Training Banner

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Managing Complex Solutions: When Product Management Begins Breaking Down

I've spent most of my career working as a product manager in huge software companies (IBM, Microsoft, SAP) and as a product management consultant and trainer with vendors that deliver complex solutions in the B2B space. Perhaps it's just me, but when I look at most of the content being generated in the field of product management, I can't help but thinking that something is missing. To my eyes, most of it seems startup-centric (in the consumer space mostly), so, to someone who's been slugging it out in trenches of highly complex problem spaces, much of the talk of MVPs, A/B testing, continuous delivery and other hot topics seems a bit, dare I say, na├»ve.
 What I consider a lack of emphasis on what I've labeled the "enterprise space" has inspired me to begin thinking deeply about the unique challenges of effectively managing products that must address some of the world's stickiest business and technical problems. Often, these complex problems require complex organizations to deliver the associated solutions, which in itself brings a boatload of obstacles that a PM in a startup can only imagine (in nightmares for the most part).
 Here are just a few of the differences between the enterprise and consumer-oriented startups that are top of mind:

 The Myth of the Customer

In the enterprise space, the people who evaluate, buy and use the software are often different. Buying decisions may take years and the solution may be required to function (almost perfectly) for years or even decades. When we use the term "customer", it is a conversational convenience. The truth is, the enterprise customer comprises a complicated set of stakeholders we have to identify, understand and appease.

 The Dysfunctional Family

Big, stable organizations with highly specialized roles tend to create "families" that are (often highly) dysfunctional. Familiarity, procedural inertia and contention for resources make vendors that deliver complex products and solutions highly political, to the point that a majority of a PM's time may be spent on "political overhead", generating negative value for customers. Navigating the fraught waters of a politically charged and entrenched organizational hierarchy requires a level of diplomatic adeptness that is rarely optional.

 The Curse of Mission Criticality

A lot of the more nimble practices espoused by the startup community are quickly exposed as not viable when the products or solutions being delivered can cause losses of millions of dollars or much worse, lives, when they fail. Add the fact that many of these "high assurance" scenarios are strictly regulated and you have the proverbial straw that can easily break the product manager's back.
 In the coming months, I'll talk extensively about the enterprise space and offer some food for thought on how to tackle some of its most daunting challenges. Take heart enterprise product manager, together we can be inspired by what's happening in the startup world but move beyond it to make our community happier and more effective.
 You can read more about related topics on my site and blog.

Monday, January 9, 2017

The fine line between an interview question and free consulting

Absolutely LOVED this article by Liz Ryan in Forbes. I too have been put in the ridiculous situation of being asked to do specific strategy work in the context of a job interview. Luckily, I've never been desperate for a job when it happened. Probing questions that help a hiring manager determine if I have a solid grasp of some part of the job she expects me to perform make sense. Asking me to invest my time to formulate a strategy for your current situation in anything but the most general terms is not OK. Lest I belabor what I consider fairly obvious point:

  1. If you're hiring: Using a job interview as an excuse to get free consulting from a candidate is simply not ethical behavior. There are plenty of ways to validate that someone knows their stuff without asking them for a free lunch.
  2. If you're being interviewed: I realize how much stress a job search creates for a candidate, especially when you really need the work. However, resist the urge to give away your hard-won knowledge and creativity to someone who has essentially no skin in the game. An ethical organization and hiring manager will have better sense than to expect this.
I think there are more tactful ways to handle the situation described in the article (I assume the "victim" was convinced this guy was ONLY trying to pry knowledge out of her). For example, I was asked to develop a strategy for an online travel company thinking about expanding into business travel. I told the hiring manager that I was more than happy to discuss key factors that might increase their chances of success but that I simply wasn't willing to develop a strategy for him. I didn't get a call back and felt great about it. I didn't think I'd been rude in the least and managed to send him a clear signal that what he was asking for was unreasonable.

