3 Things Product Managers Can Learn from Management Consultants

By Alex Joseph


House Of LiesManagement Consultants are probably one of the most ridiculed professionals in popular culture (only next to Wall Street bankers). They are often portrayed as ruthless and self-obsessed mercenaries in Dilbert cartoons (‘Dogburt, the Consultant’) or in ‘House of Lies’, a show which is based on the book titled ‘How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time’!

However, most executives admire management consultants (at least secretly!) and would love to hire top-notch consultants. After having worked as a management consultant and a product manager, I have noticed that many product managers are still skeptical of ‘the consultants’, as most PMs come from engineering or design. I understand some of the concerns, but also believe that many consulting skills (apart from the passion and drive) can be extremely valuable in product management roles. Here are three of them. (BTW, according to consultants, any list should only have three items, since people can’t remember more than three things!)

Gather Data Smartly

Good management consultants are extremely analytical and are obsessed with data. Though sometimes bordering on ‘analysis paralysis’, consultants are methodical in proving or disproving their ‘hypotheses’ and often find creative ways to find proxy data, when it’s not easily available. Though often derided as ‘POOMA’ (you know what that means!), estimating something hard to observe based on something you can observe can be extremely valuable in product management, since the most interesting market data is rarely presented cleanly in an analyst report!

In my first consulting project, the engagement manager asked me (as the most junior member of the team) to analyze the success stories of the four biggest competitors. It was a painful task going through 100+ customer testimonials, but when I clustered them into industries creating a heat map (in one chart), it was an eye-popping revelation how few use cases they actually address – despite their public claims of solving every problem under the sun. It was a classic case of ’80-20’ (as consultants would call it). The conclusions were not entirely surprising, but we then had solid data to back that up, instead of getting into the ‘my opinion vs. yours’ religious battles.

Synthesize and Present Top-Down

Product managers sometimes get lost in a ton of data. I recently watched a product manager presenting a proposal using many dense data charts – pulled from various analysts segmenting the market in different ways and presenting numerous possible features and functions. At the end of the long presentation, I asked him, “Where should we focus?” His answer was, “They are all attractive, and if we have the resources we should do them all.” Something a good management consultant would never say!

In consulting, the ability to structure the message using the Pyramid Principle is extremely important. The goal is to communicate top-down with the most important message first (‘tip of the pyramid’). The supporting conclusions are presented at the next level (following ‘MECE’), resembling a pyramid. This makes it easier for the reader (and especially for busy executives) to grasp the gist of the message instead of being bombarded with a lot of rambling details.

While telling the story, most use a variation of an approach called Situation, Complication, & Resolution to drive to a clear course of action. All of these are equally important for product managers while communicating a product vision & strategy. (Good presentation on applying Pyramid Principle for structured communication).

Gallery of management consultants

Get Stakeholder Buy-In

One thing in common between consultants and product managers is that they often have to ‘influence without authority’. It’s critical for consultants to get buy-in from executives by finding common ground. Most construct a stakeholder diagram at the beginning of the project to figure out the key people to influence. Contrary to stereotypes, no smart consultant will walk in to the big meeting with a heavy PowerPoint deck without getting buy-in privately from these decision makers (‘pre-wiring’).

Product Managers (especially in a big company) have to navigate complex organizational units. Many PMs, especially those from a technical background, seem to have the naïve belief that ‘the best idea will win’. ‘Politics’ may sound like a dirty word, but it’s nothing more than using emotional intelligence while dealing with organizations and executives (that are human too!), considering their collective self-interests.

Does this mean that all management consultants would become excellent product managers? Not always, but that’s a topic for another post.

Alex Joseph is a product manager and former strategy consultant and engineer. He is now an ‘intrapreneur’ in a large software company in Silicon Valley applying what he has learned from startups and corporates. Alex reflects on consumerizing the enterprise by beautiful mobile apps on Twitter and his blog.