Are You Decent? The Naked Truth About Product Management Performance

By Alyssa Dyer June 20, 2007

Product management is typically thankless. A product manager (PM) is the first one called when there is a problem. When it is time to recognize team contributions, the PM usually does the recognizing and most people assume the PM is vicariously rewarded for his or her efforts. Sometimes Engineering snickers, “What does that PM do anyway?”. Or perhaps you have had the invigorating reminder that as PM, you are ultimately responsible with little, if any, budget or staff to assist. Hmmm…remind me again why we do it? Oh yeah, we make the big bucks. No seriously…

Perhaps the most compelling reason people are attracted to product management is that it is the center of the business. The PM is the go-to-person for all things important to the product and interacts with all sorts of people and functions. It takes an ambi-brained individual to be a great product manager—someone who understands and explains technical and financial data while being creative and communicative to develop new product ideas, innovative marketing plans and better sales tools.

Not limited by one skill set but rather a “jack of all trades” or utility player, the risk to a PM is that they really aren’t an all-star, but a mediocre meddler. A PM may be viewed as someone who is not conversant, let alone a leader. The question is how do you know if you are a respected PM or simply a tolerated one? Do you know if your peers and managers think you do a good job? How do you compare with other PMs in other organizations?

Let’s first consider some facts. There are no college degrees in product management and few accredited classes. Up until recently, there were few professional certification programs or educational conferences which still may not be widely accessible for many existing or aspiring PMs. Obviously if you are reading this publication, you are already plugged into one of the biggest suppliers of product management information and benchmark data—Pragmatic Marketing. In December 2006, Pragmatic Marketing released the results of its annual Product Management and Marketing survey. As usual, the survey was chock full of interesting data such as how a PM typically spends his/her time, how much they earn, and who they report to. Every year, the survey points out the fact that there is a lot of deviation between how organizations implement product management. In researching organizations for my book, Software Product Management Essentials, plus working with and presenting to hundreds of PMs, it is clear that no two PMs operate the same. In fact, two PMs within the same organization will prioritize and implement different things that reflect their own experience and knowledge. For example, some PMs do pricing analysis multiple times per year, others rarely. The frequency is not tied to the type of product or market but rather the level of importance precise pricing is to the PM and the organization. Some PMs use packaged software tools to collect and manage requirements. Yet other PMs rely on Microsoft® Excel® or Microsoft® Word® to get the job done. This is not a measure of the organization’s size and budget, but a matter of the individual PM’s style and preference. Some organizations outsource product management (or at least parts of it). Other companies are completely against this idea. Indeed, it is difficult to say that there is a “correct” way to do product management.

Given the fuzzy job description, it is difficult to measure whether a particular PM is doing a good job. We all know that individual performance reviews can be biased by political and personal relationship issues. Don’t ignore reviews, but definitely factor in whether the person reviewing the PM has prior PM experience in order to really understand what a PM does. It isn’t like Engineering where the code gets done correctly, on time or not. It isn’t like Finance where the balance sheet balances. It isn’t Sales, Marketing, or Support, either. It’s a little of all of the above, yet never quite as quantifiable. PMs are not usually measured on anything tangible. Success is measured using subjective criteria tied to how well the PM was able to get the other groups to do their own jobs.

However, if you are a PM, here are some very practical ways to measure your worth within an organization.

1. Tell me honestly, does this job make me look bad?
Sounds so obvious and easy but most people don’t do it. Ask your colleagues outright how they feel about your work and contributions. Ask them what they think you do and if that effort is valuable to them personally. Have a face-to-face lunch meeting or coffee break—don’t use email to do this! You need to see body language as much as hear verbal feedback. Talk with key people in all the functions you interact with: Engineering, Finance, Marketing, Support, and most importantly, Sales. Talk to your manager and other managers. Ask for honest feedback and let them know that you are interested in ensuring you are contributing valuable, priority product management services.

Be prepared for criticism and listen! Remember that you don’t have to agree but you do need to listen with an open mind. You can respond to the comments with your own perspective but don’t get defensive. Listen and learn what other people think. Again, you don’t have to agree with them but like gathering product requirements, carefully note the feedback. Decide later what to accept and change.

Don’t just ask what they think about your job performance, ask why. If someone says you should be more decisive, ask them why making more timely decisions is better. Ask what the impact of your lack of timeliness has been. You may not be aware of some critical things that may or may not be due to your own actions. If your colleague’s feedback is that you are not a good communicator, ask why they feel that way. Hopefully they can offer examples of times when they felt that you didn’t communicate well. Ask for suggestions. At worst, he/she may realize that being a good communicator is easier said than done. At best, they may have some great ideas or experiences that you can benefit from.

