Product managers are critical along the journey to become customer-centric. To that end, few investments are more important than product manager training.
Before diving too deep into the product manager training strategy, let’s discuss this title, “product manager.” Since titles don’t always mean the same thing from company to company, let’s be precise in our definition. We’re referring to the person tasked with diagnosing market problems and working with R&D and development to solve those problems. That is, to solve them with new products. (In some organizations, particularly more industrial B2B organizations, this term may not be used.) If unsure about the critical nature of this function, please reference this AIM article: It’s time to Build the Product Manager Organization.
Regarding undergraduate study for product managers, many fields of study will suffice. Since the position requires such breadth and depth, the undergraduate degree will only be the start. Therefore, the aspiring product manager should plan on graduate study along with specialized additional training.
However, if we were to design the perfect resume, the aspiring product manager would probably study engineering. Scientific fields provide an ideal foundation. But again, a product manager could arise from many disciplines.
The breadth for the product manager training strategy is covered by the typical MBA program. The program should cover accounting, finance, marketing, micro-economics, operations, strategy, statistics/data analysis, and supply-chain management.
Accounting both provides the background for pricing (fixed vs. variable costs, contribution margin, etc.). While the ability to read financial statements from finance is interesting, it’s really the ROI tools that the product manager needs to understand. Tools such as NPV and IRR. Marketing will obviously be a core skill. Micro-economics is helpful for pricing analyses. It also provides a basis to understand customer decision-making. The value for operational knowledge may not be obvious. However, product manager decisions (such as the degree of product customization) will impact costs and customer experiences.
Also, the product manager should know strategy, from the old Porter’s 5-Forces model to the newer Blue Ocean constructs. Statistics and data analysis are required to use quantitative tools. Finally, supply-chain management rounds out the the breadth for our product manager training basics. Helping our padewans to be partners with their own procurement folks. Not to mention, those who they may be promoting products to one day.
What about the depth? The product manager training protocol should also cover two skill areas outside of typical business studies. These are behavioral economics and new product development. “Behavioral economics” is the social science that seeks to understand how people, and therefore customers, make decisions. A person can generally find what they need within a few well-known books. The following provide an excellent treatment, but certainly, there are others: Made to Stick (Heath and Heath, 2007), Predictably Irrational (Ariely, 2010), and Thinking, Fast and Slow (Kahneman, 2013).
For new product development training, PDMA (The Product Development and Management Association) has an program within their New Product Development Professional certification. Also, this will introduce the candidates to leading authors for which they may go deeper.
Finally, there’s an area for elite expertise. With the basics in place, the product management training strategy can focus on a core area. One in which they should develop elite expertise: uncovering and meeting customer needs. As part of this, the product manager must be able to scope a project, to execute a qualitative (Discovery) interview project and to execute quantitative (Preference) research. Additionally, they must be able to work with R&D/NPD to develop product specs. Beyond this, they must be able to lead the concept testing efforts. The aspiring product manager will find these within New Product Blueprinting.
True professionals are never “finished” with their education. A product manager training strategy must include continuous training. The product manager should cultivate a list of key books to read. (Also, they should actually read them!) They should share ideas with other practitioners. Just as any professional does, the product manager should take ongoing courses (such as the Blueprinting Master Class series – which is free to Blueprinter software subscribers; but others can view past sessions here).
Next, to be truly excellent at their craft, the product manager should seek diversity within the product types and industry they work within. They should mix it up! They should seek opportunities across a range of products. From traditional commodities, durable goods, services, software, B2B/B2C, etc. and every possible element of diversity. The product manager who works in diverse environments will become better at their craft than does one who stays within the same industry.
The product manager should read the best thought leaders. Compare and contrast their positions. Some experts begin as academics, others as practitioners. Each contribute something unique. And they’re found in many places.
Clayton Christensen, W. Chan Kim, Renee Mauborgne, Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble come to mind. Christensen was a pioneer in jobs-to-be-done philosophy, helping us to see that customers “hire” products to accomplish a job. Kim and Mauborgne published Blue Ocean Strategy, which put forth the big idea that value can be created by creating a unique performance curve. Govindarajan and Trimble took on the execution challenge in their work The Other Side of Innovation. Consult reading lists such as this one which others have cultivated.
