So You Got the Product Manager Position – Should you take it?

In this economy, you spend so much time trying to find and land a Product Management position. So what happens when you get an opportunity?  How should you decide if you are going to take a job or not?  There are a few factors that we consider when we look at a possible position.

Respect: When you join, you will get the benefit of the doubt for a while but you will need to earn the respect of your co-workers and this may take a while. But this may never happen if the product management organization is not respected in your company.

P/L Ownership:  The holy grail of Product Management – everyone wants it, but only the senior guys get it.  If you get P/L ownership, then you know that you will be playing a key role in the product and the company.  But what if, like most of us, you don’t get it?  That doesn’t necessarily mean that you should skip the position. You should, however, question seriously how much influence you are going to have on your product.  Are you going to be the one developing the product budget for executive review?  Are you going to be the one proposing prices and sales incentives?  If so, while you don’t own the P/L, you really have a significant influence on it.

One other factor to consider for the P/L: Many companies may not have the data available or accounting processes in place to deliver on the promise of P/L control.  Be sure you understand how they track costs and revenue before you accept a promise of P/L control.

Process: Does this company use any type of process in their Product Management discipline?  This is going to tell you two things:  First, how mature their Product Management organization is.  If they have been around for a while or have some experienced people, they are going to have a process of some sort.  Second, how seriously executive management takes PM.  Process creation and execution is expensive and only pays for itself in the long run.  The only way that you can get a solid process in place is with executive sponsorship.

Risk Profile: You may assume that companies with a well-defined process make product decisions quickly and efficiently, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Each company has a different level of comfort with risk which usually plays out in the speed of their product investment decisions. If the executive team is risk averse and uncomfortable pulling the trigger, you may find yourself in a never ending cycle of information gathering and approval meetings.

Marketing:  What type of marketing department does this organization have? Are they the “entertain customers and drink martinis” type of marketers or are they the “number crunching, graph making, ROI generating” type of marketers?  If they are the former, you are going to be guessing a lot about your product direction, which is going to be a miserable experience.  If they are the latter, then you can bet that a partnership for success is underway.

Chain of Command:  Who do you report to – the head of Marketing or the head of Product Development?  Reporting to the head of marketing tells you that you are going to have a customer focused experience while reporting to the head of Product Development tells you that you are going to have a technical/engineering focus to your position.  Either one is fine, but you want to be sure that you have a solid understanding of which one plays to your strengths. You may also want to consider which parts of the organization hold the most power. Did the CEO rise up through the technical ranks or was he a sales guy? Obtaining some perspective on the corporate power structure will provide you with some insight on whether you will be operating from a position of power or as an underdog.

Idea Generation:  Where do the ideas come from in the company?  Are they generated from the Executive Suite?  Do they come out of Product Management?  Or do you get the standard answer of “Ideas can come from anywhere…” which directly translates to “I have no clue where our ideas come from, they just kind of show up…”  That isn’t to say that innovation is limited only to the geniuses in Product Management, but that is the whole reason that product management exists – to generate and implement product ideas.  If the company’s ideas aren’t mainly coming out of product management, they either (a) aren’t listening to them or (b) hired lousy product managers.

Customer Profile: Does the company have a wide range of customers from a diverse set of markets and industries or is a large percentage of revenue dependent upon one market? One customer? This has a huge impact on the sort of product manager you’ll be able to be. One of the differences between being a consulting organization and a product organization is the ability to produce products that appeal to a large number of customers – not just one particular customer. When a company is dependent upon a handful of customers for its livelihood, it is difficult if not impossible to say no to their enhancement requests. This is proves to be a vicious cycle since the more attention you pay to your key customers, the fewer resources you have available to build a market solution.

Solid Product Suite:  Would you buy the products the company sells?  If not, are they good products that are poorly marketed?  Are they built with quality, but they don’t meet the needs of the end user?  Or are they just bad products?  I wouldn’t necessarily turn down a company with bad products – that is a fantastic opportunity to help a company turn itself around.  However, you really need to understand why the products are failing so that you can properly assess if you can fix the problems and right the ship.

So what if the products are very successful – then you take the job, right?  Not necessarily.  They might be looking for a caretaker product manager to ensure that nothing goes wrong as their product suite matures and sunsets.  That might not present the growth opportunities and challenges that you need.

Culture and Ethics: This is a difficult attribute to consider, but you’ll be doing yourself a favor by doing a little soul-searching to make sure your personality and beliefs are aligned with the company you’re going to join. This may be an obvious for some industries like alcohol and gaming, but some business plans and practices fall into a grey area.  Every company and industry has different set of norms that you must be comfortable with in order to be successful.

These are a few things that we consider when evaluating a possible product manager position.  We would love to hear your take on the subject – what do you use evaluate possible positions and more importantly, what do you wish you used to evaluate a position in hindsight.

Published! Pragmatic Marketing Monthly Newsletter

Thanks for all your comments on our Product Manager Wanted post. This topic really struck a cord with the product management community – in fact, the good folks over at Pragmatic Marketing are including it as part of their monthly newsletter. With new articles for technology product managers and marketers each month, it’s definitely worth a read.

