Welcome to product management! Over the the better part of three months, Adrienne Tan at brainmates, product management people, put together a series of posts with ten tips for new product managers. Check out our article for a quick summary, and links to all the articles at brainmates.
Ten Tips for New Product Managers
Thanks to Adrienne and the folks at brainmates for putting together this list! The commentary is ours – there is a full article on each tip at their site. Adrienne’s tips are not just about being new to product management, but also about taking over an existing product management position.
Find out who all the players are within your organization, who interact with, rely upon, are responsible for, and help create your product. Talk to them. Find out the good, the bad, and the ugly. Your goal at this point is to get an overview. Remember, when joining a new team, it is always best to listen first and absorb, and only then should you speak.
This is both important and surprisingly overlooked. On a project with one of our first clients, I installed the application on my first visit to the client site. A couple months later, an irate director was screaming on a conference call when none of the people on her team, except the consultant, had even bothered to install the application – including her developers.
Adrienne also makes a good point about not picking up other people’s baggage – “we’ve always done it that way”, “it’s never been a priority”, etc. Do your own research, form your own opinions.
Knowing what to measure as a product manager can be very very difficult. Determining what to measure about your product can be a lot easier. Make sure you know what is important about your product – what contributes to your strategy, how effectively are you generating or increasing ROI?
With an understanding of the business impact your product is having, you can make informed decisions about your road map – and invest where you need to, and not where you don’t.
Understanding your market is the key to developing a market-driven solution. Avoid the tyranny of one (I think I heard that at a Pragmatic Marketing seminar). Don’t just listen to the loudest customer, and don’t rely only on your perspective. Get tapped into your market and stay there. As Adrienne mentions, this involves not only understanding the people who buy your product, but the people who don’t buy your product. Win-loss analyses can help with this.
Review the MRD and PRD for your product, if they exist. If they don’t exist, create them. Different teams will apply different levels of formality and rigor to these documents. The point is – you are codifying your vision, which allows you to communicate it, and help it evolve.
Adrienne provides several good tips for being the best at what you do. Our approach is simply that the way to become the best is to become better. Most career advice books will sometimes tell you to improve your weakest characteristics (eliminating the excuse for people to pass you over for a promotion). Another approach is to improve your strongest characteristic – further differentiating yourself.
As product managers, especially at smaller companies, we are often asked to do “pretty much everything.” This means we need to have at least some skill or knowledge in many areas. If you’re missing key skills, gain them one at a time. Once you have them all (at some level), use your product management skills to prioritize – focus on the one that will have the most impact.
For me, about half a million words ago, it was getting better at writing. There is still room for improvement, but other areas will have more impact, so I focus on them.
When you walk into a new job, there’s usually a backlog of things that need to get done. If you’re lucky, the previous product manager has all of the short term needs addressed, and her task list is about defining a new market, or developing a strategic initiative. More likely, there’s a demo that needs to be built, an irate customer who didn’t get his feature in the latest release, and a development team that has implemented everything that they were told to do before you arrived.
Work the task list. Prioritize and execute. Remember, you’ve got the context you need from talking to people and understanding your market. Use it.
All of the standard professional improvement activities are as true for product managers as for anyone else. Adrienne suggests several to think about.
Aside from the importance of leading by demonstrating the honest enthusiasm that comes from having fun – it is important that you have fun too. I have a friend who is an outstanding consultant. He’s the best person I’ve seen at establishing peer level relationships with clients. And he’s smart. He took a role as a product manager, and hated it. He was also self-aware, and got out of that role in a couple months. Turns out, as much as he values having good requirements, he hates writing them. He’s a successful technical consultant again. He knew what most people fail to realize – if you don’t enjoy a job, don’t do it.
It is easy to get caught up in the execution mode of a product manager. You’re being asked to do too much. You can barely make time to do all of the strategic stuff you need to do, with all of the short-term demands that others place on you. Just don’t forget to allocate some time to the items in this list. You need an opportunity to improve – your competitors are.
Pay attention to what Adrienne has to say – it’s good stuff. And just because you’re already a product manager doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do these things.