Executive Perspectives on Strategic Product Management and Three Common Gaps

by John Mansour –

For as long as I have been training product managers (since 2001), senior executives have been telling me that they want their product management function to be more strategic. When I ask them to define “more strategic,” a handful of themes have consistently emerged.

1. Understanding the market better than all other customer-facing disciplines (sales, marketing, customer success, etc.), and not just the user needs for products, but the broader business dynamics that drive their markets and customer strategies.

2. Leadership. This is directly related to item #1. What senior executives expect from product management is their ability to create a vision for the portfolio and get everyone bought into it so that the supporting product priorities make sense and give people confidence in the organization’s ongoing success potential. The one thing executives absolutely hate is playing referee between all the different camps that are lobbying for different product investments.

3. Delivering solutions that drive growth. The prevailing sentiment is that product management is too focused on incremental product enhancements and not focused enough on bigger ticket solutions for growth. Better balance is their goal.

4. The ability to facilitate business conversations with customers without going into the weeds on products.

Related Article: A Framework for Interviewing Customers

5. Articulating the customer value of products without explaining technical features, i.e. just give me the time, not the steps required to build the watch.

The Gaps

The biggest gaps between the executives’ definition of strategic product management and the current landscape (80/20 rule) fall into three primary categories.

1. The Structure of the Product Management Organization

2. Business Practices and Processes

3. Product Management Technology Solutions

When you look at all three categories as a whole, the scales are overwhelmingly tilted in favor of tactical execution – gathering user needs and driving product requirements through development and out to market.

While the execution part of product management is nothing less than HUGE, doing it to absolute perfection still doesn’t constitute a strategic product management function. It just means you’re great at execution.

If the product management profession is going to meet the expectations of senior executives, it’ll have to better balance the scales in all three areas. Here’s where it gets interesting. There’s a common theme that runs through all three.

It’s the fact that the product management profession in B2B isn’t paying nearly enough attention to the layers of the customer organization that sit above the users. The business priorities of senior managers and senior executives that drive the priorities in the trenches gets little to no attention.

Consider the following as proof points.

1. The Structure of the Product Management Organization

Most product management teams aren’t structured to consistently gather non-product business requirements in the upper layers of the customer organization. As a result, teams just focus on user problems. The risk of solving legitimate tactical user problems that have little or no strategic value to the customer goes way up when there’s a gap here.

2. Business Practices and Processes

If product management teams aren’t consistently in tune with the upper layers of the customer organization, it’s no surprise that there aren’t business practices in place for aligning the collective product priorities to those higher-level customer priorities.

Higher-value multi-product solutions that drive growth will be harder to come by when this gap exists.

3. Product Management Technology Solutions

The theme continues when it comes to product management technology solutions. Feature sets are heavily tilted toward gathering and driving user and product requirements through development. Again, execution is nothing less than critical, but it doesn’t make for a strategic product management function.

Here’s the issue. Every product management software solution that I’ve seen puts products at the top of their data hierarchy instead of markets. The product-centric data structure makes it very cumbersome for multiple product managers to collaborate around common customer business priorities so they can deliver coordinated sets of features across products to form the solutions.

Here’s the irony behind the gap here. Most B2B organizations market and sell the value of their integrated solutions, as they should. The problem with product management software solutions is that they’re not built for “solutions-style product management.”

Summary

Executives, product management leadership and the technology providers all play a critical role in closing these gaps.

Senior executives should first consider the ripple effect of certain product goals and metrics that reinforce silos and eliminate any incentive for product teams to work together on higher-value integrated solutions.

Product management leaders can reshuffle headcount and responsibilities so that their teams are consistently gathering business requirements that are a true reflection of how target customers see themselves from the top down. This practice makes the value targets for all products crystal clear. Huge benefits to marketing, sales and customer success teams too.

Product management technology providers can help the cause by developing capabilities that are more conducive to delivering business solutions versus products. Data structures that support a single set of (non-product specific) business requirements and drive multiple set of products requirements would be a great start.

Here’s the irony in this whole scenario. In B2B, the large majority of your target customers are looking for integrated solutions that ultimately help them remove operational silos so they can deliver differentiating value to their customers. Every B2B solution provider wants to create solutions that help their customers accomplish exactly that.

All we have to do is close these gaps and everyone succeeds!

John Mansour is the founder and managing partner at Proficientz, a product management and product marketing training organization that specializes in B2B best practices for building, marketing, selling and delivering multi-product solutions. Customer success is the centerpiece of our framework and training courses, a unique approach that helps you eliminate silos and competing product priorities in favor of collaboration and integrated solutions with greater strategic value than any single product.

www.linkedin.com/in/johnmansourproficientz

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