Manage the Whole Product Please


As you know, I am a stickler for product managers to focus both on strategy and execution.  While that may be cliche, I continue to run into stories about product managers who focus on one or the other but never quite the balance that their product needs.  I was chatting with an ex-colleague  after a crack of dawn mountain bike ride and we were remarking on the fact that it is unique to find a leader to balance both the tactical and the strategic in an organization.  In fact, I have experienced organizations that hired primarily for strategic vision (and lots of MBAs on the short list for job interviews).  Over time this created an organization that primarily promoted  people who developed the big ideas and communicated them extremely well in PowerPoint.  Don’t ask these people about the details of the product architecture or how their customers use the product, you will be gravely disappointed.  I have also been in organizations where all they hired were doers.  Great for the model of fire, fire, and then aim.  Lots got done, but little to really improve the prospects of the product or the portfolio in those organizations.

What is the Whole Product?

Seems like a pretty easy question to answer.  Good product managers know this instinctively.  They prioritize their day based upon it.  They schedule their meetings to include all the right people.  During business trips they meet with people while others think:  “Why waste time by meeting with that person in that organization?”  Quite simply the whole product is every interaction the customer has with your product. From the first marketing impression, to the evaluation and trial/proof of concept, purchase, installation/turn on, configuration, feature set, ongoing support/maintenance both within the customer organization and their experience with your support organization, upgrade and ultimately off-boarding, sunset.   In all of these areas the customer will interact across the different organizations.   If you as the Product Manager don’t have the pulse of your customers’ interactions with the various aspects of your product experience, you are probably missing more than half of your job.

Examples of What Can Go Wrong…

  • Your marketing message could be targeting the wrong people with the wrong value proposition
  • Your sales guys could be inadvertently making enemies by not knowing the true customer use cases or not understanding the customer environment
  • The proof of concept may require so much work that the customer thinks that so much heavy lifting is involved that they just move on to the next column in their spreadsheet
  • Initial install and configuration of the product takes way too long and some changes even require a reinstall (yes I have bumped into that)
  • The product running in the customer environment appears slow due to underestimated hardware, or a complex and slow ecosystem of integrations
  • The customer realizes they need a team of four full-time people with your product name tattooed on their foreheads just to keep their users—the customers of your customer happy and supported
  • Your customer support appears to know less than the customer does about the product, or sticks to a support script that is outdated and does not deal with environment issues
  • Upgrade time, hooray, but wait, the customer realizes they need side by side systems and an outage window lasting through a 4-day weekend
  • Customer decides to move off your product, but realizes that key data payloads are in encrypted blobs deep in the database that they have no access to

And so on…   You see, I basically did not mention a single one of the features in the backlog that you are trying to get built so that the next Magic Quadrant is a better exercise for you.

But Wait,  We Have a Product Dashboard, Isn’t that Good?

Yes, I have been in organizations that spend a lot of time on product dashboards and they were invaluable.   Flying without telemetry can be very dangerous, not just that you don’t know what is going 0n, but that all sorts of people make stuff up based upon a customer story or two, and especially those stories told to your GM during the hasty last minute site visit to close a large Enterprise License Agreement.  So yes if you have a dashboard that goes into all sorts of metrics and even better if it is by-release version, then you have a strong set of data to draw conclusions from.  But this does not absolve you from meeting with customers about all of these issues and also meeting with all different parts of the organization to get that pulse of how your company views the customer satisfaction across the whole product.

Can the Individual Contributor PM be that Holistic?

Unless you are in a small organization with a small product feature set, it is very hard for an individual PM (who owns just a part of the product functionality) to have a holistic view across the different interactions a customer can have with your product.  In large organizations, I have assigned specific PMs specific aspects of the customer value path to manage as a product.   In this way many of the problem areas will have backlog.  For example, if your POC experience is poor, what can engineering do to streamline all the context switches for a customer?  Enterprise products are very very complex and a piece-wise backlog is necessary across all of aspects product interaction to incrementally increase the quality of the customer experience.   In summary, if you are in a small organization with a small product then the single PM should go holistic, but in larger organizations or products, or complex value chains, make sure someone on the team is in charge of the customer value chain.  Rotate this position every 6 months or year, depending on your release cadence.

Lastly, don’t assume you don’t have a problem.  Do a 360 degree review of your product interactions with the other supportive organizations (including sales, systems engineering and professional services) in the company and a broad array of customers and customer roles.  If you are taking on a new product responsibilities, you have 30 days to get this right.  Write up or PowerPoint your findings just as if you are an external judge.  Be true to the customer.




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