Breakthrough In Solving The Problem Of How To Evaluate A Product Manager

by drjim on May 16, 2011

How Can You Keep Score On How A Product Manager Is Doing?

How Can You Keep Score On How A Product Manager Is Doing?

Oh do I have a tasty dilemma for you this time around! I’ve been working with one of my clients who is setting up a brand new product management department. He’s faced with a challenge that you’d think would be more common than it appears to be: just how should you evaluate the job that a product manager is doing?

Product Managers Are Not Project Managers

The newly minted manager of product managers was struggling. It was the beginning of the year and one of the things that he had to do on his list of tasks was to set up annual goals for his team.

This manager was coming from a project management background. In his first pass at creating goals for his team this training really came across: all of the goals had to do with meeting dates. Clearly there’s more to being a product manager than this.

He was facing a revolt from his product management team when I was brought in to see if I could broker a solution to this problem. The manager had a valid need to be able to manage his product managers, but they also had a reasonable expectation that they would be measured based on what a product manager does, not on what a project manager does.

Say Hello To The Puppet Master

I stated out by having a talk with the manager who was trying to come up with the goals. It turned out that he really didn’t have a clear understanding of what product managers do. In a nutshell, he viewed product managers as sort of a “super project manager”. The only problem with this is that the company had project managers who worked on every product’s team. Clearly there had to be something different in what these two groups of employees were doing.

I then took some time and met with the product managers themselves. It turns out that they were all busy doing exactly what you would expect a product manager to be doing: studying markets, guiding product developers, and putting out fires.

After having collected all of the available information, I brought the manager and his team back together. I started this meeting out by taking the time to explain to the manager the role that product managers played in his company.

Right or wrong, I used the analogy of a puppet master (you know, those old-time puppeteers who controlled the puppets by pulling on strings connected to their hands and feet). I pointed out to him that the role of the product manager was not so much to do things, but rather to make sure that things got done. Product managers are like information hubs. They ensure that the right information gets to the right person at the right time so that they can accomplish a task.

The difference between a product manager and a project manager can be murky at times. However, I pointed out that if the product manager told the project manager to build a 3-wheeled car, the project manager would make sure that the car got built on time and on budget. However, when the car flopped in the marketplace, it would be the product manager’s fault because he had said that a 3-wheeled car was what the world needed.

A New Way To Evaluate Product Managers

What was needed here was a new way to evaluate product managers. Others have discussed this topic and they’ve focused on getting the product’s requirements correct. I think that this is important; however, the product manager’s job does not end there.

What I told the manager and his team was that a much better way to evaluate product managers is to focus on the four areas that a product manager actually controls. These all have to do with the up-front work of determining what product to create, creating the product, and then ensuring that the product is a success once it’s been made.

The four areas include: knowledge of the market, providing a well understood business strategy, empowering the company with product tactics, and directing the creation of product related content. Each one of these areas has plenty of room for individual performance metrics to be created that can be used to evaluate how well a product manager is doing his / her job.

What All Of This Means For You

Product managers, just like every other employee in a company, need to be evaluated in order to determine if they are doing a good job. The problem is that nobody really seems to have come up with a good way of doing this.

Product managers are not project managers. This means that the traditional management metrics of delivering a product on a given date and keeping it on budget, don’t really seem to apply to product managers.

What a product manager does is pretty much all “behind the scenes”. We deal in relationships as we get people to do different things at different times. We are an information hub that provides the right information to the right people at the right time.

A much better way to evaluate product managers is to focus on the four areas that a product manager actually controls: knowledge of the market, providing a well understood business strategy, empowering the company with product tactics, and directing the creation of product related content.

The performance of a product manager can be measured. However, you need to be very careful to do it in terms of what a product manager does, not what a project manager does. Once you establish the proper metrics to measure your product manager by, you’ll be able to determine just how successful your products are going to be.

