Product managers are usually the people who “own the gap” for their specific products: identifying all of the missing or incomplete features and services and supporting processes that customers need for a successfully experience.  This discussion is about elevating that concept to the product executive, who should be looking for systemic problems in the company’s end-to-end production cycle.

Owning the Product Gap

Customers don’t just buy a fragmentary bit of software functionality or a solitary stick of technology hardware.  They are trying to solve some problem with the least amount of effort and confusion.  Good product managers are constantly watching for ways to meet this overall need – helping the customer actually get something done – as well as the atomic details of their products.  Classic examples of product gaps include:

  • Missing software drivers (or connectors or fonts or adapters or batteries) not supplied with the base product
  • Tech support phone systems that demand a product serial number before letting the caller get help
  • Very restrictive system requirements (”must have XP Service Pack 2”) that most users don’t have and won’t notice on the point-of-sale package
  • Confusingly similar product names with poorly differentiated features
  • Installation help files that aren’t visible until after a successful installation

And so on.  An old piece of mine about software bills of materials (”Avoiding a Ticking B-O-M”) recaps this thought.  In a well-run organization, a product manager identifies and owns her product gaps until she is able to get some responsible department to take them back.

Notice that a ground-level product manager is doing his best to find these gaps one at a time, through common sense and clear thinking and frustrated customer emails.  The goal is to get one more product out the door in working order, correctly packaged and labeled, so that buyers can put it into action.

This “personal effort” does not address system-wide questions, though.  Are product managers in various groups seeing the same kinds of problems?  Are there chronic outbreaks of similar customer complaints?  How can we improve the process?

Owning the Organizational Gap

Product managers don’t live in a vacuum.  They are part of some broader organization with its own challenges and problems.  Ideally, they report up through a management chain that wants them to succeed, and wants the company to make money by shipping great products.  The VP of Product Management (or similar executive) needs to find ways of helping the company succeed at the overall task of designing and shipping things for revenue.

I’d propose three kinds of gaps that the product executive owns:

1.  Resource gaps. When another department is understaffed or overwhelmed, someone needs to be their champion.  Vocally supporting these departments at the executive level is a good way to make progress.  For instance, most companies short-change and understaff QA… the folks tasked with making sure that products are actually installable, bugs are fixed, and features remotely resemble brochures.  QA is at the heart of end user satisfaction, customer references, and effective sales engineers.  Inevitably, though, as schedules slip, delivery dates remain fixed by cutting QA time.

Individual PMs know where the staffing gaps are, but can’t fix the problem locally.  Product executives should be lobbying on their behalf for real schedules and sufficient resources to meet them.  (The same issue comes up in Technical Support, which should be a source of great customer input but is often just cost center.)

2.  Incentive Gaps. Lots of companies have created systems that reward or excuse bad behavior.  Just as PMs think deeply about how customer behavior shifts with different pricing models, a product executive needs to be watching for perverse organizational incentives.

A small version of this is the sales compensation plan.  If reps are getting bonuses to bring in beta/pilot accounts, they will – but won’t spend time qualifying these accounts as revenue customers.  Similarly, if reps are paid a lot more for direct selling than channel sales, you should expect dozens of reasons why important deals need to be sold direct.  Sales reps do what you pay them to do (not necessarily what you want them to do).

A bigger example is where all of the company’s executives get bonuses if Product X ships before year end.  To no one’s surprise, the EVPs all decide on December 24th that Beta 1 can go to revenue customers.  So that major accounts don’t get into trouble, the VP Sales approves all shipments personally.  Of course, the time to lobby against shipment bonuses is at the beginning of the project.  A savvy Product Management VP will propose an alternate bonus, to be paid when we get our first three customer references.

3.  Technology gaps. Sometimes, individual business units don’t see the commonality of their requirements.  They may all face the same competitor, or be licensing technology from the same supplier.  Individual PMs are heads-down, so have trouble seeing the broader context.  The product executive should arrange for periodic forums where all PMs can share (commiserate) and put the puzzle together.  You may find some interesting cross-divisional opportunities.

Notice that all three of these are organizational issues, not purely technical issues. The solutions usually require executive teams to cooperate on decisions, allocate resources, align compensation plans, and generally tell their departments to help each other.  Thus the VP Product Management needs to be shaping the organization at this level, the same way that individual product managers are driving grass-roots product efforts.

SoundBytes

It’s easy to be hypnotized by the products themselves, but success is a mix of organizations and implementation and process.  Product executives need to work organizational issues, and PMs need to ask them for that help.

 

This came out of a panel discussion at Stanford on 7Feb06 called “Getting to the Top in Product Marketing and Management.”  Thanks to Deb Henken (www.highlandteam.com) and Kathryn Ullrich (www.ullrichassociates.com) for arranging the panel.