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The key ingredients for excellent product management

At the heart of every business is a product. It might sometimes be positioned as a service, but even firms selling only consultancy time have a proposition that’s dressed up as a buyable, differentiated package.

This makes product management a significant, strategic role in any organisation. And for software vendors that put products at the heart of their business, it’s vital. Getting it right can spell success. Getting it wrong can be disastrous.

For the uninitiated, product management is the planning, development, launching, and management of a product or service throughout its lifecycle. From concept to retirement, it encapsulates everything. It also creates the vital link between a customer’s unmet need and a business’ ability to address it.

It therefore touches every part of a company, acting as the hub of communications between departments. And it must respond quickly to market behaviour, technology developments, project deadlines, commercial targets – all whilst keeping a close eye on the vision and strategic direction. It’s a tough job.

What to look for in a team

With so much on the shoulders of product managers, building the right team is key. There are five attributes to look for.

The first trait to consider is business acumen. It sounds obvious, but there’s no point creating a product that won’t build revenues and margin. Product managers need to be as comfortable with business strategy as they are with product development. This includes product portfolio prioritisation, building a product go-to-market strategy, understanding product pricing and then managing product performance and financial indicators including ROI.

Fundamentally, product managers need to define and build product roadmaps that are aligned to the business strategy. Features on the product roadmap must relate to the product value proposition and how this differentiates to competitor products.

The second core capability is market understanding. This means being able to spot market trends, understanding the regulatory landscape, gathering intelligence on the competitor landscape, identifying product differentiators, knowing the partner ecosystem and how to compete in a busy market.

The third core capability is to have a deep customer understanding with the ability to design products around customer needs. To do so requires early engagement with customers and proof-of-concepts or a limited release programme, providing a minimum viable product. It’s essential that good product managers possess user experience (UX) skills when interacting with customers. To put it another way, the product must be created with users and the way they work in mind.

The fourth requirement is for product managers to have technical skills. At heart, product managers in software firms must have deep knowledge of tech trends. For example cloud solutions, artificial intelligence and open API’s. They should also be fully conversant on architectural design, stack control points and enterprise architecture roadmaps.

Last, but perhaps most importantly, is the need for soft skills. Without these, it can be nearly impossible to put everything else to work. It’s imperative to be able to lead, communicate at all levels and influence change across teams, organisations and sectors.

While each of these talents are vital, it’s unlikely that individual team members will have all of them – and holding out for the perfect product manager might be a hinderance. With that in mind, product management isn’t about having one or two high-performance individuals, but employing a high-performing team with the right structure to work seamlessly.

Finding the right people

Achieving this means putting diversity and inclusivity at the centre of a recruitment plan. Leaders need to be open to new ideas, look in unlikely places and welcome difference. In fact, hiring from non-traditional background can bring new insight and ability that could be missing in the usual places.

In this context, it can be tough to interview for the required qualities – especially if candidates are coming from highly diverse backgrounds. This calls for unconventional techniques, such as allowing prospective team members to play with and explore the products and platforms they’ll be using, inviting feedback as a way of exploring their strengths and testing their ability to challenge and offer opinion.

Also, it’s important not to be too demanding in job descriptions, particularly if seeking diversity. Research has shown that women will rule themselves out of jobs if they don’t match most of the criteria, while men are more like to give it go if they fulfil a few of the requirements. Creating long lists of prerequisite experience will certainly lead to a level of self-selection among applicants.  

This can be damaging. In fact, a 2020 report from McKinsey, showed that companies in the top quartile for gender and ethnic diversity significantly outperform their competitors. It’s also worth keeping in mind the huge talent pool available among neuro-divergent workers, who can be extremely beneficial in some roles. This has been championed by high-profile employers investing in cutting edge technologies in the UK such as GCQH.

Managing a dream team

With the right hires in place, the next step is to ensure the team remains focussed without any toxicity. This can be tough when the pressure is on in the fast-paced vendor technology market.

Promoting the right culture is critical, ensuring the tone set from the top of the product organisation is set correctly accordingly. Addressing behavioural issues quickly and effectively is important when building a healthy workplace culture. This can be achieved by role-modelling healthy behaviour and coaching team members with assertiveness skills and to deal with conflict appropriately.

This will support staff retention, which can be an issue in the technology industry. According to LinkedIn research from before the pandemic, the turnover rate in software firms is one of the highest at 13.2 per cent. No doubt, this will have been worsened during and post the pandemic. Staff are increasingly seeking flexibility in working arrangements including remote working.

To address staff retention, leaders must empower people, giving them ownership and a stake in what they’re working towards. However, employee churn is inevitable so businesses need a robust and resilient culture that can withstand people coming and going. The team must be bigger than one or two big characters.  

Communication is a key element in building a cohesive and welcoming culture. But that doesn’t mean endless meetings and emails. While a lack of information and guidance can be disastrous, over-communication can quickly stray into the realms of micro-management, time-sapping meetings and over-bearing team building. It’s a tightrope that managers themselves must walk, understanding how their colleagues will react.

It's only when all these points have been considered that product management teams can get on with the job in hand. And there are plenty of methodologies and structures for doing so. These include Agile Scrum, Spiral, Rapid Application Development (RAD) and Waterfall. Choosing the right one will be dependent on the product development strategy, team skills and capabilities, culture and customer expectations.

But none of this matters without the right people and setting the right culture. Which is why paying close attention to hiring, structuring and maintaining a product management team is vital. Because excellent product management is central to every business success. We can’t afford to get it wrong.


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