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The Misunderstood Role of Product Manager

Product Management is often an under appreciated skill in large companies.  Organizational structures are built around product delivery and support.  Early in a company’s life the definition of products allow for economic survival.  As a company grows more cross-functional organizations try to have greater impact on product definition so that they can perform their functions more efficiently and enhance customer satisfaction.  Once this begins to happen, companies often lose sight of the role of Product Management.  Instead of identifying customer’s business problems and creatively defining technology-based solutions, Product Managers begin to accept feature lists from sales and from customers.  Unfortunately, that devalues the role of Product Manager and it devalues the company’s partnership with the customer.  Soon customers become frustrated with “quality” but they’re really frustrated with Product Definition.  They want the product to do what they expect it to when they purchase what was sold to them.

After reading Marty Cagan’s book “Inspired”, I had the opportunity to have dinner with him and discuss Product Management.  This is particularly interesting to me because I’m currently trying to build a “product management” function within my organization and we have not had that skill set in the past.  The important message that Marty sends is that Product Managers have to understand customers and what their business issues are.  From this deep understanding of a customer’s goals, the Product Manager applies technology to a solution.  The best people in this role will identify business problems that customers don’t realize that they have.

The 2 warnings that Marty had was to be careful of environments where product definition is done by committee and also be careful of taking the customer’s descriptions of issues at face value.  There is no substitute for that deep understanding of what customers are trying to accomplish and their business goals.  I’ve seen too many Product Managers assume they know customers and their products fall flat.  Nortel was one company that defined their products not by what they learned about their customers’ businesses but by what their customers told them.  Their PBXs became custom solutions that were applied to a broader market.  They declared bankruptcy this month.

A close friend of mine was doing some consulting work at a major SCUBA equipment manufacturing company that also supplies breathing apparatus to emergency services.  They were having a very difficult time defining customer’s impressions of their “touch points” and wanted to know how to improve these impressions.  They didn’t know who their customers really were and hadn’t distinguished between the people who purchase their products and the ones that used them.  This company “assumed” that some “acquisition” person purchased equipment by price point without an understanding of differentiated quality and didn’t know if the “user”, which would be people like fire fighters, had any input into the purchasing decision.  This is the kind of intimate customer knowledge that is crucial to the definition of what you sell.  If they can get an understanding of those fire fighter’s needs and impressions as well as their level of input on the purchasing decisions this company may be able to become the preferred vendor for most, or even all, municipalities.

I think that my understanding of Product Management is evolving to one that values close relationships.  Good Product Managers care about understanding what business partners and customers are concerned about and want to help them improve their businesses and their lives.  Maybe its even empathy for people’s needs that makes great Product Managers.  Defining product is more art than science.  It takes a great deal of effort, attention, and research.  The best Product Managers make it their business to know their customer’s business, competition, and their customers’ customers.

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