How do I: not act as the product fire fighter and act as the product manager

My pedigree as a Product Manager in the web/mobile technology world is uniquely rare. I wasn’t a project manager, or a programmer, or a graphic designer which are seemingly typical pathways into it. I am a marketer and with that there are decades of sales and marketing theory and rhetoric that I’ve been exposed to.

In my current job I find a number of excuses for the lack of consumer-centric thinking and philosophical notion holding back progress of products. These are things I learned as a marketer not to allow to hold me back through process in planning and execution ideals.

Let me first begin by restating I believe my position as a product manager is to be the internal advocate for the consumer (not just the customer, but I am their advocate too) as it coincides with the overarching business goal of a product (which doesn’t just have to be maximizing profit at a given moment).

You’ll notice that I don’t mention anything other than consumer and business in my definition and I skew to the consumer. Yet, you’ll notice in the following that many of the problems have very little to actually do with that, due to a lack of focus on what a product manager needs to do, regardless of their vertical.

I don’t want to be this kind of ***, yet most product manager seem to spend their careers doing it.

Problem One: Product as a Technology Advocate

The first question ANY product manager should ask is “what consumer problem does this solve for?”

Too often I run into situations where the question being posed is “what cool new technology can we leverage?” If you cannot restate the value to the end-consumer you’re screwed and you cannot say, “it’s sales & marketing’s job to figure out how to get people to want it.” Yes, there is a collaboration between innovation and sales but your job as a product manager is to figure out the quickest, simplest bridge between the two. Just saying, “it’s cool technology, go sell it,” isn’t the right answer.

Great ideas don’t make for great products and it’s the Product Manager’s role to distinguish between advances in technology and two things 1) the consumer adoption potential and 2) the cost of return on investment and that cost includes both the technology development AND the marketing to help consumers adopt the idea. Sometimes technology stumbles upon a solution for an as-yet-to-be-identified problem that will require a large investment but it’s a product manager’s job to help give a business reason to expend those resources at that time in that way.

Product managers need to be ok with saying it’s a good idea but it’s not the best use of our resources right now. It’s too easy to try to get ahead at the expense of what you’re capable of or good at now, and technology based decision can cost product managers hardily by doing so. Mostly I see this as a technology innovation problem that’s dumped on marketing to find a solution for, but it can happen in reverse, too (actually, for the ad agency side it’s quite typical).

If you are running your products like this chances are you are fighting fire because you are reacting more to the sales department’s inability to react to your innovations because they don’t know what they are to be able to sell them.

Problem Two: Our Business is Business

The business goal is usually defended by entire legions of people who’s sole job is to protect the business investment. I have to assume, to some degree, they are good at their jobs at protecting the business however they see fit. If you cannot assume the innovation up-front risk or cannot define the ROI (Return on Investment) or cannot profit on the Lifetime Value or so on then it’s not the right course of business to begin with.

I believe that most product managers fail at what they do because they come from or are heavy-handedly driven by such thoughts. My experience is most LTV calculations are done based on previous product innovation that isn’t applicable to current dynamics, and that ROI is calculated from a narrow quarterly profit-loss margin that new products cannot overcome even in the first year. Or that established businesses are inherently risk adverse


About thedoormouse

I am I. That’s all that i am. my little mousehole in cyberspace of fiction, recipes, sacrasm, op-ed on music, sports, and other notations both grand and tiny:
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