Product Management Skills

Product Management Skills

Subject Matter Expertise

One of the main requirements for any Product Management role is that you become a Subject Matter Expert.

A Subject Matter Expert is someone that has gained sufficient knowledge and experience in a market or industry segment. They are the “go to” person in their organization for any given subject.

The need for product managers to have Subject Matter Expertise is manifold. Here are a few areas where they prove most useful:


Why Product Managers Need Subject Matter Expertise

  • To work hand in hand with functional analysts in order to explain; a product; the business; the process; customer needs; or the market. The information elicited is analysed and converted into technical specifications for new product developments or product enhancements.
  • Sales and Marketing departments often rely on them to help develop and deliver training on new or existing products for customers and partners.
  • Sales and Marketing departments will often involve them in development of the marketing mix and promotional materials for product launches.
  • Training department relies on them to help develop and deliver training on new or existing products internally.


Developing Subject Matter Expertise

Product managers need subject matter expertise on the business processes; on the customer needs; on the technology; and on the market. It is by leveraging all of this that the product managers can help lead to the development of successful products.

Developing strong Subject Matter Expertise is not easy because you have to invest yourself in a process of continuous learning and development. A considerable amount of time has to be spent on monitoring and absorbing changes in the market; the business; products; and technologies.

Being an expert in a topic requires you to be fully immersed and invested in it. This means that you should really have some inherent interest in it otherwise it will be much harder work to maintain.


Leadership Without Authority

As a Product Manager, you will be required to be a leader and a champion of the product that you are responsible for.

In practice, most of the time, this means that you will be leading without authority. Leading without authority is a critical skill that needs to be adopted by all Product Managers.

So what does leading without authority entail and why do you need to do it?

Well there are volumes and volumes written on it so this is going to be a brief overview of the most salient points. To be a successful Product Manager, you will have to learn strong leadership skills. Not everyone is born a leader and even those that have a natural flare for it still need to learn the skills that will enable them to deal with most eventualities.


Tips on Leading Without Authority

  • First you have to lead by example. You have to walk the walk and talk the talk. What you do is always being watched by someone so everything you do must be beyond reproach and done in a professional manner.
  • You need to make yourself visible. Be seen to be participating in important debates and projects. Do not stay in your office, you need to show your face and be seen as a person that is getting things done and meeting their commitments. One of your main skills in order to bring cross-functional teams together successfully is networking and bridge building with your peers, with senior management and with those below you in the organizational structure.
  • Make sure that you share your knowledge, actively listen to people and take on board what they have to say. Giving and receiving feedback is a very important part of building your integrity and engendering trust. Help other out where you can and ensure that you include others in your projects, discussions and decision-making processes.
  • Make sure that you are at the forefront of problem solving; that you think strategically; and that you reflect upon your actions critically and learn from your experiences. You must demonstrate your striving for excellence and empower others to do the same.
  • And perhaps most important of all be passionate about your product and what you do. Being positive and upbeat is infectious and will engender the same response in others.

You will have to absorb everything you can from the people around you, assimilate it and use the effective techniques.

Your knowledge will have to be constantly updated as well. You can do this by reading articles, reading books, seeking out courses, conferences and workshops to hone your skills. This is definitely a skill that requires continuous improvement through gaining knowledge and experience.

If you are able to you should also find a mentor or coach that you respect. Having someone impartial to discuss your experiences and new concepts with is vitally important.


Being a Part of a Cross-Functional Team

There are two types of cross-functional teams:

  • Cross-Functional Project Teams – These are convened as part of a project. They are transitory and only last for the duration of a project. They are a collective that come together to complete a series of tasks in concert in order to deliver a finite goal or set of goals.
  • Cross-Functional Product Teams – These are usually formed at inception of the product/product line concept phase and remain in place until the product/product line is phased out.


What is a Cross-Functional Team?

