Tuesday, January 04, 2011

wondering: is everybody in product management?

There was an old joke that used to circulate every time the nice people in marketing would circulate a brochure or a press release or a sell sheet or an ad or whatever that "everyone is in marketing" because every one who touched the piece - regardless of whether or not they were qualified to do so - felt it was their job to monkey around with it.

"Change the font."

"Can you move these paragraphs around?"

"This message isn't strong enough."

"We need a quote from such-and-such."

"More cowbell."

And so on.

This used to frustrate the nice people in marketing who actually knew how to do their jobs, but who were tradition-bound to invite other people outside of marketing to get involved in the business of marketing.  Too often the head of marketing wouldn't stand up for his or her people, and so the adventure continued, to the detriment of the marketing department which was increasingly seen as "indecisive".  Really.  I can't make this stuff up.

Theseadays, as I read various and sundry product management blogs and twitterings and rumblings from the underground I'm starting to see the same awful malignant practice that used to plague marketing departments start to afflict the product management craft.  The challenge here is that the meddling is constant instead of seasonal, and it's coming from higher up in the org.  We've created this problem by writing about product management, and now non-PM people are using what little they know about it to show how smart they are.

"Our customers want such-and-such.  Go do it."

"That's too late to deliver that product.  Make it sooner."

"These guys over here are the new shiznit.  Partner with them."

"I'm the chief such-and-such officer and I know this market and here's what you need to do."

"I want these guys in the beta."

"You don't have enough market research to make that call."

"More cowbell."

And so on.

Here's how I avoid these problems, because I do.  I'll even boil it down to two sentences you can say with your mouth full of food.

"Everybody has a stake in the success of this venture, and everybody has a special unique contribution they can make to that success that no one else can.  If we all play together and work hard to delight our users, we can be successful together."

Smile when you say it.

Getting the people who think they are product managers out of product management is a matter of attitude - it is possible to be collegial in the effort to create the best possible outcome without creating an environment in which decision-making becomes diffused, or worse, capricious and inconsistent.

You, dear product manager, must create a process environment that involves the team appropriately and you must ride that process like a world-class cowboy as the surest way to get stuff done.  Because if people don't understand your process and the role they play in it, they are free to play any role they want at any time and expect that their inputs will be acted on (if they are senior enough to get away with it).

So good luck with that.  We've got no one else to blame for it but ourselves.


Rich said...

Spot on, couldn't have said it better! We've demystified product mgmt enough that everyone wants to kibbitz.
Overheard from every engineer on a previous team: "how hard could it be? just ask the customer what he wants, and write it down for us."

Anonymous said...

Great post. I think one of the hardest things, especially for a new product manager, is to stop being a ping pong ball that gets batted around my management, sales, development and anyone else who wants to take a whack and take control of the table and the ball. It can be a career limiting move in some organizations, but I would posit that one could not be successful in those organizations as a product manager. They want an errand boy (or girl).

threadyblock said...

I think the toughest job a PM has is deciding who to listen to and who not to when looking for feedback. Sadly more often than not it's simply the loudest voices who get heard. Loud voices who are seldom right...

SBL said...

That's why I stamp everything FINAL before I show it to other people.

Roger L. Cauvin said...

Yes, it's very frustrating for marketing, product management, and also user experience designers. People think by virtue of being consumers that they are therefore experts on the things that consumers will see.

We need to find a way of embracing the energy and insights of the rest of the team and build consensus for product decisions without getting bogged down. One way is to frame the conversation around criteria rather than random personal opinions.

Last year, I wrote an eerily similar blog entry about "armchair" user experience design.

Kirk Stanson said...

Excellent post, without a process people can participate in, they'll still send their comments and "helpful" wink wink nudge nudge suggestions.