Should A Product Manager Be Batman Or The Lone Ranger?

by drjim on November 8, 2010

Does a product manager need a sidekick or can you go it alone?

Does a product manager need a sidekick or can you go it alone?

Product managers are responsible for making a lot of decisions about our products while they are being developed; however,one of the most important decisionshas to be if we are going to team with another company to develop a product. It’s the classic “Batman” (he’s got a sidekick names Robin) vs “The Lone Ranger” type of decision. Which way should you go?

Products That Are Simple

Look, not every product out there requires rocket scientiststo create (can anyone say “pet rock”?). A couple of researchers, Esteve Almirall and Ramon Casadesus-Maxanell have spent some time looking into this issue.

What they have found may surprise you. It turns out that if you decide to partner with another firm, it’s going to createa whole bunch of hasslesfor you as a product manager. This can be just a cost of doing business; however, if the product that you are developing is simple, then partnering is a waste of your time.

The simpler the product, the less need there is to partner with another firm. Doing so will only slow down the development process as the teams try to coordinate when such collaboration really could all be done internally. Additionally, when it comes time to market the product, the firms involved may havediffering opinionson how to go about doing this.

Products That Are Complicated

All the way on the other side of the product development spectrum are complex products. These are theground-breaking productsthat potentially your customers have never seen before. Think of things like the original Palm Pilot or the Apple iPad.

These products are also poor candidates to be created by companies that team up. The reasons are fairly simple: ultimately during the development process the product teams are going to be looking forways to innovate. This process is very hard to do internally and almost impossible to do if you have to coordinate your actions with an external company.

Especially if your product has no competition because it is so very new, then you know how hard it is for a product manager tokeep your own management supporting the project. Just imagine how hard it would be to keep the management at multiple companies onboard!

Products That Are Just Right For Collaboration

Sorry for being so negative about this idea of companies collaborating in order to develop a new product. However, it’s not all gloom and doom. It turns out that there isone class of productsthat actually can benefit from having a product manager bring in an outside company as a development partner: medium-low complexity products.

Why does external collaboration work here? Good question. It turns out that when the design of a product is not all that hard, but when there are decisions that can go either way, having another partner companytake a look at what your company is doingcan really help.

Their insights can help prevent your company from makingthose product decisionsthat always seem so foolish in hindsight. The benefit of this insight turns out to far outweigh the effort that you’ll have to go through to coordinate development activities and marketing programs.

What All Of This Means For You

In our childhood we all liked both Batman and the Lone Ranger. However, when it comes to the job of a product manager we end uphaving to choose who we like better. The choice is not always easy to make.

If the product that we are developing is either fairly simple or wickedly complex, then partnering with another firm is a poor idea. It will just slow things down and won’t provide a lot of extra value. However, if we are working on a medium-low complexity product then partnering canhave valuable benefitsby providing additional sets of inputs and observations.

Product managers are generally not afraid to go it alone. However, there are times that we really do need another company to act as our sidekickwhen we are developing a new product. It’s the ability to make the right decision to partner or not that will turn you into a product management superhero within your company…

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

Question For You: How complex do you think a product has to be before bringing in a partner becomes a good idea?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

As product managers we spend a lot of time creating ways to tell customers all about our fantastic product. Too bad that often the brochures, white papers, direct mail, and case studies often fall on deaf ears. It turns out that we’re actually doing a couple of things wrong: we’re not listening to our customers and we’re not talking to them in the way that they want us to. Looks like we’ve got some work to do here…

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

adi November 9, 2010 at 4:27 am

i think its’ not only the complexity of the project that counts, there are other issues:
* do you have the technologies and qualified field specialists to carry it out.
*do you meet all the legal requirements – often you need special licenses and certifications to carry out a project, so it can be wise to do it with somebody who meets these requirements.
*do you have the necessary investments, split in two the financial effort can be easier to swallow.

Reply

Dr. Jim Anderson November 12, 2010 at 5:18 pm

Adi: good points. In the end, it’s probably not the actual complexity of the product that matters but, as you point out, how complex we make it for our customers to purchase and use it…

Reply

Andrew Dickenson November 11, 2010 at 10:11 am

Jim – good post that gives a different view from my own – I come from a background of managing high value B2B products where partnering is commonplace. A different market to your exmaples of Palm Pilots and iPads. We absolutely had to partner in order to deliver competitive solutions for our customers. For us it came down to the practical issue of the investment time & $ that would be needed to build the product the customer needed vs getting quicker to market by partnering.
Regards, Andrew

Reply

Dr. Jim Anderson November 12, 2010 at 5:20 pm

Andrew: excellent point. What market you are in and just exactly what your customer is expecting are the key to deciding which way you should go on partnering…!

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