When a new product concept is mooted, a Cross-Functional Team is formed to act as the business that will support every aspect of the product. This means that members are drawn from all relevant functions within the business and from external stakeholders where necessary.

Representatives from the following departments are usually included:

  • product management;
  • engineering;
  • marketing;
  • sales;
  • customer service;
  • operations;
  • compliance;
  • finance;
  • IT

The members of the team are peers irrespective of their seniority within the organization. They are led by the Product Manager who is considered to be the “Business Head”.

To start with being part of a Cross-Functional Product Team can be fairly stressful. This is due to the team dynamics and standard stages that teams go through as they develop.

In order for a team to reach its potential and start performing, it has to go through various stages that were identified by Dr. Bruce Truckman. These are forming, storming, norming and performing. It is widely acknowledged that the longer a team stays together the better it performs, as long as the members remain challenged and stimulated.


Behaviours for Success of Cross-Functional Teams

In order for a cross-functional team to work and perform optimally the following behaviors must be acknowledged, felt and exhibited by each team member. As a product manager, you should strive to do everything you can to make these happen across the team:

Commitment – Each team member must be fully committed to the goals of the team. They must also be fully honest and upfront with their colleagues about what they can and cannot commit to.

Empowerment – Not only do the team members have to feel empowered, which is difficult enough if it is not a business culture that they are used to but their functional department head also needs to ensure that all mechanisms are in place to make sure that they are truly empowered.

Alignment – Each member’s goals must be aligned with their goals as members of the Cross-Functional Product Team. If they are not and they are aligned solely with their functional department’s goals then they will be unable to act in the best interest of the product team.

Trust – It takes time for team members to learn to trust each other. Being open, honest, helpful, sticking to your commitments, delivery time and again will all go a long way to help engender the trust needed for a team to perform well with minimal conflict.

Accountability – Each member of the team and the team collectively must feel that they are accountable for meeting targets, attaining goals and for the outcomes of their decision making processes.


Decision Making

Decision making can be described as the ability to form a conclusion or to come up with a solution to a given problem or issue.

There are always decisions to be made. Our minutes, hours and days are filled with choices that we make decisions about.

As a Product Manager, decision making takes on a different slant because every decision that you make in your role affects many others and your company. Good decision making skills are vital for being an effective product manager.

Tips for Making Good Decisions

How do you make a good decision? First step is to ensure that you have all the information you need. If you follow the steps below, you will be heading in the right direction:

  • Identify exactly what the problem is including its root causes.
  • Document the problem to crystallize what you believe the problem to be.
  • Collaboratively (as required) generate as many options as you can that provide solutions to the problem or individual aspects of it.
  • Explore and research the options further, not for too long procrastination is a no-no.
  • Choose the best option or combination of options available.
  • Review the decision.
  • Implement the decision and communicate it clearly and concisely.
  • Monitor the direct results of implementing the solution.


Decision-Making Techniques

Most of us have a tendency to make decisions solely on gut instincts. As a product manager, you are accountable for your decisions and need to be able to justify them with a clear rationale.

Let us look at the four most commonly used decision making techniques:

The Morphological Box/ Grid Analysis/Decision Matrix: This is a very simple methodology that involves the drawing of a grid with the root problems that you have identified as the column headers and then each solution has its own row. You then systematically review each option against to see which problems they solve. You can do this by simply using ticks or assigning a number on a scale from 1-5 for the effectiveness of that solution for the related problem. Adding up the ticks and scores will give you an idea of the best solution.

The Weighted Decision Matrix/Weighted Grid Analysis: This is a more evolved version of the technique above. You draw up exactly the same grid but you assign weightings to each of the problems. So the problems that are more important to be solved would have a higher weighting than the lesser ones. As before you review each solution against the problem assign it a score say from 1-5 and then multiply it by the weighting for that particular problem. Adding up the scores will give you an idea of the best solution.

