Add value or get out of the way!

By Saeed Khan

One question that came up at ProductCamp Austin, and that comes up often in discussions about Product Management responsibilities, is how to manage (and deliver) on all the demands made on product managers and product marketers.

I have a simple rule that I follow, and have followed for a long time.

If I’m not adding value to a situation or process, then I have no business being a part of that situation or process.

I can observe of course, but I should not be an active participant.

As an example, during my first month at a new job, someone from Engineering came up to me and asked me to get the latest version of HP-UX as Engineering had some work that needed that latest version.

I looked at the person, and said, “Why are you asking me?”

He said, matter of factly, “Oh. The product manager before you used to deal with all this and get us 3rd party software.”

I responded, “OK. That may have been what the previous product manager did, but that’s not my responsibility. You should be able to get that directly from HP without my help.”

The conversation ended and I don’t recall ever being asked for new OS versions again.

While a minor incident, this example is repeated far too often by people who, just wanting to help, or not knowing how to say “No”, acquiesce to tasks where they simply add no value. It’s time wasted that could be spent on more productive work.

Don’t confuse process with progress

On the flip side, there are people who think they are adding value, but in fact more than often than not, are actually impeding progress. These are people who confuse following a process with making progress, or are simply acting as a checklist monkey.

I’ve seen people like this. They send lots of emails, schedule lots of meetings, keep elaborate spreadsheets of activities, and yet, when you look back at the results of all those activities, it’s shocking how little value they’ve added overall.

  • What positive change have they made to the product or sales/marketing process?
  • Does their net contribution (i.e. minus the emails, meetings, spreadsheets etc.) “move the needle” in any significant way?
  • Or are they simply a middle-man (or woman) handing off tasks to others and making excuses when the spotlight shines on them?

Are we adding value yet?

It’s a simple question we should all ask ourselves. Are we adding value? And if so, how much? How could we improve ourselves so that we can add more value in the future.

And we need to be honest, because even the best of us has room for improvement.

  • How many customers do you speak with every month? How can you raise that number?
  • How many prospects are you in contact with (while working with Sales) every month? Is that sufficient?
  • Is your market knowledge, understanding of the buyer and competition better this quarter than it was last quarter? If not, why not?
  • How well do you enable other teams to do their jobs better every quarter? Can you do better?
  • Are you easy to work with or do you force others to bend to your way of doing things?
  • What gripes do your coworkers have about your performance? How could you improve yourself in those areas?

These are all fundamental questions we should ask ourselves. We need to be in a process of continuous improvement, and only by doing that can we continue to add value in our roles.


Tweet this: Add value or get out of the way! #prodmgmt #prodmktg #innovation #pcatx

Introducing Product Management Into an Organization – Part 2

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

In my previous post, I talked about the challenges of introducing Product Management into an established organization. Here I share hard learned lessons on how to avoid common pitfalls and start laying the foundation for long-term success.

Start with why

If you’re an organization looking to bring on product management, start with the most fundamental of all questions:


Seriously, why do you really need product management? What problem are you expecting it to solve? Innovation? Improved product development processes? Better requirements writing? Writing feature lists? Being the demo guy?

The why question is critical because it sets the expectation for the value Product Management is expected to bring to the organization. It also crystallizes whether there are ways to solve the problems the organization faces through its current structure. Perhaps the existing departments could take on various Product Management functions, or could be re-structured, and appropriate processes can be developed around them to ensure continuous innovation. If this is not possible, then perhaps introducing a Product Management department does makes sense.

Prepare the organization

The fact is product management is a disruptive force, a radical change to the way the organization conducts its business. The introduction of a centralized product management department will do just that: centralize many functions that were previously diversified. Senior leadership must think carefully if this is something they want to take the organization through, and must prepare to shepherd each of the other departments through their change curves.

Who is your first hire? And where do they sit?

