I worry about how we grow product managers. For me, it’s more about mentoring than in-class lectures and templates. More case method than checklists.

For those who’ve never visited an MBA class, “case method” uses extended business scenarios (“cases“) to frame complex issues and encourage exploration of alternatives. Business problems tend to be similar but not identical, so the classroom goal is to find partial patterns that students can thoughtfully apply later.

That’s how I think about product management: we sit at the complex intersection of markets and technology where outcomes are semi-predictable. Where correctly framing the problem is 70% of the battle. Where engaging your own sales team is critical. Where pricing drives powerful psychology. Where you can never satisfy all customers in all segments. Where history and previous experience are “somewhat like” the current situation, but not exactly the same.

As a mentor, I try to demonstrate problem-solving approaches rather than just share templates. My goal is to grow a product manager’s decision-making toolkit so that she can tackle new situations in ways that are “somewhat like” my examples.

That puts me in direct opposition to the “just use this template” advice model. Steve Johnson refers to this as the color-by-number school: anyone who fills in the form is supposed to end up with an awesome product.

HOW ABOUT AN EXAMPLE?

Every day, I see requests for a universal prioritization scheme with pre-weighted criteria. By definition, it would apply to all products in all markets. Somehow, it would tell us to assign 40% of development resources to revenue features for the current release, 20% to quality improvements and 15% to long-term research. Since every company has the same product strategy.

I do like tools. Steve Johnson has a simple XLS that can get you part of the way there. And a new generation of online services (Accompa, Aha!, ProdPad, ProductPlan, Reqqs…) moves us from requirements list management toward roadmaps and decisions.
These help us identify the top 4-8 backlog items worthy of consideration. After that, though, we have to do real product management work: collaborate, investigate and get aligned around product strategy. The product world is semi-structured, market-driven, and demands complex trade-offs that don’t fall out of machine rankings.

So my goal as a mentor is to help an up-and-coming product manager learn (for instance) how to strategically sort her backlog long after I’m gone. We start by framing strategic questions, such as:

  • Where are we versus the competition? Is there a “wow” feature that could boost our market perception?
  • Our online sign-up flow may be due for an overhaul. Do we have evidence that improved UX/UI will drive revenue and boost satisfaction?
  • What’s our quality situation? How high have we stacked technical debt? If we invest in better test automation now, when will we see increased velocity
  • What regulatory or security gaps might bite us?
  • What commitments did our CEO make on the last road trip?

From there, we’ll decide about allocating some portion of the next quarter’s development effort to security or test automation or features.

I want to demonstrate a decision-making process, not just picking three stories for the next sprint. Help frame hard trade-offs in order to reach reasonable solutions. I want my mentee to build up her judgment so that she can do the next one without me.

ANOTHER EXAMPLE

Imagine my mentee and I are thinking through end-of-life for an underperforming product. EOL cookbooks exist, but they lack context. So we might look at similar EOL cases even though none are a perfect match (“ours is more B2B, higher-priced, in a less competitive space, more technically tied to our flagship offering…”). Case studies encourage us to ask the right questions:

  • Should we give customers 3 or 6 or 12 months notice, or maybe no notice at all?
  • How obliged are we to offer a substitute or migration path?
  • Do we care about retaining these customers? Does this EOL give competitors an opportunity to steal core users from us?
  • Are we risking a social media black eye?

Then we’re ready to fill out the template – having wrestled with the issues, picked a strategy, and made some hard decisions.

SOUND BYTE

If you’re a mentor, you should be demonstrating context, judgment and decision-making models — not just posting templates. If you’re a mentee, ask for the big picture.