Decision Trees: These are diagrams that are designed to graphically depict the decision making process and any influence that the decision will have down the line. You start with a box on the left of the page and then flow out each decision point. Each decision point is a gateway. If the answer to the decision is a yes you then flow on to the next decision. This goes on until all the decisions have been made. Doing this for each option allows you to see where the options may start to fall apart.


Market Research

As a Product Manager, formal market research may or may not be a part of your role.

In some organizations – especially larger companies – formal market research is carried out by a specialist function in the marketing department. At smaller organizations, product managers may be asked to play this role.

Why Market Research?

As a Product Manager – when you perform market research, your number one focus is your customer and the market that they are part of. As a Product Manager all of your decisions should be based on market research. Without Market Research you cannot:

  • Identify new markets for your product/product line to enter.
  • Tell what your market penetration is.
  • Drill down to identify the right target market for you product/product line.
  • Keep a watching brief over the organizations reputation in the marketplace and take affirmative action where necessary.
  • Identify opportunities for new product development that become apparent from gaps in the marketplace.
  • Determine, drive or change the marketing mix.
  • Position the product correctly.


What is Market Research?

So what is market research as it pertains to being a Product Manager?

First you need to understand the market that you’re in, whether it is a consumer market or a business market.

This means you need to clearly define what sector you are working in. This might sound a little strange! But say you work for a software company that designs software purely for the aviation industry. Which industry are you in? No – it’s not the software industry! You are not selling products to the software industry, but to the aviation industry. This means that your focus should be on aviation. You need to keep abreast of technological changes in the software industry as well but to understand your customer your head must firmly be in the aviation field.

Practically speaking, your market research can involve (this list is not exhaustive):

  • visiting customers;
  • visiting suppliers;
  • reading white papers;
  • reading industry journals;
  • going to seminars/courses;
  • networking;
  • surveying customers;
  • joining trade associations;
  • keeping up to date with industry standards & reports;
  • attending conventions; forums; panels;
  • governmental findings.

Competitive Analysis

Competitive Analysis is something that every organization carries out either formally or informally.

As a Product Manager, the information gathered during the process of carrying out competitor analysis is vital to successfully carrying out your brief.

Competitive analysis concerns itself with analysing your business, its product and product lines versus those of your competitors and potential competitors in the market place.

Before you get started on fresh analysis, it is important to find out what your organization’s position is on competitive analysis. At larger organizations, you might even find out that there are one or two departments already tasked with this data gathering. If there are, make sure that you interact with them and obtain as much of their data as possible. You may even be able to get access to their libraries of industry subscriptions (electronic and paper).

If there is no formal competitive analysis carried out or it is not updated or reliable, then you need to put your own process in place. It can be as simple as a spreadsheet with ancillary evidence.

You are basically going to build a profile for each of your competitors which you will compare to a profile of your own organization. This will help you to monitor all sorts of data such as your products performance versus theirs; your market share versus theirs; your products features versus theirs and so on.

You will also carry out a SWOT analysis to determine your respective strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.


How to Perform Competitive Analysis

So where are you going to get all of this information from? First, identify all of your current competitors and any potential ones on the horizon. Armed with this information you then need to:

Talk to the members of your cross-functional product team they will be able to fill in all sorts of gaps in your data because they interact with the product, customers and competitors from different perspectives than you do. For example, the development team will probably be able to shed light on technical data; customer services may have information about their customer service/customer satisfaction levels and finance may already have an insight into their financial data and industry standard ratios.

There is a vast array of competitive intelligence all around you from media scanning, networking at various events, going out and looking at the products in action, speaking to customers, and speaking to suppliers. You can ascertain all sorts of information from these areas. Information like marketing budgets, target markets, market segmentation and pricing strategies.

Publicly available information is a great resource. From their annual accounts, you can determine their profitability, their staffing levels, their cash flow, and many other details of their operations. You can also obtain additional data from regulatory or governmental reports if you are in a regulated industry.