A senior product management individual will bring the experience and know-how to take on a more leadership role, quickly formulate the product strategy and develop a roadmap, be better able to articulate the value of product management, and when the time comes, leverage their personal network to bring in additional product management talent.

Understandably, though, the company may not have the budget to hire a seasoned executive. It may also be in more of a crisis mode where it needs someone to step in to pick up activities that are getting dropped. In either case, the company may decide to opt for a more junior product manager. The question becomes where to place this individual in the organization. Because it doesn’t make sense for this person to report to the execs, they are typically put into marketing, sales or engineering.

The dangers with this approach are well documented – they become a support role for the primary function of that department, providing content for marketing materials, doing product demos for sales, or writing requirements and project managing deliverables for engineering. No time to do the critical work of understanding market problems and formulating the product strategy.

Who to hire and where they sit are critical decisions to ensure long term success. I once worked for a company that rotated through five directors and seventeen Product Managers in just six years. A total of twenty two. Twenty two!

Ensure senior sponsorship

Ensure there is someone in a senior executive position who is willing to be the sponsor and champion for product management. I’m talking someone at the SVP+ level. In my experience, this has the greatest impact on product management’s long-term success. You need someone at that level to evangelize the value that product management brings to the organization, and provide the necessary air support when political attacks threaten to disrupt it in its formative stages.

Do you feel lucky? Well… do ya?

So far I’ve talked from the organization’s point of view. What if you’re the first product management professional into the company? The Product Management Journal has some great tips on introducing product management into a startup. I expound on those to encompass any organization:

Clarify your role
Because expectations may vary widely, it’s important to clarify your role upfront. For example, if you’re joining a startup, an enterprise with a visionary CEO, or a company with established lines of business, the CEO or line of business may want to continue to act as the product visionary and retain control over the product direction. In this case, product management may play a more tactical role, working more closely with engineering on product releases, perhaps supporting marketing and sales activities.

Clarify expectations
You need to clarify how your performance will be judged and reconcile it with the scope of the role. If you’re expected to play a more tactical role, yet deliver product innovation, or if you’re measured on the number of defects and customer complaints, yet the role is about market insight and setting the product direction, these are signs of expectations being incongruous with the role.

As stated earlier, product management is an agent of change, as it changes existing business processes and takes decision making and responsibilities away from current owners. This creates uncertainty. To the extent reasonable, talk to everyone. Understand their expectations. Share these findings with your hiring bosses to clarify expectations and the role, and ensure they are congruous. Doing this has the added benefit of helping you establish key relationships and build your credibility.

Ensure senior sponsorship
Same as discussed above, except now from the individual’s lens. Regardless of whether you are coming in as the VP or a rank-and-file product manager, be sure there is a true believer at the senior executive level.

Look, you simply can’t do everything. If you’ve done your homework on the role and expectations fronts, identify what you think are the most pressing problems, share them with your stakeholders, gain their buy-in, and focus relentlessly on the top priorities. Lower level priorities and new problems will of course crop up, but at least you’ll either be able to fall back on the agreement you reached or have a constructive conversation on re-assessing priorities based on new realities. This gives you a much greater chance to get things done while keeping your credibility intact.

Introducing product management into an organization can be fraught with ambiguity, unreasonable expectations, and threats from every corner. But with foresight and planning, it is possible to set it up for long term success. Either way, it’s going to be roller coaster. So saddle up, buckle in, and get ready for a wild ride!

Tweet this: Introducing Product Management into an Organization  – part 2 – #prodmgmt #innovation #career

Shardul Mehta is a simple product guy whose passion for great digital experiences is only exceeded by his love for chicken curry. He is the Founder of ProductCamp DC, and his blog can be found here.

Case Study – First 30 days into a New Role

By Saeed Khan

In January (Jan 10 to be exact), we published a guest post by Ninon Laforce, entitled:

A 90 Day Plan for New Product Managers.

In it, Ninon laid out concrete steps new Product Management hires should take to get up to speed and become productive contributors in their company. She structured it in 30, 60 and 90 day milestones.

