I still remember the first sentence in my product management book at business school. A product manager is a general manager without the powers of one.
Having done product management for many years now I realize the truth in that statement more and more. Influence without authority is a Product Manager’s single most important skill. Keeping engineers motivated, designers focused and well… just about everyone else happy all with influence that comes from knowledge, experience and above all, ownership of the product.
Product management is the core of a successful organization. This role is probably closest to the role of a founder in a startup, just at a product level. A product manager is responsible for not just for conceptualizing and building the product but driving the distribution, marketing, monetization and just about everything else that relates to their product. If product management fails, the product fails and so does the business….
The failure in product is often not in the idea but the execution. The gap between the vision and what gets built is often the cause of failure. That’s where product managers come in. A product manager takes a product from vision to conceptualization of features, user flows, design, development and testing making trade offs at every step without compromising the core concept. That’s why a single person needs to own the product (or a product feature) from concept to launch. The product manager is the general manger of the product and needs to be closely involved with the product at every step of the process.
Considering product management plays such a big role in the success or failure of a product, here are some things that organizations can do to build successful product teams.
Hire the right people
This one seems like a cliche but product managers have to have the founder like personalities where they can take many different inputs and convert those into product features. Successful Product Managers come from all backgrounds such as design, engineering, marketing and sometimes directly from business schools. The important thing is there ability to be good at 10 different things and understand each one at a conceptual level rather than an overwhelming focus on one. A superstar engineer or the most creative designer and can be a really bad product manager. A product manager has to be a good General Manager.
Product organization should be flat
Flat organizations work well in all streams but in product organization all the more. Remember product mangers are general managers. A general manager managing another general manager is not very meaningful. In startup world, often the hierarchy is created to attract talent. When levels are created without enough difference in roles, it gives rise to all sorts of negative behavior like unhealthy competition and lack of information sharing.
And the ownership has to be absolutely clear
This is really important for a successful product organization. Ownership is a very powerful tool. It works pretty much in every sphere of life. From a kid successfully completing his homework everyday to a CEO running a successful company, it’s the ownership that drives. With ownership comes accountability and that drives the results. Where there is clear ownership, there is drive to succeed at any cost. Ownership is also about allowing people to make mistakes and learn from it. When parents make mistakes in raising their child, the ownership does not change (except in extreme circumstances) and the ownership remains. Most parents learn from their own mistakes and become better at it over time.
Ownership for product managers is about having clear defined set of features or products they are responsible for, which ideally should be independent businesses with measurable success. In many cases product organizations are made up of more than one Product professionals with different levels of experience. Each person can own different parts or features of the product depending upon experience and skill but its important to have clear ownership. A starting level PM could handle a small feature and own it from concept to launch. This will bring commitment, accountability, happy product managers and successful products. A Product manager should be the general manager of the product with the powers of one.
May 13th, 2013
When I first started working US, 9 years ago, I started to believe I asked really good questions! It took me a few weeks to realize that the phrase ‘good question’ had nothing to with the question being good! It was just a nicer way of saying, I don’t know the answer to your question or more often I don’t want to answer.
Very soon, I started to realize that other similar phrases had nothing to do with their literal meaning. A ‘good conversation’ often meant we talked for an hour without coming to any conclusions or taking any decisions. !!
And my favorite one… my son’s soccer coach saying ‘good effort’ to his team when the team lost a match by 12 goals!!
‘Amazing’, ‘fabulous’, ‘awesome’ and similar such phrases, which I had read in books and seldom, heard, were part of everyday vocabulary. My little guy got used to an ‘awesome’ with a smiley face for drawing few lines with a crayon and ‘good’ was not good enough anymore. (Getting a ‘GOOD’ on an assignment where I went to school was a big deal. ‘Fair’ and ‘OK’ were generally the best you could get.)
So what’s going on?
We say Yes, but…. when we want to say ‘NO’ and we send ‘Thank You’ emails for projects which are launched 3 months late with 50% of the scope! There is no punishment for bad behavior and low quality work.
We, as a society and as organizations have mastered the art of ‘mediocrity reinforcement’.
It has its advantages. Keeps Morales high. Gives some decent short terms results. And reduces conflicts.
Lets talk about what it does not do…
First, by calling a mediocre performance ‘amazing’ we take away the opportunity for true excellence. And more importantly, there is no good way to communicate when you do occasionally see amazing performance in a project, assignment or a game. Basically the differentiation between something amazing and something mediocre starts to blur and the result… more mediocrity.
Also, in our influential roles as managers, teachers and coaches, one important part of training we need to provide is ability to understand and handle failure. By holding back negative feedback, we are not doing this very important part of our jobs because it’s an unpopular thing to do.
In organizations this a bigger challenge, where ‘ likeability’ and being ‘popular’ is a big part of your performance as a manager and as a peer.
If you look back though, a lot of us would realize that the person who taught you the important lessons of life was often the unpopular teacher or the more disciplinary parent whom you hated at some point, but today value the lessons they taught you.
So how does one maintain this very delicate balance of providing very important negative feedback without sugar coating and at the same time maintain the likeability to some extent?
Here are some things that I practice both at work and at home that seem to work really well.These help improve deliverables and the same time keeps your credibility as a manager and a parent.
Be short and objective – Quick, one sentence feedback on a task or assignment is received much better than long repetitive criticism.
Explain why its not good enough but don’t ask why it wasn’t done better – Be sure to explain why a certain assignment, design or architecture is not good enough and facilitate how it can be made better. Provide examples or pointers and set clear expectations. Digging into history of why it wasn’t done sounds like blaming and serves no purpose.
Keep the emotion out – This one is most challenging and requires a lot of self-control. Make sure you don’t sound angry, disappointed or frustrated. The message often gets lost in the emotional outbursts.
