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  • Writer's pictureHuub Rutten

Product Management in the eye of the hurricane

Updated: Feb 10, 2021

Dear reader, some years ago I interviewed a product manager of a big company to find out how the role of product manager was defined and how it worked in the day to day practice. His name was Fred. The company develops and produces complex instruments and equipment and is a world leader in its segment. Not too long ago I had the opportunity to go back to this company and I used the opportunity to visit the product manager again. It turned out that he had been replaced a year ago by a lady called Emily. She was also happy to share her ideas and experiences with me. I was lucky.

Apart from being a mother of 2 children, Emily is a very dedicated hard-working product manager responsible for a product with a series of about 10 variants. Her products are quite complex and combine hardware with software. They are sold and implemented worldwide. The annual revenue of the product range is about 35 million dollars. She is expected to grow this number by 10 percent per year. She reports to the Product Line VP. I asked her how she was perceiving her work. “I love it but I also hate it sometimes. It is simply hard to get things done as planned. It is sometimes, how can I say, chaotic or even wild. It is so difficult to get the different people, the experts from the different departments, on one page, and to get them to deliver what was agreed in time. I cannot really commit to my boss that I will launch a new variant in time for the right cost, or I can hardly commit that a product that we have in the market already gets the upgrade patch it needs”.

I asked her why in her view she was in this situation and to describe it in more detail. Then she used the metaphor of the eye of a hurricane. “Can you imagine sitting in the eye of a hurricane? There is a storm around you and you see objects flying around and you cannot really manage that, you are dependent on higher powers, and in the end you accept the situation and make the best out of it? There are so many factors that can make me fail. The most important one is that I cannot force or demand anything from other departments. For example, for my current project I need a lead expert, a software guy, a so-called “big boy”, who manages his own agenda and priorities, to create a piece of software, in fact yesterday. We need that piece of software to be built in in the equipment and then to be tested. So the mechanical team cannot move forward. It is waiting. Well, they decide to do something else for another product that is not mine. Because of this Branding is waiting for pictures of the working prototype that we planned. My VP is asking me about the process and tells me that the market, the business is waiting for the product to come. So, I cannot do anything else than ask for his political help. He has to put pressure on the departments to stick to committed deliveries. But I know, the Chief Engineer who is the boss of the “big boy” will say that he cannot help it, that they work their skin off and that he does not have another resource, etc. etc. Result is that I in the end will fail. And that is very frustrating. I am in the eye of a hurricane and cannot do anything in fact. Yes, meetings, calls, emails, new schedules, Excels and PowerPoints, again an aligned plan. We have to decide how we can minimize the scope”.

I said: “OK, I understand. Isn’t this standard for the role of product managers? You have to manage without empowerment, so you have to act very political, make friends, and be friendly, all the time. So why do you like your job?” She said: “in fact it is also very nice, this coordination work, I work with many people inside and outside the company, it is very intense and we also have a lot of fun. But, in the end I have to deliver of course. You know what is also a nice part of my job? Sales support. When the sales have an opportunity for my products they ask me to support with materials, documentation and presentations. I also help them to get the right team together for their customer. Sometimes I travel to visit their prospects. I also do some market research with customers to understand their product requirements going forward. I communicate their needs when we start to develop new variants or products. This is what I really like”.

I had a déjà vu with the meeting I had with the Product Line Director, no empowerment, but accountable. Hands in the air, in the eye of a hurricane. I saw it again and again in my practices. Companies use product management as a kind of lubricant between the business on the one hand (sales, branding, marketing, high level strategies) and the technology providers on the other hand. Many manufacturing companies are historically “engineering” companies”. They design the products that sales has to sell. But since, say, 30 years ago, the business has been taking over, the market decides what we sell, not the engineer. Yet in many companies you can find “big boys”, experts who don’t like to be told what to work on. They know what to engineer, they know what the customer needs. They really can make or break a product or product portfolio. Unless, I repeat, unless a company has a clear governance model where the powers are balanced.

Of course, the way Emily has to be successful is not right. She is in fact in the middle of a kind of organized chaos, often called “flexibility” or “agility”. The damage for Business Effectivity and Results is often forgotten. Of course we need flexibility and agility, but in an organized manner.

More about this in my next Blogs. Stay with me.

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