Friday, December 05, 2008

thought: making decisions (happen)

As part of my "creative project" I've been talking to a lot of people lately, including a bunch of young product managers. When asked "why did you want to become a product manager" I've been learning that in addition to "meeting girls" it was because "they wanted to be the decision maker when it came to product features and direction".

Uh oh.

Discovering that the product manager isn't the source of product features or direction is one of those life lessons they just have to learn for themselves.

(It's not a great way to meet women either, but that's beside the point.)

In fact, distinguishing between "making decisions" and "making decisions happen" is the difference between good product managers and great ones.

"Holy crap, Bob, you take months off from posting to ack/nak to do your Bob Swami thing then you come back with a monster of a generalization like this? Have you lost your mind?"


We've all heard - or at least those of use who have studied at the feet of such luminaries as Jim Foxworthy and Steve Johnson - that our opinions, while interesting, are irrelevant.

We've all learned that our job is to help our firms solve problems that are pervasive, urgent and which people are willing to spend money to fix.

And we've all learned that our job is to be the "messenger of the marketplace" to the company.

These are all True and Good.

But let's consider the following scenario - having gathered information, having assessed priorities and defined capabilities required to meet market needs - the product manager has one of two choices:

1. Present the information as "here is what we need to do".
2. Present the information as "here are our choices".

See the difference?


You're not looking closely enough.

"Here is what we need to do" says that the product manager has evaluated all of the inputs and is presenting a course of action.

"Here are our choices" says that the product manager has obtained all of the information and is presenting options for action with projected outcomes for each.

It's an attitudinal thing, but the latter is more transparent and collaborative. When people are brought into a decision process, they are typically more compliant with the outcome of that process. You get fewer "I wasn't involved in that decision" complaints and all the associated blocking behaviors when decision-makers are treated like decision-makers - especially executives who have a vested interest in one aspect of product, such as CTOs, CMOs and VPs of Sales, not to mention the technical CEO who still thinks of himself as a developer.

This is not to say that the product manager doesn't come with an opinion. That's expected and necessary.

But the product manager who makes decisions happen is seen as a facilitator and leader, where a product manager who makes decisions is seen as a black box, and black boxes aren't transparent. Nothing creates more confidence than transparency - even when the news is bad, at least everything is on the table.

This whole issue goes to the heart of the product management challenge - to lead you must follow.

As always, let me know what you think. I've been away for a while on other projects, but I've been gratified by the continued traffic to ack/nak and some very gracious links to the site, so I feel responsible to you, dear reader, to keep our conversation going.

1 comment:

Unknown said...


You've nailed it: "Present the information as "here are our choices".

Instead of presenting solutions as done, the product manager should present options. Perhaps that's why the roadmap has become such a popular artifact. It shows the product plans but with enough time to adjust as market conditions require.

I have been known to refer to the job of product manager as president of the product (or even benevolent dictator) but of late I've come to think of it more as parent of the product. And good parenting isn't about making decisions but creating a safe environment for good decisions. That is, I try not to decide everything for my children but present them with options--and
their ramifications--of making certain decisions.

What I've learned in working with teams--agile or not--is that a team with a vision is better than a single person with an idea.

Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has."