You can be a successful product manager without any tools. Unlike a maintenance worker, a carpenter, a lumberjack, or a chef, you don’t require any specialized equipment to do your job, aside from a computer with a decent Internet connection. Heck, thanks to companies like Google, you don’t even need to buy Microsoft Office anymore!
But while you can certainly muddle through and survive with a spreadsheet to manage your backlog and a Post-It note roadmap, there are plenty of tools out there that could make you—and your entire product development organization—more productive.
Specialized software exists for a reason. It exists because someone saw how people were currently doing things using generic tools and saw an opportunity to improve upon the status quo.
Accountants can spend less time on their adding machine and more time on higher value tasks. Photographers can get out of the darkroom and save money on film and chemicals. Healthcare practices can spend less time billing insurance companies and more time seeing patients.
Just like IDEs replaced text editors for coders, a sea of solutions eagerly awaits product teams looking to upgrade their game with some new tools. There are tools for soliciting and collecting customer feedback, custom onboarding, wireframing and prototyping, collecting and understanding analytics, UX testing, requirements management and, oh yeah, roadmapping.
But while a mechanic won’t even pop the hood without drawers full of sockets, wrenches and pliers, a product manager doesn’t need a boatload of tools to be productive. This allows them to be selective and only yearn for the tools that will add the most value and upside.
However, this same dynamic also means that requesting budgets for a tool is still a relatively rare occurrence for product teams, who traditionally haven’t had any dedicated budget and rarely ask for anything financial other than approving travel expenses or a new laptop. So, how do you successfully broach this subject with the executives holding the pursestrings?
Make some assumptions
While this is typically a no-no in product management, it’s a great starting point when it comes to securing funding for a tool. The starting assumption is that if you had the tool in question, you would use it (which isn’t always a given… just look at your bookshelf and that “literary” novel that’s collecting dust while you hit refresh on BuzzFeed).
So, you bought it, you’re using it, how is it helping? What’s different? What’s better? If you can’t instantly answer these questions with some really compelling answers, then you probably don’t need it and shouldn’t bother trying to make a case for it.
But, assuming you can paint a picture of how life will be better once you have this tool because you’re more productive, you’re more nimble, your customers are happier, you’re saving the company money or you’re improving time to market, you can begin trying to quantify those benefits. For example, having a requirements management tool will save the team 15 hours per week and reduce the likelihood that customer requests will fall through the cracks, which will reduce the average turnaround time from customer feedback to deployed feature by one sprint.
We all have our inner lemming that inspires us to buy things just because other people have them and we don’t want to miss out… that’s why there are millionaire “Internet influencers” and Instagram stars. As savvy consumers, our tendency should be to ignore what others may possess and be content with what we already have.
However, this is an excuse to wallow in desire and focus on how terrible life would be without your new tool. What’s the opportunity cost of NOT getting it? How many hours are being wasted on manual tasks that could be handled effortlessly with this specialized software? What isn’t being done because you’re too busy slogging through life without this particular tool? What new things are possible?
Strength in numbers
While a tool that only helps product management is still valuable, a much stronger case can be made when the tool will benefit other groups in the organization. This could be via direct usage—meaning that not only will product management use this tool but it will also be utilized by customer support or engineering—or as an indirect benefit where the output of the tool will be consumed by another group and make them more efficient as well.
In addition to benefitting more than just the product management team, it also gives you another executive in your corner when it’s time to ask for money. Creating a combined business case might be a little trickier, but it’ll be worth the effort when you’re logging in.
Additionally, it helps to show what other companies are using the tool you desire. Showing that peers or competitors have adopted the technology illustrate that it is common in the industry and that your company won’t be the guinea pig.
Acknowledge the alternatives
In most cases there are multiple vendors offering specialized software solutions that address your needs. Even if you have already settled on a particular vendor, do your homework and include the other options as part of your pitch.
You can highlight why the solution you’re sweet on is superior, whether it’s the features or the cost, and potentially have a fallback plan if there’s a cheaper, inferior choice you could live with if you can’t get the full budget you were looking for.
Ask forgiveness later
If the tool you want has a free trial, dive in and start using the product before you even broach the budget subject with the powers that be. Not only will you be able to confirm that it’s the tool you want, but you can also collect more data to strengthen the business case when the trial is ready to expire, and you can demonstrate exactly how your team is using it.
And if the sticker price isn’t too high or it’s a SaaS model with relatively low monthly rates, you can take a slightly bigger risk by just making the purchase and hoping it will get approved after the fact. There’s a chance you might end up eating the cost, but momentum and real-world usage data could further grease the wheels of budgetary approval.
Overcoming the uncomfortable ask
Product team’s aren’t used to requesting budget for tools, but that doesn’t mean the team doesn’t deserve them. As the profession has matured and become a central part of the product development process, vendors are addressing the growing market and taking advantage of lower go-to-market costs, cloud technology and SaaS pricing models to create an entire new category of productivity tools for product management.
High performing organizations need tools and processes that support their growth and expanding portfolio, so there’s no shame in requesting the budget required to equip your team with tools that can truly make a difference. Even if the funds aren’t available immediately, you can at least start the conversation to carve out a dedicated product management tool budget for the next planning round to get them in the future.