Pretty Please: A Product Manager's Wish List

By Jacques Murphy August 10, 2007

From PRODUCT MANAGEMENT CHALLENGES
A Newsletter of Tips For Companies that Develop Software.

With the holiday season upon us, I can't help but think about what every Product Manager needs and wishes for in order to watch their product succeed and to flourish in their career.

Watching your product succeed provides plenty of gratification, and the success of the product rubs off on the Product Manager. Such wishes as Everyone's Bright Ideas and Quality By Default aim at product success. But it's also important for a Product Manager to attain direct career success, sometimes despite the environment. That's the reason for wishes such as A Guiding Light and A Measure of Success.

Everyone's Bright Ideas

Requirements from the Product Manager are the fuel that powers the product development engine at your organization. That fuel is refined from raw materials, which are none other than the bright ideas, coming in from all sources, about how to improve the product.

Sometimes a Product Manager is left high and dry when it comes to suggestions. Getting people to contribute their useful ideas, from little tips to grand new breakthroughs, can be hard. A lucky Product Manager is awash in ideas coming in from all sources, from prospects and market experts to casual users to power users and programmers. All of this provides the necessary well of ideas to draw upon to keep the product out in front of the pack.

A Guiding Light

Many a Product Manager works alone, as the only one, on their product, in their division, or at their company. There may be no other Product Managers to take guidance from and provide perspective. Even in larger companies, there are few Product Managers.

Product Managers have taken many different paths to get to their Product Management positions. Training, learning and skill sets differ widely from one Product Manager to another.

That's why it's so important to have guidance and standards in the form of books, training, consulting, associations, conferences and articles on better Product Management. It saves a tremendous amount of time, keeping Product Managers from having to learn every lesson the hard way, and providing structures and best practices that produce better results.

A Boss Who Understands

With so few standards and guideposts for Product Management, it's hard enough for a Product Manager to understand their job clearly. It can be all the harder for their boss to know what to expect and to understand the finer points of how a Product Manager works. It's important for the boss to appreciate the unique value a Product Manager brings to the team, and to understand how their own efforts are directed and improved by the Product Manager who reports to them.

Support for a Product Manager helps them work more productively, so it's good when a boss agrees. However, it's GREAT when the boss understands, grasping the need for a consistent, systematic approach to requirements, development, and product direction.

Victory at Home

Unexpectedly, customers and prospects of the product can be an easy sell for the Product Manager. Customers sense an ally in someone whose job is to make sure the product keeps adding better new capabilities. The Product Manager is someone who will listen to their ideas to improve the product, or else someone who has already taken the input from the market and created a product that will solve the customer's problem. So the struggle for the hearts and minds of customers can be relatively easy.

But the expectations of a Product Manager's colleagues throughout the organization can be harder to meet. Each group tends to have its own bias about what types of capabilities are most important to add to the product. Often, there is little clear understanding of the Product Manager's role. The Product Manager is the free element in the organization structure, and dissatisfied employees often look to that job to be the solution to all their struggles with the product, an impossible challenge if there ever was one.

That is why it can be so hard for a Product Manager to have the internal understanding of and support for their role. When everyone on the team understands the requirements process, and the development schedule, and the product direction, it is tremendously helpful in moving the product forward.

A Possible Undertaking

When a Product Manager tries to fill in ALL the gaps in the organization, overcome all the disappointments from the past, and satisfy all the wishes of every function, it's an impossible undertaking. There is no chance for success.

What a Product Manager needs instead is a POSSIBLE undertaking, where you set priorities and choose your battles. That way chosen priorities can be met and some battles won, and the Product Manager can feel successful.

Holistic Thinking

The wish for Everyone's Bright Ideas, above, talks about the value of getting a large quantity of ideas for improving the product. But the quality of the ideas is important, too. Often individuals provide suggestions or requirements that reflect such a strong bias that they would do as much harm as good. Documentation writers suggest online help that's encyclopedic but impossible to maintain. Marketing folks ask for an interface with animated graphics, glitter, and a touch- sensitive screen. Development requests a feature so complex that nobody could be trained on it.

