What makes a good product manager?

courtesy of @crankypm.com

I have had the opportunity to work with good and bad product managers, as well as fill that role myself. There are a few key traits that differentiate between the good and the bad, at least when it comes to web, data or technology products. Below are my top 5.

In depth understanding of the product

I find the best product managers truly do understand their product, and where customers are getting value. These are the ones you can rely on to give you an honest assessment of whether the product can be used to solve a problem today, as well as having a strong enough understanding of what it does, to make a determination of whether it can or should do something in the future. The weaker product managers don’t have a strong foundation on where customers derive their value, and therefore can’t help you truly assess what it can do today, versus what it could do tomorrow. This latter group typically will rely on product developers to fill in the details, or the customer facing personnel to provide the use cases.

A solid sense of direction

Another key difference between good product managers and weaker ones is whether they have a sense of direction for the product. Simple things like having a roadmap, or being able to quickly assess whether a new feature request aligns to the strategic direction of the product differentiate the two groups. Customers want to know what you are bringing to the table in terms of new features and functionality. They also want to know that they are being heard, even if those feature requests don’t align to the product direction. Being able to explain the current position, the near-term future direction and respond as to why this request doesn’t fit, is critical to having a solid product ecosystem.

Willingness to meet with customers

Great product managers are interested in how the customers use the system, regardless of how it’s been designed to be used. Further, great product managers want to engage with customers to continue to evolve with the business problem the product has been designed to solve. Those conversations can sometimes be contentious or frustrating, but they are an absolute necessity to continue to be relevant.

Ability to follow through

It is not enough to meet with customers that one time. These days, it is also not enough to gather your information and go off to develop the product in a silo. Customers want and need to be engaged. It’s critical that product managers follow up and follow through. This is almost more important when the decision does not align to the customer request. Customers want to understand why and how – there could be a very good reason that the request can not be fulfilled. The core business problem the customer raised is still a fundamental issue (to the customer). Is your product going to solve it? or do they need to look at alternatives?

Communication is key

At the end of the day, communications is key. This is an underlying theme to the previously mentioned traits, but it’s important to call out separately. Once the new features and functionality has been released, it is critical for the product manager to be able to articulate the feature/functionality, explain our understanding of the problem it addresses, clearly articulate how this feature/functionality fits into the product suite from a contract/pricing perspective and finally solicit feedback as to whether we delivered.

At the end of the day, the best product managers have been a pleasure to work with. They really own the products they manage, and have a very strong understanding of why and how customers use them. They are the starting point for all conversations around the art of the possible, and are always willing to have a conversation to get a new idea, or work with a customer on a problem. They are organized at the tactical level, and open minded at the strategic level.

What is ‘a sense of urgency’?

Today’s question: “why is it difficult to use the same team for implementation projects and ongoing customer success?”

I have had the opportunity to run implementation projects, and be the customer success manager. I’ve also led teams who do both. One of the biggest differences between those project managers who oversee implementation projects, and customer success managers who manage value creation day to day, is the sense of urgency. To demonstrate, let’s dive into each of those scenarios a little bit more.

Implementation Projects

An implementation project is the implementation of a major undertaking, in my case software or data projects. These are either new customers, or customers who are upgrading from an older version of the software. Customers in this position are investing quite a bit of money in their future, while also supporting their existing infrastructure. For the duration of the project, the customer is hyper-focused on this duplication of cost. Further, there are pressures to get rid of the old equipment and software as soon as possible.

The major investment of these times of projects often means that there are additional focus on how the project is going, and how it aligns to the agreed upon schedule. The tendency to pay for these implementations as capital expenditures also adds pressure. Let’s also keep in mind that the day to day business problem, your data or software solves is still occurring while the project is underway. This can often mean within the customer, there are conflicted resources and

Day to Day Success Projects

Once a major onboarding or migration project completes, there are still financial and other pressures. Pressures to deliver value, pressures to prove the right decision was made, the pressures of conflicting business interests, etc. That said, the major implementation cost has already been incurred. The focus has shifted to the general value creation for supporting the day to day business.

This doesn’t mean that the day to day contacts will put less pressure on you. Often time, the day to day business pressure and the close knit relationship of a CSM can mean that the customer team will be even more vocal about their needs. It’s your job as that CSM to help drive that customer value so you lean towards the customer who is in the biggest fire drill, using their voice the loudest.

