couple of months after we started this blog, I wrote a series of 6 articles under the banner: How to be a GREAT Product Manager.

I didn’t know it at the time, but several of these articles would go on to become some of the most trafficked pages on this site.    I wrote the following piece at the end to tie those 6 together. It was originally titled:

How to be a Great Product Manager (Boxed Set with Bonus Features)

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I recently completed a six part series of articles entitled:

How to be a GREAT Product Manager

I started writing the series as an analogue to Ken Norton’s posting on his blog: How to hire a product manager.

Ken lays out six major points on how to hire a PM. Each part of my series focused on the flip side of his points and focused on how to be a great PM. The following table shows the two side by side:

Hiring a great PM

Being a great PM

1 Hire all the smart people Don’t just sound smart, act smart and be smart
2 Have a strong technical background Be technical without becoming a technologist
3 “Spidey-sense” product instincts and creativity “Spidey-sense” instincts are good, hard data is way better
4 Leadership that’s earned> The 4 Cs of Leadership
5 Ability to channel multiple points of view Be an integrator, translator and communicator
6 Give me someone who’s shipped something Own the product from conception to completion and beyond

There’s probably a lot more to write on both hiring and being a great product manager. When hiring you only have a limited amount of time to assess the person, ask key questions, see some of their previous work if possible, check references etc. Most of the time, the hiring decision comes down to a mix of the person’s performance in the interviews and a gut call made by the hiring manager. Some people interview well but perform poorly. Others don’t interview as well but deliver results. Finding good talent is always tough, and this is especially true in the case of PMs.

Being a great product manager is not easy either. Aside from rising to the challenge on your own, there can be organizational, political or business hurdles hindering your path to success. The role of a product manager in a larger company is likely very different from the same role in a startup. It can be very hard to make a big imprint in a larger company where strategy and major product direction decisions are oft-times made at the senior management level, with product managers being tasked to execute on those decisions. In a startup, I’ll bet you’re likely understaffed with more to do than time to do it.

In either case, you can still rise above the noise and be effective. Focus on the key objectives you need to deliver and ensure those get done in a timely manner. Don’t be a “just-in-time” product manager. It leaves you no wiggle room if you meet unexpected delays and makes people depending on your rather nervous.

Beyond the key objectives, keep watch for places where you can help improve how the organizations builds, markets, sells and supports your products. If you notice that the evaluation process for your software is cumbersome and this is impacting sales, help identify and define the solution. If you see that sales consultants aren’t adequately trained then work to get them the help they need. If you notice that customers are getting frustrated with the quality of support (despite what the results of the 3rd party customer satisfaction survey says), raise it with Support management or other executives. The point here is that beyond the product(s) you manage, identify ways to make the company better and be part of the solution team.

Be wary of internal power structures and political circles. It is far too easy to get encumbered by company politics or suppressed by hostile power structures. This is more often the case in larger companies, particularly those who’ve grown quickly and where many of the original or early employees have risen to management positions. Dealing with and navigating internal power structures could be the subject of a series of blog postings (hmmmm), but all I will say for now is tread carefully and knowingly when in enemy territory.

In the end, there is no magic recipe to ensure you are a successful product manager. It takes a lot of effort, insight and thinking. But if you keep those 6 rules in mind and try to apply them wherever possible, you’ll certainly increase your chances of success.


Tweet this: Blog post — Worth Repeating: How to be a GREAT Product Manager. #prodmgmt #leadership

10,000 Hours of Product Management


By Alan Armstrong

Have you read Outliers by Malcom Gladwell? It takes a lot of thinking about success and turns the thinking upside down. It’s a quick and easy read, but I found it quite thought provoking and it’s full of great stories.

One of Gladwell’s insights is this: To be “world class” at anything requires 10,000 hours. We tend to think that successful people are born with innate talent and while they work at things, they also have it sort of easy. Gladwell turns that theory on its head and says that any practitioner of any skill requires 10,000 hours of practice to become truly world-class.

To illustrate his point he draws from very famous people who are viewed as prodigies. Based on his interviews with Bill Gates, for example, he shows that Gates likely spent 10,000 hours programming before founding Microsoft. Furthermore, Gates likely started before almost anyone in his generation; in his wealthy Seattle neighbourhood, Gates had access to “time sharing” on a mainframe in 6th grade … in about 1968. As such, Gates estimates that only 50 other 6th graders in the world had that kind of access. Certainly Gates was smart and fascinated by computers, but he put in his time too. In high school, he and a few buddies would sneak out of their homes to go access the computers during the computer down time between 3 and 6 AM every night. Mrs. Gates (the mother) later recalled that Bill could never get out of bed in the morning.

Another example is Wolfgang A. Mozart, who everyone believes to be a prodigy, composing songs as he exited the womb. In fact, Gladwell points out, Mozart’s first truly world-class work were produced much later in his life, after he put in 10,000 hours of composing and playing music. “Genius” aside, Mozart was a late bloomer, and put in his time.

