How Can Product Mangers Mange People?

by drjim on September 16, 2009

Product Managers Are A Lot Like Music Conductors, But ...

Product Managers Are A Lot Like Music Conductors, But …

So what do product mangers mange? Generally I’d agree with you if you answered “products“; however, I’ve been giving this some thought and I think that we’re missing the mark if that’s our answer.

If you think about it, what we really spend our time doing is managing people and hoping that they will help us to make our products successful. That being said, did you ever get any training on how to mange people?

Product Managers Don’t Make Beautiful Music

One of the more popular ways to think about the how product mangers do their job is to picture them as being orchestra conductors. You can almost imagine yourself standing in front of everyone who works for your company, tapping your conductor’s wand on the sheet music stand in front of you, and then with a flourish you begin.

First up is the requirements team, before they are done the product developers step in followed by marketing and sales softly at first and then louder as time moves on. Nice mental picture, eh?

Too bad life doesn’t really work out this way. Dr. Henry Mintzberg at McGill University says that in reality what you’d be hearing is what a pre-concert warm-up sounds like – everyone out of tune and playing over the top of each other. Now that’s what I am familiar with!

Dr. Mintzberg points out that each and every one of us is flawed – there is no such thing as a perfect product manager. However, the really good product managers are less screwed-up and that is something that we can shoot for.

It’s All About The Interruptions

Think about how your yesterday went. Did you start the day with a plan and then were you able to accomplish that plan? I’m willing to bet that the answer is probably not.  It’s a fact of life for the modern product manager that every day is basically a stream of interruptions – one after another.

Don’t even get me started on what Blackberrys and email have done to compound the interruption problem. One top of this madness we need to find a way to mange the people that we work with – and it sure looks like we’re doing it the wrong way.

The Three Planes Of Product Management

Product managers are never taught how to manage people to get results. This means that too many of us end up hiding behind emails and sticky notes when we are trying to get our virtual teams to accomplish tasks.

Dr. Mintzberg has identified three different “planes” of how we can mange people. We need to use all three, but we are currently not balancing how we use them.

  • The Direct Plane – this is where product managers “get their hands dirty” and jump right in and manage actions directly. You know what this looks like – we mange projects, we negotiate contracts. In all honesty this is the easiest way to do things because we don’t have to go through the effort of getting others to do work for us.
  • The Manage People Plane – this is the tricky one. If product managers can find the time, then they can work with the people that they need to take action in order to make their product a success and motivate them, train them, build teams, etc. In other words, make it so that they can take action and be more effective. Easy to say, hard to do.
  • The Manage Information Plane – all too often this is where product managers choose to hide out. Here we can mange information in order to drive people. We use budgets, objectives, we delegate tasks, set organizational structures, etc. All very powerful stuff, but note that we don’t necessarily have to deal with real people and all of the messy issues that that might entail.

Final Thoughts

Nobody ever taught you how to manage the people that you need to convince to do what you need them to do in order to make your product a success. You’ve probably discovered by now that you’ve got a lot of different ways to make things happen.

The worst kind of product manager manages only by using information. Sure this is a comfortable way of doing things and seems to be the simplest way to get things accomplished. However, it’s always better to spend the time working with the people that you need on your side. In the end you’ll be glad that you did.

Product managers who can do this will have have found yet another way that great product managers make their product(s) fantastically successful.

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

When a product manger’s birthday rolls around and before he / she gets a chance to blow out the candles on their birthday cake, it is customary that they make a wish. Guess what just about all product mangers wish for every year?

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Saffron Fury October 29, 2009 at 1:58 pm

Just wanted to note that there’s a lot of typos in this post… “Manage” and “Managers” are spelled as “Mange” and “Mangers” several times…

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Dr. Jim Anderson October 30, 2009 at 9:58 am

Saffron: you know, you are correct. That pesky “mange” spelling issue has been dogging me for awhile. As you can see, I do a pretty good job of catching the incorrectly spelled words; however, when the misspelling results in a correct word, that’s where I seem to be letting things slip through. Thanks for pointing it out — I’ll try to do better in the future!

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