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Monday, October 13, 2014

Positioning Product Management with Executives

The fact that many of us product managers struggle at times to explain to lay people what we do is quite well documented. Many of us have a glib answer like "cat herder" that we quickly follow up with a more reasonable explanation. Whether people really understand what we do is very often not critical. To avoid long-winded explanations that tend to confuse more than enlighten, I typically tell people I do "software" and leave it at that. However, for a variety of reasons, you may someday find yourself with a need to explain to executive leaders what you do and why it's important. In rare cases, it may be because you are joining a company with no product management function and you'd like to act as an agent of change. More often, you'll encounter specific execs that simply don't see the value of product management, perhaps because of a technical bias, painful experiences, lack of exposure or, in some cases, pure orneriness. Regardless of the foundation of their perspective, the sad truth is that if they remain uneducated, they may very well take steps, consciously or not, to marginalize your contribution or diminish your charter. In these cases, a convincing argument in favor of product management is critical.

Before I address explaining product management to executives, it might be worthwhile to think about how you should talk to execs in general. While no two execs are identical, I've learned certain messaging techniques that have served me well in multiple companies on multiple continents. Having been involved in a few incubation projects and new product development, I have spent a great deal of time "pitching" execs and have the gray hair to prove it (one of the founders of one of the largest software companies in the world got up in the middle of one of my presentations, turned his back, and made himself tea!). Here are a few guidelines to consider when talking to "the suits":
  • Keep your message as concise as possible (you should think of extraneous words and concepts as attack surface)
  • Demonstrate that you are aware of the strategic implications of the topic you are presenting (because the message will likely be received in the context of a strategy that extends beyond your topic)
  • Avoid buzzwords, but try to use terminology that is familiar to execs and that underscores the previous point
Keeping these things in mind, it is critical that you avoid explaining product management to an exec the same way you might explain it to your mother or the chatty person sitting next to you on a long flight. When explaining product management to senior leaders and executives, you should come top-down, not evolve the story bottom-up. The story line goes something like this:
  • It is important for a company to have a compelling vision and a strategy for achieving it
  • In product companies, each product should have a vision and strategy that supports the corporate "motivation model", i.e., vision, goals, objectives
  • Product management is responsible for defining and executing on strategy at the product level
Once you've established this foundation, you can selectively talk about how you orchestrate the activities of other disciplines, engage with customers etc. But be clear: your job is to underscore that product management is a direct extension of corporate strategy, ensuring the right products ship at the right time for the right cost.

While I'm on the subject, perhaps the reason so few people understand the value of product management is that we tend to explain it bottom-up rather than top-down. I believe this is the case and have some ideas about how we as a community can emphasize our strategic, rather than tactical, contribution. More on this in a future post.

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