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: How big of a role do you think that doing a good job of defining a product’s requirements should play in the evaluation of a product manager?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

Lessons in how to be a better product manager can come from the strangest places – including a Monster Truck event. I’m willing to confess, I dived deep into my redneck past over a recent weekend and took the family to the Monster Truck Jam event that was being held down at the local football stadium. Little did I know that I was going to get a lesson in product management…

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

David Fulton May 23, 2011 at 10:45 am

Jim,
Good post. Ironically enough, I had a similar conversation with someone trying to determine if their product manager was doing a good job. I suggested that every “good” product manager should know 3 things as described in this post: http://fultonsventures.com/2011/05/17/3_things_to_know/
-dave-

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Dr. Jim Anderson May 27, 2011 at 9:29 am

David: great post. I think that you hit it on the head when you pointed out that ultimately the way to judge a product manager is by their knowledge of the customer (and their situation) as well as the need for the product being managed. Well said!

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katelyn friedson July 6, 2011 at 5:47 am

I like this post in that it’s helping businesses understand the most misunderstood role of a company, but I have to disagree with a few statements, namely:

“…I pointed out to him that the role of the product manager was not so much to do things, but rather to make sure that things got done. Product managers are like information hubs. They ensure that the right information gets to the right person at the right time so that they can accomplish a task.”
[I would argue that the knowledge that a product manager houses does not come out of the sky. If a product manager understands a market, its needs, and how its internal business goals can meet these needs- there are various skills that come along with obtaining this information
To name a few- 1) understanding how to research and understand if there *is market for your product- and being able to identify and target the right customer. 2) Additionally, meeting the needs of customers is an ongoing, iterative learning process that takes strategy and tactics to differentiate a ‘feature request’ from an underlying problem that needs to be solved.

Cutting to the chase- every department houses knowledge, and has the responsibility to get that knowledge- whether it be analytics or technical contraints or competencies.

I think one of the most challenging skills that’s essential for practicing good product management is leadership- not management, but leadership, which requires careful persuasion to get buy-in for product strategies or the direction or the product roadmap.

The product manager is rarely able to guide the product solely by authority. Rather, he has to persuade and cajole the product team members to do her bidding. As the owner and author of product requirements, he has the ability to influence many aspects of the product through that mechanism, but the product manager quickly finds that there are many decisions that he doesn’t not own but which impact his product. For these, he must use his persuasive skills.

All in all- great post- the better people understand what product mgrs do, the more value they will see in the role. Which means much less headaches for me!

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Dr. Jim Anderson July 8, 2011 at 9:15 am

Katelyn: Great thoughts — thanks for sharing! You’ve hit the nail on the head: rarely do Product Managers have the authority to “make” things happen. Instead, they are expected to use their various skills to convince a lot of people who don’t work for them to do what they want them to do. I agree that we can call this leadership, the trick is to find out how to do it effectively. It’s my personal opinion that ultimately the role of the product manager is to create a vision for the product that appeals to and can be shared by everyone else who needs to contribute to the product’s success. A good product vision can rally the troops and ensure that your product will be a success…

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Partha September 19, 2011 at 6:45 am

Jim,

Good post. I like the 3-wheeled car analogy. This also
highlights the necessity of leadership skills beyond other
project mgmt and/or product development skills needed
as part of PM skill set. Most people new to PM coming from various backgrounds would approach in the way you described it.

In my mind PM role shift calls for the individual to think more about what and why do this or that vs. project mgmt is about how and when it can be done (or not done). The most difficult part is however on leadership and tact required in rallying the troops when product decisions have to be course corrected and communicated – inspite of project mgrs. delivering things – as markets may have shifted during the intervening time.

Reply

Dr. Jim Anderson September 23, 2011 at 8:59 am

Partha: Very well said! You’ve touched on one of the biggest issues that comes along with the Product Management job — you’ve got a lot of responsibility; however, generally you don’t have the authority to “make” people do what you need them to do. You’ve got to find ways to lead them to doing what you and your product need to have done. Easy to say, hard to do!

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