What is Product Management without Product Managers?

stencil.blog-post-featureIn August 2016, I travelled from Sydney to Boulder, Colorado on a wing and a prayer for a conference that promised to help entrepreneurs take their business from simmering to boiling point. In two days I had a pretty big breakthrough. Here is how it happened…

First Impressions

Most of the attendees were from the personal fitness industry as personal coaches or running online health information courses. When they asked me what I did and about the Brainmates business I told them that were provided training, coaching, and consulting services to Product Managers. Everyone stared back at me like I was speaking a different language. I had to re-frame the description completely or this was going to be a disaster.

I asked them to imagine that instead of providing personal training to a person, that Product Managers provided personal training to the Products that they deliver to the market. This now made sense to them and it actually had me thinking about the purpose of product management in a new way.

Big Ideas, but how to actions them?

Carrie Hammer was the second Keynote speaker on the first of the two days of the conference. Her claim to fame has been to create a Runway Revolution in fashion by focusing on “Role Models, Not Runway Models”.

At the end of her presentation, she shared three key points that she has used to grow her business.

  • Re-imagine your industry
  • People over Profit
  • Purpose-Driven Business

There are all wonderful statements but hearing them is different to actually listening to them and understanding the importance of each one. They are easy to believe in but they can be difficult, and lonely to stand by and actually implement in business.

Difference between getting advice and taking it

Later I participated in a group mentoring session with Carrie. When my turn came around I was again faced with having to explain Product Management to someone who was doing it but had never put a name to the activities that were being performed. That that was when a number of concepts started to come together in my head.

Re-imagine your industry” she had asked previously. Now she asked “What are you taking for granted”, and “What is a barrier, but really isn’t”. I had to think quickly. In a keynote, you can just acknowledge that you like what you have heard, but you don’t have to action it, but now the spotlight was on me. I had travelled around the world to challenge my thinking so I needed a break through.

  • So what was I taking for granted?
    “Product Management activities need to be called “Product Management” and everyone else need to know this.” For too long I have been fixated on this and by being a conference of people who were doing it without the title told me that the title itself was not required.
  • What did I see as a barrier, but really wasn’t?
    “We can’t call Product Management anything else because that is what it has always been called. It is better to educate others to use the term correctly.” But what if this isn’t true. What if the title or label is the thing that is actually holding us back?

This insight was powerful but not as powerful as what happened next. Carrie then challenged me to come up with a better name that would “Re-define the category”. Then she challenged me to have an answer by the end of the week. Ouch and hooray!

The Fitness Industry and Product Management

For some time now I have been discussing with my personal trainer the similarity between what he does for people and what Product Managers do for products. This continued to resonate with the folks at the conference. In personal fitness, there are many dimensions to better health and wellbeing, including physical exercise, nutrition and other positive life habits that help us achieve our goals.

In many respects, the Product Manager is the fitness trainer for the Product that they are responsible for. The Product Manager ensures that it is:

  • fit to solve a clear problem in a market,
  • fit to deliver an outcome that delivers a positive benefit to the business, and
  • fit to support the operational constraints of actually delivering the product to market.

And just like the in the fitness world, there are no quick ways that avoid the hard work and discipline of getting the job done. Yet in both pursuits, customers and stakeholders always want the shortcut for getting more for less, as quickly as possible.

“Burn the Boats”

Just before the end of the conference Carrie found me and asked me to write a contract to formalise the commitment that I had made earlier and there was a catch. She asked me to define a penalty for not getting the job done. At that moment I wasn’t expecting to be challenged that way and on reflection, it showed that I wasn’t 100%. I could always walk away, but by completing the contract, that option was being removed. In the mentoring session, the idea of “burning the boats” was referred to as a way of describing the commitment you have when there is no going back. So this is what the contract became to me. It was a way of mentally “burning the boats”. I had no choice but to deliver on the objective.

Breakthrough

For me this a was a crystallising moment where I suddenly felt very clear in my mind that I would achieve this outcome. As the conference drew to a close I started listing and drawing a variety of ways to re-define the purpose of product management to a wider audience. I came up with a lot of really bad ideas, but after just two days, I had an answer that just seemed to fit perfectly. Now the hard work begins to formalise the concept and use it to champion the work that Product Managers do every day and show businesses and other departments that just don’t get it – a new perspective on Product Management.