Product management is more than ideas

The conversation changes like so many I have had before.  “I think I should be in Product, I have a great idea…”.  I had been talking with somebody who just got off the phone with a customer that was complaining about a bug.  The customer service professional brings me the list of ideas that he has to fix the product to solve all of these customer issues, and the conversation inevitably turns to a discussion about how their career path can lead to product.  

One of the challenges a product manager faces is the fallacy that good ideas are the foundation of what makes a good product manager.  I have yet to meet a product manager that has not had routine conversations with their non-product manager peers about why they would make great product managers because they have great ideas.  In some cases I have seen companies hire or promote people into product management solely on the basis of their enthusiasm and passion for their ideas.  

The key thing that most of these would-be product managers (or companies that actually hire them) fail to understand is that coming up with an idea is just the tip of the iceberg, and there is a lot more that needs to be done before it is executed on.  While vetting ideas is not the only thing that a product manager does, it is worth diving into the steps that a product manager takes when vetting an idea. 

Alignment to the product mission and vision 

The first step is to identify whether or not the idea is aligned to the mission of your product or organization.  Sure, the idea might bring in revenue or cut costs, but does it further the mission?  If it does then you can move forward, if it does not, then it dies right there. 

Determining the value 

The next step is to determine how much value the idea brings.  Maybe it is solving a major problem, or maybe it is just solving a minor inconvenience.  Either way in this step a good PM will identify and quantify the value that a given idea has.   Typically this is thought of in either dollars saved or earned.  For example, If I build a product that saves my customer $100 a month in time and effort, then perhaps I can charge them $40 a month for that optimization.  This step may involve user or market research to determine the value.

Determining the cost to build or implement

After determining that the idea adds value, the next step is to determine the overall cost to bring the idea to market.  Ideally the product manager has enough knowledge about how the idea would need to be built to produce a reasonable estimate for comparison.   However, this may include time with the engineers, designers, marketing and operations teams to determine the cost of the item.

Prioritization against other items 

Whether or not the idea will ever see the light of day is highly dependent on what it is competing with. Anything with a higher value to cost ratio would be above this item.  If the item ends up being below a large number of other items (12 months or more beyond the horizon) it could very likely be cancelled at that point since it has a low chance of ever being implemented.

A good product manager is capable of not only coming up with and validating ideas, but is also able to prioritize them so that highest value items are implemented first. Coming up with great ideas and managing them is just one small part of what a product manager does.  Coordinating and performing activities around planning, building, shipping, marketing and supporting products requires a myriad of skills and experience to allow a product manager to do their job effectively.  

Companies should embrace the creativity of their teams and encourage people to bring ideas forward.  Great ideas for how to improve the product or revenue or customer satisfaction can come from anywhere in an organization. However, they should not mistake a good idea as an indicator for whether or not a person might make a good product manager.