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Introducing Product Management into your company – part 2

In part 1, 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 looking to bring Product Management into your organization, start with this very fundamental question:

Why?

Seriously, why do you really need product management? What problem are you expecting it to solve?

Improved product development processes?

Better requirements writing? (Ick.)

Maintaining feature lists? (C’mon, seriously?)

Being the demo guy? (Groan…)

Project manage software releases? (Get a project manager.)

Some folks believe dedicated Product Management is needed because there needs to be someone to coordinate all product related activities across the organization — in other words, serve as a glorified air traffic control.

While there is certainly a degree of this involved in product management, you don’t need a dedicated Product Management department just to coordinate your organization’s inefficiencies around your product.

Those inefficiencies could be solved by your various departments better coordinating around product activities. Or they could be re-structured and appropriate processes could be developed around them to ensure continuous delivery.

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.

So why would you want Product Management?

Because you fundamentally understand that sustainable growth comes from innovation…

Tha innovation is about creating monetizable customer value

And product management is the chief vehicle to deliver that.

So if you’re hiring a product manager because you’re developing a software and simply need someone to provide requirements to engineering and project manage the delivery, don’t hire a product manager. Hire a project manager who can double up as a business systems analyst.

Prepare the organization

You must understand that Product Management is a disruptive force, a radical change to the way the organization has been conducting its business thus far. The introduction of a product management function will centralize many functions that were previously diversified. (Fragmented?) 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.

In other words, ssenior leadership must take an active role in the success of product management.

Who’s your first hire? And where do they sit?

A more senior individual will bring the experience and know-how to take on a more leadership type role, coalesce the organizations around a coherent product strategy and, when the time comes, leverage their personal network to bring in additional product management talent.

For a growing company, taking over many of the product strategy execution aspects off of the CEO, CIO/CTO, founder, etc. is exactly what the first formal Product Management leader would do. As such, you’ll be better off making your first hire at a more senior level, at least VP or Director. Ensuring sustainable success for the position — and, thus, for the product strategy — in an ideal manner means setting it up in terms of stature and position with respect to the other departments.

A common pushback I hear from organizations that have never hired a product manager is they worry a more senior person may not be willing to be as “hands on” and handle the necessary tactical activities that need to be done.

First, that’s silly, frankly. Just make sure in your hiring process you look for a leader who’s willing to and has demonstrable experience getting their hands dirty.

Second, product management is a unique discipline that necessarily requires one to execute tactically while thinking strategically. It’s the thing that sets it apart from many other disciplines.

Now, as a practical matter, it’s possible the company may simply not have the budget to hire a senior level person since such an individual will naturally command a higher compensation. And waiting to have the right budget may not be an option if the company is in crisis mode where it needs someone to step in to pick up activities that are getting dropped. So the company may be forced to opt for a more ‘junior’ product manager.

Regardless of the experience level of the individual and the title of the role, one of the biggest risks here is where to place this individual in the organization. I would still advocate having this person report directly to the senior most executive in charge of product strategy, including the CEO.

Unfortunately, what often happens is the individual is put under Marketing, Sales or Engineering. (Or, worse, “IT”.) The dangers with this approach are well documented.1

The product manager becomes 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 champion for Product Management. 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 manager in the company?

Here’s what you should do:

Clarify your role

Because expectations may vary widely, it’s important to clarify your role upfront.

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, the Product Manager will likely play a more tactical role, working more closely with engineering on product releases, perhaps supporting marketing and sales activities. Your role with respect to setting the product strategy will be strictly as an influencer.

This may be okay if you’re a newly minted product manager or have got only a few years of PM experience under your belt. Your gaps are in understanding the business, the industry, and the go-to-market strategy. If your company is selling to other businesses, you may have gaps in understanding your customers’ business models.

You can reasonably expect to be coached and mentored with respect to these gaps so that over time you can take over more of the go-to-market and strategic aspects of the job.

And if you are the visionary CEO or line of business GM hiring the product manager, you should prepare yourself to mentor your newly hired product manager over the next several years.

Clarify expectations

You need to have a mutually agreed upon definition of success. Clarify how your performance will be judged. Reconcile these 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…

Or you’re told they want you to be strategic, but you’ll be measured on tactical things like “on-time” delivery…

These are signs of expectations being incongruous with the role.

