What are the right things?

Forrester Research published Product Managers Are Working On The Wrong Things by Tom Grant with Peter Burris and Christina Lee in July.  I've finally had a chance to look at it (being one of the survey respondents).

In the technology industry, product management has a unique, strategic responsibility that is not shared with anyone else in the company: matching product and market requirements to decisions about products and services. Unfortunately, product managers do not focus enough on this core responsibility. For technology companies to get the most out of their product managers, they need to focus on the strategic inbound tasks instead of being distracted by too many tactical demands. Additionally, technology companies need to hire or cultivate product managers who have the skills and experiences necessary to produce high-quality product management deliverables — not something that anyone can do without training. Companies that make these product management reforms will be more competitive and better able to use product management deliverables to make better strategic decisions.

The overall tone of the article feels very negative about the current situation for product managers.  Given that the survey only covered 49 respondents, I assume/hope the team at Forrester were also basing their opinions on additional experiences that they have with Product Management organizations.

In talking to some other product managers, the general sense was that the report does reflect more-or-less with what they've seen in their careers.  Product managers spend too much time on the tactical activities, the day-to-day stuff.  And they don't spend enough time on the strategic, long-term activities that will really make their products (and companies) shine.

This makes me wonder why?  Are there simply not enough people to handle the tactical stuff?  Is the strategic stuff harder than it sounds?  Are we operating under the correct definition of product management?  How are product managers being measured that the tactical behaviors swamp the strategic?

The table of contents gives you another idea of what the article covers:

Tech Companies Misuse Product Management (pp 2-10)

  • Product Mangers Lack Common Experience
  • Product Mangers Are Not Poised For Success
  • Product Mangers Do Too Much
  • How Good Can Product Decisions Be?

Product Management Is A Strategic Resource (pp 10-15)

  • Make Inbound Tasks The Core Responsibility
  • Shift Outbound Tasks Away From Product Management
  • Hire The Right People, Then Give Them A Career
  • Demand Quality Product Management Deliverables
  • Put Product Management At The Same Level As Other Groups
  • Codify Product Decision-Making


2 Comment(s)

The "strategic stuff" is actually a higher level of work. Product Managers are being hired for a particular level of work, and that level is being defined by the corporation (whether explicitly or implicitly). You can't just tell someone to do work that is a higher level than they are capable of doing: you either wait until they grow into that level of capability or you hire someone else.

For all the hand-waving from upper management, companies get exactly the level of product management that they want. They don't want it done at a higher level (less tactical from the report's perspective).

Julian Fairfield, who worked with Peters and Waterman back in the day, wrote a chapter on the problems and benefits of raising the work done in a function up a level. If you can do it, you can transform what you are competing on.

Last, what's "tactical" vs "strategic" is relative. Ideally, my "tactical" should be "strategic" for my direct reports, as my "strategic" should be "tactical" for my manager. They're useless terms outside of context. I consulted to a global software architecture group for a large international bank, and they talked about "strategic goals" as being 2, 3 and 5 years out. Until I pointed out that they needed to speak in years, they were spinning their wheels because it was always "strategic" to someone in the group.

Ivan Chalif said:

Even though the strategic components are more important, they are fuzzier and so they get lumped in to "available" time rather than "scheduled" time. For example, Engineering really needs the list of prioritized features and defect before they can provide estimates and start the initial design work. But, you also need to review the wins and losses for the past quarter and provide an analysis report and recommendations on how to address them to the executive team. The reality is that you are going to do the prioritization first (because that is the short pole) and the analysis/strategy whenever you have time, which may be never if you are constantly dealing with tactical issues that are tied to time frames.

I find myself getting pulled down by a lot of tactical issues, so I make sure to schedule blocks of time each week to give myself a window to focus on the strategic. I admit that they sometimes get usurped by tactical tasks, but at least I don't have to wait until some slack time occurs for me to focus on strategic tasks.

Ivan Chalif

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