Product Management in the Digital Age: Lessons from Pyramids and Canals

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Over decades, I have been lucky to learn from master product management leaders. I have learnt from them the art of specifying and designing hardware, software and service products. I have seen them pricing to extract most value; seen them coaxing engineering, manufacturing, and services teams to get what they wanted. I have had the pleasure of attracting and growing strong product management teams in my businesses.

There are a few cardinals rules of product management that are relevant more than ever in the digital age where technology and business complexity rein on one end; user experience and consumption preferences rein at the other; and options galore on how to meet those requirements. So what is a master juggler of a product manager to do? Well, some rules never change as long as you can apply them for the changed situation. They have to do with specifying right, framing right, and finding the product-pallet fit.

Specify It Right

Product managers get what they specify, not what they wish. If you over-specify, the product will be over budget (time and costs) and will limit the creative options that your architects and engineers can incorporate.

My favorite example of this is the construction of Panama Canal. The canal as we know was made to get from the eastern seaboard to the western seaboard of the Americas. It looks like this on paper.

In reality the canal looks like this.

As the arrow shows, the canal is northwest to southeast in orientation, not east to west.

If Theodore Roosevelt had specified that the canal MUST be east-west, and the engineers had blindly obeyed, one can only imagine the extra cost and the additional deaths from yellow fever that would have befallen Panama.

On the other hand, if you under-specify, your teams will spin, scratching their heads trying to read your mind. The product concept will be changing hourly from elephant to camel to giraffe as teams come to grips with it. Nothing will ever get built.

Frame It Right

Defining the job-to-be-done is not a cliché to be read about and forgotten. If the problem is defined as “build cheap transportation method from A to B” we might end up with Uber; if the problem is defined as “build cheap car for millennials”, we’ll end up with a compact hybrid electric. Or if the problem is defined as “enable team collaboration”, we may end up with Slack; “enable groups to talk” may result in conference calling. None of them is outright wrong. Your organizational context determines which is right.

Know the ultimate job to be done, then frame the problem at the right level for your organization.

This is true whether building a cool cloud-controlled drone widget or you are building a beautiful wall. (Sorry, couldn’t resist!)

Find the Product-Pallet Fit

Another truism we all know is about finding the product-market fit, especially in early stages of your business. However, in complex product markets, the channel’s needs are equally critical just as the end customer’s needs are. Your product design has to accommodate for that or you will end up having a camel that doesn’t fit the pallet it gets shipped in. Or you’ll build a train that is intended for broad-gauge tracks, but the tracks are still narrow-gauge.

Find the Product-Pallet Fit

In the digital age, value chains are getting knotted. So channel considerations need to go right into the product design. Without product-pallet fit, you will not have the market reach nor will you hit scale.

Write it Down! Pyramid or Cube?

Finally, if you haven’t seen this advertisement, watch this and remember to always document your specs. At least you’ll have something to show your management team, should things go wrong despite your best efforts.

Also published on Medium.

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