Or to put it more bluntly: The role is set up for failure and you should RUN AWAY.

As stated earlier, Product Management is an agent of change, because 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 building your credibility. (Important!)

Ensure senior sponsorship

I talked above this above. Regardless of whether you’re coming in with the title of “Product Manager” or “VP or Product”, make sure there is a true believer at the senior executive level who will go to bat for you, give you the space to establish yourself into the role, and support your efforts to be targeted and focused.

Which brings us to:

Focus!

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 crop up, of course, but at least you’ll be able to fall back on the agreement you reached and 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’s possible to set it up for long-term success. Either way, it’s going to be a roller coaster. So saddle up, buckle in, and get ready for a wild ride!

1Further reading:
Marty Cagan: Where Should Product Management Live?
Steve Johnson: Where Does Product Management Belong In An Organization?
Rich Mironov: Where Should PM Report?

Introducing Product Management into your company

If you’re considering introducing product management into your organization, or are the first product management employee hired into a company, then tread carefully! Having done this more times than I care to recall, I can attest there are fewer professional situations more fraught with ambiguity, unreasonable expectations, threats from every corner, and high likelihood of failure for the Product Manager and the organization.

Why would a successful business decide to introduce product management into its organization at all?

In one company I had joined, the business had been extremely successful selling variations of essentially the same product for years and years. But with potential new business drying up, the execs decided the company needed to be more “innovative”, and their answer was to create a Product Management department.

Other reasons could be:

  • With everyone in the company focused on marketing, selling, customer service, managing operations, hiring, and a hundred other things, the organization finds no one is focused on growing the product portfolio.
  • OR… the product portfolio may have grown like wild fire, and now there are multiple versions of the product, causing customer confusion and inefficiencies within the organization. Time to consolidate.
  • The product has become so “feature rich” that sales and marketing no longer know how to position the product to customers, customers cannot be serviced efficiently, and delivery dates keep slipping as each additional piece of functionality adds exponential risk to development and testing.
  • A services company is trying to become a product-focused one, and after lots of wasted time and money realizes they need product management.

For any of these reasons, the company executives decide its time to bring in product management.

Buyer Beware

Although these situations may seem ideal to introduce product management, they abound with pitfalls for the unaware. It’s important for both company execs and Product Management to be mindful of numerous land mines:

Unfounded unreasonably high expectations. Product Management is suddenly looked upon as the silver bullet answer to all the company’s problems.

Not all expectations are created equal. Expectations are also different across each department:

  • Engineering/IT expects Product Management to write requirements, ensure zero scope changes, project manage the delivery, conduct UAT, manage defect resolution, and make seamless release go/no go calls.
  • Sales expects Product Management to be available for every sales call, produce sales collateral, do product demos, commit to product features that will help them close the next big deal with a guarantee to have them all available by the date they already promised to the client.
  • Marketing expects Product Management to provide the content for marketing materials or, worse, wants nothing at all to do with Product Management.
  • Execs expect Product Management to come up with the “next big thing”, have a solid business case behind it, deliver it “on time”, and ensure it makes a ton of money.

What does Product Management do? Most times folks don’t understand the role of Product Management and the value it brings to the organization. Let’s see…

  • Salespeople close deals.
  • Marketing runs campaigns, advertising, promotions, and events.
  • Account Management / Customer Success manages client relationships.
  • Operations manages business processes.
  • Customer Service runs the call center.
  • IT takes care of “all that technical stuff” the rest of the organization would rather not be bothered about.

Pretty straightforward. So what exactly does Product Management do?

And here’s the fun part: even the executives of the company — the same folks who decided to introduce Product Management — may not be clear on what exactly it does or how to measure its value!

Why do we even need Product Management? Infinitely worse is when folks secretly question the decision to bring in product management. This is often more prevalent at the department level than the executive level.

The thinking goes this way: “We’ve been successful all these years without it, so why do we need it now?”

Product Management represents a disruption to tradition and the status quo. And so, it can be seen as a threat. We humans typically don’t embrace change so readily. In one company, IT had historically written the business requirements and Sales always went directly to IT and so was more than happy with this arrangement. When Product Management came into the picture, the battle lines were drawn!

The scapegoat syndrome: A common way for other departments to deal with the perceived threat is simply to blame Product Management for anything and everything wrong with the product.

