The product manager challenge

I read the On Product Management blog and recently Saeed posted an article titled Product Managers need time to breathe… He states:

I’m going to make an assertion here, and please correct me if I’m wrong.

I believe that the vast majority of software product managers are running full tilt in their jobs, caught between the short term tactical cross-functional activities (working with Dev, Sales, Marketing etc) that are thrust upon us, and the important long term market research, business and product planning activities that are fundamental to managing successful products.

Which got me thinking about the role I play in my company, as the only product manager for the Windows-based software we sell. My response:

I would tend to agree with this — in general I think the more time that someone has to focus on the core elements of their work, the better the result will be.

First, some background: I work in a small software / technology company where I am the only official PM, although many others, especially the exec team, contribute heavily to the product goals and design. All told we have 6 developers and 2 main products (with many smaller, related products underneath), 1 of which I manage almost exclusively. I am also the project manager for 2-3 devs working on my product. To say I am the main product expert is probably an understatement. Because I understand all the different elements of the company and work with everyone on every level — from execs, to development, to design, to marketing, to sales and support — I am usually the resource that is most heavily used.

For me, the challenge is this: the short-term needs of my company do have a big impact on our long-term success (we don’t have deep pockets), so I feel it is important to stay close to the day-to-day needs of the company to make sure that as a unit we are all working effectively. My position, knowledge, and experience allows me to do that pretty well. On the other hand, it does mean that some of the long-term strategies are getting less attention than they otherwise might, and it does also mean that I am stretched pretty thin on a regular basis, and I’m certain that my creativity suffers as a result.

The only way I’ve been able to handle all of this is by being really good at managing my time (and I still have room for improvement there). Quite a bit of work, especially the creative kind, does get done outside of normal business hours when things are quiet, but I am also able to create certain hours in the day when I can work uninterrupted. The challenge here is being able to switch gears away from and back to a certain project, especially one that requires a lot of research or design or has a long process. Fortunately I am pretty good at that, although at times it does get frustrating.

Our track record so far has proven that this is working, as we are seeing products and profits improve. Our competitors are not able to keep up with the speed of our development either, and I’m pretty sure that we stay closer to the industry trends than anyone else in our market.

So for me the bottom line is that while I would love more time to focus on just the product management side, I don’t think it’s realistic or even recommended considering the size of my company and the speed in which we typically move. I accept this as the reality of the small business we are operating and I just do my best to juggle it all. Do I learn a lot and sharpen my skills regularly as a result? Absolutely.

So my point is that for our organization, as it stands now, I think I’m doing what I need to do. But the question remains — is the long-term strategy suffering because ultimately my company is focused on short-term results? And does it make sense to burden certain people so heavily that they really have no choice but to move on to something else eventually or simply burn out? How important really is deep research and strategy when you are running a small company that values quick decisions and single-person innovators? Does it make more sense to get a product out the door faster based on more narrow research, feedback and good assumptions, and make changes based on user feedback after the fact, i.e. focus on iterative development? (if you want a cool catchphrase this is “Googley”) Or does that just set you up for failure? (and you will fail at some point!) Failure on a large scale is certainly not an option, so perhaps the better question is — which approach offers less risk?

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