One word of caution is that you make sure that all information that you obtain is obtained ethically. Information is so readily available that there is absolutely no need for underhand tactics. You will just end up damaging the reputation of the organization that you work for and the product.


Market Segmentation

Market Segmentation is a strategy used by businesses to determine a subset of customers to target within a market.

Dividing a market up in this way allows businesses to make more effective use of their resources. This dovetails with the Product Manager’s number one goal in life: better understanding the customers’ needs!

Accurate Market Segmentation is a key practice for any Product Manager. Without this in-depth knowledge of the market, there can be no way of knowing your customers’ needs or which sections of the market to specifically target.

What is a Market Segment?

Market Segmentation involves identifying different groups of customers within a market who share common needs. In order for a group of customers to be considered as a Market Segment they must display the following characteristics as a group:

  • There are clear and definable differences between them and other segments in the market.
  • All of the customers within the segment are all of a similar type or nature.
  • The segment can be communicated with via the same variety of media.
  • The customers within the segment exhibit the same behavioural responses to market Stimuli.

Criteria to Segment Markets

Now that we know how a market segment is defined, we can take a look at what criteria we can use to distinguish between different customers in the market.

There are two set of criteria that can be used to segment the market. One is for the consumer (B2C) market and the other is for the business (B2B) market.

Criteria to Segment Consumer Markets (B2C)

The consumer market is made up of individuals that purchase for personal or family use.

  • Demographics: age; gender; ethnicity; culture; income; generation; occupation; education; family unit; family size;
  • Geographic: region; population size; city/rural; climate
  • Values and Beliefs: religion; politics; social class; causes supported; activities
  • Behaviour: brand loyalty; frequency of use; frequency of purchase; benefits needed; readiness to buy; seasonality

Criteria to Segment Business Markets (B2B)

The business market is defined as being made up of businesses that sell to businesses, sometimes known as B2B.

  • Geographic: area of operation – local, regional, national, international
  • Business Type: industry type; sector served; business size; business culture; purchasing process
  • Behavior: frequency of use; frequency of purchase; benefits needed; purchasing constraints;

Identifying Target Markets

Once you have identified the segments that make up your market, you need to then decide which of these segments you are going to target for potential customers.

In order to make this decision you need to carry out some analysis of the segments whilst bearing in mind your business goals and budget.

Factors to Consider in Identifying Target Markets

Some of the things that you may want to consider are:

  • How many segments can you afford to target?
  • Which segments already have the most competition?
  • Which segments have the least competition?
  • Are you new to this market? Do you need to test a small segment first?
  • What growth potential is the segment showing?
  • How much market penetration do you need in order to break-even?
  • What is the likelihood of achieving the market share that you need in short, medium and long terms?
  • Does the segment pose any threat to your businesses reputation?
  • What is the profit potential?

Tips for Identifying Target Markets

It is often easiest to determine which segments are most appropriate for your business by drawing up a simple morphological box/decision matrix/grid analysis. This graphical representation of the market segments will help to focus your decision making on the keys areas.

The most logical way to do this is to list your market segments row by row in the left-hand column and then create a column for each of the criteria that are most important to your business. For example segment size; profitability; competition levels; and current market share. Then you need to analyse each sector against the criteria until your chart is complete. Once completed the chart should indicate which segments show the most potential and which ones you need to avoid.

Identification of your target markets is vital to creating the right marketing mix. You may decide to target one segment or multiple segments and there are good rationales for doing both but they will be individual to the market that you work in. The only caveat to that is that you should always have a fallback position. Finding the right balance is the key because targeting one segment can be akin to having all your eggs in one basket equally targeting many segments can dilute your message and selling power.

One final word of caution – identifying your target markets is not a one off analysis. You have to keep revisiting your analysis regularly. Markets are ever changing and they move at great speed. Your analysis needs to be up to date at all times so that you are ready to move with the market.


Voice of the Customer

The voice of the customer (VoC) is a market research tool.

