Trenches: Hazardous to Your Career

One of the things we teach in our 2-day Product Management Intensive workshop is how to get out of the trenches and get a 30,000 foot view once in awhile.

Working with clients and coaching our students just reinforces for me how important this is, and how hard.  After all, one of the things that many product managers do best is “sweat the detail”.

Recognize the signs of the problem.

While this isn’t exactly a 12-step program, maybe product managers need one!  When we begin working with a new coachee or a new client, we often ask what’s going on with the product – what’s the big current challenge.  Almost without fail, we get a random download of tactics in process.  And while those are always interesting challenges, the real message we get is “I don’t have a clue about my strategy.”

“I have a strategy.  It’s called doing stuff.”

Even when we ask point blank about strategy, many people answer with a plan.  Sorry, no cigar.  Strategy is not a plan – it’s an approach to achieving a goal.  One of our favorite ways to explain strategy is a story from Steven Haines, author of the Product Manager’s Desk Reference.  Steven poses a question:  If your goal is to get some of Grandma’s wonderful cookies, what’s your strategy to get them?  Possible strategies include going to Grandma’s house or maybe convincing Grandma to deliver some cookies!   That’s it… all the details below that statement are tactics and plans.

Strategy is also a good guide for setting priorities and boundaries; it gives us the justification to say “no” to activities that are less effective in getting to the goal.  Mom might agree to going to Grandma’s but point out that the museum is on the way, and we should just stop in since we’re so close.  Thanks, but no thanks – it delays getting the cookies!

iStock_000003407469SmallTools for viewing the big picture.

How do you devise your strategy?  There are several high-level tools that we use to get product managers to think higher-level and longer-term.  They include the Boston Consulting Group’s Growth-Share Matrix, Geoffrey Moore’s Chasm Model (based on the Technology Adoption Life Cycle), and variations on Product Life Cycle curves.   We also suggest Porter’s three generic strategies, Treacy & Wiersema’s Value Disciplines model, and the strategies outlined in Tong & Zagula’s Marketing Playbook, just to name a few.  Pick some favorite ‘strategic thinkers’ and keep them handy to help you think big picture.   But where to find the time?

Get on a plane – literally, or figuratively.

We value travel time as time to catch up on email, crank out that presentation for the meeting, or finally put some more meat into the product plan.  Next time you’re up there, take advantage of the 30,000 foot altitude to think about your product from that same perspective.  Forget the to-do list for 45 minutes.  Think about the competitive landscape, your goals for the quarter or year, about your customer feedback over the last several months.  Spot any new trends?  Try out some new directions – play some “what if” games.  Put yourself in the shoes of your competitor’s product manager, evaluating your product.

Strangely enough, making the time to get clear on strategy is actually going to FREE UP your to-do list – because it will show you what’s most important to get done, and what you can flat out ignore because it’s not on strategy in the first place.   Just like packing for the trip, you’ll clearly see what you need to take along and what to leave behind.

Once you’ve formulated a strategy, socialize it and get buy in across the team and with your exec’s.  And they’ll see you in a whole new light – not the shadows of the trenches.

Every Product Management Intensive workshop provides multiple opportunities to think about your product from a different perspective.  Join us for the next one, December 8-9.

Posted in General / Opinion, Pivot Point Newsletter, Product Management Tips  |  1 Comment

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