Linda Gorchels blogs

The Product Manager Advice Dossier (Part Two)

The Product Manager's Handbook

Just as Clark Kent (Superman) and Kara Daniels (Supergirl) performed Herculean exploits behind the guise of mere humans, product managers are challenged to work behind-the-scenes to achieve product success. (Yes, it’s a bit of a stretch. But don’t you like being compared to superheroes?)

Working faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a product bottleneck. Able to leap tall requirements in a single bound. Maintaining composure while working without direct authority. Surviving the kryptonite of firefighting and reactivity. It’s tough. And good advice can help.

At the end of every chapter of The Product Manager’s Handbook, I included an interview with a prominent business expert or consultant. Each offered perspectives for different product management challenges. Here are snippets of their words of wisdom.

This is the second of a four-part series of The Product Manager Advice Dossier.

Planning with a Growth Playbook

Brad Rogers, Chief Operations Officer and Chief of Staff, TIAA

In my mind, a key measure of the effectiveness of product managers is their ability to attract, mobilize and motivate the resources to optimize their product. This requires an ability to (1) craft and sell compelling business cases (2) negotiate, collaborate and execute on plans, and (3) demonstrate leadership to gain followership. 

Taking roles that build these experiences would help accumulate a strong, complementary product management skill set. I would add that the ability to sell is not about flash but about credibility, which can be built with aligned priorities, empathy for the customer and stakeholders, support of influencers, and confidence you can deliver.

Use Design Thinking to Harvest Untapped Potential

Dave Franchino

Dave Franchino, President, Design Concepts, Inc.

The business landscape is certainly getting more competitive. More and more is expected of each business and each product manager. Innovation is becoming a mandate rather than an approach. I believe that while success for product managers will still involve managing the current portfolio and product roadmap, there will be an increased emphasis on new opportunities and spaces. 

Some of the basic tools in design thinking aren’t standard parts of the skill set normally associated with product management. Traditional quantitative market research is an invaluable tool for most product managers but not necessarily the most productive way of identifying breakthrough opportunities.  Ethnographic discovery research requires approaching the market without any preconceived notions or hypotheses—looking for deep understanding of customers’ needs and wants in areas that are often completely tangential to current product offerings. We’ve found that some product managers are so intimately connected with their current customers and current product offerings that looking at the market with a completely fresh set of eyes can be a challenge. Design thinking can help formalize a process for taking the time and effort to look at mature markets from a new perspective. 

Likewise, the skills of team brainstorming, rapid prototyping and iteration can be leveraged in a broad range of business areas. Design thinking makes it possible for product managers to break out of traditional ruts and demystify the process of innovation.   

Aside from its role in new product development, we feel design thinking has applicability for product mangers across the entire product lifecycle. A challenge for many businesses is getting product managers—who are generally on the front line of opportunity—to look for and embrace new business opportunities and strategies that might not lie directly within the path of their current product line. Design thinking can be an important tool for harvesting untapped potential both within and adjacent to existing offerings.

Boost Your Ability to Build and Sell Business Cases

Kevin Booth, President, Hines Precision, Inc.

Five behaviors come to mind that product managers should avoid [when building business cases]:

1.  Avoid “magical thinking.” While it is useful to be in the optimistic about the potential for a new product, it is equally important to be the “devil’s advocate” and consider the many ways that the new product can fail. Usual areas to consider include: competitor reaction, resistance by sales channels, higher manufacturing costs, and slower market acceptance.

2.  Avoid reliance on market numbers in lieu of market understanding. Many product managers rely on estimates of market size, for example, as if the market is a homogeneous opportunity. It is a failure of convenience. Understanding the market is expensive. The Internet has accentuated the risk of using publicly-available data to substitute for in-depth knowledge.

3. Don’t rely on a single measure of performance to prove or disprove the value of a new product or line-of-business. Some organizations rely on a single measure (usually a financial measure), such as NPV, to rank opportunities. A healthy business case will report the many ways a product can provide value to the company, such as blocking a competitor, line-fill within the channel, entry into a new user segment, and utilization of excess manufacturing capability.

4.  Avoid the comfort of planning. Instead, think like an owner. Planning should be difficult because it is essentially a series of tough decisions. Sweating the details of implementation—before you need to—will enrich the plan. When a planner begins to sweat like the person that will execute the plan, he or she will better appreciate the many aspects of successful product design, development, launch, and management.

5.  Unless proven otherwise, suspend faith that the management team has a rigorous, deliberate method of making investment decisions. If a product manager suspects that decisions are the slightest bit whimsical, it is essential that the product manager provide the management team the tools to help with their decision. That is, to help them say ‘yes.’ The easiest approach is to provide a list of criteria to evaluate the project (presuming the managers don’t have their own).

Here are a few final words of advice.

Apply the “smell test” regularly. One of the greatest attributes of a strong product manager is the ability to periodically pause and consider whether there are logical inconsistencies in the plan, or items completely forgotten. As examples, it is easy to forecast large revenue growth without budgeting sales channel costs; or plan for instant acceptance by the market when customers’ engineers will take years to evaluate the product’s value; or forecasting full market penetration for the new product in a year or two when the last five new products still have not met plan.

Always keep an objective perspective about the business case. If a particular new product doesn’t go, there will be another, so there should be no fear about killing an idea before it wastes resources.

Next month, on the first Friday, I will provide part three of the Product Manager Advice Dossier.