Avoidable mistakes novice product managers make – Part 1

By Shrinath V|13th Mar 2013
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Product management is a coveted role.

Ask aspirants, and you’ll get answers like ‘I want to take strategic decisions’, ‘I want to bring my vision to the market’ or even ‘I realized that the product I am developing for does not satisfy consumer demands. My manager does not see it this way, and just wants to finish the project. I feel I can do a better job at defining a product, so I want to try my hand’

The definition of a product has morphed significantly with the evolution of new businesses around technology and software. As products get more complex, the sheen around product management has intensified. Larger companies usually have managers specializing in product and business strategy, product development, product marketing, go to market and analytics; but these boundaries are often nebulous. As a product manager, you might end up doing some or all of these, and often looking at other aspects like marketing, vendor management, business development, etc.

As a novice product manager, you can get an introduction to many aspects from the net, including need and role of the product management function, consumer insights, identifying the right segments, ideation, product roadmapping, working with design, etc. that you can look at to understand the space.

Image credits: mkrohne, Flickr
Image credits: mkrohne, Flickr

Despite all the reading, product management is part art and part science. There’s a lot of hands-on learning, but there are also common mistakes you can avoid if you’ve just started with product management. Having spent over a decade in technology product companies in various functions like product development, ideation, consumer research, product marketing, business development and portfolio management, I’ve made mistakes and learnt a lot along my own journey. I’ll cover some of these in a series of 3 articles.

Mistake 1: Misunderstanding the why-what-how cycle

When you hold a product in your hand, you see the end-result of a lot of work. Product management deals with the journey from the ‘intent’ of building the product to its final expression as a product or utility. This journey starts with the ‘why’, moves to ‘what’ and then through the ‘how’ phases.

The ‘why’ phase includes understanding why you’re doing what you do – consumer needs, softer aspects like behavior, habits, etc., why consumers would pick your product over competition, etc. This is the least deterministic of all phases. There are usually more questions than answers, and the answers themselves are usually best estimates based on info you have at hand.

Good product managers are able to absorb a lot of complexity at this phase, and start bringing structure for the next phase. The next phase is ‘what’ do you build, ‘what’ features you put into the product, ‘what’ user experience works best, etc. The last phase is the ‘how’ do you do it. This involves executing the project with your design and development teams, iterating, etc.

Most novice product managers start at the ‘what’ and ‘how’ phases. That’s a good point to start learning, but without fully realizing the ‘why’ aspect, they risk making costly mistakes downstream that can be easily corrected upfront.

Tip: Pick a favorite product of yours, and try and see why it is built the way it is (the intent behind the product and the way it is expressed). Try speaking to someone who works in innovation or ideation functions to get a sense of the ‘why’ aspect.

Mistake 2: Underestimating effort and factors to make a product successful

A lot of product management is about communicating across functions. For a product to be successful in the market, a lot of items have to fall in place: product experience has to be great, marketing should identify key messages and create collateral around it, vendors have to be invoiced and ready, pricing has to be right, sales guys have to be trained, distribution has to be sorted, customer support and service teams have to be primed….the list goes on.

Many of these functions kick in at different points of the product development process. Novice product managers often do not realize what goes into creating a successful product, and focus only on a couple of areas.

Tip: Mentally, calibrate yourself that the product development process is just 30% of your job done. Pick friends in finance, procurement, marketing and online marketplace/retail and try and understand their roles and pain points.

Mistake 3: Relying solely on data to make decisions

While data in any form (consumer research, analytics data of existing products, market research info) are great input variables, a product manager needs to make sense of the data.

The past may not always be a great predictor for the future, and if you’re building a new product, you will have to contend with multiple, and often contrary pieces of info. If the rest of the team has been in place earlier, you will also have to tackle differing opinions: marketing wish-lists on what the product should be are usually quite different from what your development team will say is required. You may have to find the middle ground that’s feasible.

Often, you will also find that the available data is incomplete and not usable in the current form. Without enough background, you risk making erroneous assumptions on the data.

Tip: Gather as much information as possible about past products and analytics to see what are key success metrics. Speak to different functions with a view of landscaping the situation before you get into decision making mode. And think back to the why-viewpoint – that usually gives you a good lens to navigate your way through opinions of what should be done.

We will continue exploring more elements that could be pitfalls in the product management process. Feel free to let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

Also read: Avoidable mistakes novice product managers make - Part 2

and      Avoidable mistakes novice product managers make - Part 3

The author can be reached at shrinath@yourstory.in or @shrinathv.

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