The Conflict

For a single person filling both the roles, it can be difficult to find the balance between the immediate fire drill, and the longer-term, but often more strategic implementation project. The reality of these types of implementation projects is that the focus should be first on the implementation project, then secondarily on the day to day customer issues. The day to day customer issues will constantly popup as the customers’ business changes, which in today’s fast paced environment can be incredibly difficult to keep up.

If you have done your job well, the implementation project is finite in scope, with a defined methodology for capturing requirements or a set course of action. The bottom line is that it’s a matter of execution. If you constantly enable yourself to be pulled in other directions, you can often succumb to the chaos. The goal is to control the chaos as much as you can. Ultimately it means that the implementation project first, the day to day second. This is an incredibly hard lesson to swallow when you have a day to day team in your face constantly.

Is your project manager a chameleon?

A person described as a chameleon is someone who changes their personality depending on who they are with. A project manager who is a chameleon is one that can adapt their methods to match their customer and project. This is can make the difference between a smooth project and one that is much more difficult.

veiled-chameleon

It’s common practice to adopt a methodology that works for you in your current role, but it’s even more critical to be flexible. You never know when you will be introduced to a team that has expectations around how the project will be run, and those can sometimes impact your effectiveness. This is especially true if the expectations are different than project manager’s approach. In these scenarios, it is the job of the project manager to adjust and adapt their behavior to meet the needs to of the project team.

Differences in expectations can manifest in several ways:

  • fluctuations of communication styles
  • lack of responsiveness
  • unexpected escalations

All is not lost on your project when these situations arise. There are several little adjustments that project managers can make to calm the nerves of the project team and redirect the project to a successful close:

  • adjust project methodology to align more closely to expectations
  • take baby steps in setting expectations and laying out required information
  • follow up often using different communication styles (i.e. call recaps, action items/completed tasks, shared project spaces for capturing all the artifacts)

Being a successful project manager is not just about bringing a methodology and walking through a specific set of steps. It’s about observing the entire project team, and stakeholders, understanding the requirements and figuring out how to execute in the most efficient way possible through all the obstacles and opportunities.

Why did my successful project launch feel like a let down?

I had been working on a very large migration project for about a year when we started preparing for the cutover day (AKA “launch”). As far as projects go, this was fairly typical. We started at an even steady pace, but as time went on we found ourselves putting in more work across the board to mark off all those little things that come up.

We had our punch list of prioritized issues, and work feverishly working through them. We were also aggressively determining/negotiating the true show-stopper nature of each of them. After a couple of close calls where it was unclear whether we would need to push the date, our launch kicked off. Every person involved with the launch had quite a bit of pent of nerves, excitement, energy, etc. Of course Murphy struck and we had to tackle those real-time, last minute issues. After several long days and very specific collaboration across teams, we were able to ultimately deliver.

While I was extremely happy to be live in the new system, this monumental effort (or what had seemed like it a year ago, or even 3 months ago) had no real impact. We did it! But now it was time to move on. The customer had been our customer for many years, and so we were not getting the benefit of working with a new customer. Nor were we getting to do anything new with an existing customer. It was business as usual. It was time to start thinking about all that work we had pushed off, while also helping the customer prep for their next operational weekly cycle.

Once the adrenaline faded, I looked around and thought about how far we had come. But there really wasn’t any fanfare. I’ve come to realize that this is a good thing. The project team had set out to accomplish something and we did. And it worked. And now it’s time to refocus and help the customer realize all those benefits they had hoped to get by the migration.

I was told there would be a break

Realizing I’ve become a consultant

A couple of weeks ago, I had an epiphany about the role I was playing with the customers I support. For much of my time, I work on large implementation projects, but I spend a lot of the rest of the time working with customers in the role of Customer Success Manager (CSM). The goal of Customer success is help customers derive the most value out of the product, and ultimately helping them meet their business goals. As a Customer Success Manager, this can mean many things. I engage with both corporate and specific business teams, guiding them on the solution and helping them with their individual goals.