BTW, my opinion changes a bit for second-round interviews. If you're convinced you'be been selected from a broader field, you might consider being a bit more forthcoming. I would still stop short of doing free, strategic work for an organization who has invested little more in you than an interview slot or two.

I realize this is a touchy topic. What are your experiences?

Monday, November 14, 2016

Mortal PM Sins - Part 1

Let's face it: product managers are some of the busiest people on the planet. Perhaps more than many other disciplines, we can be lulled into a sense of false security or even apathy that subtly puts us on the road to failure. We've all heard that a relatively high percentage of products and product development efforts fail. We as a community talk far less about failing as a product manager -- I'm not convinced it's any less common. Here's a list of mistakes that will almost certainly catch up with even the most talented product managers, putting them in an unwinnable situation before they're even aware they've made them. This post isn't about other product managers. It's about you.

Not managing all your critical stakeholders
I've mentioned it multiple times on this blog, but while it's easy to become enamored of the idea of delighting customers, they are only one constituency that influences your success. Not managing critical internal stakeholders, for example, may mean you don't get the budget you need to please your end customers, a mistake that can put you in an unrecoverable position with just one release.

Ignoring disruptive change instead of embracing it
We live in times of change. If you're product is sold directly to consumers as a service, you're probably aware of the rate of change around you and, if you're successful, are continuously adapting to it. Folks working in problem domains that are less dynamic, solving complex problems for enterprises, for example, have a bit more time to contemplate change, at times deluding themselves into thinking it doesn't apply to them. Are you thinking of Blackberry? I am. Really disruptive change may mean your product becomes irrelevant. Sometimes, being one of the first to acknowledge this fact and being one of the architects of the transition to the "new order" is a much better option than digging your heals in or sticking your head in the sand. For many reasons, this can be one of the most difficult mortal sins to resist.

Not knowing when it's time to move on
No one likes to talk about it, but the best of us can find ourselves in a situation that is simply unwinnable. There are obstacles that cannot be overcome with a positive attitude or any amount of hard work. Realizing you're in such a situation and transitioning out of it on your terms has implication not just for your job, but for your career. Here are a few factors that can indicated it's time to move on:
  • You might find yourself babysitting one of the portfolio's "dogs", while other product managers are leading the strategic charge
  • Other disciplines such as engineering may have been empowered to the point that, truth be told, they are driving the vision and roadmap
  • You may have simply lost your passion for the problem space or the product itself. If you're not proud of the product you're shipping, it's time to find a more productive use of your time.
Not being a master user of your product
It seems counter-intuitive, but you can be a functioning product manager for years without really knowing how to use your product end-to-end. Sure, you can do the demos and with a combination of experience, limited knowledge and quick thinking can talk the talk, but if you really don't know all the obscure corners of your product and tend to get lost off the beaten path, there's a good chance folks like engineers and pre-sales don't respect you as much as they might and that there are functional aspects of the product you're not shaping the way you should.

I hope this give you food for thought. I have several more mortal sins I'll share in an upcoming post.

Have you made these mistakes? Are you making them now? What mortal mistakes have you or other made?

Find more information about my online training course on my site.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Gentle Reminder Product Managers: Mind Your Network!

Not sure what's going on, but I've been pinged regularly in the last couple of weeks by folks either looking to fill PM positions or PMs looking for their next challenge. There's a single word that leaps to mind during all these conversations: network. For such a self-evident message, I'm fascinated at how few people actively manage their professional network. Here's the thing: You can't create a network in short order when you need it. It's like a hardwood tree -- you have to plant it, care for it and let it grow slowly if you expect it to be strong.

