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Friday, November 21, 2014

Criteria for Assessing a Software Product Management Organization

In a previous post, I talked about assessing products as they are being developed. In this post, I'd like to talk about a different kind of assessment: assessing (or "auditing" as some others call it) a software product management organization. Formal assessments are often requested by leaders of an organization who are concerned about the performance of the product management function. What I've realized since I began thinking deeply about the topic is that every time I've joined a new company, I've done a mental assessment to size the place up. When I began developing my assessment framework, I found myself trying to articulate or externalize this tacit mental model.

Before sharing my approach, I thought it made sense to share what I consider the primary requirements or criteria I would use to determine if the framework was ready for primetime. Whether you eventually agree with my approach or not, I hope these criteria can help you assess the multiple assessment approaches you are likely to encounter in the market.

An assessment framework or approach should be:

I believe the approach or method used to assess the product management organization should be reasonably simple: not to many heady concepts or moving parts. This requirement helps ensure those commissioning the assessment can easily understand the approach and its outputs. It also allows one to deliver an engagement in a fairly short period of time. My goal was to be able to deliver an assessment within a couple of weeks or less.

I've read about assessment approaches that focus on the knowledge and skills of product managers. Although I too think professional competency is critical, it is just one the elements that impacts organizational effectiveness. By the way, I believe that the goal of the assessment should be to measure the organization, not simply the people in it. For example, I've spent a lot of my career creating platforms that model and execute business processes, so understanding the maturity of processes is important to me (and most organizations, I believe).

I decided early on that beyond the qualitative aspects I can assess based on experience and intuition, measuring subsequent improvement would require that key elements of the framework be reducible to values that could be measured. That doesn't necessarily mean that the values are valid from a purely scientific perspective, but that changes in performance, both positive and negative, can be tracked over time in a convincing way.

Experience with quite a few product management organizations has taught me that each organization values different aspects of the discipline. An assessment framework should be flexible enough that it can be adapted to incorporate an organization's priorities and culture.

Although I believe it's difficult to generate assessment results that support an "apples to apples" comparison of any two product management organizations, the framework should capture common aspects of the product management discipline in such a way that reasonable comparisons can be made. This criterion is particularly important when assessment multiple organizations in the same company, e.g., different business units.

In a future post, I'll enumerate the key elements or "dimensions" I've chosen for my framework based on these criteria. I've shared my approach with several people whose opinion I value and am so far encouraged.

What is your experience with assessing product management organizations (particularly in the software domain)? What requirements or criteria are important to you?

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Overlooked Sources of Product Management Power

The idea that knowledge is power is as true as it clich├ęd. I've noticed there are several sources of very powerful information that are often overlooked by product managers:

CRM System
If your organization has implemented and maintains a customer relationship management system, you should do your best to get access (even if it's "read only") and use it as a resource to understand what's going on with customers and prospects. You'll very quickly discover that the information stored in CRM can give insight unavailable almost anywhere else. Ideally, PMs should update CRM systems when they interact with customers so the entire account team is aware of discussions, issues etc. I'm amazed at how seldom this resource is leveraged (and how often customers get the impression that your company's right hand doesn't even know the left hand exists).

Customer Support Database
In my post on things to do when you take over a product as a PM, I discussed the importance to PMs of understanding support issues. If you're not browsing support tickets at least once a week and don't regularly engage with support to understand their pain, you're missing a massive learning experience. Investing 20 minutes a week reading about customer issues can inspire you with ideas and arm you with the data you need to influence others, whether they be execs, development or other PMs.

Business Motivation
Understanding the explicit vision, strategy and goals of your organization and/or company can give you insight that helps you define a product that is on-strategy and gives you an advantage when communicating with execs. Think about your most important executive sponsors and ask yourself "Do I really understand specifically what they're trying to achieve?" The sad truth is that most organizations don't have an explicit motivation model. In many cases, you'll have to use your network to get access to presentations or strategy papers that may not be widely disseminated. In others, you may have to ask execs verbally. Regardless, going a level deeper than the vision statement on your company's Web site can, at the very least, allow you to position yourself and your product much more convincingly.

Annual Report
Let's face it, almost no one reads a significant proportion of the content in an annual report. Regardless, as a PM you can often extract nice little nuggets of knowledge that help you understand the big picture, including a sense of the business performance of the entire company. It is not at all uncommon for us to be so focused on our product, that we forget the company is doing a million other important things. How many times have you been caught off-guard by a customer or another "external" that was more aware of developments at your company than you were? Taking time to read the annual report and memorize a few key factoids and maybe even a few financial figures may present you with the opportunity to demonstrate that you're a strategic thinker, impressing people with little more than an offhand comment about dwindling margins in Asia.

There you go, 4 sources of often untapped power. Happy reading! What other sources can you think of?