Suddenly Product Management is getting blamed for deals not getting closed, because the product does not have the features desired by the last “hot” prospect.

If the product has holes, Product Management is called to task for writing poor requirements.

If customers don’t respond to marketing, Product Management is accused of not understanding the customer.

If customers report bugs, Product Management is asked to immediately identify fixes.

Product Management becomes everyone’s favorite punching bag. It’s amazing how fast this happens.

The bottleneck syndrome: Somewhat related to the scapegoat syndrome, except this one is often self-inflicted.

The new Product Manager declares, “Product Management owns the product.” And sure enough, soon he or she does indeed own everything to do with the product.

All decisions, all issues, are swiftly sent to the Product Manager, who quickly gets swamped with putting out one fire after the next.

Pretty soon, no department is getting the support it expects, the backlog piles up, delivery timeframes get jeopardized, the execs are still waiting on the product strategy, and everyone is pointing to Product Management as the bottleneck.

It’s a sucky place to be.

Eyes Wide Open

So before you introduce Product Management into your organization, or sign up as the first product management employee, be mindful of these traps.

Have you ever been one of the first product management employees hired into an organization? Please share your story!

This post was also published on OnProductManagement.net and is part of a two-part series. Read part 2 here.

How I Became A Product Manager

By Tony Lizza

My God, I’m going to die here, I thought. Every morning the melodrama played out as I marched into the support department of the company where I worked. I had started out there a couple of years before, and everything was easy and fun. I was learning new things. Two years on, I was burned out. No more learning, no more excitement. Just ringing phones, and angry customers, and impossible deadlines, and my god, I’m going to die here. I didn’t see myself in support for the rest of my career. I found quality assurance and documentation tasks dull, and I knew I didn’t want to keep track of project spreadsheets for the rest of my career, so implementation was out. I was always drawn to the process of creating something new, but I wasn’t an engineer. I felt hosed.

All wasn’t lost, though. Even though I didn’t have a technical degree, I accumulated a lot of technical knowledge. I was able to go to work in the documentation department where I got to work writing training material and use cases for features of a new software product. About a year after that, I took a position in the product department of my company. Here’s what I did that helped me.

1) I was curious

I learned about as much as I could in each of my roles. Product, market, domain, it didn’t matter. My first job was supporting a legacy receivables management software package. In addition to soft skills, I used that opportunity to learn Linux, Bash scripting, and Python, among other skills. Have they all been equally useful in career as a product manager? Not all of them, I admit, but some certainly did.

2) I was helpful

I did everything I could. If the website needed updated copy, I volunteered to write it. If an RFP came in, I volunteered to help with it. I did anything to build my knowledge of the product and the market. As a character in Mad Men said, “This is America. Pick a job and become the person that does it.” But be willing to start small. Approach the product manager or department head, and say that you’re interested in taking on some product work. This might be tough if you’re not a natural gladhander. (I’m certainly not!) But most people are willing to help those who ask for it, and there are plenty of long suffering product departments that would be bowled over by your interest. These things often live and die on the say so of your current supervisor, so make sure he/she approves it first. If your company releases a product, SOMEONE is doing product work, or at least should be. If there’s not a formal department, so much the better. This means that somebody has been taking on product work in addition to his/her own workload, and would probably be glad to give some of it up.

3) I positioned the experience I had

I leveraged my experience in those areas to get into a product management role as a BA. It’s about positioning. If you worked in support, then you have customer empathy. If you were an engineer, then you can speak intelligently about product timelines and feature priorities. If you were in sales, then you know the market and have experience qualifying customers.

Even though I didn’t do this, it helps to get a mentor, either someone at your company, or volunteer with an organization like ProductCamp DC. Communities of interest like these are full of passionate, knowledgeable people who genuinely enjoy helping others. (Full disclosure: I am a volunteer with ProductCamp DC.)

There are plenty of other skills that product managers need. E.g., how to build consensus within an organization, how to interview customers, how to develop a product roadmap, etc. But at the very, very beginning, it came down to those three for me. Not coincidentally, these qualities not only helped me get a product management role, but also have served me well as a product manager. And every day I am learning. And every day I’m excited.

Tony

Tony Lizza is a Product Manager at AARP. He tweets at @tonylizza.