Why Product Managers Need To Know The Big Picture

by drjim on February 15, 2016

Product managers need to make sure that they understand what the big picture is

Product managers need to make sure that they understand what the big picture is
Image Credit: Valerie

As product managers we like to work hard. The reason that we like to do this is because we all believe that the harder we work, the more progress we’re going to make. What we are trying to achieve is to move closer to our target of total market domination, unlimited customers, and the ability to set our product price as high as we want and still have too many customers. All of this may not happen any time soon, but if we want to have a chance of making it happen, then we had better be sure that we know what the big picture looks like.

A Story Of Caution

So my tale of woe starts a number of years ago. I was working as a product manager in the U.S. division of a very large European telecommunications equipment provider. There were not a lot of us, but we felt that we had the support of the very large European HQ and so we would come to work every day ready to do battle with whatever the market wanted to throw at us.

At this time, the U.S. market for the types of products that this company made was controlled by two other very large companies: Lucent and Nortel. My company was competing with these monsters and it was very much of a David vs. Goliath situation. They were huge, had big marketing departments, big marketing budgets, and an enormous installed base of customers. We had been battling them for several years, but I would say that we had only been able to secure about 5% of the total market.

We were not discouraged! Instead, we viewed as simply being an opportunity to take over the remaining 95% of the market – we truly believed in our products. Every year we would spend a great deal of time creating a budget for the next year. Our plans always included attending more trade shows, launching new products, and splashy ad campaigns. Good stuff right? Pretty much what any product manager would propose when you felt that you were on the cusp of taking over more of your available market.

What Dr. Jim Didn’t Know

It was the darnedest thing. Every year the same thing would happen. The big boys over in Europe would turn down our request for additional funding. Now it wasn’t all bad, they would pretty much approve what they had given us for last year; however, they were not inclined to increase it by much. What this meant was that all of our big plans for seizing more market share were going to be put on hold once again.

Eventually I grew tired of all of this – I felt as though I was wasting my time. I got a new job and announced that I was leaving. As I was making the rounds and saying goodbye, I ran into a Vice President with whom I was friends. We got talking and he asked me why I was leaving. I told him that I was frustrated that we never seemed to grow any bigger. When I told him this he started to laugh. Eventually he calmed down and looked at me straight in the eye. He said, “Jim, you just don’t understand the big picture.”

He then proceeded to explain to me how the world really worked. It turned out that the reason that our requests for additional funding were never approved was because the company’s HQ did not want us to gain more market share. They were happy with the way that things were. For you see, it turns out that the reason that this company existed in the U.S. was for one reason only: make life difficult for Lucent and Nortel. When we bid on a contract, we could price lower than they could and so we were forcing them to lower their prices. This meant that they were making less money. This mean that they had less money to go expand their operations into Europe where our HQ was located.

What All Of This Means For You

As you can well imagine, when I learned what the real reason for the existence of my company was, my jaw hit the floor. Here I had been doing all of the things that a product manager normally does – collect competitive information, plan out new product features, meet with customers to understand what their needs are, etc. Everything that I was doing was being done for one reason: I wanted to gain more market share. I turns out that this is not what my company wanted me to be doing.

I’m sure that if I had been smart enough to take the time to look around me, I would have seen the tell-tale signs that something was amiss. However, I assumed that I knew what was going on and so I just kept moving forward. It was only at the end of my time at the company that I finally was able to get a glimpse of the big picture.

As you can well imagine, these days I make a special effort to make sure that I have a good understanding of what the big picture really is. I don’t want to find myself in another situation where I get surprised by what the company really wants me to be doing. It’s not always easy to gain that big picture understanding, but if you know what you are looking for, then you’ll at least be able to recognize it when you finally see it.

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

Question For You: Who in your company do you think has a good understanding of what the big picture truly is?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

Just in case you’ve been hiding in a closet or something, Apple introduced a new product back in early 2015: a watch. This was one of the worst kept secrets of all time – everyone knew that it was coming. Now that it’s here, there is a very good chance that just like Apple’s other successful products, the iPhone and the iPad, it may spawn whole new markets. Clearly a new set of challenges have shown up for product managers…

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Olaf Kowalik March 13, 2016 at 2:19 am

Interesting story, Jim. A good reminder to always connect product plans to company strategy. Thanks!

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drjim March 23, 2016 at 10:26 am

Olaf: thanks for the comment. You are correct. However, this become even more challenging when your company changes their strategy on you mid-year!

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