As a product manager, you are often faced with inheriting a product from someone else rather than having the full ownership from day 1. In this post, I am trying to elaborate on my own experience inheriting products and how to approach the subject.
As a guiding principle, I like to break it down into four phases.
First, there is the honey moon phase, where you spend time understanding your product and your new organization. This is then followed by the trial phase where you test out your theories and findings from the the honey moon phase. As you have tested your theories and concepts, you then summarize these in strategy definition phase and anchor them in the organization. Last, there is the the communication & execution phase where you echo your new vision & strategy both internally and externally.
We’ve all been there.
You’re excited to move into a new role in product management. Perhaps you are new to product management, coming from another role in R&D, product marketing or maybe you are simply from a product management role in another company or an adjacent division. You’ve read up on everything from product and go-to-market strategies, to the importance of product vision and R&D focus and are eager to start off fresh and really make a difference in this new position.
So what happens?
While it does happen that you get a blank sheet of paper (usually in startups or the alike), often you do not.
Most likely, you are hired because someone has either:
- a) Decided the company should invest in a strategic focus area and you are there to make it happen (leaving out a very important part of product management — the what and why), or
- b) Your predecessor has quit (or worst case — been fired), usually leaving a mess for you to fix.
I say mess here because in my experience, most product managers are messy, at least when it comes to handing tasks over to someone else. While this may even be the correct approach for an individual product manager (documentation usually steals far too much time, leaving less time to actually focus on the right things), it does make your new job a lot harder.
The honey moon phase
As a new hire, responsible for a product, your first and foremost priority should be to understand the current situation. Try to stay away from day-to-day operations (e.g. feature reviews, meetings, etc) as defined by your predecessor or the larger organizational structure and process.
The internal view
Instead, try to meet as many people as possible. After all, establishing a network is a crucial part of product management and in this situation, it is of critical importance that you form own picture of the situation. I have found that the best way of achieving this is to set up informal 30 minute chats with different people in the organization. By different people here, I also mean people on different levels in the organization (everything from VPs to engineers). This also serves another purpose — it gets your name visible to the wider organization increasing your credibility when it comes to anchoring decisions later on.
People in general are far more likely to support you when you have first approached them and asked for their input. Also remember to meet people on their level and speak their language. This will build your report and help you in the long run. And never, EVER, be afraid of asking questions, even the dumb ones. You will feel a lot dumber when you realize you incorrectly assumed something 6 months down the line.
Inheriting a product: 30 minute informal chats helps to build your network
As you progress with your meetings, you will most likely end up with many different versions of “the truth”. This is important to understand, because “the truth” in this case, is always relative to the person you talk to. Sales guys have one view of the world based on their situation and need, while engineering however has another (usually related to use cases not being clear, or priorities not aligned to the real world deployments). On a side note, I am a firm believer in that your engineering team needs to meet customers, both to hear the feedback first hand, but also to understand the dynamics of customer interaction. This will make your life as a product manager a lot easier in the long run.
The external view
The second part of the honey moon phase is to understand the external view. While it certainly helps to talk to analysts, and listen to sales guys, I’ve found the best way to engage with as many customers as you can. Most of them are surprisingly open to explain their needs and problems as long as you explain your background (being new, wanting to understand first hand, etc..). And again, don’t be afraid to ask questions (just not the ones where the answer is publicly available).
The third, and equally important aspect is to get an understanding for your competitors. If you are lucky there are few, however most likely there is a plethora of similar solutions or solutions that promise to solve the same problem. Get a grip on direct vs indirect competitors, and think about the value of your product vs those.
A word of caution here, while it certainly helps to heavily engage with customers as you try to understand and reshape your product vision and strategy, you do absolutely not want your sales force to put you into the “yet another sales / tech sales resource” compartment. This will severely impact your abilities to do real product management work down the line.
The trial phase
By now, you probably have a good understanding of the current situation for your product and it is time to try out some of your conclusions. Most likely, you have now heard many customers say roughly the same thing and you are starting to get an understanding for what your product should do in order to help your customers. This part is mostly product management as usual; formulate your opinion of what your customers want, figure out what makes your product unique, and go try it out with your customers. One word of caution here would be to make any radical changes to your roadmap until you have figured out which concepts fly, and which ones do not (again, by meeting customers and trying them out). Don’t rely on sales input alone, and definitely do not rely solely on what was handed over to you.
In addition, there is most likely already a defined go-to-market strategy for your product.
Does it make sense? Does it align with the phase & maturity of the product or does it need a refresh as well? Many things, especially in business to business settings, can be re-launced with new concepts and value propositions.
The strategy definition phase
Until now, you have spent most of your time understanding your product and customers. Now comes the part of trying to summarize everything you’ve learned over the past few months and start anchoring your views. Personally I like to do this in form of a presentation to senior management. This forces you to think through all the different items you’ve summarized. Just to recap; by now you should have a view on:
- Product vision
- Strategy & Roadmap
- Value Proposition
- Go-to-market strategy
The business model canvas is a great tool to get a quick overview on these things.
Most likely your product vision & strategy is different from the existing one, and hence needs an updated business case. Maybe you want to invest more? Maybe less? Does it hold? Only way to know (or at least get a best guess) is to rethink your business case.
Anchoring your findings
Remember all those meetings you had in the beginning? You probably have a good understanding of your go-to people by now (which are willing to help and which ones are not).
Now is a good time to pick a few of these people (forget about seniority for now), and try out your new found strategy and vision. Revise based on feedback where it makes sense. You will probably be fired upon with questions to which you don’t have answers, which is good — now you have a chance to figure them out before you present your findings to the senior execs.
The communication & execution phase
Getting everyone onboard
Now you have a strategy & vision, roadmap, value prop, and go-to-market model clear for you. It is probably a good time to get your immediate manager on the train, as well as book 1:1 with your key stakeholders. Assuming everyone is happy (if they are not, revise & update as you see fit — just remember they are not always right), book a meeting with your steering group to get an official stamp of approval.
So now you are done right? Of course not, now comes the fun part — go evangelize!
Communication will be your key tool here, both in terms of internally evangelizing this to your peers, but also to start building marketing material and tools to support your strategy & messages.
A quick note; depending on the state of your product in earlier phases, you may want to expand on communication internally at an earlier stage to make your name visible to the organization. Be mindful though, and focus on short-term items like release objects within the next 2-3 months so you don’t set the incorrect expectations for your strategy work later on.
Successfully inheriting a product: Evangelize your vision and plans!
While it may seem obvious, getting your engineering team onboard is as import (if not more so) as your management team. Make sure they understand what you are trying to achieve, and why. Do they understand who the customers are? How they are planning to use the product? What the next-best-alternative for those customers are (essentially your USPs and value prop)?
This is certainly a key element to make sure you are able to deliver on your commitments and plans later on.
Inheriting a product can be both challenging and exciting. While you will often struggle with understanding the work of your predecessor, the good thing is that as a “new product manager” you will often have a blank sheet of paper from a credibility perspective, both internally and externally. Be mindful that this goes both ways though as you do not yet have any value in the eyes of your peers.
To summarize a few key take aways from my own findings.
- Make sure that you find your friends, both internally and externally and use them to help anchor your views and try out your concepts.
- The “30 minute informal chat” approach is a great way of both building your network and find your key allies.
- As you move forward, make sure you get your engineering team onboard – they are vital to your product success.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate.