The Six Pilars of Product Management

“There is a problem in the industry today.” That line is in itself a great way to start any product pitch, but Marty Cagan, (author of “Inspired” one of the best Product Management Books) used to shed some light on a growing problem in the world of Product Management.

The CSPO Pathology

In many organizations, the responsibly for Product Management falls on the shoulders of the Product Owner. This in itself is not a bad thing. Especially since the person(s) that invented the role had this in mind.

What is a bad thing, is that, typically, these people receive very little training for this role. Marty points out two main problems with this:

  • Product Owners that follow just a CSPO training are ill equipped to handle the broadness and complexity of the role
  • Though time is spent on Product Management in these trainings, it is often delivered by an agile coach or Scrum expert and not a Product Management expert

So let’s unravel this and see if we can come up with some ideas to fix this.

Learning judo from a yoga teacher

Question: “would you learn judo from a yoga teacher?”

The answer is probably no. Both sports are based on folding people, the one is less voluntarily than the other. But is is it useless?

I would argue that it isn’t. There are a number of learning objectives in the CSPO that can be taught well, even by those without experience in Product Management. A number, but not all, and certainly not all those that you would need to be prepared to be well equipped for the role of Product Manager.

The solution to this problem isn’t that hard. When considering a training, lookup the trainer! I tried this for CSPO trainings offered in my neighborhood and found two trainers that, according to their linkedin profile had experience in actually running a business, both in the services domain and less in say business-to-business or business-to-consumers.

[Disclaimer: I teach PSPO which is not the same as CSPO, so I may have overlooked some of the available trainers.]

However even if the trainer has some real world experience, what does that mean? were they leading a product or just a component? what stages of the lifecycle were covered? and how sure can you be that the right topics are covered in your training?

What about PSPO?

There is that other training called Professional Scrum Product Owner. I don’t want to pit the one to other, I have seen and participated several CSPO trainings. Some were awesome, and some didn’t cover the basics of Product Management.

Since the PSPO has standardized courseware it is easier to inspect to what extend Product Management is covered in class, so we can have an opinion about that.

PSPO spends about a day on Product Management, PSPO-A is 100% Product Management and those who teach have gone through a rigorous train-the-trainer program. Okay, but is it enough? does it cover all aspects of Product Management? before we can answer that we have to look at a very old question:

What is Product Management?

The Scrum guide is purposely incomplete. It defines what a Product Owner should do in the context of Scrum and mentions that they also need to do Product Management. By not defining that Scrum became (more) universally applicable and at the same time.

The same is true for the “Developers.” Though the Scrum Guide talks about the importance of delivering Done increments, it doesn’t tell the team how to arrive at those. No one would expect a (product) Developer to attend a two day training at be a master in how to create product increments. We expect Developers to have additional training in specific subjects like coding, testing, architecture, design, analytics, engineering, content creating, legal, finance, packaging, logistics or whatever skills they need to have to successfully create an increment.

But back to the question at hand: What is Product Management? Since there is no exact definition all we can do is try a to make a model of the profession. As you probably know (“all models are wrong, some are useful”) this is an approximation of the truth.

Robbin Schuurman and I spend several years reseaching this topic and this is the result:

The core of the role is about communication and entrepreneurship. Product Managers create value by seeking out new opportunities, by finding problems worth solving and communicating that to the rest of the organisation.

Communicate: from the latin verb communicare — ” to make common”

Product Management is supported by six distinct pillars:

  • Market; the problem space, the unrealized value, the understanding on what could translate into value
  • Product; the end result that solves the pain of the customer, performs the “job-to-be-done”
  • Process; the way by which we get things done. Not just the development but during the whole lifecycle of the product
  • People; products are typically created by more than one person, meaning we have to find ways to work together
  • Business; even with a holistic view you need to make money in order to stay around
  • Leadership; if more than anything, Product Management is a leadership role. Leadership of the people, the product and the constant change

One level deeper the diagram may look something like this:

So where does the Scrum guide fit in? According to the guide “Scrum is a lightweight framework that helps people, teams and organizations generate value through adaptive solutions for complex problems.” Which puts it in the process space. Nothing wrong with that, it’s the best tool in the belt, but what other subjects, tools or skills could help you out?

Professional Product Management

Let’s dive a little deeper into what Professional Product Management actually is and see if we can provide some clues as to what you can read and study to further.

PROCESS of Product Marketing

This domain bridges product management to market communications. Now, you typically don’t do all this work yourself, but make sure it happens (this is a phrase we will repeat often.) Knowing what the domain is about increases your effectiveness. Think about topics like:

  • Markting funnels
  • 4Ps marketing mix
  • Marketing personas
  • Search Engine Marketing (SEM) and Optimisation (SEO)
  • Email marketing and automation
  • Marketing messaging and tactics
  • Go to market strategies

PROCESS of Product Development

A lot has been written on this already and this is actually an area that most Product Owner trainings actually cover. Think of:

  • Managing planned based development (Project)
  • Managing iterative based development (Scrum, Kanban)
  • Product Discovery (Design Sprints, Innovation management)
  • Obeya rooms and product walls
  • Product Portfolio management
  • Development at scale

PROCESS of Product Management

It is all product management but if you want to deepen your knowledge in the core of the role you are probably looking at:

  • Product Management Frameworks
  • Product Management Process
  • Product Life Cycle Model
  • B2B, B2C, B2B2C Product Management

These are probably also areas that you will find hard to delegate to other teams.

