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by Nis Frome
February 15, 2017

What are the critical strategies and tactics that every product manager must know?

There has long been an ongoing struggle to quantify and define core product management practices. For a variety of reasons, the product management role differs, sometimes immensely, from company to company and industry to industry. Nevertheless, standardizing the key functions is of immense importance, as it enables practitioners and managers to recruit, onboard, benchmark, and set expectations more efficiently.

Brian Lawley has been at the forefront of this effort for nearly two decades, through his renowned consulting and training firm, 280 Group. Together with the company’s Director of Products and Services, Pamela Schure, Lawley recently achieved a meaningful milestone on this journey. The two co-authored Product Management for Dummies, introducing the increasingly important role to Wiley’s hit series of guides, and applying an inviting and familiar format to learning product management.

I had the opportunity to interview Schure and Lawley about the book and process creating it. Read on below.

Nis Frome: Through the 280 Group you’ve been helping organizations improve their product capabilities for nearly two decades. But there was no Product Management for Dummies guide back then. What did the discipline look like and in what overarching ways has it changed?

Pamela Schure: In the early days, it felt like we were standing up for the right way to envisage and then develop products. We made up our minds as to what the role should be and what we would let slide. However, bringing a new Product Manager up to speed meant a lot of time teaching them the craft of product management skill by skill. This was time consuming and you never knew if you had missed a skill because it wasn’t one that was necessary for that product at that time. Your hope was that they absorbed the product management attitude and adapted well to new circumstances.

Brian Lawley: The role, responsibilities and skill sets of Product Managers were highly inconsistent back then, which significantly hampered the ability for Product Management to be effective. This is still the case in some companies, which is why we offer optimization programs to help them get clarity. It is getting better, and books like Product Management for Dummies lay down a strong foundation for what Product Managers do and don’t do and what skills they should have.

NF: Looking to the future, what are the biggest trends in product management right now? In what ways do you think the discipline will remain the same, and in what ways do you think it most certainly will continue to change?

PS: The overall level of mental toughness and keeping a higher level perspective never changes. With the advent of Product Managers trying to cover the role of Product Owners, the breadth of skills that they now need to cover has grown exponentially. And the tendency to drop down into the technical weeds while they cover Product Owner responsibilities means that retaining the high-level focus is harder and harder to do.

NF: Your book gets pretty advanced toward the end, especially in areas around documentation, feature validation, and goal setting. What were the challenges around simplifying these topics, and how did you go about doing so?

PS: When I wrote the glossary, I realized that each term should have had a context word. We needed to say: use this term when discussing business, Agile or technology. That’s the challenge with the breadth of experience needed to operate effectively as a PM. You’re constantly pivoting between different points of view. And as humans when we work from one point of view for too long, it’s hard to shift perspective quickly.

With each topic, the issue became: clarify the context and then discuss the concept and usage. My favorite construct has become “are you in the Problem Space or the Solution Space?” My second favorite construct is to throw up a mirror. This means asking questions that encourage PM’s to see any issue from multiple points of view, collect as much information possible and then synthesize the information. This sounds very zen, but walking around with an idea percolating in the back of your brain is a powerful way to get to a much better answer.

BL: The whole process of attempting to simplify the profession of Product Management was challenging! In our course, Optimal Product Management and Product Marketing™, we take three full days of hands-on lectures and exercises and go really deep, so condensing the top-level of this information into a book wasn’t easy. I give Pam the credit for making this part happen.

NF: The book is in the “For Dummies” series, but is there anything that even experienced product managers can learn from it? What sections might that find unique and helpful?

PS: I know that I learned so much from simply having to explain each concept clearly in relatively plain language. You can’t hide very much when your sentence structure is so clear. For an experienced Product Manager,there are three sections which I find most interesting. The first is the concept of product-market fit in Conceive. The concept is deceptively easy and, for PMs with existing products, it gives a context for their product in the market. I think that rethinking a product’s market space opens the door to finding more potential markets that have unmet needs. The second section are chapters 9, 10 and 11 with details of everything that is needed to make sure that you’re on the right track. I’m pretty sure that even experienced PM’s will read those chapters and find aspects that they are ignoring. In our consulting work it’s where we start realizing that the block and tackle work isn’t being done completely. The last section are the chapters on gaining influence. We all work on automatic pilot for much of the time. Expanding our skill sets in this area can make a world of difference in our professional credibility.

BL: The data tells us that only 2% of Product Managers have ever been trained to do their jobs. What that means, and what we find in working with clients, is that Product Managers have come from all different backgrounds and usually have gaps in their knowledge and skill sets, even if they have been doing the job for many years. The great thing about the book is that it’s a way for even the most seasoned Product Manager to fill in the gaps about what they might not have learned on the job.

NF: Do you think some people are innately good at product management? What areas of the discipline are the most challenging to excel at and why?

PS: Product Managers are, by definition, good at a lot of things. The better ones learn that each activity has out of bounds criteria where you need to take dramatic action. Either stop immediately or maybe pull your team forward quickly. Alternatively in many circumstances you are balancing many factors. That is a different gear altogether. It’s a questioning gear where you are learning as much as possible so that you balance off competing interests in the best way you can under the circumstances. The best PM’s instinctively know which gear then they need to be in – and then stay with it until it’s time to move on.

Another discipline that good PMs are good at is digging deep for fact-based answers to tough questions. It means being very clear with what you know and what your assumptions are. And then reducing the amount of assumptions by collecting data.

BL: I think that if someone is passionate, tenacious and good at fighting for their cause and getting people to support it then they will be a great Product Manager. Are people born with these traits? Yes. But at the same time I have seen people without these traits develop the assertiveness and tenacity they needed over time.

NF: Of course, we hope readers pick up the book and read it from cover to cover! But if you had to boil it down to three things, what would they be?

PS: Oh, my favorites are definitely the parts about understanding customers, Market Strategy and Influence. I originally trained as an engineer, so the numbers don’t scare me. Understanding customers and stakeholders and how they make decisions is endlessly interesting.

BL: That’s easy:

  1. Become the defacto market expert and voice of the customer by using data constantly
  2. Have a plan for continuous improvement to move your career forward – read books, go to training and get a mentor
  3. If you find yourself in a company or working with a team that doesn’t understand the value that you as a Product Manager bring to the table and you’ve tried to change that without success, consider leaving sooner than later – don’t stay too long and become jaded