(Saeed blogged about Gladwell’s book a while back, and pointed to a nice video and blog entry that describes this idea further.)

10,000 hours of what?

One thing I question is whether 10,000 hours is really a sufficient criteria to become world class. I’m not sure Gladwell really claims this, but his ideas could be taken that way. If 10,000 hours is 5 years at 40 hours per week, that might imply that someone could be a world class product managers after 5 years on the job. How many PMs have you worked with who are world class after 5 years? (For that matter, how many of us stay in the PM role for more than 5 years?)

I’ve heard Steve Johnson josh about people with 10 years experience, who really have 1 year of experience repeated 10 times.  These people do the same job with little advancement, and falling into the same old traps, every day for 10 years. In the end they are not always wiser, let alone world class.

What are you doing with your 10,000 hours?

Which raises a question for you. I think the 10,000 hour idea has a lot of merit. But I would like to dig a little deeper for what it means in product management and product leadership.

First of all, Gladwell assumes that your 10,000 hours are spent growing. You have to take on greater and greater responsibility, and you should seek out and surround yourself with coaches, mentors, guides. Look for people you want to be like and get to know them.

Secondly, pay attention to what you are actually doing with your work time. If your title is Product Manager, but you are really managing projects for 5 years, at 40-60 hours a week, you may become an excellent project manager but it doesn’t qualify you to do strategic work in product management. Similarly, if you hang out in development for 5 years, who’s to say you belong in front of customers?

Finally, when do we start the clock on your time as a leader? I would argue that if you are “requirements boy”, “demo girl”, or spending most of your time doing some kind of tactical work, you are not logging hours in leadership.

Where are you spending your next 10,000 hours?

You are definitely going to work 40-60 hours a week. Which means that, in the right circumstances, you could be really really good at something in 5 years.

What do you want to be really really good at? Are you surrounding yourself with mentors and coaches who will give you 5 real years of progressive experience? Or are you going to repeat the same 1 year of experience 5 times?


Tweet this: @awarmstrong Does 10,000 hours of Product Management make you a master? #prodmgmt #leadership

The Most Important Characteristic of Innovative Companies

by Saeed Khan

Over the years I’ve working in a number of companies, and I’ve had good working relationships with people in many more. And when looking at those companies — successful and not — there’s one factor that separated the two, that clearly differentiated the innovative companies, vs. those that were not innovative.

Now, before I get into that, I want to make it clear that being innovative and being successful are not always the same. They are closely related, but they are not the same.

Repeatable success?

Many startups find initial success with a new product, but after the grow a bit — i.e. nail their revenue model and scale their business — they find it hard to replicate that success with other products. They may be successful — for example, there’s nothing bad about a profitable ($25 million, $50 million, or even $100 million) company where the majority of revenue comes from a single product  — but to me, that is not an innovative company.

Innovation is — as I discussed in this post — about creating things that solve problems AND then getting those things into the hands of the people who can benefit from them, and ultimately improving their lives or experiences.

For a company to do this once — i.e. have one successful product — can mean they have created an innovation, but it doesn’t mean the company is innovative.


Because to be an innovative company, means to be able to repeatedly identify and create new products and have them succeed in the market.  A lot of companies can do it once, but to do it 2, 3, 4 or more times is what it means to be innovative. It’s a characteristic of the company, not simply an activity the company engages in.

How many companies can you name that can claim this? i.e. multiple, successful new products. Think about those companies and think about what differentiates them from companies that are not innovative?

  • Is it that they have smarter technologists?
  • Is it that they have more savvy business people running them?
  • Is it that they had more funding than others?

I doubt it’s consistently any of those.

The importance of culture

IMHO, the biggest differentiating factor that defines an innovative company is culture.

And by culture I mean:

the set of shared beliefs, values and expectations that form the basis of  thoughts and actions in an organization

This is something that must be deeply rooted in the people, and is not simply something listed in a document or webpage on an intranet.  Like a brand, its only tangible through the behaviour of people. Think of a company like Zappos that focuses on a positive culture so much that it helps other companies achieve the same.

It starts at the top with the CEO and the executive team. Those people MUST communicate and act to create a culture that supports innovation. What does this mean? The following are a few things that can help define a culture that supports innovation.

  • allowing people to take risks and not be penalized for “failure”.
  • ensuring middle managers are empowered to make decisions, and are not afraid of making the wrong ones.
  • having Sr. Management available and open to discussions and not making decisions in the metaphorical Ivory Tower
  • hiring people who have the right mindset to grow in and strengthen the culture
  • differentiating from the pack, and not simply measuring forward progress in comparison to existing competitors.
  • taking some chances on new initiatives and not simply focusing on “de-risking” every initiative that comes along
  • being able to look at new business models for new products, and not simply trying to fit everything into the same pricing structure so it is easy for the purchase order process
  • having a longer term view of the market place and not always focusing almost exclusively on next quarter’s or at maximum, next year’s sales numbers
  • truly listening to the marketplace (not just customers) and having the courage to invest in big new ideas – yes invest with all it’s inherent risks – and not simply “fund” smaller ideas that are easy to digest

If you look at all of these — and these are far from a complete list — they look a lot like the things that attract people to startups. i.e. taking risks, differentiating from the competitors, taking a longer term view.