That article received a LOT of traffic after it was published. It seems there’s a lot of interest in this topic.

Apparently one reader — David Crozier — took Ninon’s article to heart, applied it and then 40 days after Ninon’s post, published his own blog post about his first 30 days in his new role.

David complete 10 out of 11 of the tasks that Ninon had set out for the first 30 days. It’s great to see people not only reading our posts, but applying the lessons learned and sharing back on the Web.

I look forward to future posts from David as he reaches his 60 and 90 day milestones.

And if anyone else has applied Ninon’s advice, I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment on the blog (this post or Ninon’s original) or drop us a line via our Contact Us page.


Tweet this: Case Study — First 30 days into a New Role #prodmgmt #prodmktg #career


Inspiration, Improvisation and Innovation in Austin

By Saeed Khan

This past weekend, I managed to attend Product Camp Austin 8! Thanks to some business I had to attend to earlier in the week in that same city, I was able to stay an extra day and learn from and network with some of Austin’s finest product people.

I saw my good friend and fellow On Product Management blogger, Prabhakar Gopalan. As usual, he was energetic, excited and full of disdain for conventional thinking.

I met Josh Duncan face-to-face for the first time. He had interviewed me last year on his blog and posted the video on his site. My initial thought: he’s much taller than I expected!

Also met with many other people including  Scott Sehlhorst, Tom Evans, Mike Boudreaux and Cindy Solomon. I’ve met Mike and Cindy before, but each just once, and neither time in Austin. As I’ve stated previously on this blog, there’s nothing like face-to-face meeting to really get to know someone or understand what they are about.

Although it’s not a huge city (population is under 1 million), the technology scene in Austin is vibrant. I’m not sure of the official count, but there were at least 250 people in the audience in the opening session. And this was not the largest ProductCamp they’ve had.


Attending the camp and meeting with everyone inspired me to dust off some old personal projects that have been lingering on the back burner for a while. You’ll hear about some of these later this year. But the day also inspired me to get back and blog more regularly. I have at least 3 upcoming posts in the works.

Although I didn’t have a speaking slot on the day (grumble grumble, unpublished deadlines, email snafus), I was directly referenced in various ways in at least 3 sessions that I attended. Two times it was by people who knew me, but one time it was by someone (Dori Gilbert) I had only met that morning and with whom I’d only had a 10 second exchange. I’m not sure what to say, but I was both humbled and, yes, inspired. You don’t find that level of cordiality everywhere.

My lesson and advice — get out of the building more and meet, talk, engage, interact, learn, teach, network, experience, share and deal with people face-to-face as much as you can.  You will only come out better for your efforts.


I want to tell you about Josh Duncan’s talk Own Your Story or Someone Else Will. Yes, you can click the link to see the slides, but I want to tell you about the talk, not the slides.

Josh was presenting at the end of day in the main auditorium. The AT&T Conference Center, where ProductCamp was held, is a nice facility. It’s new, modern, high-tech, with wall-sized projection screens, stadium seating etc. What better venue for Josh to deliver his talk. He’d prepared a top notch, visually interesting slide deck. And he’s a good speaker.

Well, Murphy’s Law struck just as Josh was setting up, the projection screen refused to work. Where his slides should have been, all we had was a floor to ceiling 20ft wide black wall. But the show must go on. So what did Josh do — with a bit of encouragement from the audience? He turned his talk into a fireside chat.

That’s how he gave most of his presentation. And you know what? It worked. Everyone learned something. He owned his story!


Earlier in the afternoon, one of the speakers was a no-show. Too bad, as the title — A Slice of Design — sounded intriguing, and there were at least 50 people in the room patiently waiting. I was one of them.  Once it was confirmed the speaker was not around, one of the organizers came in, apologized for the no-show and suggested people go to one of the other sessions that were underway.

