Measuring Product Management Performance: Do’s and Dont’s

In an interview with MTV years ago, hip hop executive Lyor Cohen offered an important insight when asked about the string of professional failures his friend and fellow rap mogul P. Diddy had been publicly racking up. “Yes, he makes mistakes,” Cohen explained. “But do you know why he makes mistakes? Because he’s a chance taker.” Cohen then said, “I love that guy. He’s necessary.”

Has there ever been a more succinct description of what product managers do? We take chances. And even though many of our initiatives might fail, we know that taking those chances is necessary if we ever hope to hit on a product that will win over an audience.

Even though he’s probably never had the title, P. Diddy is a true product manager. He identifies openings in the market and plots strategies to fill those voids. He tries new things. He puts out products and takes responsibility for their successes or failures. Sometimes those innovative concepts fall flat with consumers. So he learns from his mistakes. Then he brings another innovation to the market, and it sets a new standard that the rest of the industry imitates.

Diddy can teach us a valuable lesson here about product management: Be careful about using the wrong metrics when measuring product management performance.

1. Don’t judge product managers just on their most recent product release.

If they’re any good at their craft, product managers are learning machines. They research their market, and gain insights into their target persona’s needs and concerns. Next, they develop strategic blueprints, or product roadmaps, which help their organization build products that will solve those issues for their personas. They then continue learning after their products hit the market by monitoring how users interact with them, and they turn those learnings into product improvements for the next release.

The point is, if you’re measuring product management performance based solely on a single product release, you risk missing the larger story: the research, the feedback, and the continuous adjustments that will help the PM make her product better the next time around.

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The Apple’s Newton tablets, despite being technically advanced for their time, were a failure with consumers. Apple’s product teams learned from this failure. When they launched the iPad 17 years later, it became one of the most successful consumer electronics product in history.

But this works the other way as well: Just as you shouldn’t be negatively measuring product management performance based only on a recent failure, you should also avoid judging a PM overly positively on the strength of her last release if it was a smashing success.

After all, product managers operate in a much larger context of a whole organization, with contributions and help from across the company. If a PM’s new product meets with market success, she certainly deserves a great deal of credit. But you also need to investigate the specifics of that product launch. A lot of other contributors might deserve some of the credit too.

2. Don’t judge PMs on their product’s market share or revenue without context.

Is $5 million a lot of money?

Tough question to answer without context, isn’t it?

If $5 million suddenly and inexplicably showed up in your paycheck, then yes, you’d probably consider it a lot of money. But what if we told you that it was Mark Zuckerberg’s net worth as of this morning? Then, well, you’d probably be thinking, No! It’s not a lot of money! Did something horrible just happen to the stock market?!

In this same vein, you need to be careful about being dazzled by a product manager’s big revenue numbers — or being underwhelmed or concerned if those numbers seem small.

When it comes to measuring product management performance, absolute numbers aren’t very useful metrics. The question is: How have those numbers changed while the PM has been responsible for the products?

If a product manager tells you he managed a portfolio of software products generating $50 million annually, is that good? Who knows? And not merely because it might represent a .001% market share of a multibillion-dollar industry.

It’s also a more or less meaningless number without such context as what that product manager actually did to influence the product portfolio’s revenue or market share over time. Did he simply inherit a $50 million suite of products and keep the revenue static for his several-year tenure as their product manager? Did he actually inherit a $70 million suite and oversee its revenue contracting by $20 million?

Or was that portfolio a tiny $5 million per year when the PM took over, and his ability to identify and break into new markets, or to vastly improve the software itself, helped to boost its revenue by 1,000%?

Focus on measuring product management performance over time. That’s how you’ll uncover the truly talented PMs — not merely by looking at their stats.

3. Don’t judge PMs on their last job, their technical savvy or their experience in your industry.

Product management talent is difficult to cultivate, and if you’ve ever hired a product manager, you know a truly skilled PM can be extremely difficult to find.

With that in mind, we would caution against approaching the hiring process by evaluating product managers based solely on the last company they’ve worked for, their experience (or lack of experience) in your industry, or their level of technical proficiency.

Industry knowledge, the technical backend of your product, market trends related to your products — these are all things that can be learned. And a smart product manager with the right skillset will learn them.

In his book Small is the New Big, author Seth Godin points out that Steve Jobs’s prior success as a personal-computer pioneer gave him a unique insight into a totally different industry. Jobs, Godin explains, recognized before anyone else that computers would eventually change the way animated movies were made — so he launched Pixar.

As Godin notes, Steve Jobs didn’t have any experience in the television or film business. Nor did he have any contacts in those industries. What he had, though, was a unique vision for how to vastly improve the movie-animation process — an insight he gained only by coming at the problem from a completely different vantage point than everyone already in Hollywood.

Don’t dismiss a product manager or think less of her just because she’s not from your industry, doesn’t understand your field’s esoteric jargon or doesn’t have the technical background you’re looking for. Talented, even gifted product managers — the PMs with the skills you really want — can come from anywhere.

Which leads us to the traits we think you should be looking for in a product manager.

But you can and should be measuring product management performance on these criteria…

1. The PM’s ability to communicate clearly and persuasively with various audiences.

Product management is about communicating visions, strategies, goals, needs and even enthusiasm — often to different groups, each of which essentially speaks a distinct dialect and needs to be communicated with in a slightly different way. A great PM should be an outstanding communicator.

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To give you an idea of what we mean, here are two blog posts we’ve written on how important excellent communication is to a product manager’s success — a post on communicating your roadmap to stakeholders, and another on how to communicate with development teams.

2. Their ability to lead.

Another vital component to a product manager’s success is her ability to lead. She will need to convince stakeholders to give her the go-ahead to develop the product the way she believes has the best chance of success.

She’ll then need to lead a team of developers to build the product according to her strategic plan and on her timetable.

And keep in mind, she won’t have organizational authority over any of these people. She’ll need to coordinate this massive, cross-functional undertaking with only her leadership skills.

For ideas on what skills to look for in this area, we’d recommend a post offering product management tips from the documentary film A Faster Horse, which follows the release of the 2015 Ford Mustang.

3. Their ability to advocate for the customer, always.

As we’ve pointed out on this blog before, product managers face a steady stream of pressures to compromise the strategic plan they’ve set for their products — usually in the name of saving development costs or getting a product to the market sooner.

Another skill you’ll want to look for in a great product manager is the ability to always keep the customer in mind first, to serve as that customer’s internal advocate and to withstand these pressures to cut corners whenever feasible.

Of course, sometimes a product manager will lose these battles. The investors or executives will have their way and force the PM to shave some epics off of the product roadmap, even epics the PM is sure will have a positive impact on their user base.

The point is, you want a product manager who understands that this is a vital part of his role: to be a champion for the best interests of the customer, because often he will be the only one.

One final thought: As we at ProductPlan are learning ourselves as we speak with product leaders in our Product Lessons Learned interview series, there are plenty of ways to identify a potentially outstanding product manager.

So we’d also recommend you read this recent post, 3 Product Manager Career Myths Debunked, to learn how other product management executives are measuring product management performance. You’ll see that you can find product management gold in some unexpected places.

And if you have thoughts about what metrics are helpful for measuring product management performance, please share them in the comments section.