On a side note, feedback and support such as this helps ensure that our posts remain timely and relevant. Consider this a “Call for Topics” if you will. Help us out by dropping your suggestions into the comments section of this post. Thanks!

Innovate in 12 Dimensions

When it comes to innovation, I have been guilty of thinking only in one dimension. I have mostly focused only on new features and functionality changes in my products that differentiate it from the competition. I know I am not the only product manager with this limitation.

However, not envisioning a new initiative as a whole new business process may result in failure. A good product may target the wrong buyer in the right segment, a marketing message could hit the wrong audience, a sales force may react negatively to your new solution.

So it is worth mentioning when a tool is available to help product managers think more systematically at an early stage of their innovation process.

Such is the case with the “Innovation Radar” presented in a complete fashion in “Grow from Within”, a book from Robert C. Wolcott and Michael J. Lippiz published in 2009. The Innovation Radar forces you to look at innovation in 12 different ways and encourages product managers to adopt a comprehensive view of their innovation initiative. The book is tackling a more general topic: investigate what makes an intrapreneur successful and the innovation radar is only a chapter of the book. Great read nonetheless.

The goal of this post is not to extensively discuss the model, as I could not do it as well as the authors.  However, in this post, I will provide a brief description of the Innovation Radar and help you imagine how you can apply the model to:

  • Innovate with your existing products
  • Build a comprehensive approach for developing new products
  • Anticipate avenues that your competitors could take

So in order to discuss the Innovation Radar, please look at the illustration above, which is directly taken from the book. There are 4 major dimensions, Offering (What), Customers (Who), Processes (How) and Presence (Where). The other 8 dimensions are distributed between these 4 dimensions based on their type of impact. For example, the customer experience is obviously between “Customers” and “Process.” Let’s go through each dimension, with a short explanation and a few questions you can ask yourself about it:

1 Offerings: Creating unique products or services that are valued by customers. What unique architecture or feature set can we bring to our customers? That’s the dimension most of us focus on.

2 Platforms: Common components which can be developed and reused for multiple markets or customers. What are the common technologies, architectures and modules which can be shared by my customer base to reduce my costs?

3 Solutions: Customized, integrated set of products and services to solve a customer’s specific business problem. Can I package my offering differently in order to simplify, bring more flexibility, or reduce cost  in order to attract different buyers?

4 Customers: Discover new customer categories, different buyer personas, or unmet/unarticulated needs. Could there be unidentified business problems your customers may be facing?Is there an unserved up- or down-market?

5 Customer experience: Everything each actor in the sales cycle and end users see or feel about your product and your company. What collateral would resonate with my audience? Can I simplify the user interface to address a new segment? What type of support do I need for this new audience?

6 Value Capture: The mechanisms a company creates to earn its share of the market. How can we redesign the sales cycle in increase our margins? What pricing model leads to optimal profit margin?

7 Processes: The configuration of business activities to conduct operations. How can I reorganize support to reduce costs? Can I develop a single methodology which can be reused for a specific class of services?

8 Organization: How the company structures itself to respond to the needs of the customer. Will this new concept benefit from an internal, separate organization that can execute faster? Are the proper incentives in place to ensure that each team member delivers on the strategy?

9 Supply Chain: The method to deliver product and services. What could be automated, or configured by the customer to provide faster delivery, cheaper cost or improved flexibility?

10 Presence: Channels employed by the company to bring the offering to the market. Should I replace my “farmers” account managers by “hunters”? How can I integrate my offering into a partner’s larger solution and use that partner as a new channel?

11 Network: How a company or product can connect to the customer to improve the value of the product. Can different types of users in my installed base benefit from my existing products? What interfaces should I build to leverage a partner’s solution and unleash new value for my customer?

12 Brand: Symbols, words or marks used by a company to communicate a promise or an image to the customer. How can the company’s brand be leveraged to reinforce the new concept? Would my audience feel that the innovation falls naturally within the brand, or would it be considered a stretch?

The true value of the tool is that, when used correctly, it forces you to envision many of your innovative product’s implications upfront.

Gather a multidisciplinary team in one room for a brainstorming session and go through a series of questions which you will have carefully prepared in advance for each dimension listed above. Be careful not to lead your audience or you will kill creativity. Together, in a few hours and under your lead, the team can minimize the surprises your innovation will produce and define what’s needed, rather than forcing you to operate later with a set of options limited by your budget and time-to-market imperatives. That could mean the difference between success and failure. And maybe you may even find new ways to innovate in the process.

Thank You For This Great New Product Idea. Now What?

It is a well-known fact that new ideas come from your customers, partners, analysts, competitors and other industry influencers. Like it or not, your company looks upon the product management organization to organize these ideas.

But how can a very busy product manager transform the “idea machine” into a fast, fair and simple, yet transparent process?

Remember this bright engineer who came to you last week with starry eyes and started the conversation with “wouldn’t it be great if we had a product that…”?

Chances are that if after a few weeks she does not feel you are taking her idea somewhere, she will share her future creative ideas with someone else.

