I'll never forget the day another product person called what I did "magic." I had just started as head of product for a new company. They had one successful product and they needed to get serious about branching out. Predictably, though, the executives each had strong and contradictory opinions about where the company should focus.
The first thing I did was to sit down with the CEO and ask what our strategic goals were as a company -- not our product goals (that was my job) -- but our company goals. Like any good CEO, he ticked off four SMART goals in a couple of minutes.
I spent my first month shuttling back and forth between stakeholders and talking through how each of their ideas did or did not help with our strategic goals. I then had a 90-minute meeting with the executive team where we picked our key initiatives for the year with very little argument.
That's when one of the other product people turned to me and said, "That was magic." He had been there for two years and had never seen that group of strong personalities come to agreement so easily.
Of course, it wasn't magic at all. It was what I call "product powers." These are the hidden capabilities of product people to do the nigh impossible.
Product people are often the most important people in an organization. Others play indispensable roles: A CEO should articulate a vision for the company, salespeople bring in the revenue, developers create what the company sells, finance people keep the lights on so everyone else can do their jobs. But in many organizations, the ones who take the CEO's vision and orchestrate the rest of the team to make it real are the product people.
Who Are Product People?
Product people may have titles like "product manager," "product marketing manager," or in some places "program manager." Where product people have more sway over exactly what is developed, the head of the team is now frequently called simply "VP of Product" or even "Chief Product Officer."
Many organizations have no one with "product" in their title, but this coordinating, collaborating, and directing role is played by someone in engineering, or in business development, or with a title like "corporate strategy."
Sometimes, when no one else takes the reins, marketing managers, development managers, project managers, or business analysts are drafted into this role.
What Do Product People Do?
Whatever the title, product people are the ones who make sure the right things get done in an organization. Often, they have few or no direct reports, but their job is to articulate a roadmap for the whole company to follow toward the company's strategic vision. Product people have more influence per head than any other role besides the CEO. With this power comes responsibility.
This responsibility is often to grow revenue, as in Ian Lunn's excellent definition of a product manager. But other business goals might include adoption, engagement, satisfaction, renewal rate, a new channel, or a new market.
Getting agreement on the goals that fit the company's strategic vision is the first and most important job of a product person.
Aren't Product People About Building Things?
Yeah, that's my favorite part, too. I like nothing better than sitting with my team and designing the killer featureset that I know will solve problems and delight my customer.
But many product people, unfortunately, set out to build things without strategic goals. They end up building only what customers ask for, me-too features to match the competition, or the next version for the same market, instead of branching out into new ones.
I'm not blaming product people for this. It's an enormous challenge to say "no" or "not this year" to powerful customers, executives, salespeople, investors, and partners.
But there is a secret power that lies dormant in many product people: the power to inspire those stakeholders with a practical path toward a common vision for the future. Used for the good of the organization, this power inspires others to do the right thing in their own jobs.
I am inspired to rededicate this blog (formerly known as User>Driven) to helping product people everywhere unleash their hidden powers - and to use them for the good of the company, its customers, partners, investors, and employees. Subscribe via RSS or email if you'd like to tag along.
Have you experienced product powers at work? Share your stories in the comments below.