It is used as a means of gathering data that helps establish the customers’ needs, wants and requirements. As a Product Manager, you will be expected to conduct this form of research – whether or not your company uses the term “VoC”!

How to Gather Voice of Customers

Voice of the customer data is collected during face to face contact with existing customers as well as with potential customers. The data is collected via observation of the customer either whilst on a regular visit at their premises, at industry events and/or at corporate events. More often than not, it is carried out where you can observe the customer interacting with your product in some way.

Meeting with customers in this way and observing their use of your products gives very valuable insights into their needs. With traditional surveys and other forms of market research that do not have this hands on approach you lose the insight into many of these interactions. Customers are not always able to articulate their needs clearly. This is why observation and documentation of customer contact is vital to any product development, product enhancement and for better understanding your customer’s relationship with your product.

Tips for Gathering VoC Data

On formal visits to the customer or if they are formally visiting you it is very important to make sure that you identify what it is that you are trying to achieve from the visit. Once you know this, you can make detailed plans for the visit. For instance if this visit is to collect your customers views on a new product or a product enhancement then you will need to decide what format you are going to present it to them in. You need to think about whether you need to see their processes in action. In addition, who on their staff you would like to interact with and who is going to represent your business with you.

It is equally important to decide how you are going to record your observations. There will of course be lots of note taking, including diagrams. Would it be appropriate to use recording equipment (audio or video)? This would mean that other members of your cross-functional team who may not be present can view the data as well. This is quite often invaluable as they make have a completely different take on a particular response because they view it from another perspective.

Voice of the customer research is an intrinsic part of product management. No aspects of the design, development, release or marketing of the product are valid without it. It is a continuous exercise that has to be undertaking in order to maximize the potential success and continued success of your product or product line.


Product Roadmaps

Product Roadmaps are one of the important work product of product managers.

A Product Roadmap is the short, medium and long-term vision for the product or product line. It includes the vision for what will initially be released, together with details of future enhancements or features planned for release.

Caveat – It’s *Not* Static

A Product Roadmap is not a static document. For it to be of any use at all, much like any business plan, it needs to be treated as a living breathing part of the product management process. If Product Roadmaps are not updated regularly, they become worthless very quickly.

Good practice suggests that a cursory update at least monthly (more often in faster paced environment) and then a full review quarterly is enough to keep the document valid.

Uses of Product Roadmap

The Product Roadmap can be used for many different audiences so you should write is to be as flexible and as useful to you and the business as possible. For example, it can be used as:

  • A strategic document to be presented and signed off by the executive committee.
  • As a release schedule.
  • As a presentation to potential customers.
  • As a discussion document for team meetings.

Creating Product Roadmaps

Storing and tracking the Product Roadmap data can be achieved using a simple database, spreadsheet such as Excel, or specialized tools such as Accompa Product Management Software.

You can then export this data into presentation software such as Powerpoint when presenting to audience.

Are Product Roadmaps Needed?

In some organizations (especially small companies and small teams using “Agile” development) Product Roadmaps are frowned upon – but this is mainly because they have a bad reputation when not utilized correctly.

When you are working with a cross-functional team, it is very important to have everyone on the team buy into the vision. A Product Roadmap that the team builds and updates together by consensus will help to generate the type of buy in required to mobilize the team behind the product.

Furthermore – customers, prospective customers and partners often request your Product Roadmap and use it as a major part of deciding whether to purchase your company’s product or partner with your company.


Requirements Management

Capturing and managing requirements is one of the key responsibilities of product managers.

As an integral part of their role, product managers engage in the various requirements management activities, often taking the lead role.

Product managers must also familiarize themselves with the entire spectrum of requirements management processes, in order to perform their job very well.

Importance of Requirements

Requirements constitute an extremely important input in creating some of the most important work products of product managers – including product roadmaps and requirements documents.

As a result of product managers must master the art and science of capturing, prioritizing, validating and managing requirements efficiently and effectively.

