Fundamentals: Why Product Management Matters

Product management can be one of the more important and effective roles within an organization. The role is best served when it’s at the epicenter driving product strategy, feature prioritization and go-to-market as companies seek that elusive product/market fit. Nearly 20 years ago, Ben Horowitz and David Weiden summarized the key ingredients of a good product manager. While admittedly product management has evolved since then (as acknowledged by Ben and David), many of the key ingredients hold true today, including:
  • Clear, written communication
  • Focus on the sales force and customers
  • Work well with executives
  • Leverage the entire organization

Some describe this role as the ‘CEO of the product,’ and that analogy does have merit as an effective product manager will think broadly, prioritize, manage resources, motivate a team and be the leader. But, as Pragmatic Marketing correctly points out, that analogy does have its limits.

In my experience both as a product manager and managing product managers (mostly from an Enterprise software perspective), a good PM brings a ton of professional passion for aligning the company’s product direction to a given strategy. They create that teamwork or esprit de corps, and the journey of driving from concept to ship to selling the product is the fuel that drives them. A good PM reminds the company of the fundamentals by consistently asking and answering questions such as: why are we building the product (i.e. the value proposition), who is this product for, are we building what we intended (design, features, quality, time-to-market), how do we sell, how do we define, measure and evaluate success, and then how do we iterate (i.e. do it all over again). The overused presentation rhetoric such as ‘we want to WOW our customers’ or ‘we want to DELIGHT people’ should be stripped from all discussions. That’s like a coach saying ‘we want to win’ as a way to prepare for a game. Of course!! Catch phrases such as these are neither actionable nor do they create strategic frameworks, so stay away from them and be skeptical of those that throw them around as methods of persuasion (or self-promotion). More on my distain for this type of soaring rhetoric in a future post!

Aligning executives, sales, engineering, marketing, technical support, business development and even finance and corporate development is tough both in terms of the actual time required to do so but also being adept at communicating with such a variety of constituents. The alignment process though will give the product team a broad(er) perspective that will help when prioritizing and making key decisions. Getting to know the sales team and process is the highest priority for the product manager, and getting out into the field at regular intervals is table stakes. Product managers need to be mindful with time management, but it’s a good sign when they are in demand.

While measuring the performance of product managers can be an art and depends upon the organization, here are a few ways to evaluate:

  • Does the sales team proactively leverage this persons expertise and include them in sales presentations?
  • Has the road map been published and communicated? Folks may disagree on the direction… but the company should know the plan.
  • Is there a (living) document or knowledge base as to the target market(s), competition, key customer requirements and market opportunities?
  • Are products being delivered at or close to the original specifications?
  • Are the products coming to market on time? If not, are slips being effectively planned and communicated, especially with sales and customers. And are these date slips infrequent, or do they occur many times during a release cycle?
  • Are the products selling?

Another aspect of product management is content marketing such as authoring data sheets, sales presentations, blog posts and white papers. In most start-up environments, this is part of the product management role given the limited resources, but as companies grow, this responsibility often shifts to product marketing. A good product manager though will always engage in content marketing and sales enablement, and should be viewed as a thought leader and go-to writing resource.

In summary, the role of product management is broad. Those that perform well typically demonstrate capacity (ability to take on a lot), effective communication skills across the organization and an ability to influence many without having the direct authority (in many cases product managers are individual contributors and therefore cannot rely on ‘rank’ to help them achieve decisions).

Companies should embrace this role and create a culture of product management.

How is product management faring where you are? It would be great to hear from you.

– Jeff