Jeff Lash is a product management adviser, researcher and a blogger. He is the Service Director of the Product Management advisory service at SiriusDecisions, the leading global b-to-b research and advisory firm. Jeff plays vibraphone along with several other instruments. We thank Jeff for taking out time and be part of ‘Three Questions’ series for product managers.
Product Mantra: Is “data driven decision-making” killing the innovative thinking among product owners?
Jeff Lash: Quite the contrary – at SiriusDecisions, we still encounter product management teams that base a lot of their decision-making on anecdotes and gut instinct rather than objective data. Innovation and evidence-based decision-making aren’t in conflict – in fact, they work well together and in many cases you need them both.
For example, it’s okay to think about innovative ideas for new products or product enhancements. However, instead of just running off and building them, product managers should look to conduct concept testing to see whether these ideas have merit and, if they do, to help iterate and improve upon them. Similarly, data can be extremely helpful in identifying opportunities to innovate. Quantitative data – from a variety of sources, including everything from market overviews to web analytics – can help identify needs, pain points and trends, and that can inspire innovative ideas that wouldn’t have been identified otherwise.
It feels as though people take a position on either end of the spectrum. On the one side, there are people who quote (or, more likely, misquote) Steve Jobs or Henry Ford and believe that customers don’t know what they want and you should just come up with innovative ideas and try and move the market. On the other side, there are people who believe every question in life can be answered through an A/B test. The reality is that there is a happy medium in the middle.
Product Mantra: What are three things that you don’t want a product manager to spend his or her time on?
- User experience design. This is a topic that is coming up more often, especially for SaaS products, as the lines between product management and user experience are sometimes unclear. Product managers certainly should care about user experience and work closely with UX practitioners. However, if they’re getting into the details of design, that’s a problem, since often they don’t have the skills or experience to do good UX work, and it means that’s taking time away from other important activities they should be doing. I wrote more about this in my blog post Product Management is Not User Experience.
- Detailed specifications. It’s very easy for product managers to slip into specifying the details of how a capability can be implemented. For those product managers who were former developers or engineers especially, they often know the product or the underlying technology so well they could specify how it should be built. That’s not the job of the product manager, though. And in Agile, even though functional specifications aren’t produced as a formal deliverable, the same sort of detail is being created for each story – often in the form of detailed acceptance criteria. There are plenty of other roles that can handle the specifications – and often do a much better job – but there’s only one product manager. When product managers can provide guidance and context to those doing the detailed work, not only are they themselves not spending time on those sort of tactical elements, but the end result will also likely be much better as well.
- Anything for just one customer. One fundamental difference between product management and bespoke product development is that product management is focused on creating a product that can sell to multiple customers in a market or segment. Especially in startups, situations where one customer represents a large percentage of the revenue, or even when one customer represents a large percentage of the total addressable market, product managers can get drawn in to focusing on just fulfilling requests from specific customers. Product managers should listen to customers and understand what they want and why, but rather than simply following orders, they need to evaluate whether the feature or capability or change would be valuable to the target market as a whole.
Product Mantra: What traits should one look for in a candidate while hiring for a product manager position in a b-to-b market?
Jeff Lash: I like that you specifically asked about traits rather than skills or experience. Clearly, having a certain set of experience is important, but things like competencies can be developed in an individual, while traits are harder to learn or adapt. There are a number of traits that I think are important, but here are four I’d suggest looking for:
- Passion. Product managers need to be passionate about the role and the subject matter in which he or she is working. You need passion to build great products, and you need passion to inspire others to build great products. Ask candidates what gets them out of bed in the morning and try to determine their level of passion for the role and the industry/customers/product.
- Empathy. Product managers need to be able to empathize with buyers and customers and users in order to fulfill their needs and empathize with colleagues to create effective and high-performing teams. Ask candidates to tell an example of when they empathized with a customer or colleague and what they learned from it.
- Humility. Humility will help product managers empathize with customers and enable them to relate better to your internal colleagues. It also enforces the idea of being part of a team – arrogance is a difficult trait to make work in a collaborative environment. Ask about successes and listen to whether the candidate only talks about his or her own role or gives credit to the others who contributed.
- Tenacity. There will be challenges along the way, whether it’s trying to get management to fund a new product, resolving some technical issues or taking on a major competitor. People who have a low tolerance for overcoming challenges will struggle in the role. Ask about a time when the candidate faced an obstacle that seemed insurmountable and how he or she overcame it.
Jeff Lash on Social Media
- Follow Jeff on Twitter at @jefflash.
- Blog about product management at How To Be A Good Product Manager
- Official blog post on the SiriusDecisions blog,
SiriusDecisions, the leading global b-to-b research and advisory firm. SiriusDecisions empowers the world’s leading marketing, product and sales leaders to make better decisions, execute with precision and accelerate growth.