The new friends of the Product Manager

by Ivar Slavenburg

Recently, I was reviewing some new concepts and noticed something strange. Normally, this is the fun part of Product Management (especially road mapping), but this time I got more and more irritated. Endless documents, mainly powerpoint slides (which I hate so much), with meaningless one-liners. Graphs with the most crazy predictions on how these new products and services were going to perform in the marketplace. Unrealistic  estimations of development costs and time.

That wasn’t the only reason for my irritation, though. I had also reviewed the proposals for products already on the market and products currently in development. I had to conclude that none of them performed as well as predicted. Worse, none of them was released on time or on budget.

Bridging the gap

Like Product Management expert Steven Haines (author of “The Product Manager’s Desk Reference”) already remarked many years ago, Product Management is often a very popular option to solve organisational problems. If you’re in Product Management you probably recognise these cases (and can add many others):

  • senior management is having problems translating vision and strategy in clear tactics, or
  • the different competences are having trouble translating tactics into products and services, and
  • they operate on islands, are only considering their own interests, plus
  • they are hardly communicating with other parts of the organisation.

As a Product Manager it often seems that all you were hired for is to bridge these gaps. A study of consultancy firm Product Focus revealed that on average a Product Manager spends over 60% of his or her time solving operational problems.

However, consider this: most product managers are having a technical or a marketing background. Maybe some of them are natural born communicators, but most of them are not. Additionally, Product Managers are often put away somewhere in the Marketing department, with hardly any special decision power to push for a certain solution. As such, Product Managers can sometimes provide a quick fix for an incidental operational issue, but they can not provide a permanent solution for it.

In other words, having a Product Manager spent so much time on solving operational or organisational problems is, in my humble opinion, a waste of valuable resources. A good organised and equipped Product Management department can add so much more to an organisation.

So, how can the amount of time a Product Manager spends on filling organisational gaps be reduced, so he or she has more time to manage a product and service portfolio?

Enhance your communication toolset

As a Product Manager, if you think that your 50 page powerpoint presentation is really read by any of your stakeholders, think again. Neither is your carefully crafted report; you should already be glad if some stakeholders will read the introduction or the summary and blame you for not presenting their interests more prominently. This is a very serious problem for which there is no easy solution. With young people entering organisations, this problem will only get worse, as they are mainly used to read short messages from a screen of a mobile phone instead of extensive documents.

A new communication toolset is required. We all have learned that a picture speaks a thousand words. Images speak an universal language. No surprise therefore that sharing pictures is one of the most popular activities on the web today. How can we use this knowledge to our advantage in Product Management?

Your new friends

So, what if you could replace or enhance your report with some great pictures, explaining the concept and how it could be working? How about an interactive prototype, allowing your colleagues to “use” your product or service like it already exists? How about having your insights backed up by letting your prospected customers play with your service, instead of having them supported by just some theoretical market studies?

Enter the new friends of Product Management: designers. Visual designers, Interaction Designers, Service Designer, Prototypers, etc. When it comes to translating abstract concepts to “real” products and services, these are the specialists you should turn to. Added bonus, they are trained to keep a close eye at usability, thus keeping the product or service easy to use for the expected user.

So often designers are only getting involved once key decisions about a product or service are already made. This is a serious waste of competences: if you have access to designers, get them involved from day one and make no decision without consulting them!

Turn your product and service development around

Here is my suggestion: let’s start to turn around the product development cycles completely! Why not start with designing your marketing material and the website (pages) where you explain the new product or service, first? Determine whether your target audience understands the message you want to sent to them. That will give you really powerful key insights, because if your marketeers and sales people can’t explain the product to prospective customers, it is pretty clear that developing it will not be a success. Correcting your message and thus your product or service in this stage is no problem; however, once you’re in development and you find out something is wrong, then you are in deep trouble.

Your product designers can help you with creating the first prototypes. It’s remarkable what you can learn, only from a simple sheet of paper. E.g. additional to market insights, if it turns out to be difficult to create a prototype that takes all of the product requirements and insights into account, it gives a good idea about how difficult it will be to design the final product or service. This will add some much needed realism to your prospected cost analysis and development time!

A prototype can also be an excellent tool to communicate your ideas to all other stakeholders. It can prevent a lot of miscommunication between the different competences that are needed to bring the product or service to life. As every Product Manager knows: only if everybody involved is on the same page and has the same goals, development of a product or service can be done efficiently and effectively.

With so many stakeholders to manage already, you’re maybe not waiting for yet another one. However, adding designers will make your life as a Product Manager so much easier; it’s the most clever investment you currently can make.