Parachute Product Management

Product managers always need to come prepared
Product managers always need to come prepared
Image Credit:
Horia Varlan

So we all know that product manager always have to be prepared to deal with the situation that both they and their product find themselves in, but what should you be doing if you parachute into a situation that you didn’t create? That was the situation that I found myself in recently when I agreed to take a look at a firm that had been doing quite well, but which had recently fallen on some hard times. Could I use my product manager skills to help them turn things around? Could I find out what product development definition they were using?

Discovering The Problem

If you ever find yourself in the same situation that I found myself in where you’ve just been dropped into an environment that you had had no hand in creating, you’re going to have to land on your feet if you want to be able to add this task to your product manager resume. What this means is that you’ll have to figure out what your next step is going to be very quickly. When I found myself in this situation, what I realized is that (somewhat obviously) I had no clue what was going on with either the product or the market.

What I needed to do quickly was to come up to speed. I had to find out what everyone was doing and determine if that was really what they needed to be working on. I decided that talking with everyone on the project was probably the best way to go about doing this. This was no small task – there were 70+ people currently working on the project and so this was going to take some time. Initially I screwed up – I only reserved 30 minutes to talk with people and I scheduled back to back meetings. The meetings starting running longer and I got backed up very quickly. I corrected myself and started reserving an hour for each face-to-face meeting.

The project staff that I talked with were very forthcoming. They shared their hopes, dreams, and frustrations with me. After just the first 10 interviews I started to get a good feeling for where at least some of the challenges that the product was facing were coming from. What the team was lacking was anyone with an end-to-end view of what the product was supposed to do or where it was going. Everyone was doing their job, but they were doing it in their own personal silo.

Additionally, I discovered that existing customers were not being communicated with. There was no regular form of communication with existing customers to let them know what changes to the product that they had purchased would be. The result of this communication failure was that there were no new customers buying the product and the ranks of the existing customers were starting to shrink as they left this product for other products.

Crafting A Solution

Having identified at least some of the challenges that this product and this team were facing meant that I now had to come up with solutions that would work. This is where things started to get tricky. Sadly I had not been granted any additional funds nor had I been given any extra staff or consultants that I could use to turn things around. This meant that everything was on my shoulders.

The very first thing that I did was to sit down with the product planning team. They had been collecting too many features to add to the next version of the product which they would then work on until they ran out of time – this always happened before they reached the end of their list. I got them to agree that there had to be a better way to do this. We got the people who created the list of features for the next version to limit it a short list. This was then estimated to find out if it could all be done. What could be done was agreed to and then the customers were informed about what they would be receiving in a month.

Next I talked with the product owners. They needed to start communicating with customers and internal staff. They agreed to start to put out a bi-weekly newsletter that would contain a quick snapshot of all of the changes that were going on. This was a great step forward. I then had them take this customer-facing newsletter and add more to it. What they added were a discussion about challenges that they were facing, changes in staff, and how the budget was doing. This version of the newsletter I had them distribute to the internal staff in order to keep them up-to-date on how their project was going.

What All Of This Means For You

Hopefully during your product manager career you’ll always know what’s next for the product that you are responsible for. However, if you find yourself being dropped into a new situation that you didn’t create yourself and perhaps which does not have a clear product manager job description, you’re going to have to know what steps you’ll have to take first.

Realizing that all of the critical information that you need is currently trapped in the heads of the various people who are currently working on the project is a key first step. What you need to do is to take the time to sit down and have a talk with them. Allow them to explain to you both what is not going correctly now and what changes they think should be made. Generally speaking, they’ve got a pretty good idea about how things can be made better.

I can’t say that I’ve turned things around for this customer yet. However, the good news is that I’m starting to get a very clear idea about what needs to be changed in order to make things better. I’m not going to be the one to make the changes – it’s going to be the people who are currently working on the project. We’ll have to see how all of this turns out, but things are looking pretty good right now!

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

Question For You: When too many features are planned for the next version of a product, what’s the best way to cut features?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

As product managers it can be all too easy to get caught up in the fancy and complicated parts of our job. You know, things like product release maps, feature planning, metrics, crafting a complete product development definition, etc. However, sometimes it is worth it to take a step back and make sure that we still have a firm grasp on the basics of product management. One key part of this is doing a review of the process that your customers go through when they decide to buy your product.