Five Ways to Torpedo Your Product Management Career

By Greg Council May 04, 2010

The Pragmatic Marketer Volume 8 Issue 1

If you’re just starting a career in product management, take comfort in the fact that not only is the role and value of product management getting more notice, but there is also a decent amount of information regarding the mechanics and strategies of product management available to product managers. Techniques and tools, such as those offered by Pragmatic Institute and others, provide product managers methods for focusing attention on tasks that really matter.

Just as important is the attitude of collaboration and camaraderie you take into your new role. Even though the product manager role is at the center of many activities involved with identifying opportunities and bringing solutions to market, a lot of other folks take part in getting market-driven products to market. Unfortunately, many product managers take the “manager” in “product manager” a little too far and try to command and control every aspect of the process.

With technology-based solutions it really does “take a village” to raise a successful product. Failing to recognize that can lead to disaster.

In my many years as a product manager, I’ve observed five common pitfalls (or torpedoes) that can make or break a product manager’s career.

TORPEDO 1

Ignore the ideas of others

You’re the product manager. No one knows the market and customers like you do. Right? You spend all of your waking hours talking with customers, surveying stakeholders, conducting market analysis, reading all the tech rags. It’s exhaustive never-ending work. So it’s only natural that any ideas for enhancing the product or identifying new business opportunities are going to come from you, right?

Should you ignore that suggestion from your customer who says that adding a few new features to the existing product would really be well received across the customer base? Or how about the idea from the regional account manager who suggests slimming down the product to tackle a new market? Ignore ‘em? Focus on the plans you’ve identified? The roadmap is yours, right?

Oh, if only that were the case! You would always maintain control and be the star. But you don’t control everything, especially not where good ideas come from. And that’s ok. Being a good product manager is like being the shepherd of good ideas. In fact, in order to really build momentum and a shared sense of ownership, all ideas coming from others should be recognized. Even the bad ideas because you will find good ideas hidden amongst the bad, so don’t discount the ideas of others. It’s your job to help guide ideas of all sorts into more rigorous analysis and present cases for the ones that stand the best chance of improving your product.

Focus on how to be the best receptor for good ideas. Develop a good mechanism for others to present ideas, identify the best customer implementations that could yield new use cases, and let others know you’re there to listen rather than the sole arbiter of what goes into the product. And lastly, make sure people get the recognition they deserve.

TORPEDO 2

Hoard all the good information

You are in possession of the latest results of the customer usability study. And the data is excellent. So, it’s better to add it to your data arsenal, and wait to use it at the appropriate moment in support of your agenda, right? Oh yeah that feels right.

Product managers are always in the know when it comes to valuable product information like customer use cases, customer preferences, competitors, and industry trends. Knowledge is power, so why shouldn’t you have more control over who gets it? Won’t that make you even more appreciated when you actually do divulge the information?

The answer, in one word, is “no.” It’s quite the opposite. Information begs to be openly shared. Stakeholders who are more knowledgeable about customers, competitors, and the industry are easier to work with and likely to more strongly support the roadmap. Sharing this information with those stakeholders turns them into allies. And they are much more likely to turn to you for expertise, which makes you more influential.

When you choose to withhold information and dole it out at your discretion, you run the risk of being relegated to a minor player in strategy-making events within your company. If few folks know how much you actually know, or people believe your knowledge is very focused (which, after all, must be the reason why you only rarely share this information, right?) then your real and perceived value diminishes.

So instead of being territorial, focus on how to more efficiently get all of that great knowledge disseminated. The more you get other people stating facts and figures and recalling information you originally shared, the more influential you become. It’s a lot more powerful to have other people speaking for you. And go one better: get others involved in your data gathering and analysis.

Internal product management blogs, regular information sharing/brainstorming sessions, and more frequent “channel alignment” sessions enhance your value within the organization and help you become more efficient with moving important projects forward.

TORPEDO 3

Snub the sales force in your product launch

You’ve got your product plans lined up, development is underway, and now you’re working on the go-to-market activities—creating or updating data sheets, solution guides, target customer profiles, and selection criteria. The “sales toolkit.” You’re the product expert. You know the market, target users, attributes of the product that help it sell, the competitive differentiators. You’ve got it all down pat. Now you just need to create the documents and deliver them to the folks who represent the product. Easy, right?

When you observe a sales engagement and you find that the sales representative has a poor grasp of the customer’s real needs and how to articulate the value propositions you’ve worked so hard to define, do you just shrug it off with a “we need better sales people” attitude?

