What to Do About Product Management

If you read my last post called Product Management is Messed Up, you already know that I am generally not a fan.  Often the job requirements are so poorly defined that lots of unqualified people get to camp out for years posing as product managers.

These people waste a lot of money and irritate their coworkers.  Often the best employees leave to find a place with better product managers.  The leak happens slowly, and it is difficult to detect.  Especially among polite company, calling out a faker is awkward and rude.  So it does not happen.

This time I am going to tell employers what to do about it.  This technique applies to any position that involves a lot of talking and opinion.

The basic rule of thumb is that each position in your company needs to have clear accountability.  I will describe how to break the generic product manager position into specialized positions, each with accountability for something more specific than “managing the product.”

As an example, let me start with the software developer position.  A running system provides its own proof that things are working as expected or not.  The software does not do anything that is not part of its programming.  Whatever the system does, its developers had something to do with that.  They wrote it well or poorly.  The architecture is either flexible or brittle.  The system can scale up to meet larger demands or crashes under load.  You can talk all you want, but if the system does B when the user clicks A, something is broken.  Accountability is clear when the system is broken.

Now, discussions about what a system should do can go on endlessly.  Everyone has an opinion, qualified or not, about what would be nice to have.  Design by committee leads to a diffusion of accountability.  The group is responsible so no one is.

Instead, you need someone to think through the whole product, one person to call the shots about what a product will do and how people will use it.  Then whether customers love it or hate it, you can tie that back to the person in charge of design.  Let’s call the person who decides what a system does and how it works a product designer.

You need a product designer.

I would guess that this is what most companies want out of a product manager.  Then, in an effort to “save money,” they pile on related responsibilities.  That muddies the water.  Instead, keep the definition clean.  This position is all about features and non-functional requirements, like color schemes, screen design, up-time, and so on.

The product designer does not have to work alone.  She probably gets help from a domain expert, a user experience (UX) expert, a market analyst, and others.  She will certainly collaborate with a software architect and senior engineers about what is possible given the state of technology, timelines and budget.  She will also make sure the product works as designed as it is being built and especially before it is released.

That feels better already.  One person to hold accountable for what the product does.

Next you need someone who operates at a higher level, who is above all of the details and looks further into the future.  Once you build one product, then what?  How to do you decide whether to keep improving that product or to launch an additional product?  How do you decide what kinds of customer or markets to go after?  How do you prioritize the product ideas you have so that you are releasing things in a way that makes sense?

You need a product strategist.

A person in charge of strategy is always thinking about the future.  In fact, he is comparing and contrasting many alternative futures and coming up with a plan for each.  Not only is he decisive about what path to take, he will have opinions about which are dead ends or fool’s errands.

There’s a new technique that makes filling out forms easier?  Adopt it in the new product, then upgrade the existing products to match.  There’s a trend to make all screens blue?  Skip it, since your brand is all about red.  The strategist should understand your customers and how you are trying to help them well enough to make these kinds of calls.

Or perhaps the sales team is saying that customers keep demanding feature X, while the marketing team has identified a potential customer base that would adopt the product if it had feature Y.  The product strategist will optimize this stream (or flood) of requests to maximize adoption.

A good strategist prevents wasted effort.  She will keep the team from building the wrong products or bloating products with features that customers do not need.

Now things are even better because you have the product designer looking at details and the product strategist looking at the big picture.  There is still a problem, though.  How do you know if what you have produced is any good?

The person who chose the strategy will be biased that her strategy is correct, missing the ways in which it is flawed.  The person who designed the product will be biased that her designs are beautiful, not seeing the ugliness in her own children (so to speak).

You need a product evangelist.

This is someone who takes the finished products to the market.  Someone who enthusiastically explains to anyone who will listen everything the product can do.  Someone who watches how customers use the product and takes feedback about what they like, what they hate, and what they wish the product could do.

The product evangelist is a dispassionate champion of the software.  The evangelist is a proponent of the software who is able to observe without bias and collect accurate feedback while singing its praises to the world.  A good evangelist is an expert listener, shows empathy, and is never defensive.

This is not a sales person.  A sales person is trained to blow past objections.  The evangelist needs to hear the objections and ask probing questions to figure out what would be better.

The evangelist needs to be able to break the news to the strategist and designer—good, bad, indifferent—about the flaws customers are seeing.  There is an art to overcoming the cognitive dissonance that comes from telling smart people they were wrong.  That is a different skill than being decisive about strategy, where you have to be bold about your best guesses.  That is a different skill than fine-tuning product features into something intuitive and graceful.  That is why this is a separate position.

There you have it.  Take the step of splitting your product management positions into these three specialized positions, and you will end up with clear accountability over product decisions.  No one will be forced to fake it anymore, and the fakers will have nowhere to hide.

Your product teams will thank you.


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