At the heart of every business is a product. It can sometimes be positioned as a service, but even companies that only sell consulting time have a proposition that comes as a purchasable, differentiated package.
This makes product management an important strategic role in any organization. And for software companies that put products at the heart of their business, it’s vital. Getting it right can mean success. Getting it wrong can be disastrous.
For the uninitiated, product management is the planning, development, release, and management of a product or service throughout its lifecycle. From concept to retirement, it sums it all up. It also creates the vital link between a customer’s unmet need and a company’s ability to meet it.
It therefore touches every part of a business, acting as the hub of communications between departments. And he must react quickly to market behavior, technological developments, project deadlines, business objectives, while keeping a close eye on the vision and strategic direction. This is a difficult work.
What to look for in a team
With so much work on the shoulders of product managers, building the right team is critical. There are five attributes to look for.
The first trait to consider is business acumen. It seems obvious, but there is no point in creating a product that will not generate revenue and margin. Product managers should be as comfortable with business strategy as they are with product development. This includes prioritizing the product portfolio, developing a product go-to-market strategy, understanding product pricing, and then managing product performance and financial metrics, including return on investment.
Basically, product managers need to define and create product roadmaps aligned with business strategy. The features in the product roadmap should be tied to the value proposition of the product and how it differentiates itself from competing products.
The second core capability is understanding the market. This means being able to spot market trends, understand the regulatory landscape, gather insights into the competitive landscape, identify product differentiators, know the partner ecosystem, and know how to compete in a busy market. .
The third core capability is having a deep understanding of the customer with the ability to design products around customer needs. This requires early engagement with customers and a limited proof of concept or launch program, delivering a minimum viable product. It is essential that good product managers have user experience (UX) skills when interacting with customers. In other words, the product must be created taking into account the users and their way of working.
The fourth requirement is that product managers have technical skills. Basically, software vendor product managers need to have a deep understanding of technology trends. For example, cloud solutions, artificial intelligence and open APIs. They should also be thoroughly familiar with architectural design, stack checkpoints, and enterprise architecture roadmaps.
Last, but perhaps most important, is the need for soft skills. Without it, it can be nearly impossible to get everything else to work. It is imperative to be able to lead, communicate at all levels and influence change in teams, organizations and sectors.
While each of these talents is vital, team members are unlikely to have them all – and waiting for the perfect product manager could be a hurdle. With that in mind, product management isn’t about having one or two high performers, it’s about employing a high performing team with the right structure to work seamlessly.
Find the right people
Achieving this requires putting diversity and inclusiveness at the center of a recruiting plan. Leaders must be open to new ideas, look in unlikely places, and welcome difference. In fact, hiring from a non-traditional background can bring in new knowledge and skills that might be lacking in the usual places.
In this context, it can be difficult to interview for the required qualities – especially if the candidates come from very diverse backgrounds. This requires unconventional techniques, such as allowing potential team members to play with and explore the products and platforms they will use, inviting feedback as a way to explore their strengths and test their ability to challenge and give their opinion.
Also, it is important not to be too demanding in job descriptions, especially if diversity is sought. Research has shown that women will walk away from jobs if they don’t meet most of the criteria, while men are more likely to go if they meet a few of the requirements. Creating long lists of prior experience will certainly lead to a level of self-selection among candidates.
It 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 pool of talent available among neuro-divergent workers, which can be extremely beneficial in certain roles. This has been championed by leading employers investing in cutting-edge technologies in the UK such as GCQH.
Manage a dream team
With the right recruits in place, the next step is to ensure the team stays focused without any toxicity. This can be difficult when the pressure is on in the rapidly changing vendor technology market.
Fostering the right culture is essential, ensuring that the tone set from the top of the product organization is properly set accordingly. Addressing behavioral issues quickly and effectively is important to creating a healthy work culture. This can be achieved by modeling healthy behavior and coaching team members with assertiveness skills and handling conflict appropriately.
This will promote staff retention, which can be a problem in the tech industry. According to a LinkedIn study from before the pandemic, the turnover rate in software companies is one of the highest, at 13.2%. No doubt this will have been made worse during and after the pandemic. Staff are increasingly looking for flexibility in working arrangements, including remote working.
To address staff retention, leaders must empower people, give them ownership and a stake in what they are working toward. However, employee turnover is inevitable, so companies need a strong and resilient culture that can withstand the comings and goings of people. The team should 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 areas of micro-management, time-consuming meetings and excessive team building. It’s a tightrope that managers themselves have to walk, understanding how their colleagues will react.
Only when all of these points have been considered can product management teams get to work. And there are many methodologies and structures to do so. These include Agile Scrum, Spiral, Rapid Application Development (RAD), and Waterfall. Choosing the right one will depend on the product development strategy, team skills and capabilities, culture and customer expectations.
But none of that matters without the right people and the right culture in place. This is why it is essential to pay close attention to hiring, structuring and maintaining a product management team. Because excellent product management is at the heart of any successful business. We cannot afford to be wrong.