Innovation unConference, julie yoo, kyruus, Mass TLC, product management, Product manager, UNCON2015

unConference 2015 Session: Spidey Sense and Mike Tyson Quotes — What Makes for a Great Product Manager?

Spidey Sense and Mike Tyson Quotes — What Makes for a Great Product Manager?
by: Julie Yoo, Co-founder, Chief Product Officer, Kyruus  Originally posted here.  

Scene: The MassTLC unConference 2015. Roughly 50 product management professionals from greater Boston gather in a large room. 3 facilitators (Lee Weiner, CPO @ Rapid7; Molly Baab, VP Product @ Rue La La, and myself) kick off the session by throwing up 8 pre-set product management topics to potentially discuss, which rapidly turn into 20 possibilities (product managers are not shy and tend to have opinions — surprise surprise).

We decide to break out into 2 groups — those who want to discuss the “people” related topics, and those who want to discuss the “process” related topics.

I ended up facilitating one of the more high-bandwidth conversations of my week with the “people” group.

Here were the 3 major themes we touched upon. I’ve sprinkled a few content links and my own commentary throughout to provide additional perspective:

1. What does product management mean in today’s tech world? What makes for a stand-out product manager?

We discussed the fact that there are 2 major dimensions to product management: 1. the “product owner” dimension, which tends to be more tactically- and project management-oriented as a core function of a scrum team, and 2. a more market-facing dimension that requires setting vision, understanding and articulating the business opportunity, making key decisions, and ultimately having accountability for the health and life of a given product.

  • In startups, you need people who can span both; as you grow, you may be able to specialize and potentially have different people (at different levels of hierarchy) playing those two roles. We all agreed that it is hard to find people who span both — those are your unicorns!
  • We also discussed the difference between product management and product marketing, and one person cited this classic SVPG article that provides a perspective on that distinction.

Everyone agreed that a key product management skill is the ability to define opportunity, versus give instruction to your engineering team. Engineers are motivated when they are given the chance to buy into a (data-driven) vision for a product. One person articulated that this dynamic ultimately tends to lead to better products and design decisions. In addition, visibility into long-term product vision and direction helps engineering teams make the right architectural trade-offs when designing their development approach.

The phrase “spidey sense” was used multiple times to describe a skill that all strong PMs have — this oldie but goodie talks about it as well.

  • A necessary element of spidey sense has to do with solving for the market, not the customer; solving for “what the user is trying to accomplish” vs “what the customer wants”. An enjoyable read along these lines is this post on being “product-driven versus customer-driven”.

There is the common notion of “product manager as CEO of the product” — but is that the right analogy?

2. Metrics — how do you measure product management success?

The obvious metrics are things like revenue, and perhaps more importantly, adoption and re-use rates of the product. A product could be selling like crazy but have low adoption, which hinders organic growth through reference customers and up-sells/cross-sells.

The harder ones to measure include how well and efficiently a product manager is able to defend, execute, and iterate on a plan, versus the accuracy of a plan. In the words of Mike Tyson, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” and it’s how a product manager responds to getting punched in the mouth that is the true determinant of ability.

An interesting “counter-metric” to consider is how often there is miscommunication about priorities and market opportunity within the company. That may be a signal that the product manager is not being effective at aligning stakeholders and communicating vision across the team.

“Dark Patterns” — we had a provocative conversation around this question: “If your product fails in the market, are you a failure as a product manager?”

  • One person relayed a story about being pushed by a company exec to build a product, even after the product manager had shown through a disciplined validation process that the proposed product had no utility or apparent market opportunity associated with it.
  • The strongest claim that was made in response to this story was, “if you find yourself building something that you don’t believe in, you are complicit in the problem.” See this great talk by Martin Fowler on YouTube that articulates this point (around the 10-minute mark).

3. Roles & responsibilities — how does product management function in an org?

Product management as a hub — think the classic “bowtie” diagram of input coming in from a thousand sources, decisions being made by the PM, and those decisions communicated out and executed on the other side.

  • What org structures best support this model? One company had product management reporting into engineering leadership, while several had engineering reporting into product leadership. A couple of companies have peer product and engineering leaders reporting directly to the CEO.
  • Is the latter the better model to support the notion of the product manager needing to lead by influence without explicit authority?Typically, the very people that the product manager relies on to be successful do not report to that PM, nor live in their team even, so the further down the org chart the PM function is buried, the harder that person will have to work to exert the right level of influence.
  • This SVPG blog post on Product Management Organization is dated, but many of the concepts described still seem to apply.

Roadmaps — necessary or not? We debated the merits of creating a roadmap in earlier stage companies, where the combination of speed and small size of team might not necessitate that much “formality”. However, on larger teams with more commercial presence, one person mentioned that it is as important to communicate what you are doing as it is to communicate what you’re NOT doing on some reasonable time horizon (e.g. 1 year), especially to enable field-facing teams like sales, marketing, and implementation services to represent your solutions confidently to their constituents.

  • We at Kyruus use a 90-day product prioritization and communication process loosely based on Pandora’s model as described here; we’ve extended it to publish a 1-year outlook on thematic priorities as well, as a means to reduce the uncertainty and communication overhead of our customer-facing teams needing to ask the product team about every potential feature that comes up in a field conversation.

Top-down clarity on company strategy provides a platform for the product manager to be successful. One person brought up the fact that definition and execution of product strategy comes much easier when the company’s goals and priorities are clear. It is a form of “air cover” that enables product managers to have ground to stand on and a backdrop against which to exert their influence.

Other key themes we discussed included the following:

  • There is a difference in approach to product management between companies who sell directly to their users, and companies who sell to someone different than the user base. In the latter scenario, the dual focus on “what sells” AND “what gets adopted” is of utmost importance.
  • Is an engineering background an asset or liability in product management? Some said it might constrain you in terms of being overly pragmatic about what is possible to build when defining opportunity; others felt it could be a huge benefit in terms of connecting and earning the trust of the engineering team.
  • Helpful or hurtful to have a PM who used to be the customer? Most agreed that it can be blinding if you project yourself as the ultimate representation of the end user, when in fact you were just one data point of many that would inform an overall market opportunity.

Are you a product manager or engineer who lives and breathes this stuff everyday? What do you think? We’d love to hear your comments.

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