So the wish that goes along with Everyone's Bright Ideas is to have a team inspired by holistic thinking, balancing many sides of the product, when submitting requirements to the Product Manager. In any case, the Product Manager sifts through requirements to make them more balanced and holistic, but with better quality input, this job yields considerably better results.

A Systematic Approach

When there are few standards, guideposts, or professional counterparts to provide perspective, so many Product Managers feel like cowboys operating out on the wild frontier. Many of their teammates in Marketing and Development have no experience with a Product Manager operating in any other way. In order for a Product Manager to establish and follow standards and operate systematically, they must educate the whole team and convince teammates of the need for such action. This can be a gargantuan effort.

Take product requirements, for example. Often teammates have no expectation of written requirements that are systematically categorized, analyzed, and measured in terms of value or return, effort to develop, and priority. More than that, they may actively resist such an idea if they fear that it cuts into their accustomed prerogative of subjectively determining priority.

So the wish for a Product Manager is that the team embrace the effort to – and appreciate the value of – taking a systematic approach to efforts that were previously seat-of-the-pants. May the team collaborate to systematically determine requirements, analyze their products positioning and competitive situation, and plan and launch releases.

A Measure of Success

Many Product Management positions involve a hodge-podge of duties that cross confusingly between sales, marketing, development, professional services and customer service. There's easily much more to do than can possibly be done by one person.

Such a situation can be a recipe for failure, if there is no counterbalancing attempt to define success. Product Managers need clear metrics by which to gauge their performance. These can be both hard numbers, such as the percentage increase in profit margin or dollar increase in profit, or softer figures such as the quality of the requirements process. But every Product Manager would wish for goals that are specific, measurable, and attainable via realistic effort.

Quality By Default

Perhaps 'quality by default' is a wish that doesn't aim as high as 'quality by design'. Perhaps the two are really the same. This wish comes from the fact that Product Managers face a daunting list of tasks to accomplish, among the hardest of which is the creation and handing off of requirements to the Development team. It is a hard enough effort to produce requirements, and to help with the planning necessary to see most of those requirements brought to light. But it is very hard, if not impossible, to accomplish this if there are serious quality problems with the product.

Quality deficiencies sidetrack product development and hold it back. With software, defects and the time spent to fix them can easily eat into most of the time available to create new capabilities. Without a high level of quality built into the product, defects will hold back new capabilities, and all the work on requirements will lead to poor results. So every Product Manager wishes for a product and a Development team where quality is assumed and built right in.

Sweeter Trade-Offs

With more requested capabilities than can be developed, with more marketing activities desired than can be funded, with more ways to expand the market than can be exploited, Product Management is always required to make trade-offs. Because of its cross-disciplinary scope, Product Management can involve choices between seemingly unrelated things. Do we want to be profitable this year or do we want to hold a customer conference? Do we want to pursue partners who want to integrate our software into theirs, or do we want to add an Executive Dashboard (instead of adding an API)? Do we want to hit that revenue number or get some good PR? Oddly enough, many Product Managers are involved in so many aspects of the product that they can point to many examples where they had such choices. And with practice, Product Managers get very good at making choices.

Given that the choices have to be made, may they be choices which are not bitter (for example, being profitable vs. adding enough new features), but sweet (do we want the full color brochure to be four pages long or six? Can we make it eight?).

A Clear Purpose

All the wishes above would be less meaningful without the final one, the wish to have a clear purpose. The road ahead for a Product Manager can seem uncertain enough, between tradeoffs and lack of guidance, and it becomes all the harder to navigate without a strong sense of purpose. May every Product Manager see the value in what they do and realize the many ways, both obvious and less so, that their product leaves the world better off for having existed.

Categories: Requirements Working with Development Roles & Activities
Jacques Murphy

Jacques Murphy

Jacques Murphy tailors best practices in software product management to your company and products, creating competitive advantage through better product roadmaps, product requirements and product launches. Read more of his articles on this site or on productmanagementchallenges.com or via email at jacquesm@epix.net.

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