Thursday, August 9, 2012

Product Management, Technology and Sports Metaphors

Developing new business opportunities and making them succeed is critical to today's companies. How it's done is something that changes every so many years. Many times, new methods come to light when a management consultant writes an article about how a company or entrepreneur has developed new procedures that create great new products or services. Others join the information fray and soon a new management theory is explored, analyzed, mapped out and processed for consumption.

At some point, the new development is taken out of its own specific context and a new "generic" process is created that allows people in any organization to manage products using it. Process allows product managers from consumer electronic companies to manage medical equipment products. It allows product managers from sausage companies to manage cosmetic companies and others from law practices and shipbuilding to manage sports franchises. Often product managers are neither content experts nor particularly creative. They are excellent process people who are often supremely confident and forthright.

Big organizations have big challenges. Expectations of double digit growth in the weakest of markets often fuel desperate management hyperactivity without much rational thought. Processes must be running full speed at all times. What will be our latest new product? Run a needs analysis and focus groups to find out. Hire consultants who can take the process deeper. Who should we hire to lead us to new heights? Define each position by a standard certified skill set and hire those who possess the latest credentials in the area. For more sensitive higher positions, hire consultants to manage the search. What should our goals be for the new initiative? We want to be the "state of the art" provider of such services and products. How do we define state of the art? Hire consultants to define it for us.

How do organization manage, or more to the point, how do they promote product development hyperactivity? They organize business units and groups according to markets so they can be staffed with product managers. PMs are often given authority to shake off everyone who wants to do anything outside the core goals and push everyone to work longer and harder to develop, produce and market product. In many ways, process is king in many product management driven organizations.

But...... Company leadership should take note that the folks in silicone valley have found a lot of flaws with making process king. First, almost all new initiatives fail. If you just line up your initiatives in a product road map and keep processing them, you keep heaping failure upon failure. Things change too fast to think you can line up your ducks and keep firing at them. Those involved in new technology find that you need to pencil in a list and keep making adjustments as you go along. It almost works counter intuitive to old project management principles. Hard and fast doesn't work so well when everything around you is constantly changing. Product definition may need to change as you move along. Some products need to be dropped altogether. A product manager's job today requires a continuous eye on product definition and market changes. Product Managers need to work much more collaboratively with project managers as well as engineering, content creators and others who actually create the product or service.

What about product discovery? How many times have you used a test version of software that constantly seeks input on making things better? Silicon Valley product development has used an ongoing process that continues throughout the product development time frame called product discovery. This is essentially an ongoing communication and testing by potential customers of a new product or process as it is being developed. Yep, it is a process. But if it is done right, it is not so much like other processes that grind outside inputs into a hash that can be served in a preconceived shape. Product discovery can be just good communication and ideas that help you get it right. This is likely one of the greatest innovations in technology sector product management.

Genius trumps process. Next, in silicone valley they find that creativity trumps process when ideas come from the top innovative giants in an industry. When a company is led by an innovative genius, the best approach is to adapt the process to what your genius envisions. Follow the leader and adjust as needed. Genius is in fact, genius. Manage your processes around such people. If your product managers decide to push these people around...well you are going to have problems.

Oops, our customer just died! Another problem in the ever-changing business of product management is changes in the marketplace. These can happen in a matter of days or weeks today. Many companies might seem "too big to fail," but more than likely they may just be "almost too big to fail." Product plans often need a Plan B for a marketplace adjustment.

The problem has gone away. Another thing that happens in business today, is someone else may solve the problem before you in a better, faster, cheaper way. Maybe there is not much that you can do about it, but it may require that you dump what looked like a promising product before wasting more time and money.

Silicon Valley is not unique. The people in Silicon Valley believe their business is especially challenging and their methods have to be more nimble and faster than other markets. I am not so sure. Technology is a modern Medusa that both attracts and haunts most every type of business today. Education, medicine, accounting, book-selling, government, automotive repair, movies, telephones, and so many other industries are tied at the hip to technology. The entire notion of Silicon Valley as the cradle for technology development is itself a notion that is out of date. Such development must live with business today wherever that business is conducted. Product managers today must work much closer with everyone else involved in product creation and marketing. They can no longer crack the process whip and simply keep everyone in line focused on static products, project and goals.

Sports Model. I found an interesting post on product management certifications at the Silicon Valley Product Group site. Silicon Valley Product Group (SVGP) is a company that helps other companies develop successful new technology products. I recommend you visit this site for lots of great posts.

As a sports publisher, I especially liked SVGP's Marty Cagan's statement that a product management model cannot be cloned from what another company does. I read this to mean that product management is not all process. He goes on to write that product management is like running a sports team. He says skills are important, but ..."winning requires having a game plan or strategy...working well as a member of a team, adapting to your opponent, the playing field, and the conditions."

Too often in my own career have I seen product managers who were not team players. At Sporting Chance Press we believe that sports provides many lessons that can be used in life. Sports competition and contests as a metaphor for life and business struggles often allows us to see things more clearly. Our book, The 10 Commandments of Baseball, for example is chocked full of sports metaphors that are simple life lessons. Every product manager should read it!

Below are the sports principles upon which our book is based, McCarthy's 10 Commandments of Baseball. We'll let readers think about how these principles may be applied to their own responsibilities in the modern workplace.

McCarthy's 10 Commandments of Baseball:

1. Nobody ever became a ballplayer by walking after a ball.
2. You will never become a .300 hitter unless you take the bat off your shoulder.
3. An outfielder who throws back of a runner is locking the barn after the horse is stolen.
4. Keep your head up and you may not have to keep it down.
5. When you start to slide, S-L-I-D-E. He who changes his mind may hav to change a good leg for a bad one.
6. Do not alibi on bad hops. Anyone can field the good ones.
7. Always run them out, you can never tell.
8. Do not quit.
9. Do not find too much fault with the umpires. You cannot expect them to be as perfect as you are.
10. A pitcher who hasn’t control, hasn’t anything.

Copyright 2012 Sporting Chance Press

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