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Monday, June 16, 2014

Dimensions of SPM Competency

I recently spoke to a company interested in improving their software product management (SPM) proficiency. Speaking to the executive sponsor underscored the different priorities relative to SPM competencies that I’ve encountered during my career working with a wide variety of software organizations. In this company’s case, for example, product managers are given direct profit/loss responsibility for the products they manage.

I’ve spent most of my career at mega-vendors (IBM, Microsoft, SAP) and realized that, truth be told, I didn’t have the same kind of business responsibility for my products. In these massive companies, there was usually a general manager who was more directly involved with setting and tracking business goals, budgeting etc. Although I engaged with sales regularly and participated in business reviews, I can’t honestly say that I was driving the business day to day. I spent my time defining and promoting the product (and trying to put out raging tire fires with a rolled up newspaper). As a matter of fact, the generally accepted paradigm at one company was that certain roles were responsible for getting the product on the shelf, while others were responsible for getting it off the shelf. This division of labor in no way meant that I didn’t care about my product’s business performance (my goals and objectives were somewhat product performance-related), but the truth was that my calendar was overflowing with meetings related to defining the product, not directly driving the business.

If you read the literature on SPM and the role of a product manager as “mini-CEO”, my words seem almost heretical. However, MASSIVE amounts of revenue are driven around the world with the arrangement I described.

After spending some time pondering how I could capture these differences I perceived in SPM competencies, I developed a simple model that describes software product management competencies along three key “dimensions”. Each of these dimensions requires different competencies and skills and, in my experience, each organization assigns them different relative priorities.

The Dimensions

This diagram depicts the three dimensions I’ve identified. The areas overlap in the diagram as they are typically closely related.

  • The business leadership dimension captures competencies and accountabilities related to business performance. Although in many organizations the business is managed by a general manager or similar executive, in other organizations this accountability is the clear domain of product management, consuming  a significant proportion of software product managers’ time. These SPMs spend their days ensuring that costs are managed and that revenue, adoption or other business goals are reached. While much of the literature on SPM would indicate that this is a core accountability of all product managers, my personal experience and that of many folks I know demonstrates that many SPMs have more of an arm’s length influence on the business. Typical activities related to the business leadership dimension are:
    • Performance monitoring (KPI definition, business reviews etc.)
    •  Budget planning
    • Revenue forecasting
    • Strategic relationship management/engagement (customers, executive leadership, marketing, sales)
  • The product definition dimension captures activities that are almost universally accepted as part of the SPM job. These functionally-oriented activities include managing requirements (including stakeholder engagement), defining roadmaps and doing product and release planning, not to mention describing features to be implemented from a functional perspective. These are the activities that consumed most of my time as an SPM and together can amount to more than a full time job. Examples of typical activities related to the product definition dimension are:
    • Requirements engineering from elicitation through selection for releases
    • Backlog creation and grooming (in organizations using Scrum)
    • Defining and documenting product vision and strategy
    • Roadmapping
    • Functional specification of features corresponding to selected requirements
  • The product promotion dimension captures activities that are generally considered marketing-related such as engaging with analysts, participating in trade events and supporting core marketing activities such as the development of marketing campaigns, collateral and the like. I’ve used the term promotion as I believe that proper marketing requires dedicated professionals that have a skill set that is related but fundamentally different from that of an SPM. I have encountered organizations, typically smaller in size (less than 100 people total, for example), that out of necessity expect SPMs to do marketing. In my opinion, this approach is stop-gap -- not in any way ideal. Here are some typical examples activities exercised as part of the product promotion dimension are:
    • Participating in trade shows as a speaker or by talking to participants at booths
    • Addressing groups of customers at customer councils and the like
    • Providing input to marketing on marketing materials such as press releases, brochures and competitive “battle cards” (without typically being accountable for creating these materials)
    • Engaging with market analysts to evangelize your product, its roadmap and specific releases.

The Mix

A tacit assumption underpinning this model is that adequately covering these dimensions is typically more than a single person can handle. The model thus has implications for how product management teams are organized and for their collaboration model with other disciplines. For example, in organizations that emphasize the business leadership dimension, a greater proportion of product definition tasks are often relegated to others, including engineering. In my experience, few organizations maintain a perfect balance between the dimensions. Ascribing percentages to each dimension based on time invested can be an interesting exercise. For example, I would characterize my career (on average) thusly:

    •    Business leadership: 15%
    •    Product definition: 70%
    •    Product promotion: 15%

BTW, even though the percentage for product promotion seems small, I felt like I was much more involved in this dimension than many other product managers I knew. Once again, the low percentage spent on business leadership flies in the face of most of the idealistic literature on SPM. Regardless, I worked on products that generated significant revenue.

This model also has implications for professional performance management for SPMs. Those who are expected to spend the lion’s share of their time doing product definition but are rewarded based on business performance can often feel frustrated and un-empowered. SPMs that aren’t directly incented to do product promotion, may de-emphasize this sometimes critical work. These dimensions could be used as the basis for a career ladder, defining expected competency at different job levels, e.g., junior SPM, Senior SPM.


I've discussed this model with other SPMs and clients and so far, find it to be reasonably comprehensive. I would repeat that there is no idealized distribution among the dimensions -- each organization should determine what the appropriate distribution is, set goals appropriately and create a plan to move the organization toward this to-be state. Looking forward to hearing what you think.

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