Product Managers: What is the Problem You’re Trying to Solve?

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine that works in the education and non-profit sector reached out to me for help for coming up with a marketing strategy. Or so we thought – help with a marketing strategy was the initial premise of our call.

But, as we began talking through her questions, we realized that before she could come up with a marketing strategy she need to zoom out and take stock of her current marketing tactics. Because, how could she improve or optimize her marketing if she was not aware of what she had to work with? Which channels would she optimize with? Towards what end? Which tools and tactics would be at her disposal? What are her strengths and areas for improvement? She needed to define her problem before she started trying to solve it. I began talking to her with my Product Manager hat on.

Being extremely clear on the problem that you are solving, and then being honest with your commitment to solving that problem by brutally prioritizing, is central to being an effective Product Manager.

The title “Product Manager” has become extremely popular over recent years, in tandem with the growth and popularization of the technology sector in the United States. However, “Product Manager” as a title has existed at least as far back as IBM’s founding. My conception of the Product Manager role is similar to what is referred to as a “mini-ceo”. Although, a PM is held accountable to its customers, a subset of the broader “stakeholders group” that CEOs in the U.S. are committed to appeasing. While yes, you need to appease a broad group of stakeholders as a PM, you should always keep your customers at the front of your mind.

( At this point in time, I’m of the opinion that CEOs can be led astray by focusing on generating returns for shareholders which is orthogonal to and not the same as generating value within your market. If that sounds too abstract, consider Marissa Meyer’s tenure at Yahoo. If you measure her effectiveness as a CEO by shareholder returns, she performed well. But as the Yahoo example dramatically illustrates, that is not the same as creating an engine of recurring value. )

McKinsey recently released a description of the PM role that was remarkably tangible and rich with examples. As a lover of application and practice, I find most thought pieces published by management consulting pieces to be too removed from application. In summary, the article segmented PMs along two dimensions: proximity from an external customer (think a PM overseeing the database infrastructure for a company’s internal reporting services versus a B2C PM) and technical savvy (think a PM at Amazon Warehouse Services versus a PM responsible for growth at Yelp). That segmentation is useful, even if high-level, to evaluate your own role through and see whose problem you’re solving.

The hardest thing about being an effective PM is not that you have to influence (though that’s up there), it’s finding out how much you don’t know and whether that matters. With limited resources, as a PM, you have to decide which area of ignorance of yours most urgently needs to be changed.

In the example of my friend, the problem she was trying to solve was not yet that she was trying to improve her organization’s ability to market. She was at an earlier stage: she was trying to figure out what marketing her firm currently did and how effective that marketing has been.

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