I’ve learned that to ensure your product is a success in the marketplace, you must appeal to the group who represents it to the customer, whether a direct sales force or through channel sales. By appeal, I mean not only does the solution clearly stand on its own but it also has to have suitable positioning and clear messaging. All together, these create a compelling solution for your sales force to take to the market. And like it or not, you have to ensure the things used to represent your solution are a right fit with the sales force.

So take the time to test sales tools and market positioning with selected sales representatives or channel partners. Listen to what Sales has to say regarding what works and what doesn’t.

Observe sales calls and attend sales training sessions so you will spot disconnects between what you’re trying to convey and what’s actually received. These activities pay off when it’s time to unleash your go-to-market plan.

TORPEDO 4

Neglect support calls

Product managers deal with enhancements; new features, modules, new capabilities that open-up new markets. We don’t deal with issues involving technical support, right? So who cares about technical support calls when you’re busy charting the future of the product?

If only it were that simple. Now it’s probably true that product managers don’t need to be too involved where true defects are concerned. But what constitutes a “true defect”?

Phrases like “works as designed” or “work around” should be red flags indicating an area for improvement with your product. These often-uttered phrases are an indication of misalignment between the solution and the customer’s expectations. Sometimes the inquiry doesn’t make sense for the solution in question. But sometimes the inquiry reveals a true gap in the solution.

What about those general technical assistance calls? Admittedly support analysts conduct a fair amount of training via the phone. There could also be just as many “neglected cries for help,” where a savvy product manager would see that the product may be overly complex or not intuitive enough for the target user.

Remember, the role of the product manager is not to focus solely on functional enhancements such as new features but to ensure the product has the proper alignment with your target market’s user expectations and needs. A good way to understand those needs and expectations is to listen to questions that come through technical support.

Periodically review questions from key accounts. Take time to educate the support staff on “red flag” customer questions that might indicate a possibility to improve the product, getting them involved with the actual planning process. These efforts reveal hidden opportunities to really make your product more usable, more useful, and ultimately more competitive.

TORPEDO 5

Drink your own Kool-Aid

You’ve been given control over a great product and it does a fantastic job of contributing to the success of your company. Customers don’t complain too loudly; actually they don’t interact with anyone at your company all that much. You have a three-year roadmap and releases go out like clockwork.

So by all means, you don’t worry about going through the normal evaluations and business analysis of enhancements. You know best and determine what makes the cut and what doesn’t. You don’t worry about changing the strategy of in-flight projects if the business climate changes. It’s far more important to be consistent and let the executive team know that you’re someone that sticks to his guns; once you get that roadmap defined, it’s golden. Right?

Hold on there. The only way to really contribute to your company’s success is to do what you’re supposed to do: analyze the market, validate the options, and prove the results. While you’re undoubtedly expected to be the chief proponent of your product, you can’t be afraid to identify potential problems with “market fitness,” highlight changes in the business climate that could affect success in the marketplace, or even potentially identify the need to plan for your product’s demise.

We’d all like to believe that there will always be a market need for our product and it will always continue to be competitive, just given the right mix of enhancements and market positioning. And sometimes it does work out that way, but not often. When we’re talking about products and solutions delivered to a dynamic user market that has various sub-segments and changing needs, you have to plan for being unsuccessful, too. Especially when your company’s P&L and many stakeholders are involved.

So while you’re indeed a talented and knowledgeable person (otherwise you wouldn’t be the product manager!), you (and your product) are not infallible and you can’t hope to always be successful. Instead, augment your superhuman skills of prescient thinking and tea leaf reading with good thorough analysis, planning, and constant measuring and validation.

And if something that once sounded great, doesn’t feel like the right thing to do now, present the analysis, state your case, and move on. Ultimately you get respect for good results, not just results. I’ve received as many kudos for decisions to scuttle a project or change product direction as I have for keeping with and delivering the original plan. In product management, it’s as much about what you don’t do as what you end up working on that determines success.


Categories: Roles & Activities
Greg Council

Greg Council

Greg Council’s personal agenda has always been to be a great product manager. In the last 14 years, Greg’s honed his expertise within the product management domain to identify unmet (and often unarticulated) needs in order to deliver truly valuable, unique, and useful solutions. He’s managed both large and small direct and virtual teams to improve existing products and bring new offerings to market. Contact Greg at greg@councilnet.com.

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