As a product manager, you are at the epicentre of the wider product team, the glue holding all the pieces together. What I’ve realised in my years of managing product across multiple sectors is that this role does not deviate or change significantly, regardless of industry, whatever product you produce, or for whatever type of end user. In fact, I’d say that the role of a product manager is industry agnostic. You can transfer the skill set and experience of a good product manager anywhere and see great results.
I’ve been a product manager in several industries, and for a wide range of end users. I’ve managed websites, produced interactive TV games, iPad newspaper broadsheet apps, digital marketing SaaS for B2B professional services, event apps, news desktop software and mobile apps for financial professionals, and more. In each of these roles, I’ve had to learn the market, start from scratch in knowing my customer, and work very closely with technologists. But not once have I had to change my overarching product management methodology or had to waver from using my toolkit of best practice approaches to product management, as they did the job perfectly well in each context.
The Transition Challenge
I’ve used several tools and skill sets to manage the transition across several industries and product types, these I refer to as the core best practice methodologies; competitor analysis, stakeholder management, product knowledge, market understanding, product requirement writing, good communication and relationship building.
I believe the first step for anyone in a new role is to get to know the lead developer. Find the person who understands all aspects of the product, front end, back end, technical architecture and so on and spend as much time with them as you can, asking them all about the product, its history, limitations, present-day challenges and where the dev team think it should go. Then talk to the product team or your peers to get their input from a product perspective – what’s good about the product, what’s not and how do they think the product or set of features should evolve.
The second critical step is to spend time with your customers. Be as immersive as you can, either by talking to them directly if possible, or by talking to sales and support staff (or both) and of course by looking at all customer research, reports, and online survey results. In my last role I spent three months with customers, client specialists and the research team before I was ready to begin producing a product strategy.
Lastly you need to know your stakeholders, from the people in your business that you are accountable to, to business owners and industry experts. If you get to know your key stakeholders – what they think of your product, what their challenges are, what they need to achieve – and curate a plan that will ensure they also achieve their goals, you will be on to a winner. For more on stakeholder analysis and tools to manage your stakeholders check out this guide: Pragmatic Producteer – Stakeholder Mgt.
Of course the conversations above depend on the organisation; start-ups and early stage products vs. enterprise / legacy products, the people available to you, or the status of the product itself, play a part in how much knowledge you can garner from these conversations. But customers will always give you valuable insight, developers and engineers will have thoughts worth hearing and your key stakeholders KPIs are intrinsic to the success of your product. If you nurture these relationships you will create a solid foundation upon which you can begin to build a viable product roadmap/strategy.
Essential Mantras of Product Management
I’ve found the following invaluable:
Communication: clear, consistent and regular, what’s the last update you gave to your key stakeholders, keep pivotal players in the loop at all times.
Relationship building: identify your key peers and stakeholders and work with them well, know what drives them, what they are trying to achieve.
Customer knowledge: spend all the time you can spare with your customers and research team. Commission surveys and research projects as much as is necessary to ensure you are constantly in touch with how your customers are interacting with your product.
Analytics: learn to LOVE your analytics tools, product reports regularly and if you don’t have a BA (Business Analyst) become one
Product Knowledge: know your product inside out, learn its history and the product team themselves – how they have shaped and changed the product before you got there
Business Strategy: understand your product’s place in the business strategy, is it following it or driving it?
Competition: know your competition, understand how you’ll become better than them and know what is good as well as what’s bad about what your they have to offer
Tech Stack: understand the technology as much as you can – you don’t have to be an expert, just know where the limitations and challenges are
Market Landscape: know what lies ahead in your industry, its driving factors and core players, not just the competition but all relevant players and tech and usage trends
User Experience: be a UX evangelist – work with internal UX experts or agency UX teams to ensure you know the best user experience you could provide your customers – and then work towards delivering it
Position yourself to become an industry-agnostic product manager
I think any good product manager can choose to widen their scope when looking for that next challenge. If you believe that you could apply the methodologies and mantras I’ve described to another product or industry, then all you need to take that leap is confidence.
Even when the job spec calls for prior knowledge or industry experience, you can reduce the gap between yourself and other candidates if you have this confidence. If you can go to an interview having done your research, and learnt the key aspects of the industry you are interested in and taken the time to get to grips with the market, tech and competition, then any prospective employer will see the value you could bring to the role as a solid product manager. You’ll be seen as someone hungry to learn a new industry, manage a new type of product and willing to apply the skills and methodologies you’ve already learnt and honed to a new and exciting challenge.