MARKET

This domain is all about discovering what problems are worth solving. Think about topics like:

  • Different market research techniques
  • Analysing competitors
  • Finding blue vs red oceans

You also want to improve the customer research and analysis. Think about:

  • Segmentation of your target audience
  • Getting to crisp problem statements
  • Personas, empathy maps, jobs to be done
  • Design thinking, LEAN startup, customer experience (CX, UX, UI)

Then there is probably a lot in your particular domain or industry that you need to be aware of. If you create software for pilots, sail with them, if you own an accounting product, learn about accounting or better: pair with an account to learn the real issues.

BUSINESS strategy

This is where most Product Owners face the largest challenges. To improve your relation with the business you may need to learn more about topics like:

  • Hoshin Kanri Matrixes
  • OKR’s and goal setting
  • SWOT, PESTLE, Wardley Mapping etc. to analyse the business
  • Porters five forces and expressing the strategy
  • Value Chain Mapping

BUSINESS Finance

The product is a vehicle of the organization to generate value for the organization. Most of the times that means money, finance and budgeting:

  • Core financial concepts like EBITA, COG, depreciation etc.
  • The business and revenue model
  • How business cases are managed accounted
  • Financial dashboards and reporting
  • Financial forecasting, rolling wave forecasting
  • Three horizons investment strategy

BUSINESS Pricing and Sales

Once you are more involved in the budgeting and finance part of the product you will automatically become interested in the sales and pricing process if you weren’t already. We actually wrote an introduction to that topic here. Think also of a more in depth approach in eg.

  • Pricing process, strategy and tactics
  • Pricing lifecycle
  • Experimentation, validation with pricing
  • Purchase behaviour, customer acquisition channels and purchase behavior
  • Sales strategy and tactics
  • Sales support and enablement

BUSINESS Value Maximization

Product Owners are value maximizers! but what does that mean from a business perspective? Think about:

  • Defining product success metrics
  • Key value- and performance indicators
  • Prototyping and validating ideas
  • Metrics like AARRR, EBM and HEARTH metrics
  • Looking at different product analytics tools
  • Data driven decision making

PEOPLE

Product Management is a job that you cannot do by yourself so some areas of improvement and study are in the domain of working with people:

  • Working with UX
  • Working with Developement / Engineering
  • Working with Marketing, Sales and Account Management
  • Working with Operations, Data Scientists other Product Managers
  • Working with Executives

This is also true for typical relationships you maintain outside the company. Think of:

  • Partners, Vendors and Suppliers
  • Outsourcing and Offshoring
  • Contract Management, SLA, ELA etc.
  • Collaborating with Governance, compliance etc.

Most of the time we don’t hire people for their hands but for their brains. Meaning that to further our people skills we should improve the way we handle complex problems and solve them.

  • Root cause analysis
  • Problem solving process
  • Systems thinking
  • Identifying and analysing problems
  • Crisis management

LEADERSHIP of people

By now you have realised that Product Management has more to do with managing a lot of people in a very complex domain. Inspect and adapt are still key, but how do you get people engaged? Leading people starts with leading yourself.

  • Your strengths and weaknesses
  • Dealing with and delivering feedback
  • Communication and leadership styles
  • Supporting growth, coaching, mentoring, teaching and facilitating
  • Managing superheroes

LEADERSHIP of change

The complex domain means that many things will change. Managing that change is very important. As a Product Manager you will find yourself in a situation where you have to change the rules to ensure the outcome. Things that may help you grow in that area are:

  • Creating a sense of urgency
  • Building and leading a coalition
  • Creating the change vision and enlisting the followers
  • Principles, value and culture to sustain the change

LEADERSHIP influence and politics

Many Product Managers that I’ve met mentioned they “did not want to play the game” hence the game was played without them. What can you do to play the game by your rules.

  • Stakeholder management strategies
  • Saying no, leading without authority
  • Negotiation and difficult conversations
  • Public speaking, writing, sprint reviews
  • The psychology of persuasion

PRODUCT-market fit

Are you still with me? good. We are entering the realm of product. These are the areas that are traditionally associated with product planning and the core of the role. Tying it back to the beginning of this post: this is usually where traditional training falls short and when you look at the topic you will understand why. It is not something you learn overnight, perhaps shadowing another Product Manager is a better approach.

  • Connecting goals to problems and to personas
  • Rapid experimentation and validation
  • Product adoption and growth
  • Product requirements gathering
  • Design Thinking techniques like wire framing, A/B testing and more
  • Assessing solution viability
  • Probably more.

PRODUCT strategy

Here we find many topics that the PSPO-A tries to cover, and are probably the most discussed topics in many books on product management. Think of subjects like:

  • Product Vision
  • Product Strategy, Business Modelling, Value Proposition Design, Strategic Analysis
  • Positioning and strategic advantage
  • Product roadmaps, goals and features
  • Forecasting, aligning, communicating and connecting goals and features
  • Story design and story telling, pitching etc.
  • Canvasses… lots of canvasses

Please stop! this is too much

At the core Product Management boils down to communication and entrepreneurship.

“Someone who ows the store is behaves fundamently different than someone who manages the store. That difference is called entrepreneurship.” — Jesse Houwing

As entrepreneurs will tell you, each path is different. You need to find out what works in your situation, what skills you need to grow, what frameworks work for you and which pilar need focus at this point in time.

There is no such thing as best practices when you are in the complex domain, meaning that there are only practices that work in a particular context and a particular point in time.

Back to the original question: what is the answer to the CSPO pathology? I would say: keep learning. Find teachers that can really help you along the way. In the form of formal training, but mostly from teachers in the field, teachers that practice product management every day and know what they are talking about.

Good luck on your journey and I hope we meet to exchange travel notes.

Agile Product Management inspired by eastern martial arts