This post will not provide a turnkey solution to such a process, as every company is different. It will, however, help you group and select ideas using a consistent framework that does not let your legacy products and company limitations get in the way of your thinking. In addition, the framework may help explain to that engineer why her idea needs to be further refined.

The framework consists in three principles:

1.All ideas must be aimed at solving a specific business problem. First it allows you to gather ideas around a customer-centric theme. Second it forces you to step down and look at what is truly needed, versus a your-product-should-let-me-do-this” type of input. Do not limit yourselves to your existing customers, as the new concept may also attract a different segment of customers

2.It is important to envision solutions to the problem as a “business system” that includes not only a possible new product, but also specific sales channels, support, implementation, training and services.  Granted, you most likely will never need a separate organization to serve this new idea, but at least you need to investigate what is specifically required to address the problem without the limits imposed by your company.

3.All ideas must go through the same set of questions in order to be qualified and further refined. This is what ensures consistency and transparency.

Let’s examine this last step in further detail. I usually stick to 20 questions, 10 for outside (customers, analysts, influencers) and 10 for inside the company. The reason is that you essentially want to assess the business problem, look at your company’s capabilities and see if the mixture is a good fit. It is tempting to add as many questions as possible to the list, but remember, we want this process to be fast and simple. These questions can of course be adapted to your circumstances. Finally, the order of these questions was set to evidence red flags as early as possible.

Outside:

–    Is the problem formulated correctly or is its definition too restrictive? A restrictive problem definition could make you miss an larger opportunity or waste your resources.

–    Which actor is feeling the pain? . Who do you need to sell to? (no one at this point, my buyer, someone else? ) The answer to this question may impact the duration your sales cycle as well as what sales channel is required.

–    Is the business problem pervasive in this industry? In other industries? Is this a one-customer issue or is this problem felt by a larger group?

–    What is the best possible way anyone could solve this issue in the eyes of the customer?You need to get away from the “when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail” philosophy and think like an entrepreneur starting with a clean slate.

–    Would that solution require an organizational or process change for the customer and would they eventually agree to make it? If a new product requires too much change in order to be accepted by the customer, it could slow the adoption of the product or the new product may be flat-out rejected.

–    Is the pain felt by the customer likely to get worse in the near to medium term? If the problem becomes more acute, then time is working for you. Nice to know.

–    Could a solution be sold up-market or down-market? In other words is this problem likely to be felt by more demanding, or less demanding segments, each with different price points?

–    Could a substitute help solve this business problem? Reaching out to outside the company is important here to identify unorthodox potential solutions to this business problem which your company may not have thought about and would negatively impact your efforts.

–    Can the problem be quantified in terms of lost revenue, productivity or customer satisfaction? While it is impossible to identify the revenue opportunity of a market which does not exist yet, it may be possible to quantify the savings that a solution may generate, to help customers justify their decision, and you to estimate a first-cut price point.

–    How much would the customer be willing to pay for a solution? Remember that this customer may not be your existing customer.

Inside:

–    Is there any certain indication at this point that the solution envisioned would be considered attractive? Think ROI, margin, volumes, but also market share, new markets, barriers to exit.

–    Would the best possible way to solve this issue involve an existing or a disruptive solution? A disruptive technology may involve a different sales cycle, lower margins, more risk, and a different launch plan. You need to acknowledge this right off the bat.

–    What is the extent of internal organizational changes required to best fill this customer need? Does your company own the appropriate skill set, would management be willing to accept a lower cost structure, what is the latitude to adapt the sales channels? How open is your organization to process changes required to accommodate a new product?

–    Can a solution be completed in-house or would a partnership be required? Granted, with enough resources, your company can go at it alone, but would a partner facilitate market entry and share the risk?

–    What is the likelihood of finding a corporate sponsor willing to fight for the solution internally? Let’s face it, only lucky product managers or geniuses get it right the first time. Anyone working on a new idea requires air cover to defend it against “resource realignments” and also to set the correct expectations with executives. No one can go at it alone.

–    Does the solution envisioned fit with my company’s strategy? Is it OK to find many small ponds for an existing product or a large pond with a new one? Can you make your idea fit with one or several existing business objectives?

–    Can the problem be solved by offering a new solution recombining existing products or services? If you fail, it is better to do it early and cheaply. A first try with existing technology can help you achieve that.

–    Is a solution for this problem included in my existing product’s roadmap? If yes, do you need to reconsider the timing? If no, what should be taken off to accommodate a potential new effort?

–    What is the likelihood that my company will execute in a quality and in a timely fashion? Execution is key. What is the impact of the idea which you are considering coming to the market late or with a smaller set of benefits?

–    What would be the competition’s response to a move? Could this idea already be on any of your competitor’s radar screen? Is there another company out there who could have its eyes on the same opportunity?

This set of questions can and should be modified to your environment. Also, most of the answers are not black and white; you may need a sliding scale to account for the various shades of gray. Finally please remember Henry Ford’s famous quote: “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse”.

Happy New Year 2010

Thanks to the 862 unique visitors who read our pages 3,800 times since we started a little more than 3 months ago. Happy new year for 2010 wherever you are.