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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Hey product manager, who's your daddy?

It’s virtually impossible to read anything about software product management (SPM) that doesn’t mention the criticality of serving the customer. Based on the the justifiable obsession with customers in books, blogs, workshops and keynotes, one could easily get the idea that the key to becoming a successful SPM is to focus on what the customer wants or needs and then deliver it. Simple, right? Who could or would argue with that?

Well, the truth is, in may situations, simply making the customer happy, which is important or even critical, is insufficient to ensure your success as an SPM. That’s right, we don’t like to talk about it, but the customer is simply one of many product stakeholders and, hold your hat, sometimes they’re not even the most important one (short-term, anyway). I’m imagining a collective gasp across the Blogosphere as folks “clutch the pearls” en masse. “Heresy!” they’ll say. “He’s crazy!” they’ll whisper. However, in most of the places I’ve worked, I spent at least as much time understanding and delivering on the requirements of internal stakeholders as I did serving the customer.

Take a moment to catch your breath and allow me to explain.

In large companies with big (or massive) portfolios, your product might very well be a relatively small piece of the puzzle. This is especially true if you’re incubating new ideas or working on a product that hasn’t reached the maturity segment on the life cycle curve. In these situations, the survival of your product and, of course, your success as an SPM will depend on your ability to serve the needs of stakeholders such as executive leadership and other product teams. In extreme cases, even widespread customer delight with your product may not be enough to ensure your team retains its charter and budget.

I can think of numerous situations I’ve observed first-hand in which focusing on the customer at the expense of other critical stakeholders has wrought havoc on a product team. In one case, an innovative new product that had appeal that was independent of the company’s best-known offering was run through a gauntlet that almost killed it even though some big, important customers were clamoring for it. In this case, the product team thought of themselves as providing exciting new capability that would help modernize the company’s portfolio. Although their perception may have been accurate, by not developing positioning that clearly demonstrated how the product could also help deliver on the company’s traditional vision and mission, their product was seen as a threat and became the target of direct attacks and indifference that seriously compromised the  team’s ability to acquire or even retain the resources they needed to be successful. Turns out that the leaders of other product teams in the portfolio were stakeholders as important as end customers in ensuring our success in the first couple of releases (yep, I was part of the team).

In many cases, managing executive leadership’s expectations can be as important as managing those of the customer. We would like to believe that if we delight customers and exceed business goals, our execs will be forever indebted to us (or at least to the end of the quarter). While that’s generally true, failure to understand what executive leadership wants, needs and expects can result in resources being allocated elsewhere or your product’s being classified as not being on vision, regardless of what customers think about it. In extreme cases (yet again culled from my sometimes dysfunctional experience), customer response and input from the market may be virtually meaningless to executive leadership. Leaders who consider themselves radical innovators or disruptors can have surprisingly little regard for anyone else’s requirements or desires, even if the other parties are customers. This approach has a fairly obvious downside long-term (most business leaders are NOT Steve Jobs!), but as a product manager you can very easily find yourself managing irrational and tactical forces you have little control over that can impact your success quickly and significantly.

I realize this post seems unorthodox, so let be clear that the long-term success of products is highly dependent on your ability to find customers willing to pay for your solution to their problems. In the short- and mid-term though, you need to be acutely aware of stakeholders other than customers and make sure you’re serving them as well. To better understand your stakeholders and their needs, I highly recommend a thorough stakeholder analysis. I’ll write a bit more on that in the coming weeks.

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