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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Hitting the ground running as a new PM

I absolutely love this post by Rich Mironov on what to do as a PM when you assume responsibility for a product. I've done a fair amount of moving around in my career, between continents, companies and departments so wish I'd had this type of guidance much earlier in my career. The suggestions Rich makes seem right on to me. I heartily concur with the thought of learning your product, for example. One of the quickest paths to credibility with folks from development to executive leadership is knowing your product end-to-end better than any of them. Rich's post got me thinking a bit about the drill I've developed for taking over a new product. I thought I'd share a few of my hard-won insights.

Before You Accept the Position
You should do these things before you agree to accept the PM mission:

1. Understand precisely what management expects from you in your first 100 days.
Whether you're a product manager at a 3 person start-up or a head of state, this initial period often sets the tone for your first few years. Cogitate on these expectations thoroughly -- you'll spend your first couple of weeks (or more) determining how or if you can make these things happen. I would recommend asking this question explicitly of your to-be manager and his manager. If they can't provide you with a clear set of goals, you should proceed very cautiously or not at all; whether consciously or not, you might be being set up to fail.

2. Determine whether your product is "a star, a dog or a zombie" (to use Rich's terms).
Rich is right on about this, but I would suggest you do everything reasonably in your power to determine this before you start. Getting this information may require asking some inconvenient questions, particularly of senior leaders, one or more of whom may be in your prospective chain of command. You should be tactful but not shy about asking for this information. Execs and managers aren't the only source of information on this topic: the more junior the interviewer, the more likely you are to get an unspun perspective. Tread lightly as you research this topic, but make sure you have a good idea of what you're up against and be sure you're ready and willing to face it. It is not uncommon for a change in PM positions to belie deeper problems within the product team. Asking why the person previously in the position left it is a good idea. Tactfully asking others in the interview loop what they think of your predecessor and the PM team in general can also be enlightening.

3. Set expectations regarding your needs during your first few weeks.
If you set the right expectations, you can likely get things done in the first few weeks that you will never get done once you're sucked into the vortex that is most PM jobs. Tell your manager that you want time to learn how to use the product, including taking formal training if necessary. Tell her that you expect to participate in some sales calls and that you may need to travel to talk to customers and your counterparts in the field face-to-face. Realize that you're in stronger position to request these things while you're still being recruited that you will be on your first day at the office. Requesting reasonable investments that will accelerate your acclimation, far from alienating management, can demonstrate a maturity they will often respect.

During Your First Week on the Job

1. Talk to support and review customer tickets
I would suggest before you talk to anyone else, you spend some quality time with the support team, reviewing open tickets and understanding related trends. The number of customers that have opened tickets can give you a realistic picture of how many customers are really using your product, i.e., putting it through its paces in production rather than letting it collect dust (and possibly bad will) on a shelf. Looking for trends in tickets and talking to support professionals can give you a quick impression of the overall quality of the product, exposing problem areas. Getting insight into customers' experience with your product can also be helpful when you speak to them. If there was a relationship-impacting issue in the recent past (or an ongoing one), it's best to know before you get to the customer site.

I recommend that support is the first stop on your initial "good will tour" as understanding the support situation allows you to see through the sometimes distorted view of people within the organization who, over time, have developed a misinformed or even self-serving picture of the health of the product. As I alluded to before, if marketing or executive leadership tells you that 5,000 enterprise customers have bought the product, why have only 30 customers opened tickets in the last year? If development tells you they're on top of quality, why is there a huge spike in tickets after each release, including the reappearance of supposedly solved bugs. Why isn't the number of high severity tickets trending downward?

Arming yourself with data can dramatically increase the fidelity of your overall impression of the product. You should, of course, avoid using this information as a weapon as you talk with others, avoiding confrontation initially, actively keeping yourself in listening mode as you make the rounds.

2. Understand who your critical stakeholders are other than customers
While it's tempting to rush into dialog with customers, you should also do some deep thinking and exploration regarding other stakeholders that are critical to you success. Sometimes they are unexpected. Is your product on the forefront of company strategy or is it in a more supporting or even declining role? Product management of more successful, on-strategy products may be important allies -- develop relationships with them. Is sales highly incented to sell your product? Are they aware it exists? Is there an up-and-coming exec that has it in for your product or management? A change in PM sometimes creates the opportunity for a reset of previously rocky relationships -- take advantage of this "honeymoon period" and invest your time in the stakeholders that can contribute most to your and your product's success.

3. Ask development leadership specifically what they expect from you
Having helped implement product management and Scrum multiple times, I've been the subject of some mighty big expectations from development, some of which I wasn't even aware of when I failed to meet them! During your first week, sit down with development leadership, both those with explicit and referent power, and ask them directly what they expect from you short-term and longer term. If your plans don't align with their priorities, you've got some thinking to do. Disappointing or even alienating the development team from the beginning can be an unrecoverable (fatal) error. That having been said, you need to set realistic expectations about what you can accomplish and continuously manage their expectations. The best laid plans of new PMs can be set asunder once your business cards loose the "new" smell and you're pulled in a hundred different directions. If circumstances change and you can't deliver what dev (or other stakeholders, for that matter) expects, explain why priorities have changed and readjust expectations if you can.

What are some of your tricks and techniques for making the most of your first several days on the job? I would be willing to bet someone reading this can benefit from our input in the near future.

You can find more information about me (including upcoming training dates) at

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