From the world of practitioners, we have our very own Dan Adams – who pioneered the world’s only B2B-optimized innovation system. Next, there’s Steve Johnson, sometimes called the godfather of product management, who championed the radical concept that product management is a strategic function. Melissa Perri teaches about the “Build Trap”, addressing challenges within software development.
And of course, there’s Tony Ulwick. He is a former IBMer who would become the architect of modern jobs-to-be-done philosophy. Ulwick created a system for JTBD execution (Outcome-Driven Innovation, or “ODI”) that has been applied to every imaginable market.
All experts have one thing in common with each other: they began as a novice! And therefore, they are likely to respond favorably if asked for advice. So sure, as part of a product manager training strategy, product managers should read their books. But they shouldn’t stop there! The aspiring product manager should reach out via social media or find them at a conference.
If you are in a position of leadership and have read this far, you likely understand the strategic importance of this role. And that insight by itself will elevate you above your peers. You’re working on the correct problem!
However, we must recognize that product manager training is just a component of the strategy. To build an elite basketball team, would training alone be enough? Clearly not. The coach must build a system. Let’s look at what else should be in place.
Have a path for aspiring product managers. Nobody should enter product management at a company right out of college. First, they should have a tour of duty (or two) in a related field. These typically are engineering, operations, or marketing.
From there, unless they have the experience elsewhere, candidates should enter your funnel in a junior position, such as an “Associate Product Manager.” Here, they should work under a product manager. Learning the craft. This is where they should complete most of the product manager training listed above. And of course, this is an opportunity for them to decide if the field is a good fit for them.
What else can be done? Begin with a path. Have higher organizational levels to aspire to. For example, create a position such as “Senior Product Manager.” Pay this position well. If you can keep talented folks in the role, it would be impossible to overstate the value to your company.
Keep the good ones there as long as you can. Be prepared to pay more if needed. Also, here’s an inexpensive way to both keep them and help them along their learning path: encourage them to rotate to different product types. The more different types of products they work with, the more knowledgeable they will become. Meanwhile, the diversity of assignments will prevent them from feeling bored or stale in their assignments.
Executives and practitioners alike should treat it as a profession. Immature and stagnant companies just count on salespeople and engineers to determine what customers want. Leading companies understand the strategic role of product management.
Learn to play an infinite game. In his book Finite and Infinite Games, author James Carse teaches that “There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.”
Leadership begins at the top. The best executives understand that development of the product management organization is an infinite game. There’s no finish. No end point. We can never declare victory. It’s a continuous process of developing, nurturing. The product manager training strategy is a winning tactic in an infinite game. It’s a game that create experts. These experts will eventually provide the “blueprints” (pun intended!) for profitable new products. And many of them.
Moreover, here’s our “infinite game.” Ours is like the investing approach of Buffett and Munger. The legendary investors who aren’t afraid of volatility. Known for their focus on the long term. However, most are playing the finite game of throwing money at R&D and M&A. They are more like a day trader, not planning for next month. And certainly not next year or thereafter.
The best companies are aligned on this role. They understand the importance to the product manager organization all the way up. The CEO, the leaders and even the board. These leaders will be patient with the progress of practitioners. They know that growth will follow. They understand that victory is coming. This strategy will be framed as a narrative to shareholders. Giving a reason to believe in a profitable future. And a good reason at that.
Additionally, leaders support this commitment with continuous investments in product manager training, for both the novice as well as the expert.
Moreover, with the caveat that product manager training should be part of a system rather than a silver bullet, this is one of the best investments that a company can make. What are these investments? Product manager training typically costs about the same amount as other executive educational programs, which is $800 – $1500 per day.
Consider that every time an employee takes a domestic business trip for a 2-3 days, that they’re likely spending this same amount. (But with no residual, long term benefit to the company.) So, the total investment is quite low. But to be honest, even this cost-based analysis is small-thinking. As in microscopically small thinking.
Meanwhile, how about the real cost? It’s the opportunity cost. The wasted time of engineers and developers. Those who spend company time building unwanted products. It’s the lost business. It’s the lost margins, not to mention the lost market share. And, what cost can we even put on a unhappy customer? Moreover, how can we measure the upside from many happy customers?
However, if you’re reflecting upon your own organization, and you’re seeing issues, this might be discouraging. And yes, the best time to have begun your commitment to product manager training was five years ago. But the second-best time is now! Especially with all the virtual training options these days, it’s never been easier to get started.