October 22, 2017

Rise of the SaaS Product Manager – Part 2

In my last post, The Rise of the SaaS Product Manager,  I challenged Rick Chapman’s assertion on the Death of Traditional Software Product Management.   After posting this to LinkedIn, Rick took the time to respond on the SaaS Marketing University LinkedIn Group.    In this post, I respond to several of Rick’s responses.  You can see Rick’s full response on the LinkedIn Discussion.

Rick Chapman:  Their [PM] fundamental role at software companies is administrative, coordination, and cheer leading.

The role that Rick has described is what my colleagues at 280 Group call being a Product Janitor and I think that this misunderstanding of the PM role has also resulted in poor implementation of the PM role at many companies, which is quite unfortunate.  A Product Janitor spends their time working daily tactical and administrative tasks that have little impact on the success of their product.   In our Optimal Product Management course, we teach Product Managers to invest more time on thinking strategically on how to achieve a bigger impact on the success of their product during all 7 Phases of the product life-cycle.   Product Management is more than soliciting feature requests from customers, prioritizing them and delivering them to development via some form of a requirements document.   The PM role includes market research, competitive analysis, discovering new and unfulfilled market needs from current and future customers and other internal and external stakeholders, developing business cases for major product investments and setting the vision and strategy for the product.  If they also contribute to Product Marketing, the role can also include, developing the market strategy, ensuring the market messages are clear and consistent and supporting marketing, sales and channel partners with useful sales tools.

Rick Chapman:   I believe that PM training companies are mainly irrelevant to SaaS companies (note I said SaaS companies, not on-premise).

If your PM’s are primarily doing administrative and coordination work, no PM training is going to be relevant.  But if your PMs are expected to contribute in the ways that I describe above, then the Optimal Product Management & Product Marketing course is very relevant, even to SaaS companies.   We have SaaS companies, including Plex, participating in our OPM course and the feedback is overwhelmingly fantastic.

But let me address Rick’s specific issues:

  • MRDs & PRDs – these are just documents to present Market Needs and Product Requirements.   In the OPM course, we present that you have to adjust your presentation of Market Needs and Product Requirements to match your development methodology.  For Agile companies, this is via a prioritized (or ordered) backlog of User Stories.   We teach this in both OPM and in Agile Product Management Excellence.
  • PMs acting as customer stand ins during Agile development cycles – Real customer involvement is critical to contribute to User Stories and reviewing development efforts, but as much as we’d like to have customers continuously available during Agile development cycles, customers have their own jobs to do and have limited bandwidth to provide full guidance to the development teams.   Someone internally needs to represent these interests and good Product Managers do this.   At this time, the majority of software companies (both SaaS and on-premise) are implementing agile methodologies and PM’s are effectively contributing in this structure.
  • RoadMaps – if you have no product strategy, and your focus is on the next feature du jour from your customers, then RoadMaps are pointless.   But if you have a clear product strategy (that includes customer involvement), then a RoadMap is still an essential means to communicate that vision and plan resource requirements to accomplish that vision.

Rich Chapman:  I don’t say it is (on TE statement of “But Community Management, while important, cannot be the only driver of your product strategy”). But it will be the most critical driver of your product strategy.

That is correct, Rick didn’t say that your community is the only driver of your product strategy.  But then owns your product strategy if you don’t have product managers?   As I noted in my presentation, in addition to your current customers, there are a number of stakeholders (internal and external) that have needs that must be satisfied and someone has to turn that into a coherent and profitable strategy.   Product Management is the role to do that.

Another issue in the community is resolving conflicting or competing points of view.   The community can clearly weigh-in on those, but at some point, someone in the company needs to make a decision and Product Managers do that.

I also want to add that, from my experience, those most actively engaged in the user community are going to be the day-to-day users of your system and most of their requests will be feature-level driven requests.   These are important, but you also want to make sure you get insight into the perspective of their more senior level managers that actually own the business problems that you solve so that you can be looking beyond the feature du jour, but also solving new market needs.    My experience is that you need to reach out to them to solicit their insight and involve them in more strategic level discussions via something like a Product Advisory Council.

Rick Chapman:  More importantly, as I point out in the book, the integration of analytics and community into your service will make your entire organization accountable for your development and product decisions in ways that are not possible with on-premise software. IOW, you get to measure who’s ultimately smarter, your community or your management team.

I agree with Rick on this point.  The ability to measure every interaction a customer has with your SaaS product will make Product Managers more accountable for their decisions.

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