If you want to be a bad product manager, just focus on prioritizing features. That’s what product managers do, after all — just collect features from customers and decide which are the most important ones to add to the product. Plus, now with all these great tools that let you collect features directly online and have customers vote on them, it’s even easier since your customers are doing all of your work for you!
If you want to be a good product manager, realize that your job is much more than prioritizing features. Sure, a product manager needs to understand what features need to be added to a product to meet customer needs, though just focusing on collecting and prioritizing features is an extremely narrow view of product management.
Product managers need to have a much broader view, seeing and understanding everything from the underlying customer needs to the business model to the product roadmap to the go-to-market strategy. Unfortunately, it is all too easy for product managers to fall in to feature-focused development mode, especially for online products and those developed using Agile methods.
Why does this happen? A few possible reasons:
- It is perceived as a relatively “safe” approach to product management. Implementing changes which have been requested is a not very controversial approach, after all. If a myriad of requests come in (and they often do), someone needs to choose which ones get addressed first. Product managers can easily get overwhelmed with the impossible task of trying to come up with a prioritization approach which attempts to please everyone both internally and externally. Instead of focusing on value-adding strategic activities, they may end up spending a majority of their time trying to deal with these never-ending feature lists.
- The prevalence of online tools which allow product development teams to capture input from users — everything from dedicated tools like Salesforce Ideas to social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter — has also put increased emphasis on feature lists. A product manager no longer needs to plan a customer visit or pick up a phone to get input; just put a query out on one of these sites, or look through what customers are posting themselves, and it will likely generate a large list of potential incremental enhancements. Unfortunately, just counting the number of times a specific idea is mentioned — or letting customers themselves vote — does not a product manager make. These tools are useful if used appropriately and in conjunction with other ways of obtaining a customer understanding, though they are not themselves a substitute for a product manager.
- Inexperienced product managers without sufficient training and guidance do not know any better, and assume their job is just to collect features, prioritize them based on some criteria, and then make sure they get implemented. Many do not realize that there is much more to the role, and with pressure from others within the organization (e.g. “Make sure you keep the developers busy!”), their focus may extremely limited.
So, how does a product manager prevent this from happening, or break out of the trap if it already is? Do this by taking successive steps back from the feature prioritization exercise. Ask yourself (and your team members) these questions: What is the purpose of the feature? What problem does it solve and for whom? How prevalent is this problem? Are there other ways to solve this problem? How important is it that we solve that problem for that customer segment? What segment are we targeting and what are the most important problems to solve for them? How does this support the product strategy and roadmap?
It is easy to get sucked in to the feature prioritization spiral, though good product managers need to stay above the fray and focus on the broader and more important strategic aspects of product management.