One can hardly do an effective job of project management by being insulated in an ivory tower; only viewing flow charts and spread sheets with budgets, schedules and updates on a computer screen. One needs to have a far more fluid outlook and modus operandi.
The elements of project management can be rather simply synthesized into Gather, Synthesize, Prioritize, Define and Shepard and here are FIVE KEY questions a project manager should ask to stay on track.
1. Why should I Gather information?
A huge part of product management is simply knowing “what’s going on” — what people do all day as it relates to the product, what kinds of things they wish they could change, and how the various constituencies interact. While most product managers have plenty of good ideas on how to improve the product, gathering ideas from and identifying problems in the rest of the organization are just as important; especially from those members of your group or organization who are in touch with the customer or potential customers.
2. Why Synthesize and connect the dots?
As ideas and issues emerge, a product manager needs to create connections where others do not see them. Two groups in an organization may have two very different problems. A product manager should be able to find a way to make a single, better-abstracted view of the underlying concern.
Synthesizing also involves creating named themes, initiatives, and goals for a product. Never underestimate the power of synthesis to create common understanding and bring sanity to the chaos of “line item” requests. Synthesis is also instrumental in winning the hearts of product team members.
3. Why Prioritize?
Choosing what is most important is an art. Deep understanding of business strategy, market realities, and resource capabilities is key. Knowing what’s hard vs. what’s easy and what’s of broad vs. narrow value helps to create a prioritized list of the various tasks to be completed.
Given infinite time and infinite resources everything would be possible, but in the real world, making the hard choices (or, more importantly, helping the rest of the group or organization make the hard choices) becomes one of the central functions of a good product manager.
4. Does everything have to be documented and Defined?
A product manager must own the detailed definition of what the product should do so that implementing or engineering teams know what they will build. This involves plenty of documentation, though much less than you probably think. Document only as much as you have to. Don’t create detail for detail’s sake. With web-based software the need to be quick and iterate frequently makes it essential to move forward with imperfect information and adjust as you go. If you’ve been an engineer or worked closely with engineers, you know the unique horrors of changing the spec and the dread of feature-creep.
Part of the reason for the rise of these more agile methods is that rather than constantly reacting to attempts to get to a “finished” spec of a project (only to see that spec change in the middle of the cycle) engineers started to simply build the dynamic nature of requirements into the system. “Define” does not always mean writing down as much as being the Source of Truth.
4. Why must I be a Shepherd?
A big part of my day as a product manager involves, quite literally, walking around the building. Keeping all of the balls in the air is a critical part of product management. In most organizations there is nobody else who sees all the various pieces and how they must fit together. Many product efforts require coordinating distributed efforts towards a single destination (and doing that over and over again).
In my world, having the engineering “done” is only about 2/3 of the process. Once the actual “product” is at a finished state, packaging, documenting, training, and distributing all remain.
Summary: Managing a product can draw many parallels to what a community manager does. It means staying in touch with everyone and everything involved in the process.