Mar 9, 2010 2 min read

Market Facts, Judgment, Fallibility and Ownership

Or how I learned to stop worrying and love market uncertainty.

Every few weeks, I find myself itching to play the product management “heavy.” This is the moment when I want to yell “….because I’m the product manager and I said so!” Not an ideal strategy for PMs or parents. Here’s a more productive approach, with input from many other PMs.

Assuming we’ve been doing our homework all along and are working with well-intentioned, rational people, we can make the following case to technical and marketing teams:

Yes, important product decisions are forecasts about the future. Yes, it will take a long time to find out if we’re right. And no amount of research will fully answer the most interesting strategic questions. Product/feature trade-offs are not a simple matter of opinions, though. Action/decisions are required now in the face of uncertainty. And current decisions must connect up to form a strategy. That’s why we (product managers) bring market facts, judgment and responsibility to good decision-making.

1. We’ve collected a lot of face-to-face customer experiences as well as market/segment-wide analysis. We [should] have better information than anyone else in the room about where markets are going and what customers want. Not perfect, but broader than Engineering’s few customer briefings. And more representative than one sales rep’s accounts. As Steve Johnson reminds us, “our opinion, while interesting, is irrelevant” unless backed by market facts.

2. We add judgment, experience, and a long-term perspective. PMs know that products are more than collections of features, that upgrade processes matter, that today’s “one time super-secret discount” becomes tomorrow’s street price. We try to remember that trading away quality to meet deadlines is a self-defeating game. That honest talk with long-term customers builds credibility. We avoid the easy-sounding “give customers everything they ask for” as well as the reactionary “customers don’t understand their own needs.” We never expect to get a perfect product in Release 1.0. We stand up for whole products when it would be easy to skip QA or documentation or support training or channel readiness. We try to think like customers / prospects when team members are thinking narrowly or short-term.

3. We own the decision. I’ve rarely gotten pushback after offering to go ‘on the record’ with a controversial decision. We know that we’re fallible, and our teams certainly know. But part of driving decisions is owning them. “I understand the team is split on upgrade strategies. It’s my call to go with proposal #1, so I’ll send out the email with my decision, summarize arguments on both sides, and take the first customer calls if there’s a problem.” This isn’t something you should need very often, though. Great product managers help their teams collectively find the right answers, and rarely pull rank. (Especially since none of our product teams actually report to us.)

Sound Bytes

All of this is to remind us that we lead through credibility, marshalling of market insights, maintaining the long view, and appreciating functional experts for what they can do. And a strong daily dose of humility.

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