It’s far too common in the world of Product Management for us to wind up being narrowly focused on the actual product development cycle – define, build, measure, repeat. But there’s far more to building, launching, and maintaining a successful product than just what goes on between Product Management and Development. The best and most successful Product Managers try to look at the “whole product” and not just one small (though essential) part like the development process. To get the whole picture, we need our eyes, ears, and fingers on the pulse of all the activities that go on around the product — development, sure, but also marketing, sales, support, implementation, services, and anything else that might be considered “product-adjacent”.
Context is King
We all know that we’re supposed to go outside the four walls of our office and get our information directly from customers, prospects, and members of our target markets. And that’s true — it’s a necessary but insufficient point of contact to inform our choices. It’s a context that we cannot make smart decisions without, but if we’re only basing our decisions on such sources, then you’re going to miss context. And context is king, particularly where you’ll need to make a business case and convince your internal stakeholders throughout the organization about the direction that you want the product to take. The more information you have, and the broader the sources from which that information comes, the better the case you can make — the more context you can give — for the decisions that you have to make. Context is always going to make the difference — whether that context comes from outside your walls, inside your walls, from subjective interpretations or objective data. The more context you can give, and the more you can tailor that context to the particular audience you’re engaged with, the better the outcome of your discussions for everyone involved.
Know Thy Customer
“Knowing” the customer and the market isn’t something that can be done just from going out and talking with them — there are many other dynamics that come into play with your customers, their companies, and the peers and politics within their own organizations and lives. Especially in a B2B setting, you can do all the user interviews that you want, but if you don’t also take time to understand the buyer personas, you’ll never sell a single license. But even in a B2C context, there’s more to know and understand than the specific use cases and problems that a given user or market segment has — there are adjacent considerations across the board: social pressures, family dynamics, generational gaps. And not all of these are going to come just from your direct customer research — you’ll want to leverage the research and planning that your marketing team has done, the segmentation and funnel design that your sales team has created, and even the detailed breakdowns that are provided by consulting companies like Forester or Gartner. You want to know and understand not just the customer and their problems, but the overall universe in which they operate, because everything that happens around us shapes how, when, and whether we’re likely to engage with a solution, no matter how valuable we might personally consider it to be.
Focus on Valuable Problems
Ultimately, the goal of any Product Manager should not just be to solve customer problems, but to identify that subset of problems that are valuable enough that the customer is willing to pay for them in one way or another. It’s insufficient to simply go out and perform problem discovery with your users and your market, if you don’t have anyone in the company who’s willing to work with you to understand not only how you’re going to solve the problems, but how you’re going to effectively and successfully bring that solution to market. We can spend all the time in the world crafting the most elegant and easy to use solution for our customers — only to discover that we don’t actually have a way to position it, to sell it, or to market it that actually brings in revenue for our organization. Ultimately, while a good Product Manager is always keeping their eye on the customer, a great Product Manager understands how to take that problem and its related solution, and wrap it in a full-product package that provides customers with a compelling reason to buy that solution. If all we’re focused on is the methods by which the sausage is made, we’ll forget that someone has to package that sausage, label it, deliver it to stores, and convince someone looking at the meat display that our sausage is better than anyone else’s.
Focusing solely or primarily on the development process in your organization can and will blind you to the other equally important considerations that need to be taken into account when running a product. We simply can’t afford to ignore the marketing, sales, support, services, or other parts of the company — but at the same time we absolutely need the customer context to bring all of those discussions into focus about how we’re going to bring valuable solutions into a market that serves our target customers.