While a few people started to get up, someone said “Let’s get another speaker” or something like that. Prabhakar had just entered the auditorium a few seconds earlier and was standing near the front of the room. I pointed at him and said, “I want to hear him speak!”.  It seems like everyone knew Prabhakar there, and soon others joined in, encouraging him to give a talk, completely on the fly.

He accepted the challenge, took a few seconds to compose himself and then gave an impassioned talk on the future of Innovation. Here are a couple of tweets from the audience.

And here’s a picture of him in action. No slides, no prepared notes, but lots of great ideas and  A LOT of audience discussion!

And did I mention that at the end of the day, his talk — impromptu as it was — was voted best of the day? That’s what an “unconference” is about!

I’ll end it there, still inspired as I am, and I hope that I inspired you a bit. Where ever you are, whatever role or job you have, if you’re reading this blog, realize that obstacles in your path are simply there to help you think and find creative solutions to problems.

Get out, meet people, learn from them, teach them and leave each other inspired to do great things.


Tweet this: Inspiration, Improvisation and Innovation in Austin #prodmgmt #innovation #pcatx

Gillette, Innovation, Big Bets and Software

I was talking to a senior partner at a leading consulting firm today and our conversation sparked this post.  The gist of the conversation was, our consultant opined that a) Gillette was the one of most innovative firms, b)  Managers at Gillette made big bets, including a $200M R&D (author’s note: that led to its Sensor razor introduction in 1989) and c)  big bets power corporate growth.

I spent some time thinking about this.  Is Gillette truly an innovative company?  I never thought Gillette was innovative.  Yes, they got acquired by P&G for a ginormous amount a few years back, but how does adding an extra blade wet or dry, to the razor each year in a near monopoly for shaving facial hair or your armpits really qualify someone as very innovative?  I mean, with all due respect to the R&D talent and management consultant power behind Gillette, it is a company that came up with the Mach3 that was proposed in SNL 1975!

Then, leaving my intuition aside, I searched for what some leading thinkers have to say.  Jim Moran from LEK Consulting has a great post on the subject of big bets, which supports most people’s common sense – “the bigger you are the harder you fall”.  His post Can Gillette Disrupt Itself?  is an excellent exposition of the innovator’s dilemma waiting to happen.

Next I looked at who could be these ‘good enough’ competitors that enter the market for razors way down in the bottom and ultimately displace Gillette.  I found one interesting competitor, the King of Shaves Company based in the UK that is doing exactly that.  This post in The Telegraph gives a balanced view of the subject.

I took another turn and looked at what other Gillette studies are around.  There were quite a few consultant sponsored studies and papers (which do not disclose the principal-client relationship at all) that provided old wine in new bottle models of BCG’s growth share matrix redefined in a granular segment level analysis of premium versus commodity segments.

Yet, all of this fuzz aside, I had three questions in my head: 1) do innovations like blade additions to razors at the expense of huge R&D and marketing costs in near monopoly markets belong in the pantheon of innovations? is there a qualitative/quantitative way to measure these innovations besides the companies own marketing press paid or otherwise 2) Can big bets power corporate growth now and in the future?  3) can the software industry, startup/lean/cloud software that is built on experiments and validating hypotheses continuously in a rapid iterative way, in particular, teach a new way to think about strategy to other industries and by extension big firm consultants?

I will provide my thoughts on all three sets of questions over the next few posts.  We invite readers of OnPM to join the conversation and tell us what you think.  Please comment!  Thank you.

I’ll close out this post with a quote from Gary Hamel on Gillette:

Gillette presents the classic example of innovation as product extension. Gillette used to make razors with one blade, then it made them with two blades, and now it has razors with three blades. That is the all-too-typical view of innovation. And there is nothing wrong with it, except at some point adding another blade is not going to make a substantial difference to how customers perceive the product. More important, this narrow view of innovation is very unlikely to create new markets and new wealth. In today’s economy, it is only radical innovation that will lead to significant growth.

-Prabhakar Gopalan