Spend your time in the right places

If you want to be a bad product manager, spend as much time as possible on the middle of the development projects. It shouldn’t be too difficult to figure out what you want to create, and after that you need to make sure it gets built. You are responsible for getting the product to market, and you need to oversee the development of the product closely to ensure that it is completed successfully. Once the product is ready to go to market, you can just let the marketing folks know it’s ready, or, if you have to launch it yourself, just write the press release and create the brochures.

If you want to be a good product manager, spend as much time as creating the vision for the product and communicating that vision to the market. Your primary responsibility is to create a valuable product that will solve a market need. There are plenty of people within the company working on the tactical activities necessary to get the product built, but few if any people usually looking at the market and trying to identify needs and few if any people thinking strategically about how to take the product to market.

As Nilofer Merchant writes in Product Managers Are Really Super Heroes in Surprise (PDF)

Theoretically, a product manager’s involvement in the development of a product should be concentrated at the beginning and the end of the process. At the beginning, the product manager is responsible for defining the product—who it’s for, what problems it will solve, and how big the opportunity. At the end of the process, the product manager is responsible for feeding that information to Marketing, in a form that they can easily transform into messages and deliverables.

The reality at many companies is that the product manager often gets pulled into the middle of the development process as a problem-solver. When there’s a risk of a schedule slip, a conflict over resources, or a change in the market, the product manager often attends meetings and researches options, which eats into the time available for their core tasks. Product managers are so overburdened that they can no longer truly lead their products. They can’t do the up-front work necessary to define a winning product strategy, or the back-end work to make sure it’s marketed properly. The result is inevitably mediocre products that don’t hit their sales goals, and product lines that aren’t well differentiated from their competitors.

This is certainly a difficult balance to manage, and it seems like most product managers are not able to focus on the beginning and end activities. The 2007 results from Pragmatic Marketing’s Annual Product Management and Marketing Survey (PDF) clearly show that the activity that takes up more time than any other for most product managers is “Monitoring development projects.”

Why? This could be the subject of several postings (and likely will be), but most likely it is a combination of

  • (a) no one else to monitor development projects
  • (b) misunderstanding of the product management role by product managers and others within the organization
  • (c) the fact that most of the time spent on most projects will be during the development phase (for better or worse).

Despite these truths, product managers need to strive to balance their time so they are doing more “up front” activities — conducting win/loss analysis, visiting customers, going on sales calls, researching market needs.

They can address (a) by working with strong project managers and role leads (architects, designers, engineers) and giving them responsibility for much of the problem-solving.

Solving (b) is a tougher challenge, as it needs to be addressed at an organizational level. Good product managers can help by educating others about the proper role of product management through doing and teaching things that good product managers should do.

In some cases, it may be possible to solve (c) by working to implement more efficient or flexible development methods. However, often it is just a natural result given the nature of product development. Even though most of the project will be spent in the development phase, that does not mean you need to spend most of your time there. While development is continuing, product managers can begin to address the go-to-market strategy or begin researching possible next projects or products to keep the product development pipeline full.

While it is difficult to not get “sucked in” to the tactical details, product managers need to ensure they are giving proper focus to the strategic aspects of their products to make sure that there is a vision and direction for the tactical work to follow.