It was while I was having one of these weekly discussions that I realized my role had shifted. I was no longer just a project manager or CSM. I was contributing to their business strategy in a consultant role. A consultant is defined as “a person who provides expert advice professionally.” In this particular case, I was leveraging years of experience working with this particular product, in this particular industry. I wasn’t having a tactical conversation about next steps, or how to use the system. I wasn’t discussing the next corporate initiatives. I was sharing my business expertise to help them to determine how they could improve their overall success over the lifetime of this project, ultimately increasing their sales. I was providing value versus just assisting them in getting value out of our products.

In retrospect it seemed like such a silly moment for me. I came into my role with no prior experience in the industry or even directly the technology. My first 3 projects were highly technical and highly industry specific. I jumped in and asked many questions along the way. Almost seven years later, I’ve completed quite a few implementations and special projects, working with about a dozen large customers in the industry. I’m no longer feeling my way, along with my customer. It’s in under these circumstances, that I stand back and put my consultant hat on.

http://www.memegen.com

Do you need to be a system expert to successfully implement it?

mythical_unicornI have often been asked to step into projects where the industry or software are unfamiliar to me. More times than not, the project team has been hesitant at first. A common sentiment towards project managers of many technical resources I’ve encountered is disdain. After a while, the team gets used to working with me and figures out how I can help. In many cases, I’ve changed the opinions of project managers for these technical resources. But why is that? What is it about my approach to managing data and software implementation projects that enables me to step into any project at almost any stage and help deliver results?

  • Willingness to learn – I am willing to learn. I know when to shut up & listen, take notes and ask later. I try to read the materials I’m provided, and if relevant, find external sources. I follow up with questions and try to make connections but acknowledging that I could have missed something.
  • General understanding of technology – I have a fairly good understanding of software development, database, data, workflow, process methodologies that gives me a foundation of understanding.
  • Resources – I’ve been lucky enough to have worked or socialized with a number of very smart people across a broad range of disciplines. I’m able to engage with my network on an as needed basis.
  • Know what you don’t know – It is imperative that I admit when I don’t know something. I need to engage with the right people at the right time, but yet recognize the dynamics of the situation and adapt accordingly.

I don’t think you do need to be a system expert to successfully manage an implementation project. I think you can develop enough of what you need to know to get involved to the extent you can. You’ll obviously need to adjust your level of engagement, and rely on your project team for the software expertise. You also need to know enough about the project and system to call bullshit when you need to.

Separating sales from reality

Have you ever participated in a conversation about a prospective new project to walk away feeling like the sales team has a very different sense of reality than you do? How do you balance that with defining realistic expectations and success criteria? unicorn, sunshine and rainbowsUnderstanding that it is sales’s responsibility to sell the deal and your responsibility to implement it, you also need to be very conscious to set you, your organization and your client up for success.

A couple of tips for doing this effectively include:

  • Speak Up – while this seems pretty obvious, there are a lot of reasons people don’t. Maybe, the person communicating is a boss or more senior coworker. There are numerous studies that show that senior managers aren’t challenged as much because subordinates are intimidated. As a project manager, you need to be one of the first to speak up. It is not about you versus them, but rather it is about you managing a project that’s going to be successful. It is your job to understand the requirements, the success criteria and level set where necessary.
  • Align to your internal team first – While speaking up is critical to project success, I would highly recommend aligning within your organization first. It can be incredibly alarming to your customer if you and other parts of the project or stakeholder team do not share the same goal and outcomes.
  • Do what’s necessary now to meet the requirements – If you are successful now, there are usually opportunities for dazzling (and/or upsell) your customer later. Data and software integration projects are complex enough. Don’t add another level of complexity by adding that one more thing because you think it will impress your customer. Focus on delivering all the requirements within the time and budget allotted. That said, if there are concessions you can make that have no impact to the requirements, it is ok to throw them in (but only after securing the requirements).

If you are a good project manager, you won’t always pick up a project that all “sunshine and rainbows and unicorns.” More often than not, there are challenges and opportunities you need to work through. Figure out where you are, identify the requirements and success criteria and start communication upward and outward often.

Make sure to write the weekly status report!

TPS_Report_MEME It really doesn’t matter how often you communicate with the project team, don’t forgo the weekly status report. I can, and do often think of several reasons why I “can’t” get to it, but having that status report has several key benefits.

