Product Managers need time to breathe…

I’m going to make an assertion here, and please correct me if I’m wrong.

I believe that the vast majority of software product managers are running full tilt in their jobs, caught between the short term tactical cross-functional activities (working with Dev, Sales, Marketing etc) that are thrust upon us, and the important long term market research, business and product planning activities that are fundamental to managing successful products.

Do you agree? Disagree?

Companies want Product Managers to innovate, take bold steps, define new products, enter new markets, yet at the same time deal with all the day to day operational issues that arise and need to be dealt with. I’m surprised more product managers don’t burn out after a few years. Or perhaps they do, and like the trees in the forest, we’re not there to witness them fall.

There’s an interesting post on Innovation at Entitled, INNOVATION is an INSIDE JOB, the article makes several good points, but the key one is:

Organizations do not innovate. People innovate. Inspired people. Fascinated people. Creative people. Committed people. That’s where innovation begins. On the inside. The organization’s role — just like the individual manager’s role — is to get out of the way.

I couldn’t agree more. A lot of companies want to be innovative, but unintentionally put barriers in front of those best suited for the job by never really getting out of the way. It’s difficult to be inspired, fascinated and creative, if you are constantly required to focus on the short term needs of other teams. How can one extricate themselves so they can get out and learn and think and postulate and research and conclude and innovate?

One solution which I wholeheartedly support is to create Product Management teams who are responsible for delivering the goods. The teams can be structured in different ways. You could combine business focussed PMs with technically focussed PMs or you could split the PM responsibilities across functional areas of larger products. There are likely other ways to split up the responsibilities.

But the goal is to get to a level where the teams can work in a pipeline or leapfrog manner. i.e. while one team (team A) is focussed on bringing a release X to market, another team (team B) is out researching release X+1. Once release X is GA, team A can focus on researching release X+2, and team B is working to get release X+1 developed and out the door.

Now, before you start thinking — hold on a minute, how many product managers are we talking about here? — ask yourself a couple of questions:

  • What impact does Product Management have on your company?
  • Could it have a higher impact on optimizing Development, Marketing and Sales with a small increase in headcount?
  • How well could your company execute if you had deep market knowledge, clear understanding of user AND buyer needs, through competitive information and requirements that were complete, accurate and timely?

If you answered, “Significant”, “Yes” and “Much better than we are now” to those questions respectively, then think about defining product management teams in your company. Give them the time and tools they need to do a first-rate job, and then hold them responsible for it.

Challenge the teams to leapfrog each other in functionality, performance, scalability etc. The teams should view each other in a competitive manner. Why? Because your competitors are looking at you this way. They are trying to leapfrog you. They are looking at your weaknesses and trying to exploit them. They are going to try to out market and out sell you. Why not look at yourself the way your competitors look at you and beat them at their own game?

This may sound a bit unconventional but it works. Intel did this for several generations of their microprocessor chips. They had parallel teams working on successive generations of chips. Each new generation of CPUs (e.g. 286, 386 etc.) was to eclipse the previous generation. Not only did Intel make significant performance gains from one generation to the next, they kept upstart competitors like AMD playing a constant game of catch up.

Both AMD and Intel are successful companies, but which would you rather be? Why not take a lesson from an industry giant like Intel and apply it to your company?



One response to “Product Managers need time to breathe…

  1. Saeed,

    I would tend to agree with this — in general I think the more time that someone has to focus on the core elements of their work, the better the result will be.

    First, some background: I work in a small software / technology company where I am the only official PM, although many others, especially the exec team, contribute heavily to the product goals and design. All told we have 6 developers and 2 main products (with many smaller, related products underneath), 1 of which I manage almost exclusively. I am also the project manager for 2-3 devs working on my product. To say I am main product expert is probably an understatement. Because I understand all the different elements of the company and work with everyone on every level — from execs, to development, to design, to marketing, to sales and support — I am usually the resource that is most heavily used.

    For me, the challenge is this: the short-term needs of my company do have a big impact on our long-term success (we don’t have deep pockets), so I feel it is important to stay close to the day-to-day needs of the company to make sure that as a unit we are all working effectively. My position, knowledge, and experience allows me to do that pretty well. On the other hand, it does mean that some of the long-term strategies are getting less attention than they otherwise might, and it does also mean that I am stretched pretty thin on a regular basis, and I’m certain that my creativity suffers as a result.

    The only way I’ve been able to handle all of this is by being really good at managing my time (and I still have room for improvement there). Quite a bit of work, especially the creative kind, does get done outside of normal business hours when things are quiet, but I am also able to create certain hours in the day when I can work uninterrupted. The challenge here is being able to switch gears away from and back to a certain project, especially one that requires a lot of research or design or has a long process. Fortunately I am pretty good at that, although at times it does get frustrating.

    Our track record so far has proven that this is working, as we are seeing products and profits improve. Our competitors are not able to keep up with the speed of our development either, and I’m pretty sure that we stay closer to the industry trends than anyone else in our market.

    So for me the bottom line is that while I would love more time to focus on just the product management side, I don’t think it’s realistic or even recommended considering the size of my company and the speed in which we typically move. I accept this as the reality of the small business we are operating and I just do my best to juggle it all. Do I learn a lot and sharpen my skills regularly as a result? Absolutely. Now ask me if I could keep this up for 10 years? Probably not.