Requirements Management Tools Used by Product Management Teams

The most common tools used by product managers to manage requirements include:

  • Spreadsheets such as Microsoft Excel
  • Word processors such as Microsoft Word
  • Dedicated requirements management tools, like Accompa
  • Internal wikis
  • Online docs such as Google Docs

Writing Requirements Documents – MRD, PRD

Requirements documents are used to describe the need for the product or product enhancement; the context within which the product is used or will be used; and what the product should look like.

As a Product Manager, there are two main types of requirements document that you will need to write:

  • MRD – Market Requirements Document
  • PRD – Product Requirements Document

MRD – Market Requirements Document

The Market Requirements Document is written up when a market need is identified. It will express the requirements for a new product development or product enhancement. The document is solely based on the customer or potential customers and market needs that have been identified in relation to the product concept. This document is vital to ensure that the voice of the customer is heard during the product design process.

The document contains information on the following topics:

  • A full description of the product or enhancement being recommended.
  • Market Segmentation and Target Market analysis identifying who the potential customers will be.
  • Competitive Analysis giving a full breakdown of the competitors in the market and their products.
  • An analysis of the proposed product describing how it differentiates itself from the competition.

PRD – Product Requirements Document

The Product Requirements Document is generally written after the MRD. The PRD focuses on all aspects of the proposed product. It is the document that describes to all the stakeholders what the product is going to be and how it will function. This document is a key document used to make sure that all the stakeholders understand exactly what is to be delivered as a product.

The document contains information organized into the following sections:

  • The purpose and the scope of the product development from a business perspective as well as a technical one.
  • Details of all the stakeholders involved e.g. the business, the users and the software developer.
  • Market, Market Segmentation and Target Market analysis identifying who the potential customers will be.
  • An overview of the proposed product with a full set of use cases prepared in collaboration with the stakeholders.
  • All the requirements for the product so; functional requirements, non-functional requirements; user requirements; and business requirements.

As you can see the PRD is a much more substantial document than the MRD. This is why they are quite often merged into one document for less complex product builds or enhancements. The PRD is the most important document because it will form the baseline for the development phase.


User Interface Design

A user interface (UI) is the means by which a user interacts with a software.

The UI of a software is often what the user judges the software on. As a result, it is essential for product managers to have a good understanding of UI Design.

At most companies product managers do not perform UI Design themselves – but they work closely with UI Designers. At smaller companies, product managers may also be responsible for UI Design.

The goal of UI Design is to ensure that the user’s interaction with the software or hardware is as easy and as efficient as possible.

Stages in User Interface Design

There are at least 6 stages involved in the user interface design process.

The process is highly iterative and the build stage only starts once there is consensus that the prototype is acceptably issue and error free. These stages are made up as follows:

Requirements and Use Cases – the requirements and use cases from the baseline documentation are taken by the user interface designers and tasks are elicited from them. These tasks will form the basis for the designs and for testing later on. The tasks link back directly to the requirements and will be linked forwards to the elements and features of the user interface. This bidirectional traceability ensures that there are no superfluous elements/features in the design.

Research – research is carried out to find out what if any existing user interfaces in the business are effective and whether any elements should be incorporated into the new development. Competitor interfaces are also reviewed to see if any lessons can be learned from them.

Initial Design – the initial design is sketched out using no more than flow diagrams and narrative at this stage.

Testing the Initial Design – a walkthrough of the interface is carried out using the tasks to see if there are any gaps in the design or areas that may lead to user errors.

Prototyping & Testing – once the design team are confident that the interface is robust a prototype can be built. This is done so that some initial user testing can be carried out prior to the final construction. There may be a few iterations of this process until the design is agreed by lieu of the fact that all errors and issues have be resolved or mitigated.

Build & Testing – construction of the user interface takes place.The interface is deployed and forms part of the main testing cycle prior to delivery of the product.