Product Management in Practice and what to do when Everything's a Top Priority
Product Management is, or should be, a key strategic role for any company building products. It’s strange that, in 2023, we still have companies filling up the leadership team with just about everyone but the head of product management (whatever their actual job title). Let’s pour one out for all the underappreciated product leaders out there!
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New podcast episode: Practice Makes Perfect: Embracing the Messy Reality of Product Management
I recently had a sit-down with Matt LeMay, author of Product Management in Practice. The book’s recently had a shiny second edition come out, and I wanted to talk to Matt about some of the themes inside. Matt wants us all to know that product management is messy, ambiguous and rarely like the books. He also wants us to accept that that’s OK and that there’s always good work to be done even in the most dysfunctional organisations. Check out the interview on your podcast app or right here.
Product Managers need to stop being defensive
If you find yourself in a defensive posture, you're already behind. Often, the harder you try, the worse you can make things. Do what you can to affect change, but try to avoid fighting with your leadership & concentrate on helping your users.
Help! Everything’s a Top Priority!
One of the biggest responsibilities of a product management team is making sure that they’re relentlessly prioritising the highest value initiatives. How they do this will depend on the environment they’re in, but fundamentally it should involve things like:
Sales & support feedback
These all get synthesised by hard-working product managers, originally to pull together a coherent product strategy, and subsequently to make sure that they can adapt and continue to concentrate on the things that really matter.
So far, so good, right? No surprises here.
However, a pattern I’ve seen personally as well as with people I’ve mentored goes as follows:
The company didn’t do any of that boring strategy stuff
They built a bunch of things to react to tactical issues
They rushed them to win that next big deal
They did just about enough but didn’t finish it properly
Everything’s broken, and it all needs fixing
There’s too much revenue tied up in each thing to just say “no”
The company ends up with 15 different products or bits of products, none of which really do an amazing job for anyone, but all of which could cause existential issues to the company. Support is getting hammered by grumbling customers all the time. Renewals are threatened. New customers are activating break clauses because they were promised something that doesn’t do what the sales team said it did. Everyone’s unhappy and they’re looking at you, the product manager, to fix it.
Classic product management advice would be straightforward: Focus! Focus! Focus! Pick one thing a quarter, set some OKRs, get it done then move on to the next thing. And, to be fair, this is excellent advice. You can’t be everything to everyone. You can’t fix everything at the same time. Let’s just pick the top thing and do that, right?
On the other hand, there are some companies out there that are, frankly, in a lot of trouble product-wise. For all of the reasons above, and doubtless many more, we’re somewhere near the event horizon of a product black hole, and all the normal laws of product physics are breaking down. We need to get into open space again. What’s a product manager to do?
Don’t start complaining, it doesn’t help
It’s easy in a situation like this to start getting ultra-negative. You’ll start blaming whoever the old product manager was, the sales team, the marketing team, the founders, or whoever else you bump into. This is not going to help. If you’re in a bad situation, it’s your job to help fix it, not just complain about it.
Adjust your expectations
In a situation like this, you’re going to have to get super-pragmatic. You’ve got lots of fires all burning at the same time and you need to put them out before you can start prioritising “properly”. Your goal is to get back on track as soon as possible, and you’re going to have to do a bit of shovelling to get there. Do what you need to get done.
Jettison literally everything you can
Just like on Apollo 13, you’re trying to lose as much unnecessary garbage as possible. I don’t like MoSCoW as a prioritisation method per se, but working with your stakeholders to get them to write down whether things are essential are not (and, crucially, why they are) is an important first step. Anything that’s not a must-have is immediately cut.
Adjust their expectations
What we’re doing here is looking to put out the fires, and get a variety of initiatives to a base level of quality. You’re very unlikely to be able to make 15 things amazing all at once. Your goal here is to make all ships rise together. This means working with your stakeholders to understand what the minimum viable solution to these issues is, getting brutal with scope, and expending as little precious development time as possible. You’re looking to build a sturdy platform for future success, and to correct the mistakes of the past. True innovation comes later.
Steady the ship
If you’ve identified the core problems that need to be addressed and fixed them to a base level of acceptability, then you’ve done the first part of your job. It has probably not been pleasant but, hopefully, it didn’t take too long or cause too many casualties along the way.
Some people will be complaining that you haven’t “innovated” recently, that you’ve not moved fast enough with X, Y or Z. But you’ve made it to a point where the product you have does enough of a job to stop the majority of people from shouting at you. Your next mission is to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Product managers don’t want to work like this. In reality, it’s quite likely that no one in the company wants to work like this. If they do, consider dusting off your resume. If they don’t, it’s your job as a product manager to help prevent this from happening again. That means helping your sales and marketing teams, working with them, not against them. Help them define a coherent ICP, useful personas, and effective sales enablement. Work with sales leadership to ensure rigour in the sales process. Get deal review meetings in if you have to.
And make sure your side is covered too - you do have a product strategy, right? Does everyone else know what it is? Can you defend it against scrutiny? Is there a clear line drawn from the company strategy to the product strategy and the initiatives that support it? Make sure you’re constantly evangelising and communicating this until you think everyone’s bored of listening to you (and then keep doing it). Assumptions will expand to fill the space your silence leaves behind. Don’t let them.
It’s easy to complain about malpractice, but product managers need to help create the conditions for success rather than just complaining.
Again, if you’re working for a company that sees this way of working as desirable, exciting or fun, you have a choice to make. Stay and try to change it, leave and go somewhere else. All companies have problems though, so be careful! In an ideal situation, you’ll at least be able to persuade your leadership team that this isn’t really the best way to do things and that a bit more rigour in future will help them succeed.
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