The Great Rift

Recently, I had the opportunity of visiting Craters of the Moon National Park. I learned some interesting things including; it’s the largest lava field in the United States and covers hundreds of miles. The lava field was formed thousands of years ago by magma pushed up along the Great Rift Zone. While this is not a geology discussion, there are some interesting analogies for product management leaders.

Fissures and Fractures

The Great Rift was formed by volcanic activity when lava was pushed out through vents or fissures in the earth’s surface. This type of eruption is relatively quiet in comparison with highly explosive eruptions such as the 1980 Mount Saint Helens.

By comparison, product management teams may have fissures and fractures leading to below the surface activities.

What causes fissures and fractures in product management?  I believe there are three Hot Spots that every leader needs to monitor.

The Hot Spots

Communications – if you’re in product management, one of the foundational principles you live by is communications. Product management, and its leaders should be the great communicators, but often we lack the experience, confidence or skills and replace them with volumes of content, research and conjecture.

While being cognizant of what we say and how we communicate it is important, technology has overshadowed how we communicate versus why. Armed with the best tools available, we email, text, IM, tweet or pass cryptic messages and comments in the hallways as we move on to the next urgent issue.

Now, I’m not saying that you can’t use technology to improve your communications. However, you cannot use technology to replace how you connect with your team. It can’t be a crutch for engaging conversations and truly understanding the issues. How can you really discern what your team needs, if you aren’t connecting and communicating with them. MindTools offers a quick assessment to see how good are your communications skills.

Product management enjoys the Nothing Important Happens In the Office (NIHITO) acronym. However, as a leader, I believe you see and hear many important things in the office when you put down the laptop, mobile device and really observe what’s going on. Do you see steam? Do you hear a bubbling sound? There’s activity below the surface.

Team RoadmapLewis Carroll once penned, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” While every company and product management team has a technology roadmap, as a leader do you have a team roadmap?

“What usually passes for strategy includes vague goals and even more vague thoughts on how to realize the goals” shared Art Petty in his post, “Once more on the Soapbox: Strategy and the Leader.”

Product management leaders may think that a team roadmap is setting roles, responsibilities and team alignment. While these are critical elements, they are not the roadmap itself. Let me illustrate.

Some time ago, I was engaged with a client who believed the pervasive product management issues related to its lack of methods consistency. However, when a product management assessment was conducted, we found product management had not received consistent communications, goals were unclear and the team was using anything and everything to achieve some target.

Two recommendations were made. First, the leadership team needed a roadmap for product management where it would create a plan of short and long-term goals and communicate this to the team. Second, a review of each individual and leader on the team was conducted. This provided a clearer perspective of the teams capabilities, limitations and what goals should be placed in the team roadmap.

One of the ways to better understand your team, its capabilities and what the roadmap should include, is to actively assess your team or you’re own skills. Kara Brigg offers this presentation on using SWOT analysis for your team. This should spark your imagination in how to assess your team, and use it to strengthen and solidify your roadmap.

Measurement – can be a fissure within product management leadership. While many organizations struggle with what measurements are right for their teams, they often fall into using some type of financial-oriented model they inherit or are required to use. However, this may not be a complete indication of the health and success of the products nor the effectiveness of the team.

Product management leadership has to create a broader set of measurements and employ a system for measuring product managements capabilities and growth.

In a recent article by Mike Smart entitled, “Measurement-driven Product Management” Mike shared, “If you can’t measure your team’s effectiveness, or if you are focused on the wrong metrics, your headcount and budget allocation could be at risk.”

Mike continues, “The best way a product management team can establish its value to the corporation is by using a reliable set of outcome-oriented measurements that demonstrate both performance of the product(s) and effectiveness of the role.”

To create a balance of measurements that best work with your team, product management leaders should consider measurements that include:

Strategic – this measurement is tied to business unit or company goals and traditionally focus on financial growth, market share, profitability and other drivers.

Team –  activities and methods that measure how well market discovery is conducted and market problems defined, how efficient product definition is created and communicated, and measurements associated with product launch and others should be defined.

Individual – each product manager or product marketing managers capabilities and roles are unique. Leaders need to establish measurements focused on aspects of strategic thinking and execution. Areas such as Win/Loss analysis, discovering market problems, actively conducting and participating in customer interviews and supporting product positioning are areas that should be considered.

Defining balanced measurements provides clarity in identifying the fissures and fractures in the team and creates sustainable value for product management.

Reducing The Great Rift – takes time and constant monitoring. If product management leaders will use active assessments, communications and measurement, they will be better equipped to identify under the surface activity, create confidence and close any gaps that exist. If you have ideas or experiences on how to reduce the Great Rift, please share them.

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  • jidoctor  On July 12, 2010 at 12:41 pm

    Great analogy.

    You hit on a common challenge in business these days regarding communication – our reliance on technology to communicate, even when it’s just over the cube wall. Sometimes I miss the days when we would complain about all the meetings we had to attend; but, at least then we would interact face-to-face. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t belive that every interaction needs to be in person (I am a HUGE fan of telecommuting,) though I think the instant access and ease of different technology has become an excuse for sitting down and talking.

    How long is your e-mail thread should be a new measurement.

    • Product Management Tribe  On July 12, 2010 at 1:42 pm

      Jennifer – thanks for your comments. The world we live in has given us blogs to post thoughts and comments, micro-blogs allowing us to tweet and post whatever 140 characters will allow, but we often fail to use our talents and skills to their fullest when we say, “Do you have a few minutes to talk? I have a question.”

  • Pradheep Sampath  On July 12, 2010 at 5:57 pm

    Nicely said, Jim. Agree wholeheartedly that it is easy to seek refuge in content, research and conjecture in lieu of deliberate and honest exchange of opinions. Staying with your tectonic analogy, it is easy to see how we the product management tribe tend to be more perceptive than others when it may be time for even long time dormant issues to erupt. What we do with this in terms of effecting organizational action to deal with this again points to truly effective communications – which often mean speaking “out-of-templates”.

    • Product Management Tribe  On July 13, 2010 at 10:44 pm

      Pradheep – Thanks for reading and your comments. I wholeheartedly agree. Communications continues to be one of the most prevalent issues in any organization, especially product management.


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