Product Management Top Ten

I’ve been asked on a number of occasions by various friends to provide them with some guidance on how to be a good product manager. While I can’t claim to have complete knowledge after only three years in the role, I thought now would be a good time to summarize some of what I’ve learned:

  1. Write things down. If you don’t, you’ll forget the facts or mis-remember them. I recommend that you use a note-taking tool to keep all your customer interactions, meetings, and thoughts organized in one place.
  2. Quantify your decisions, or at least back them up with data. The fastest way to drive to a decision/resolution is to eliminate or minimize the conjecture. Identify what you don’t know, takes steps to get the data you need, and for everything that you can’t get data, call out your assumptions.
  3. Clear a path for others. Share your data and findings – this reduces the organizational duplication of effort and allows the company to build a comprehensive picture of its environment, customers, etc. It also helps build your credibility.
  4. Ignore the technology. Rather that focusing on the feature a customer needs, define the problem the customer needs solved. Focus on the pain that will cause the customer to part with their money.
  5. Learn to write in short, succinct statements. Your value to the organization is primarily derived from your ability to distill large amounts of data into discrete, easily understood units.
  6. Practice presenting. While knowing or understanding the market is important, it’s irrelevant if you can’t explain your thoughts, position, knowledge to others in the organization in a clear and confident manner.
  7. Define and automate processes. The primary purpose of a company is to build order from chaos – without well-defined processes in place, it will be very difficult to build a well-oiled machine.
  8. Circulate. You should know people in every corner of the company or of material importance to the company, not just Products and Engineering. Go talk to customers, sales, support. They know more than you about the problems of the product and the problems that need to be solved.
  9. Be credible. Know what you’re talking about – but also know when you’re out of your depth and need to consult with others for information. Be forthright when you need to gather additional information to respond to a query rather than trying to “wing it”.
  10. Be responsive. Nothing builds credibility like being responsive to queries and requests for assistance from other departments. It also establishes you as the authority for what’s happening in the market, the product, etc. If you’re responsive, people will naturally come to you to not only ask for help, but also make themselves available when you need assistance.

If you need more advice on honing your Product Management skills, I also highly recommend taking one of Pragmatic Marketing’s excellent courses.

OneNote: PM Super Tool

A couple weeks ago, I attended a product management course put on by Pragmatic Marketing and had the opportunity to hear about the standard tools product managers use to track information, feature requests, and other information as part of their job. PMs need to write down and track a lot of information to do their job effectively, and so I was somewhat surprised to learn that the majority of the PMs in attendance were still tracking meeting notes, customer visits, and other information in crude tools like Excel and Word. The tool that I use with great effectiveness, Microsoft OneNote 2003, seemed unknown to everyone in the room. With that in mind, I thought I’d put together a quick set of information on why OneNote is the essential tool that PMs should be using to track information.

What is OneNote? At it’s core, it’s a virtual notepad that allows you to organize electronic notes into folders and sections. Using OneNote, you can:

  • Get organized: Using OneNote, you can keep all your notes in a single application, rather than strewn across multiple Word documents. The editor is a simplified version of Word, but provides far more editing flexibility to allow you to shift around blobs of text, images, and even audio clips. OneNote also allows you to define templates for pages, allowing you to create simple forms that define information you need to capture in a standard format.
  • Track important information: For all of you “Getting Things Done” fans out there, OneNote allows you to tag text in a page as a task you need to perform, and define tags of your own for common types of information you might want to track. For example, you can create tags to track items such as competitor information you learn from a customer, feature requests you need to add to your request tracking system, and questions you need to revisit and answer later.
  • Find information quickly: OneNote enables you to perform a full text search of all your notes, allowing you to actually use the information you’ve collected. In addition, you can create summary views of the items tagged as tasks, allowing you to track open actions you need to close out. Finally, you can create summary views of the tags you’ve defined, allowing you to get a comprehensive view of all the important competitor information, feature requests, and questions you’ve tagged in your notes.
  • Share your information easily: Each section in OneNote is stored as a single file (and OneNote saves constantly, so you never need to remember to save). This not only makes it easier to keep a comprehensive set of documents available at your fingertips, it also makes it easier to hand a complete set of documents to someone else. In my work, I keep a section in OneNote for each one of the customers I’ve interacted with – OneNote stores one file per customer, meaning that I can give someone else in my company the complete history of interactions with a customer by just sending them one file. If your organization has a decent wiki tool with a WYSIWYG editor, you may even be able to share sections of your notes by simply cutting and pasting them directly into the editor; if your organization has SharePoint, you can even share these notes even more efficiently, but I haven’t tried that, so I can’t speak to how this works.

In practice, the tool is very effective once you get into the habit of using it religiously for information capture. Once you do, you start to realize that there’s very little information that actually requires a formal document, such as one created using Word. If you’re a product manager (or frankly anyone that has to track a lot of information efficiently), you should check it out – at a retail price of under $80, it’s probably the most useful piece of software I’ve ever owned.