Product Management Truths - Redux
More product management truths unearthed from a long career with many stops in the field.
One of my more popular posts has been on the unwritten truths of Product Management. Originally written over 5 years ago, that post covered many observations and self-evident truths. Fast forward to 2018, and there are some additions to this list.
Without further ado, I offer these observations:
Whiz bang tools don’t make up for lack of skills – Product Plan, Aha!, Craft, Onedesk, and others have come on to the market to provide useful tools and a framework to help product managers be successful. Admirable goals, but my experience isn’t so positive. The simple fact that what “product management” means depends on the organization, all in one tools balance utility, with flexibility. By and large, they try, but they miss.
If your organization is project management heavy, product management is stunted – while there is, and always has been, confusion between the roles of project and product manager, most organizations lean one way or the other. This manifests itself in “process heavy” culture. Gantt charts, paretos, dashboards, RYG charts, and project management software supports this leaning, and it frustrates those poor souls who are product managers.
Poorly setup software tools will haunt you – when you bring in a new tool or system, how you architect the initial data load and workflow creation will ultimately lead to success or frustration. One case that I had to live with was a small company who bought a CRM solution (on premise, perpetual licensed software), but when it was time to install and configure, the engineering team did the initial configuration. They set some options and defaults, overriding the default behavior, as they couldn’t see the benefit of using the relational DB, versus a monolithic table. 10 years later, hundreds of thousands of dollars of customization done by high dollar consultants, it remains a Band-Aid. Attempts to move to something more standard – such as SalesForce – are thwarted because the data isn’t self-consistent. This is far more common that one would think, especially at young and growing companies.
Time is a valuable commodity – one of the hazards of product management is being the focal point for the product within the organization. That means all groups come to you first when they need anything product related. That means you are in the crosshairs, and a wanted resource. This draw on your time will escalate, until it consumes you throughout the working day. The challenge is to gain control of this drain, to divert the calls for attention. This gets back to the strategic vs. tactical loading of the job. Yet, even with the best time management, the best schedule control, there will be to-do items that just don’t get done.
The PLC and phase gates are not against you – if you are in a process heavy place, odds are good that you have a formal PLC process, with stage gates – hurdles you need to get over to move on – that slow progress down. Many, if not most, product managers view these gates with disdain. They slow down innovation, and deter creativity.
Yet, they are put in place for a reason, and that reason is that in the past a project went off the rails. It was poorly implemented, or it caused enormous cost overruns, or was a disaster for many other reasons. See the Pontiac Aztek for an example. Senior management puts these processes in lace to provide safe exits in case a program isn’t headed in a good direction.
A lot of people who shouldn’t be product managers are – eight different jobs, eight different definitions of product management, and one thing that rings true, regardless of all the sunshine you read about in the product management sphere, is that a lot of people who have the title, shouldn’t. Some are really good project managers, in many ways superior in skills in that realm, but they lack the business and market savvy. Or the opposite, someone who really groks the business and marketing aspects, but have the people skills of a troll living under a bridge. Or someone who was a super developer/engineer, and desperately wants to play in the product management sphere, but they can’t acquiesce to the ambiguity in marketing, preferring the hard, black & white world of engineering. Those of us who are product managers, who balance the disparate skills needed, who thrive in adversity, often make these pretenders and wannabes uncomfortable. It’s not intentional, but it is true.
Regardless of how much standardization there is, all product management positions are unique – If you read the Quora posts, blog posts, twitter feeds, and the luminaries of product management out there, you might have some idealized view of product management as some exotic, prestigious job, held in high regard across the business world, but the reality is much more mundane. I have had 8 stops in my career, some have been almost the idealized view of product management (okay, once), each one of these product management positions has been wildly unique, and often quite far from the mythical norm. However, at each stop, regardless of how it deviated, the role was product management. Success means adapting to what is needed, and not holding some belief that doesn’t map to the job at hand.
Alas, the list of truths is long (but not complete), the frustrations are real, and the challenges are rife. Good product managers will conquer this adversity, and adapt to what is required, living within the constraints of the processes and norms as defined.
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