I have recently helped a few tech companies in establishing or reinforcing product management functions in their organization and I thought I could share some of my playbook.
The roles of the product manager
Traditionally, product management functions are introduced in technology companies as soon as a structured process for receiving, categorizing and prioritizing market inputs to development teams is necessary.
A start up might develop a product or service based on its founder’s vision, but as soon as the value proposition is confronted to potential clients, new requirements emerge, gaps are identified and it becomes necessary to categorize and prioritize all these competing inputs into a coherent framework that facilitate the decision making process.
Product management is the result of scarcity of resources (engineering, hardware, software, time, investments…) and the ever-growing list of potential application of a new product or service (new clients, new geographies, new application, new market segment…).
The more interactions between the company and the market (clients’ meetings, competitive announcements, standards and technology evolution…) the more opportunities are identified for enhancing, evolving, adapting the product or service.
As the product matures, it invariably as well accumulates a technical debt, product of design and architectural concessions or compromises for time to market. This technical debt is a risk to be managed closely. As time goes on, the amount of correction, re architecture, rework that is necessary to correct a faulty initial design becomes extremely punitive.
The product management is responsible for knowing at any time, what the market needs, what the product can do today, what gap exists between these two positions and the level of risk the company is committing to when answering a RFP where gaps with the current offering exist.
How to prioritize requirements?
Every commercial company would like to think itself as market, sales or client oriented. Satisfying the client is the best and fastest way to generate commercial success. Unfortunately, there are many clients that do not know what they need, or that want something that is not what you can provide or that need you to adapt your offering to their proprietary environment to a degree that would make that product version only usable by them.
There are also companies that are differentiating through innovation, essentially creating a new product or market category. In that case, prospects are not necessarily the best guide for developing the product roadmap.
Technical debt is traditionally not a concept that sales or upper management want to concern themselves with. “Losing” time re architecting a product to deliver the same functionalities as today with months of delay can be perceived as a waste of time and commercial opportunity.
Evolution of standards, technology or competitive announcements have variable effect on the urgency to develop a feature vs. another, and the difficulty here is that the information is always imperfect, incomplete and requires a lot of analysis and experience to right-time the investment.
Bugs, errors, failures are always critical to solve when they affect a customer and their revenues, deciding on a workaround, a fix or a redesign is complex and requires a good grip on what the engineering team can produce and what to trade from the roadmap to deliver this.
These four examples are but a few of the decisions that a product management function have to grapple with. As a result, product management is unlikely to satisfy everyone. As the gatekeeper for product decisions, it interfaces with all the key functions in the enterprise and its decisions have an effect on all of them. For this reason, it is key that product management is completely aligned and supported by the management team and the CEO.
Product management in the company
The product management function is essentially a decision function. It must evaluate the market, the capacity of the engineering team and find the best market-fit for its product. It must be able to
- create a value proposition, positioning and message for its product that is aligned with the company positioning and the market
- translate market requirements into product, architecture and technology requirements,
- create documentation and collaterals for sales support (brochures, infographics, white papers, business cases, presentations, demos…)
- negotiate with clients, sales and sales support the roadmap, features, requirements, functional specifications, availability
- negotiate with engineering the design, features, options, and availability
- report to management team the product profitability, market position and market share…
- Because of the range and variety of decisions involved, the product management function must traditionally report to the CEO, to ensure perfect alignment with the company vision, mission and priorities and to guarantee equal footing in negotiations and escalations resulting from its decisions. Because few in the company will know as much about the product, from a technical, strategic and commercial perspective together, product management is a position of trust and responsibility.
For these reasons, it is important that the methodology for receiving and cataloguing market inputs, translating and categorizing requirements, negotiating and recording results of discussions, communicating and reporting internally and externally be transparent, well understood by the management team and underpinned by strong processes.