Focus on task at hand – Never make generic statements like ‘ how come the sprint tasks are never done on time?’ Minor variations in language such as ‘ this design is not meeting the use case’ vs. ‘you didn’t design for this use case’ can go a long way in sending the right message. Criticize the task, not the person. The difference is subtle but important.
Instant feedback – Provides instant results and helps in avoiding build up of emotions on either side. Negative feedback if held back often comes out in the form of angry burst outs. The emotion takes over the objectivity of the conversation.
So next time you see a mediocre task, a mediocre performance, don’t hold back. Make sure to point what was missing and how it can be made better…. But say it with a smile. It helps!
Saying ‘NO’ when you want to say NO is not being negative, its just being honest.
January 7th, 2013
VHS was going to be the cinema killer in late 70s. And yet 30 ‘DVR, Blue ray and big screen TV’ years later Cinema is more popular than ever and the box office keeps growing, helped by multiplexes, 3D movies and well… ‘ Buttered popcorn’.
When radio was considered just about dead outside the car, Pandora, Sirius and Spotify brought it back with a bang. More social, more personal and available from more sources.
Retail industry is today is facing a big threat from Amazons and Ebays of the world. Based on a recent survey from Accenture, $1 in every $6 will be spent online this holiday season.
Mobile is disrupting the traditional retail sales funnel in a big way. What has been referred to by some as retailers’ worst nightmare, smartphones are bringing the power of the Internet right into brick-and-mortar stores, arming consumers with the pricing power that was once reserved for the confines of their home or work online shopping experience. *
When a strong competition emerges from a new medium, one of the two outcomes can happen. Incumbent can either come out stronger than ever as examples above or die the ‘Blockbuster’ death. Retail industry today has to rise to the challenge provided by its online competitors.
Here are some changes that are happening in the retail as we speak
- Focus on Personalization –Just as their online competitors, retailers are connecting with their users more and more for personalized offers and deals. Safeway’s just for u is a great example. (Macy’s keeps sending me the deals on petite products. Any guesses why?)
- Pre shopping experience – Many online service providers are emerging to facilitate the process of discovery in early stages of purchase funnel such as online catalogues and circulars, comparison shopping and purchasing wish lists. (http://www.wanderful.com/)
- In Store Experience – Lot is happening on improving the in Store buying experience with mobile POS solutions, acceptance of digital payments/coupons and in store only promotions
- More and more stores are supporting ‘Bricks and clicks’ – order online to pick up from the store
And lets not forget the role the friendly salesman…’The buttered popcorn’ of retail. I recently had two great experiences at two different stores. While buying shoes at Macy’s and a TV at Sears. It reminded me, the role of an intelligent, friendly human can play in your buying decision and make purchasing from a chore to an amazing experience. Something, that is close to impossible for online stores to match.
So ‘brick and mortars’ will survive. The fancy malls will remain. Shoppers will continue going to the malls for Black Friday midnight shopping parties – probably more than ever.
* from Comscore – Mobile future in focus
November 21st, 2012
Way back in 2006, I wrote my first blog ‘My first year at Yahoo!’.
Here’s are some excerpts
“ The memories of my first day have become somewhat blurred but I do remember the feeling…excitement mixed with anxiety. So many new faces, so many new names ….I didn’t know they were going to become a part of my extended family so soon.
I didn’t want to make this not boring by saying lot of thank yous but I know that you all understand that there is an implied ‘Thank you’ somewhere in this note for each one of you.”
That blog and all my subsequent ones, died with death of Yahoo! 360 and I never bothered to write again.
All these years I focused on and building, improving and well….. sometimes protecting Yahoo! Finance. (Right now – The purple curtains are just killing me. http://stocktwits.com/message/9582150 )
They say, product managers often fall in love with the product they build. I fell in love with something I hadn’t even built in the first place. That’s how it was, for four years and then came the rude awakening. One short phone call in the middle of my niece’s wedding in India, ended it all.
After the initial shock was over, my biggest concern was not about finding a new job but the thought of building something new that I didn’t care about, going to a new office, working with new folks and above all not ‘feeling at home’.
But I found my New (extended) family soon. Just as everything else happens faster at startups, my ‘feeling at home’ which had taken a year at Yahoo! took much less than a month, this time around.
Initially, I had my reservations about working at ShopCo, starting with the name and an oldish small office.
That lasted no more than first couple days. The fun of being around some finest minds in the valley, discovering, learning new stuff and the vision of creating something new and exciting, took over really fast.
And that’s not all. It’s like going from one home to another every morning. A place where your boss makes coffee for you, the CEO helps you setup your monitor, your coworkers are ready to give up their favorite eating place, because they now have a vegetarian colleague, is indeed another home. There is even a grandpa who makes sure you get your favorite candy or box of serial. There are no free lunches and yet lunch is free most days (provided you stick to the right folks!) And not to mention, the private plane… a great experience indeed.
We do have our faults though. (please note the transition from I to we). We get everyone brand new Macbooks and iPads and yet we ‘selectively’ fight over Mac keyboards. We compare cost of buying ‘market data’ in terms of fraction of an engineer (sorry! just can’t ever get used to that scale of measurement). And we talk so loud that sound-proof headphones are an absolute necessity.
But we brainstorm, we laugh and have have fun all day long. There are lots of cool startups in the valley building cool products. But we are the only family that, by the way, is also building the coolest discovery shopping destination. The same family that has built multiple successful products, with some new members like myself. We need more engineers and designers, to make our dream a reality. So if you or any of your friends are craving to try something new and exciting, send me a note.
I hope to write a blog one day on ‘My journey from number one Finance destination on the internet to number one shopping destination’ but for now just to keep writing, every once in a while. Hopefully Yahoo! Small business will not die like Yahoo! 360.
September 20th, 2012