 

  1. Aligns everyone to progress and issues – Many times progress and issues can get lost in the smaller, tactical project team. However, a software implementation can be quite a big investment and therefore impacts people outside the immediate project team. The weekly status report provides that source for where we are now, and where we are going.
  2. Ensures broader audience keeps your project in mind – While lots of people may need or want to keep the pulse on your software implementation project, other priorities can get in the way. By distributing your weekly status report you are managing multiple layers of stakeholders, and ensuring that your project isn’t forgotten.
  3. Credibility – building on the theme of the last blog post, status reports build credibility. If done in a way that gives an honest account of where the project is, regardless of whether it is going well or where there are opportunities for improvement, you are building credibility to you as a project manager and your organization (vendor, department, etc) as a partner.

I generally am on the side of streamlining process, and reducing administrative nonsense. In the case of status reports, they really are a critical tool in keeping everyone in the loop about where you are. If the stakeholders are new to you as a project manager, you may need to redirect people to your status reports, but generally, people jump on the bandwagon and like the more formal approach.

 

Building credibility one step at a time

bricklayerIt doesn’t matter if this is the first project with the customer, or the whether you have done tons of projects with them, each new project provides an opportunity to further build credibility (or lose it). From a project management perspective there are several tools that can be used to help facilitate this. The 4 critical ones I’ll dive into today are:

  • Requirements
  • Action Items
  • Issues log
  • Validation Sign Off

Requirements

I talked extensively in the last 3 blog posts about scope, which lays out the tasks that need to get accomplished. Requirements take this a step further, defining the business rules, and needed or wanted criteria. These are the nuances and details upon which the customer is benchmarking your solution. As a project manager, make sure you have these clearly documented, and understood by the entire project team. If there are questions or concerns, raise them early and often. If the requirements change, capture the details of the change and the decision (who & when).

Action items

Action items is a simple list of follow ups for the team. This are usually pre-requisites to accomplishing scope and requirements. This is less about a task list for the project development team, but more of a way to capture dependencies. Sallie can’t start working on X, until Tom provides Y. The resultant action item is Tom to provide Sallie with Y before she can begin working on X. These action items should be reviewed during the regular status call.

Issue log

An issue log captures open issues. Ideally, the development team could act as a perfect proxy for the business users and a project wouldn’t be required to go through user acceptance testing “UAT.” Unfortunately, the reality is that no matter how close a development team is to the business problem, nuances and use cases get missed. The issue log is the means to captures issues identified by project QA or business UAT. It tracks who, what, when, where & how.

  1. who reported the issue?
  2. what is the issue?
  3. when did this issue happen?
  4. where in the system is the issue?
  5. how can the project team replicate it?

Validation Sign Off

It is imperative in a project to receive validation from the business users. It is also important to capture who did the validation and any special circumstances that may have existed. In many projects, anomalies or unexpected results are identified but they don’t change the implementation. They merely need to be acknowledged by all the project development team and the business stakeholders and documented for future reference. These details can be useful in training and rollout as well.

Each of these tools are helping build credibility with the customer. They see that you are hearing them, acknowledging them and documenting the findings each step of the way. At no point should anyone be blindsided by the details of requirements, dependent action items, open issues or signed off results. These are fundamental to project management, and what a project manager needs to do to be successful.

Project plans are your source of truth

It’s been a while since I last wrote about project plans, calling them living, breathing documents. As part of the recent series digging into the critical components of scope and estimates, project plans are the next logical discussion point. Project plans are the manifestation of the scope and estimates. It comes in the form of gantt charts, excel work breakdown structures, calendars, etc.

The project plan, in whatever form, is a combination of tasks (scope), timelines (schedule ), resources and cost (sometimes). They can be high-level or very detailed. They should show dependencies among tasks. However, I would caution you to make them too detailed, as they aren’t set in stone, and making them complicated means it can be painful to update. Give yourself and your project team enough information to see what needs to happen, when it will happen, and discussion points for scope changes, issues, etc.

Most project managers have their preferred tool. My preference is the simplest tool for the project team. In my cases, this is usually a work-breakdown chart in excel. Excel is something that most business professionals know how to use. You also have flexibility in how much detail you provide and it’s fairly easy to update.

Most important is for the project manager to be regularly reviewing and updating the project plan. Always accurately represent where you are in the project. This is something that you should be sending out to key stakeholders on a weekly, or semi-weekly basis. It really does become the point of reference for discussions. Stakeholders may not read it, but you can use it to guide discussions, and point to it as the single source of truth. This is key.