A Brief History of Product Management: Starts With a Spark
Product management was originally seated in marketing but has evolved. It's still misunderstood but it's now getting the recognition it deserves with product people...
You’re a product manager. You have a difficult job. And it’s difficult not only for the obvious reasons — like the fact that taking a product from nothing but a strategy all the way to a successful market launch can be about as painful as giving birth to a porcupine.
Your job is made all the more difficult by the fact that as a product manager you are constantly forced to — uh, how can we put this diplomatically? — have ridiculous conversations with clueless colleagues and unreasonable customers.
Let’s face it. Most of the people you deal with at work have no idea what a tightrope you walk in order to successfully shepherd your products through the development maze and out to the market. That’s okay, though, because maintaining that 30,000-foot strategic view of your products is your job, not theirs.
Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if once in a while your co-workers stepped back themselves to see the company’s products from your vantage point? Maybe then they would understand why you can’t always give them what they want, and why sometimes what they’re asking for is — what’s the gentlest way to say this? — nuts!
But they don’t step back, do they? This means you spend a lot of your day as a product manager fielding absurd requests, shaking your head, and then pointing to a calendar. In fact, maybe “product manager” isn’t even the most appropriate title you could have. Maybe it’s one of these…
“Alternative product manager job title: Chief of Shouting ‘NO!'”
In other words, you’ve almost certainly found yourself in surreal conversations about your products — conversations you couldn’t believe you were having. A coworker, or stakeholder, or investor, our customer was asking for the world. And they wouldn’t accept your perfectly reasonable response to their request. And after a while, you really wanted to be blunt. But you’re a professional, so you couldn’t. But you really, really, wanted to. Right?
We’re with you.
Admit it. You’ve thought these thoughts.
You’ve no doubt gotten impossible last-minute requests from executive stakeholders or sales representatives to add a new feature to your product, or change the product’s name, or adjust the pricing model, or some other major undertaking they had no business asking for.
And you’ve probably wanted to say, “You know, the time to have asked me this was at the beginning of the product planning process — not today, three days before the release.”
Unfortunately, getting snarky like this won’t help matters, and the only lasting effect will be to drive a wedge between you and a team member you’ll almost certainly need to continue working with to ensure the best possible products come out of your department going forward.
So you have to respond calmly and professionally, explaining without emotion how your resources are limited here in the final stretch of the product planning process. Perhaps you can walk your colleague or executive through your product roadmap so they can see how your strategic plan is on track, and how their request would upend things at a critically important time.
That’s the smart way to go. But it’s okay to be thinking, “Really? You’re asking me this NOW?”
A sales rep asks you, “Do we have a competitive comparison chart?” and you send him the link. For the fourth time.
An executive asks, “When is the next release due out?” and you politely tell her the 31st. Just like you did two weeks back. And in an email responding to her question again three days ago. And in that all-company message, you sent out just yesterday announcing “Next release set for the 31st!”
A major part of your job as a product manager is to frequently communicate with many teams across your company. And having those conversations with executives, sales and marketing, development, manufacturing and all of the other teams involved in your product’s journey is a good thing.
As long as you’re not having the same conversations over and over.
Our advice? Stay calm and answer that sales rep’s request, even if it’s the fifth time you’re doing so. You’ve got to preserve and even strengthen these relationships whenever you can.
But if you’re feeling dangerous, you can always try to change your colleague’s behavior by making a joke out of the situation. You can smile and say, “That’s the fifth time I’m giving you this info, so I’m going to have insisted from now on that every time you ask me a question you have paper and pen in hand.”
They’ll think you’re kidding. But you’ll know you mean it.
You can’t really blame an executive, investor, or customer for asking for the world. They don’t understand the technical requirements of making your products, or the fact that you have only a few engineers to hammer out the details, or the fact that implementing those cool ideas of theirs would often cost about 100 times your company’s entire budget.
Apple spends zillions of dollars building products and customer experiences that look simple and therefore, to the untrained eye, easy to replicate.
But if they were, then every electronic device would be as slick and user-friendly as the iPad, and every web app would be as elegant as the App Store.
You can’t quite say this to your well-meaning but naïve stakeholder. You’ll probably have to give a dispassionate explanation of how many resources you have and the massive costs it would take to do what they’re asking.
But we won’t fault you if you’re also secretly thinking, “Apple, sure, yeah. It should be no problem making our next product at their level of quality. And hey, this gives me an idea. When we’re ready to release the product, let’s just hold our own media and customer event at the same time as CES.”
Unreasonable requests. Absurd questions. Insane demands.
As a PM, you’ll find that these things, unfortunately, come with the job description. And because maintaining excellent communication across your teams is one of the most important components of a product manager’s role, you can’t just respond to these absurdities with the first thing that pops into your head (not even if you filter out the profanity).
You have to respond professionally, always, even to the requests or complaints that are completely nuts. And, just as exercise hurts in the moment but pays off in the long run, when you keep your cool in these frustrating moments you will strengthen your key company relationships and enhance your leadership credibility across your teams — both of which will help you deliver better products.
But while you’re responding professionally, go right ahead and think those hilarious thoughts.
What do you wish you could say to colleagues or customers? Share your thoughts in the comments section. (Just don’t use your real name.)