That Sucking Sound…

While we all know that product leaders in product management and product marketing can be pulled in all directions, I’m hearing more and more sucking sounds that indicate it’s more of a pull than I thought.

Recently, I was talking to a product manager and he said, “Man, it’s been a tough week. I’ve been designing the new user experience for our product, I’m a referee for the product team and I’m trying to manage my day job at the same time.” Immediately, I heard the sucking sound.

You know. The sucking sound that’s made when product leaders forget to lead and other priorities and disruption suck out what’s important in product leadership.

Just like the example of my friend, I recognize that product teams are sucked into inside out thinking, are pressured into becoming the UX guru, but when did it become fashionable for product management to become the delivery person for user experience and not customer experiences?

When did product marketing become the referee for inside-out thinking and not the leader of outside-in views and what’s really going on in the market.

Not too long ago everyone said “Product management is the CEO of the product.” Now, we’re lucky if product management is recognized as an extension to an administrative function in the organization.

Don’t get me wrong, the life of a product leader isn’t easy, but if we don’t get back to our true roots and bring an understanding of the market and customers in from the cold, the sucking sounds will continue, until your organization starts believing you are sucking at what you do and are expendable.

It’s not time to stand up and shout, “I’m a product leader,” it’s time to show up.

So, what’s it going to be product leaders?

If you like, dislike, agree or disagree with the post, please comment.

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  • Geoffrey Anderson  On October 25, 2012 at 1:18 pm

    Jim, great post as usual. Alas, as I have experienced, companies are refraining from staffing properly, and even reigning in consultants (for things like UX design) leaving huge gaps the have to be filled. Alas, for the UX design example you mentioned above, the option may be to trust the dev team (ghastly) or roll up your sleeves and “get it done”

    Stepping back this is the perennial struggle of strategic vs. tactical activities, and successful product managers learn to balance that. But there are always some PM in the trenches tactical items that fall to the PM.

    Unfortunately, leaders of organizations (the executive staff) seem to expect the PM to be more like “product janitors”, and seem to ever increase the set of responsibilities to the PM role. Ever been sent on an “order closing trip” at the end of a quarter?

    I think it is unrealistic to expect to be able to just shout that you are a product leader and let the janitorial work fall.

    • The Product Management Tribe  On October 25, 2012 at 3:46 pm

      Geoff – Thanks for the great comments. I agree that when product leaders struggle with the strategic vs. the day-to-day tactics, and say “yes” to non-product leader activities, it opens the door for the “product janitor” to engage. This doesn’t help in building credibility in product management. Saying, “No” isn’t always politically correct, but it does work.

      • Geoffrey Anderson  On October 25, 2012 at 4:03 pm

        Alas, it will depend on what the “leaders” see as more valuable. A strategic oriented Product leader, or a tactical, trench warrior.

        Too often, they value the latter more, and see people who try to stick to the former as uncooperative, and manage them out (yes, I have seen this happen, more than once).

        Of course, if you ask them, they will claim the former is the most important role.

    • Val Workman  On October 25, 2012 at 8:21 pm

      Hey Jim, I wanted to say Hi.

      I find that credibility may have more effect on this situation than you think. Come on, when was the last time you met a PM who was qualified to direct even a $5 million dollar revenue stream, let alone a $100 million dollar stream.

      As a group PMs need training, a lot of it. Yet, as a group, they have the least amount of time to become qualified. So, other members of the innovation team will continue to lead.

      I’m not convinced that the PM is the right role to look for product leadership any ways, no more than the bus driver is looked to for community transit policy. No, other members more qualified than the bus driver should be on the innovation team – among those others you’ll find organizational leaders who define corporate and product strategy.

      • The Product Management Tribe  On October 27, 2012 at 4:25 pm

        Val, Thanks for your insights. It’s interesting to note that I know several product management teams that lead a large revenue streams, while sadly, others are just trying to swim upstream. I’ll be the first to admit product management needs coaching and mentoring, and training adds a lot to their potential success. However, no training in the world will compensate for living in the trenches each day and learning the road to innovation and revenue success. In the end, if product management doesn’t lead the portfolio and guide innovation, they might as well step aside, because someone else in the organization will give it a try.

  • Michelle Harper (@mlharper)  On October 26, 2012 at 12:14 am

    Brilliant post. I wish more organizations understood that product management is a strategic role within an organization. Unfortunately, it often just becomes a tactical role and as Geoffrey Anderson so brilliantly put it, one becomes “the product janitor.” In fact, I know one pm who sadly refers to himself as just that.

    • The Product Management Tribe  On October 26, 2012 at 2:36 am

      Michelle – Thanks for the kind words and comments. If the product management community can continue conversations on topics like this, perhaps we’ll move from product custodian to a more respectable role.

  • Scott Sehlhorst  On October 28, 2012 at 11:37 am

    Hey Jim, looking forward to chatting more on this with you and @joshua_d! I love that you used “sucking sound” because, as Geoffrey alludes, it is usually a “get the job done” situation – and nature abhors a vacuum.

    I also think there two completely understandable sides to this situation of comparative negligence.

    Companies under-staff (either in people, skill sets, or capability levels), either intending to “be lean” or unintentionally through ignorance. They create the vacuum.

    Product managers, in response to the vacuum are often caught in a catch-22 of trying to address both the tactical and the strategic – both the urgent and the important. I speculate that it is human nature, when overwhelmed with stuff to do, that people will gravitate towards doing what they already know how to do well. Coincident with your point about the need for training, we all grow from tactical roles to the more strategic, and presumably are more comfortable addressing the tactical issues – succumbing to the pull of that vacuum.

    Shifting again to the organizations, I remember a phrase from when I first started consulting 15 years ago – you never get rewarded for preventing a forest fire. Until product managers are rewarded for emphasizing the long-view, instead of being bombarded with a barrage of questions and suggestions from _their_ leaders about the need to address the urgent short-view items, this problem is unlikely to go away. Simply put, it will not be in the (immediate) best interests of the product manager to avoid getting pulled across the event horizon and into the void.

    Shifting back to the product manager, the onus is on the individual to make the right call, get the training needed (both formal and “hard knocks”) to eventually be able to make the right call, and create an environment that rewards this behavior (educating executives, or moving on when they are intransigent). That’s more easily said than done, but rarely is the important stuff easy to do.

    Great product leaders can ameliorate this problem for their product managers. Great product managers can address this problem for themselves, and likely will grow into great product leaders.

    The only question, if you are a product manager, is do you want to be the person who breaks out of this cycle of dysfunction, or do you want to stay trapped in it, hoping that someone else will free you?

    • The Product Management Tribe  On October 28, 2012 at 7:26 pm

      Scott ~ thanks for the post. You comment on ” the onus is on the individual to make the right call, get the training needed (both formal and “hard knocks”) to eventually be able to make the right call…” is spot on and I agree it’s always a question of “do you want to break out of the cycle” as a product manager. I look forward to future conversations.

  • Larry McKeogh (@lmckeogh)  On November 9, 2012 at 8:51 am

    Since Rocky Mountain ProductCamp is this weekend, I thought I would tee it up for discussion It is certainly where I am at right now and I am know I am not alone. It should be interesting. I’ll be sure to report back any take-aways.

    • The Product Management Tribe  On November 9, 2012 at 3:26 pm

      Larry – Thanks for running with the idea and teeing this up at RMPCamp. Let me know how it goes. Perhaps there’s a follow on post or two.


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