Struggling Against The Impossible?

“Product Managers are the CEOs of products,” says my friend A. Ravikiran, “but without the powers of a CEO” – he adds with a grimace. He should know, having been a veteran at Siemens and then Nokia, where he headed R&D and Product Business before leaving to pursue a career in entrepreneurship and institution-building. “So,” I ask him, “what would be your dream parameters for a Product Manager’s job?” Surprisingly for me, his answer is: “More decision-making power across the board, but especially in matters of people.”

Probing further, a whole different world opens up before me – the world of corporate bureaucracy, mediocrity, and politics. A world far removed from the ones I have traversed through in my own career – but then, my stint in corporate employment lasted only five years, that too at a senior management level. Since then, I’ve encountered this world from across the table, as a vendor or consultant, and I’ve never seen anything but passionate, driven and highly-stressed managers who bargain hard and are ruthless in their decisions – but always focused on attaining the highest possible quality and excellence for their product.

In this blog episode, I’m going behind-the-scenes of product development, to try and bring you the real story of what it takes to lead a product from conception to market success.

  1. Ownership of a great idea/innovation

It’s common knowledge that Product Managers lead product development and rollout, but what’s not common is their feeling of ‘ownership’ of the core idea or innovation driving the process, nor their feeling of conviction or motivation in terms of the brilliance of that idea. Too many product managers are stuck with flogging weak ideas given to them by somebody else, where ‘ownership’ basically means that it’s their fault if the product fails but not their credit if it succeeds.

  1. A great boss

This may be stating the obvious, but it’s worth stating and restating constantly. While bosses who give full autonomy to the Product Manager may be rare, bosses who can constructively critique the manager without constraining her/his freedom to operate are even rarer.

  1. The right frameworks

Nowadays, most Product Managers are MBAs or have some academic training in techno-commercial management. Which means they are stuffed solid with all kinds of wizardly frameworks that supposedly explain and guide you in every situation you’ll encounter. However, as is the case with real life, it forgot to read the textbooks, and so throws up situations that defy the greatest guru and her/his omnipotent model. It helps, then, if the manager has had some hands-on experience under her/his belt – but what really helps is a framework that the manager can really use to toggle between doing her/his job, and explaining it articulately to others. Think of it as leading an expedition into the wilds on the ground, and having an incredibly detailed roadmap as well.

  1. A rock-solid and dedicated team

It’s not hard for a dedicated Product Manager to win the hearts of customers and prospects – because they are as interested as s/he is seeing an improved, better, more effective product outcome. The harder part is getting all the internal stakeholders on board. Different specialists will push for their specialist perspective, disgruntled employees will subtly (or not) subvert the initiative, and most people will be too caught up in their own KRAs to really bother. This is perhaps what Ravi was ruefully recounting to me at the head of this article!

  1. Clarity on KRAs and evaluation

Since the Product Manager’s job involves Sales, Marketing, Development, Quality and Service, s/he becomes an easy target for anything that can go wrong in the product narrative. Of course, there is no looking away from the integrated nature of her/his job, but making a separation of product performance and personal performance would go a long way in a more balanced and fair evaluation.

  1. Seeing both, forest and trees

The main professional challenge before the Product Manager at every stage of her/his job is making the right trade-offs – between the bottom line and customer delight, or API versus a dashboard, or topline versus good media buzz, and so on. From my experience, this is where the manager’s own personality shows through in terms of the choices s/he tends to make – whether s/he is conservative or entrepreneurial, people-person or techno-geek, perfectionist or broad-brush generalist, etc. Whatever be the case, one can only wish for the manager to be able to see both the contradictory options and exercise a choice that the customer will appreciate!

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