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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Managing Complex Solutions: When Product Management Begins Breaking Down

I've spent most of my career working as a product manager in huge software companies (IBM, Microsoft, SAP) and as a product management consultant and trainer with vendors that deliver complex solutions in the B2B space. Perhaps it's just me, but when I look at most of the content being generated in the field of product management, I can't help but thinking that something is missing. To my eyes, most of it seems startup-centric (in the consumer space mostly), so, to someone who's been slugging it out in trenches of highly complex problem spaces, much of the talk of MVPs, A/B testing, continuous delivery and other hot topics seems a bit, dare I say, na├»ve.
 What I consider a lack of emphasis on what I've labeled the "enterprise space" has inspired me to begin thinking deeply about the unique challenges of effectively managing products that must address some of the world's stickiest business and technical problems. Often, these complex problems require complex organizations to deliver the associated solutions, which in itself brings a boatload of obstacles that a PM in a startup can only imagine (in nightmares for the most part).
 Here are just a few of the differences between the enterprise and consumer-oriented startups that are top of mind:

 The Myth of the Customer

In the enterprise space, the people who evaluate, buy and use the software are often different. Buying decisions may take years and the solution may be required to function (almost perfectly) for years or even decades. When we use the term "customer", it is a conversational convenience. The truth is, the enterprise customer comprises a complicated set of stakeholders we have to identify, understand and appease.

 The Dysfunctional Family

Big, stable organizations with highly specialized roles tend to create "families" that are (often highly) dysfunctional. Familiarity, procedural inertia and contention for resources make vendors that deliver complex products and solutions highly political, to the point that a majority of a PM's time may be spent on "political overhead", generating negative value for customers. Navigating the fraught waters of a politically charged and entrenched organizational hierarchy requires a level of diplomatic adeptness that is rarely optional.

 The Curse of Mission Criticality

A lot of the more nimble practices espoused by the startup community are quickly exposed as not viable when the products or solutions being delivered can cause losses of millions of dollars or much worse, lives, when they fail. Add the fact that many of these "high assurance" scenarios are strictly regulated and you have the proverbial straw that can easily break the product manager's back.
 In the coming months, I'll talk extensively about the enterprise space and offer some food for thought on how to tackle some of its most daunting challenges. Take heart enterprise product manager, together we can be inspired by what's happening in the startup world but move beyond it to make our community happier and more effective.
 You can read more about related topics on my site and blog.

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