This message is particularly relevant to folks who have "perm" positions (as opposed to those of use chasing down business for our services business). It's easy to get complacent and wonder why you would try to meet people on LinkedIn when you see essentially the same faces every day. I am certainly guilty of not leveraging social media to enhance my network when I was employed. I'd like to think that I've made up for lost time, but the inescapable fact is that my network would be even bigger if I'd been dedicated the time and effort to it that it deserves. On multiple occasions, I've heard from long-time employees who are surprised to find themselves looking for a job and realizing that they had been "asleep" for years with respect to the professional network. Don't be one of these people!

If you're not sure what to do to create, groom and retain your professional network, have a look at one of my previous posts. In this post, I would suggest the following to help you grow your network through social media.
  • Consider starting a blog. The more specialized the better. Try to write a one-page post every month (that's probably the minimum you need to create a "fan base"). There are tons of free platforms (like Blogger).
  • Start connecting with folks on LinkedIn. I'm not talking about building a network of farmers, perfume sales people and rocket scientists. I'm talking about finding other professionals working on similar topics or in similar companies and sending them a request to connect. If they are hesitant because they don't know you, simply say "I find it valuable to network with people who have professional interests similar to mine."
  • Join relevant groups on LinkedIn and participate. Like interesting posts and every once in a while share something you've stumbled across.
  • Consider using Twitter. Tweet interesting tidbits related to your work a couple of times a day. With tools like TweeDeck, you can even schedule Tweets weeks in advance.
  • Use all your social networking channels to promote your blog (just point people to new posts)
  • Set up Google Alerts for topics that are relevant to your work. I get TONS of great information delivered daily to a dedicated e-mail folder. These alerts are the source of most of my posts to social media.
I hope this post encourages you to be more diligent about growing and maintaining your professional network. A tiny bit of effort now can make all the difference in the world when you need it.

For more information on me and my offerings, please visit http://www.prickril.com.

BTW, if you're looking for a PM position or trying to hire a PM and having a tough time, feel free to hit me up. I've got a lot of unconnected people in my network lately!

Monday, October 10, 2016

The "New PM" Test

As a product management consultant, I've spent a fair amount of time trying to get myself up to speed on what an organization's goals and plans are, not to mention understanding what their products do and how they build them. When teaching or consulting on product manager, I encourage individuals and organizations to document their offerings and intent in a way that a new person to the team could get a nice overview in half a day. It's what I call the "New PM Test". In my experience, a new person joining the team exposes all kinds of organizational "weaknesses" in terms of sufficiently documenting their offerings and practices. Here are a few thoughts:

  • Create a strategy document with a 10 page/slide summary that explains where you are, where you want to go and how you'll measure success. You should document insights about the markets you serve and alternatives available to your customers, especially competitors. It's also important to give some insight into financial measures.
  • You should have a functional description of your product, including whom it serves, what it does and what the key moving pieces are (marketecture). It should describe important stakeholders, including the people who buy and those who use it (who, in the B2B space, are often different). This document isn't a user manual; it doesn't have to describe every feature and function, just the most important ones. A few screenshots can really help the reader picture how your product works.
  • For complex products, you should have internal training available. Sometimes you can leverage training that's been developed for customers or sales people. New people in your organization should take the training as quickly as possible so they deepen their understanding of your products function, strengths and weaknesses. Too often we "hit the beach" at a new job and put of these seemingly time-consuming activities.
  • You should have a release plan document (word processing or presentation) that describes the planned scope, resources involved and the schedule. It should identify key roles and provide their contact information. I'm not talking about a huge Project file here; I'm recommending a document that in less than 15 pages provides someone like a new PM a solid overview of the current release.
  • You should create and maintain a SWOT analysis of your product. It helps keep you honest about areas for improvement and can remind you to invest in the opportunities you've identified. SWOTs for your strongest competitors can also be invaluable.
If you already have these artifacts and a functioning practice for keeping them current, congratulations! If not, get busy. A practice I've used successfully in the past is to put new people in charge of updating the material and finding gaps in "coverage" (information that would help them ascend the learning curve quickly and get productive).

Please visit my site for more information on my product management consulting and training offerings (including an online course with certification).

