Product Manager Attributes

This blog is a summary of Nathan Moyes’ keynote at Product Camp Sydney 4 June 2011. Nathan spoke about the attributes required to be a super Product Manager.

You can break the product manager into a number of convenient pieces. Obviously they work better when considered as a whole. In no particular order a product manager needs to be commercially and financially adept; they need to be a business leader, an advocate of all stakeholders; Technically alert; and strong people manager; and self aware.

In general those skills would apply to all managers and leaders, and perhaps that is why they are so important for product managers who are the connection between so many parts of an organisation, its markets and its potential.

This list will never be complete, but in general product managers should be:

Commercial & Financially Adept

  • They will have a vision for their product, portfolio, business, & industry as a whole
  • They will be able to link consumer needs to commercial goals
  • They will be able to develop budgets, argue for budgets and sandbag budgets
  • They can manage a P&L, and should want to
  • They’ll be able to prepare and pitch a business case to win or kill ideas

Business Leader

  • The product manager will be able to recognise business objectives
  • They are conscious of differing roles and responsibilities
  • They will create plans quickly
  • They will make decisions

Stakeholder Advocate

  • They will represent the consumer / customer
  • They will recognise (and have empathy for) the contribution of stakeholders
  • And be able to engage in conversations across the organisation
  • They will lead the conversation, seeking collaboration (not consensus)
  • They can talk, sell, convince, talk straight as well as they listen

Technically Alert

  • Technical expertise is not simply for tech companies, it is the expertise of the product in question, be it selling algorithms, audiences or bricks, bolts and glazing
  • They’ll be the subject matter experts, an evangelist
  • Able to contribute to the solution
  • Able to understand and appreciate the technical, specifications, and so on, if not code, develop, mix, bake, etc themselves
  • They will make judgment calls, take risks, without the full picture
  • They will appreciate the process, even when trying to avoid it
  • There is a balance when product teams grow and senior product managers become managers, and are forced to balance being a generalist and the product expert

People Manager

  • Change manager, change manager – this is the result of everything they do
  • They can develops and coach teams (the ones they own and others)
  • They can work to align people so that goals can be met

Self Aware

  • They seek out accountability
  • They’re passionate, but also
  • They are pragmatic, able to use instinct, but also to see the bigger picture
  • They’re fundamentally looking for what lies beneath

Given the above skills, there should be no reason we are not successful. But before the workplace is set before us there are a few realities that make being all of those things difficult.
These are challenges that impact us as individual product managers, but also as product teams.

The Product Manager role is Not Well Understood
Within the broad stakeholder groups the role of the Product Managers can be misunderstood, sometimes its value and contribution questioned.

Consequences include:

  • Product Managers are expected to be project managers, a skill we need but not what we do
  • There are competing players seeking subject matter supremacy
  • Demarcation of marketing, UX, technology, sales are needed
  • Product as a discipline can be diluted as the core skills are distributed across the business with no single identity and accepted role

Product Managers must sometimes consider their own role, function and contribution as we do the products we nurture. If we understood the need, the features, the channel, promotion and the like we might find we harness greater support
We too some times fall victim to the turf war and seek out loud affirmation of our importance

Whereas the individual with PM responsibility or the PM team, must seek to harness the concepts and ideas from across the business and create strategies and tactics with which to deliver

Product Management Ownership
A product agenda is embraced, however the Product Manager roles themselves are at times usurped, often due to the particular industry, or the maturity of a particular business (in terms of product lifecycle) other divisions may be leading the Product Management agenda.

Sales or Technology may take the lead and in so doing the agenda can be skewed. Of course there are also times when the outcome is spectacularly good – but generally this is because there is an underlying presence of solid product management methodologies.

So perhaps there are times when it is right and proper to accept that product may be distributed through the organisation and we need to be able to see the principles and capabilities that can be harnessed even if they are not owned in a central team or an identified title.

Also consider what we do to one another within an identifiable product function; given Product Managers can be cut by verticals, audiences, customers, platforms, etc – the fight over never sufficient resources can be ferocious

We may need to reassess whether our expectations regarding product ownership is ostentatious (or part of an org chart play) or is a subtle endeavour to harness the broader division where product expertise can reside.

One of the guiding basis of innovation is the combination of research, market insights & channels and manufacturing (or development) – it is possible that you have a product structure where the product champions, and owners already reside in these groups.
Identifying and adapting accordingly is critical to make it possible to navigate the turf wars.

Lifecycle Management (& the right to innovate)
Often the product team is measured by project KPIs, did we deliver on time and on budget. These are relevant but ignores the greater part of your products life and addresses only its conception and gestation. If the product fails to perform management becomes a series of quick wins; or a collection of new untested requirements.

The original concept and objectives lost in the rapid fire finger pointing. When conceiving products, it is equally as important to know what the product will be like as it navigates the market in which it is playing, or fighting. Taking a holistic view will remind you to think about reporting, about the necessary KPIs, about the ongoing roadmap and the balance of your desire for the perfect product and the ability to shape and adapt as the product lives.

It is organic and means building in options and decisions and knowing when to take them.

Importantly is it about keeping your eye on the product and its performance, as the name suggests it is about embracing BAU as it is the next new thing.

It strikes me that often our desire for time and resources to be innovative is intrinsically tied to a PMs acceptance of the accountability for the product lifecycle, this is the authority or the license to be innovative as you manage the evolution or the revolution of your product/portfolio agenda.

Innovation

To be innovative, I actually think it helps to plan. Not the moment of inspiration perhaps as that surely must remains a “eureka” moment, or realisation. By planning I am referring to embracing the product lifecycle and therefore innovation is a key component, it is the fuel that fires the next ‘new thing’.

Secure the P&L, or some of it, prepare a business case, put some numbers down to demonstrate ROI and you can then truly explore deliberate innovative tactics.

Research (desk, quant, qual, feedback, the lot) is critical to educate a series of hypothesis, and to allow you to test them, prototype them, then build them. Understand your metrics is boring, but not once you have the data and can start cutting and reading it. Plus it is cheaper than getting it wrong.

The greatest risk is chasing silver bullets, and ignoring the customer, the market. I am sure everyone can consider a great innovation, even accidental, but these arise from innovative cultures and thinking, that itself comes from seeking what can be.

There are challenges for product managers that remain consistent throughout require a balance (or in reality compromises) of:

  • Between product brilliance and getting things done
  • Between equally great ideas

The Roadmap
I see a slate, what we are doing now, where the resources are now, and a roadmap which is where we engage with our stakeholders and debate where we are headed.

Best to keep the slate consistent, and your roadmap agile – clear and precise planning means you can accommodate changes, new ideas, but you can also ensure your core strategy is pursued – if it is traded constantly for short term fixes (which are only allowable if unobtrusive) then perhaps you need to rethink the strategy as belief in it has been traded in.

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