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Product management is a curious discipline. It has been around since the dawn of commerce, but was very informal until the mid-20th century. There are no academic programs for product management comparable to those for engineering, marketing, finance, accounting, management, and strategy. Perhaps the state of product management today is similar to the practice of medicine in the 19th century: Ad-hoc, sometimes effective, often painful, and with plenty of room for improvement.

If you are a business leader or an investor in a company that offers any type of product or service, you have likely experienced — or will soon experience — a problem with your product strategy.

Context is important

The effective practice of product management is highly dependent on the business context. Michael Watkins defines five business situations in his book, The First 90 Days:

  • Startup. The founder is the de facto product manager, and product management is highly informal. Access to capital, time to market, and the speed of decision-making matter most to these businesses.
  • Turnaround. The role of product management shrinks when a business is in financial distress. Decision-making in Turnarounds is all about conserving cash. But product managers often want to plan far into the future. So businesses in this situation might lay off entire product management teams and need to rebuild them later.
  • Accelerated Growth. The business is growing so quickly that it can’t get out of its own way. Some organizational structures, processes, and people that enabled its success have now become constraints that will slow growth. So the organization needs to mature, and product management can help it navigate these barriers to growth. Doing so will require continuously re-inventing both the product and the organization.
  • Realignment. Poor growth is a signal that something is wrong with the alignment between the market and the strategy of the business. Misalignment can also occur between the strategy and the organization’s structure, processes, and people. A business in this situation needs to realign itself before it becomes a Turnaround. Product management plays a central role in aligning the business with the market, as well as aligning structure, processes, and people across functions.
  • Sustaining Success. Everything is going well! Growth is steady and predictable. The business is profitable, and customers are happy. There is strong alignment between the market and the strategy. The organization’s structure, processes, and people are aligned. And product management’s job is to ensure that this alignment persists.

Most of the time, your business is not transforming

Each business journeys through these situations in its lifecycle. It naturally begins life as a Startup. If things go well, it experiences a period of Accelerated Growth. It moves on to Sustaining Success if enough growth happens, otherwise it becomes a Realignment on its way back to Sustaining Success. But a Realignment that goes poorly becomes a Turnaround. And a Turnaround may result in Accelerated Growth, or Sustained Success, or go out of business.

Businesses spend most of their time in Sustaining Success because of survivorship bias. So product managers spend most of their careers managing in this context where things are mostly going well. And not surprisingly, product management training programs also tend to assume that businesses are operating in the Sustaining Success situation.

But this is problematic. The greatest opportunities and risks to a business do not show up in Sustaining Success. The Accelerated Growth, Realignment, and Turnaround situations bring the most opportunity and risk. But few product managers and product-management executives know how to handle these situations. So you might have a team of smart, passionate, highly-competent people, but there is likely no one on your staff who has experience in Accelerated Growth or Realignment.

Hiring a transformational leader is very hard

Why not kick off a retained search and hire a person with this kind of experience? To put it bluntly:

  1. They’re rare. People who have this kind of experience are so hard to find that searches often take a year or more.
  2. They’re expensive. Yes, you will pay recruiting fees, a signing bonus, relocation, base salary, performance bonus and stock, plus benefits, payroll taxes, and ultimately severance (see below). The direct cost to hire an experienced person like this can hit seven figures. But the indirect cost to your business can be 10-100x greater. You may wait more than a year to get the right person working on problems you have today.
  3. They probably don’t want to be your employee. Two things can happen to people who do transformational work successfully: a) they get promoted and become a GM or CEO, or b) they realize that success means working themselves out of a job.
  4. They know you won’t need them forever. A successful transformation will return your business to Sustaining Success. The person you hope to hire to lead this transformation is expensive. And Sustaining Success businesses love to eliminate expensive positions that are no longer necessary. The people who you want to hire got tired of changing jobs and relocating every two years to do the kind of work they love. So they applied some of their business-model transformation skills to their own value proposition, and they decided to become consultants.

How we can help

We love solving the problems that unlock growth and value creation. Product strategy consulting is what we do. We do it by helping clients in Accelerated Growth, Realignment, and Turnaround situations align their strategy and their organizational structure, processes, and people to the needs of the market. And we do all this in a fraction of the time and budget you would otherwise spend trying to hire a full-time employee with our skills and experience.

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