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

How to win engineering hearts and minds as a product manager

Influencing engineering is a critical skill for product managers in the tech field. It should come as no surprise that being influential is much easier when you are respected and liked. A question that new (maybe all?) product managers must ask themselves is how they can develop credibility with the technicians they depend on to implement their product ideas. In this post, I'd like to talk about the basis for influence itself and share a few ideas on how you can "win the hearts and minds" of your development counterparts and enjoy a more productive relationship with them.

Firstly, it's interesting to think how we influence people in general. Psychologists French and Raven developed a model describing the "bases" of power, which they define as the ability to influence people. Although a full description of their model is beyond the scope of this post, their concept of "referent" power most closely approximates the relationship of PM to development. Referent power is based on relationships and perceptions rather than the ability to directly reward or punish others. Here's some food for thought on how you can increase your referent power and thus your influence on engineering:

1. Providing External Insight

You should ask yourself if development sees you as a key source of not just information about customers and markets, but real, meaningful insight. Notice that I make a distinction between customers, who in this context refer to people or organizations that have purchased your product, and markets, a much broader group of people who have the means and potential interest in purchasing your product but haven't yet taken the plunge. It is market insight that is often sorely missing on product teams. To derive this insight, you need to collect information directly and indirectly and carefully analyze it, adjusting the way you communicate your findings to the audience you're sharing it with. Here are a few things you can do to communicate the insight you've gained:
  • Take extensive notes when you talk to external stakeholders like customers and present your findings to the development team.
  • You should probably have a periodic, standing slot in the dev "all hands" so that the entire organization sees you from time to time.
  • Try to always take someone from development with you when you meet with customers. They deserve direct exposure to the folks they ultimately serve and the time together can strengthen your relationship with them.

2. Defining and Driving Strategy

Have you documented an explicit, compelling product strategy incorporating input from all relevant stakeholders (including engineering) and reviewed the final product with them, assuring they buy in? As I've said before, roadmaps are important but are not a strategy. To define a strategy, I like the concepts defined in OMG's Business Motivation Model spec. Define a comprehensive business motivation model for your product and share the highlights with engineering on a regular basis, including progress against measurable objectives. Some folks might tell you that development doesn't care about business metrics, but I that has literally never been the case in my experience. Developers want to know that their work is generating value for the company.

3. Understanding Technology

In the tech world, especially with respect to software, being the "business person" who doesn't take time to learn technology can make you highly susceptible to the whims of development and will do little to increase your influence. Having a reasonable understanding of the latest technologies, development models et. allows you to talk to development in their language and demonstrate you're not a clueless "suit". Staying on top of technological developments even at a shallow depth is work that never ends. Here are a few tips that can help:
  • Stay abreast of what development is doing and the technology and tools they're evaluating. Learn from them to the extent you can and do your own research.
  • Make time to browse technology periodicals and blogs and do some Googling on new terms and concepts you come across.
  • Try to read a few books a year that are more technology than business focused. Books on new and improved development methodologies count as technical literature.

4. Networking

You need to invest time in getting to know the development organization. That means casual coffees, lunches and even "off-campus" activities with developers, architects and quality professionals at all levels of the organization. Overlooking relationships with individual contributor-level development is a common mistake. These folks are the future of your development organization and can often provide "unspun" information on what's really going on with engineering. Their insight into new trends and their enthusiasm can be educational and inspiring.

5. Demonstrating Empathy

Nothing helps build relationships and trust like genuine empathy. If you've never been in development yourself, you'll need to spend time with developers, almost treating them like customers in the sense that you need to understand and have some compassion for their challenges. Understanding that developers are people who make mistakes even when they're trying their hardest can help prevent anger and frustration when they have unpopular news to share.

What are your experiences? How do you increase your influence with development? Have you ever failed to win development's "hearts and minds"?

Learn more about my software product management consulting and training offerings on my site.