But something happens to companies after they find some initial success. They start pulling back and focus on preserving their gains. In short, their culture changes.  Have you noticed that happen in some startups as they grow? They become more bureaucratic — more “business like” — and thus lose what made them so attractive (and successful) in the first place. And where does this come from? The leadership of course.

I’ve seen it over and over again. Sometimes, a company can find it’s “mojo” and return to it’s innovative ways — Apple certainly did after Steve Jobs returned — remember the Think Different campaign.

Intuit seems to have kept a lot of their innovative culture throughout the years, thanks in large part to the culture fostered by founder Scott Cook.

Dyson – the makers of the “vacuum clean that doesn’t lose suction” – seems to be another similar company, with founder James Dyson setting the culture quite clearly.

In this 2010 interview with Harvard Business Review, Dyson answers the following question:

How do you foster a culture of creativity at Dyson?

I think it’s entirely down to the way you react to things, what you say to people every day, your attitude, your body language, your enthusiasm for coming up with new things and not making compromises and not making decisions based on business reasons alone. That’s a culture that catches on by osmosis.

I love his use of the word “osmosis”. i.e. it implies something living, breathing and dynamic and that the culture penetrates beyond the surface and throughout the organization (or should that be organism?).

Here’s  a great video on this topic

Leaders who want to build innovative companies should think hard about how to create and sustain (not simply maintain) that culture in their employees. It’s not easy or simple, but the rewards, both financial and personal, are well worth it.


Tweet this: @onpm New post – The most important characteristic of innovative companies: #prodmgmt #culture #leadership

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Frustrated with your annual performance review?

by Prabhakar Gopalan

It’s February and if your organization follows a calendar year (Jan-Dec) cycle for employee performance evaluations, chances are, you have completed your 2010 assessment and filled out goals for 2011.  How did that go?

Did you hear something like, “you are doing great, but there’s still room for improvement on <fill whatever here>?” and a host of other comments that pretty much pointed to another unrewarding year at work?

The Frustration

You’ve just spent the last 365 days focusing on the most important things for your business (applied the 80-20 rule to prioritize what is to be done and what is to be ignored) and produced remarkable results in a tough economy.   Just when you thought you should be rewarded for that effort, you hear the same story you heard the previous year about why you are still not A+ because you left out that 20%.   You wonder why there’s always a bar that you can’t seem to leap over.

The Goals

You take a moment to reflect on this whole performance review process.  To begin with, over 80% of the goals for the year were a cut and paste from the previous year.  And those goals were entered on the day they were due in the HR system company wide.  Not only that, because your boss forgot to enter his goals until the day before they were due, you had to wait to enter the same until after that.

That was just the goal entering process.  As for regular feedback and interim assessment, none existed.  The only time you looked at this whole thing again was when you had your performance evaluation discussion this year.  You remember all those weekly 1-1 meetings your boss blew off at the last minute because something urgent came up and he had to just cancel it.  You also remember how the goals themselves changed many times throughout the year because you had three ‘re-orgs’ and half the time your boss was in a meeting figuring out what the next re-org was all about.  You also realize this annual performance review is a one way street.  There’s very little for you to provide input on your boss’ performance.  It seems to be a heads you win, tails I lose situation.  You feel like this whole performance review process is a sham.

You are not alone

Guess what, you are not alone.  Almost every smart person that works for a dumb boss faces this each year.   I’m using dumb here as a fairly broad term as described in the excellent book
by William Lundin & Kathleen Lundin.

How to deal with the situation?

You have three ways to deal with your frustration arising out of a performance review like that:

1) Quit working for dumb bosses and find smart ones.  You’ll realize dumb bosses are really products of institutions and leaving dumb organizations is the real solution to your problem. The longer you stay in a dumb organization, the more likely you yourself would become another dumb boss!

2) Become your own boss, build that workplace where people love to come to work, and remember not to inflict dumbness on others. This is a tough proposition but a worthy and admirable pursuit.

3) Find a workplace that is peer driven rather than hierarchically organized.  There are plenty of places like that – start ups (flat, lean and purposeful), consulting firms (up or out policy) and projects where innovation, meritocracy and meaning define the organization’s culture (e.g. open source projects, non profits), where experience is irrelevant and performance is everything.

Actually, there’s a fourth option – challenge the status quo.  If millions of suppressed people in the Middle East are revolting today to overthrow systems that don’t work anymore, why can’t you?  Andrea Di Maio of analyst firm Gartner makes a compelling argument cautioning tech execs on how power is going to shift from organizations to individuals and technology companies are no exception.

Tweet this: @PGopalan Frustrated with your annual performance review? #HR #org #prodmgmt