The magic in asking people about your product management performance is that you not only learn from the voice of your actual customers, you make them feel important by asking their opinion. This is a subtle way to gain and build relationships and the other person feels that you care enough about them to ask for such an intimate favor. Asking someone’s opinion is a true form of flattery. Use it to your advantage to gain valuable information and allies.

2. Don’t just look sharp, be sharp
Luckily, there are a finite number of product management organizations and companies. There are two national organizations: the Association of International Product Marketing and Management (www.AIPMM.com) and the Product Development & Management Association (www.PDMA.org). PDMA also has a number of regional chapters. There are regional chapters of the product management associations like Silicon Valley Product Management Association (www.SVPMA.org) and Boston Product Management Association (BPMA) (www.bostonproducts.org). A small number of schools, like University of Washington, also offer a product management program.

Now you know where to look, the next step is action. It’s not so hard to do and the amount of information is not overwhelming. Sign up for association and vendor-sponsored newsletters and conferences. These groups also offer webinars and local seminars. Make time to attend one or two national events. Read the handful of books on product management and other related areas. Many product managers are writing blogs and most of the product management associations maintain discussion forums.

By doing these things, you become aware what other PMs are doing, what their concerns are, and which best practices are used in other organizations. Don’t be bullied by the media or the marketing people trying to sell you new product management products or services. It’s natural to assume that you aren’t doing enough. The reality is that you may be doing as much as any other PM does. Don’t be swayed by a non-PM, self-proclaimed industry expert to talk about the importance of market requirement documents and use cases. It’s another to know that the vast majority of PMs rarely do any formal market research. Really! That’s not a good thing but it is common. You might even find some PM buddies in or outside of your own company who want to compare notes and share ideas. Maybe you can start a small, informal product manager’s cocktail club in your “spare” time… It’s a wise investment to focus on your most important product—YOU!

3. Assess yourself in a measurable mirror
Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How many sales calls have you been invited to attend? Is that too many or not enough? Do you decline invitations because you are double-booked? Why haven’t you been invited to more? Is it because Sales has other people who are talented and know the product/market as well as you or is it because the salespeople see you as a liability, not an asset, with customers and prospects?
  • Do you prioritize a customer meeting over an internal meeting or other diversion? Are you getting in front of as many customers as possible to get product input and better yourself as a PM?
  • Of the sales presentations/meetings you’ve attended, how many have led to closed sales? You ask Sales to do win/loss reports—ever do one for your own performance?
  • Can you list three things that you could do better as a PM? Do you have a plan for how to measure and improve those things?
  • Who is the best PM you know? How can you be more like that person? Can he/she be your mentor? Has another PM asked you to mentor them?
  • Have you ever been invited to an executive meeting or Board meeting? If not, why? If so, have you been invited back since?
  • Would your boss hire you again if he/she went to another company? Would your colleagues act as good references for you with a future employer?
  • Why did you become a PM? Have you achieved the vision that you had coming into this position? Do you like the work? Would you recommend the job to others? If not, why? Is it you, or the company, or the work?

4. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
There are no standards for product management and expectations run the gamut. Some organizations want the PM to write technical specs. Others want PMs to write marketing plans. Find out what your organization expects…and if you didn’t do it when you took the job (or got volunteered to do it), it’s never too late to ask. The reality is there are many different expectations in an organization making it impossible to please everyone. Remember that the organizational tone is always set from the top down. Don’t ignore the head as the body will follow! Talk to senior managers. You’ll learn a lot, build rapport and help set the proper expectation for you and others who will someday fill your shoes.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the best PM of them all?
Being a PM is no doubt tough. It requires you to prioritize, manage and change an overwhelming number of things. It is a constant challenge to stay informed about organizational issues, industry changes, new technologies, best practices and benchmark data. Not everyone is cut out to be a PM and those who are, aren’t cut from the same cloth. Bare in mind that your product management career is one of your most important products. Manage it much like you would your other products. Gather honest feedback, be diligent, stay informed, and you’ll see the reflection of a great product manager…even naked!


Categories: Roles & Activities
Alyssa Dyer

Alyssa Dyer

Alyssa Dver’s book, “Software Product Management Essentials” has sold over 10,000 copies worldwide and was recently re-released as a 4th anniversary printing. With international experience as a product manager and CMO at both public and private companies, Alyssa now consults to companies eager to develop on-time, quality products and services. She is regularly interviewed as a product management and marketing expert and has been published in magazines including Forbes, BusinessWeek, and Entrepreneur. Contact Alyssa at info@swproductmanagement.com.

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