Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Product Management an open secret, a differentiator

At the Skills Matter Agile Lean Kanban exchange the other week someone - sorry I missed you name - told me about a report from the BBC on Product Management. It turns out the report is from a branch of the BBC I didn’t know about, “BBC Academy” and it entitled “The State of Product Management 2010.” Its well worth reading if you have an interest in Product Management or the UK software development scene.

Although I’ve not blogged about it for a while Product Management is one of my passions.

Think of the development team as the beating heart of the work effort. Someone has to keep the blood flowing, someone has to keep the arteries clear and make sure the right requests for work can channelled to the development team.

This is a role. Someone needs to do this. Someone needs to understand customers and be in a position to prioritise. And someone needs to be able to have ongoing conversations with customers, developers and everyone else.

This is not a document, attempts to do this with a document makes things worse. Documents don’t have conversations. Documents are static.

One of the reason why Silicon Valley companies are so successful is that they understand this. In Silicon Valley there is a well developed role called the Product Manager. This is the person who looks at the customers, understands their problems and needs, looks at the market and a whole bunch of other stuff, and this person decides what is needed for a successful software product.

I point to Silicon Valley because certainly in Europe, and I suspect in much of the rest of the USA, this role isn’t so widely recognised.

This role doesn’t exist in corporate IT. Here the Product Manager’s cousin the Business Analyst fills a similar role but in a very different way. However, there is change afoot here, stay with me.

Here in the UK I find I have to explain this role to clients again and again. They make four common mistakes:

  1. They assume the development team just know what is needed. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. They may get luck once but can you rely on luck the second time? Third time?
  2. They assume that the Project Manager knows. Again this is wrong, Project Manager training is about delivering a defined project to a date within constraints. It is not about understanding customers. (True there is overlap but Project Managers training is different.)
  3. Experience IT Managers see the need and appoint a Business Analysts. This is the right thing to do when you are a corporate IT department, or if you are writing bespoke software for one customer but, if you are trying to create a product to sell to many customers it is the wrong choice.
  4. Managers assume it is obvious, or that they, the “managers” know. If they are Product Managers or have been Product Manager they might be right. Even if they do know what the customers want someone has to explain it to developers and be on hand to answer their questions. Senior Managers just don’t have the time.
So its good to see the BBC highlighting this role. The description in this report is very media centric but it is recognisably the Silicon Valley Product Manager role. There are some good case studies in the report.

As I said, over in the corporate IT world this role doesn’t exist because customers are captive. One of the key aspects of the Product Manager role is understanding what customers (who have a choice) will pay for. In the corporate IT world this doesn’t exist: you get what you are given. So the BA role is similar but different. (There are other difference but they are for another day.)

(Interestingly several of the Product Managers quotes in the BBC report state they have Business Analysis backgrounds.)

The thing is: Business Analysts need to become more like Product Managers because more and more corporate IT departments are creating systems for external customers who do have a choice.

For example, 15 years ago just about all the IT created by travel companies was for their own use. Today travel companies have customer facing IT systems which can both win and loose the company sales. Online offerings are part of the buying experience, part of the customer experience and a potential product differentiator.

Even though the Product Manager role is not as well understood as it should be it is becoming more important. For those who get it Product Management is a potential differentiator.

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