The DNA of a Modern Product Manager: Reskilling for Product and Customer Success in the Digital Age
By Arijit Banerjee
As breakthrough product innovation and customer experiences become the lynchpin of success in the modern business environment, India’s IT industry faces a grave challenge – scarcity of product managers. Despite the abundant technical talent the country produces each year, it faces a yawning product manager talent gap. India has only 20,000 product managers compared to an estimated 1.8 million product managers in the US alone. The fact that the skill levels of Indian product managers falls short in comparison to those from much smaller countries like Russia and Israel further compounds to the challenge. What are some of the contributing factors that have led to this scenario?
India traditionally lacks a product culture, with areas like product management, product marketing, and product success being rather underdeveloped. While India’s IT services industry has been in the limelight for years, the country’s IT product industry constitutes only a miniscule portion of the IT market share in the country. However, with the emergence of product-innovation start-ups such as Zoho, InMobi, Freshdesk and the Indian Government’s ambitious ‘Make in India’ initiative, the equation is slowly but surely changing.
Let’s deep dive into the skills modern product managers need to compete successfully on the world stage and how Indian organisations can bridge their product management talent gap.
Four roadblocks to developing strong product managers
Product innovation lies at the core of product management success. But what exactly is product innovation? Intellectual property (IP) is the key fulcrum in product innovation and is baked into the offering from the very beginning - not as an afterthought. Companies labelling themselves as ‘product innovation’ firms base their core value proposition around their products’ IPs, which provide a defensible entry barrier and make the offering unique as well as agnostic to geography and culture.
This means companies with strong product managers can create new business models and drive technology innovation for competitive advantage. Take, for instance, companies such as Naukri, Flipkart, Ola, or MakeMyTrip that innovate essentially on technology-enabled business models. Such companies, however, comprise a small minority. A large majority of Indian companies face four key challenges in terms of developing skilled product managers:
#1 Project management stumps product management: Being a service-oriented economy, India lacks a product mindset. Entry-level IT industry employees typically see the role of ‘project manager’ as more important than that of ‘product manager’. Why? Project managers manage a larger team and are responsible for overseeing the project lifecycle while product managers work with smaller teams - usually the engineering team for creation, marketing team for promotion, and so on. This shrinks the pipeline for companies looking to hire top talent for product management. The shortage of product management talent has deepened so much that companies are willing to pay product leaders 3X the salaries they pay to project managers.
#2 Job security takes precedence over innovation: In India, be it for an entry level position or a more experienced role, a risk averse mentality pervades the job market. Candidates prefer the job security that comes with IT services and maintenance related careers over product-oriented career roles that require an innovative, risk-handling mindset.
#3 Mismatch between education and on-job requirements: The academic framework in India emphasizes classroom attendance and theoretical knowledge over reasoning and practical, applied skills. Educational institutes do not equip students with the skills to look beyond the obvious, explore and discover, nipping creativity development in the bud. Product companies on the other hand, need talent that seeks creativity, experimentation, and risk taking, while being tech-savvy at the same time.
#4 Organisational disconnect: Not many Indian organisations set their people up for innovation. Standard performance indicators still continue to track hours worked, tasks completed, etc. Such a robotic routine leaves little room for employees to think beyond their usual work regimes or reflect on what truly interests them. More and more companies outsource product management to specialist firms or engage consultants, as building the capability in-house is thought to be time, cost, and effort consuming, without being as rewarding. This is in stark contrast with MNCs such as Google that are renowned for cultivating a product culture through policies such as 20% time rule. Google employees are encouraged to dedicate 20% of their time to whatever they want to work on, which in Google’s case has resulted in the creation of some of its most iconic products.
In addition to the above roadblocks, organisations are also challenged by another key aspect – what skills do new age product managers actually need?
Decoding the modern product manager’s profile: 4 must-have skills
Modern day product managers are somewhat like mini CEOs – they must be able to lead a product lifecycle from its vision, ideation, and implementation through to post-production success - all while managing related people and processes. The CEOs of Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and PepsiCo – before becoming CEOs at these companies - were all product managers who learnt to shepherd products from planning and development to launch and beyond. Donning the hat of a modern day product manager requires new skills and capabilities.
Here are the four must-have skills for tomorrow’s product manager:
#1 Strategic thinking: Strategic thinking encompasses design, systems and product thinking. Steve Jobs was the epitome of product thinking i.e. he had the capability to visualize products and deliver a compelling product story to ignite customers’ (both internal and external) passion around the product. Modern product thinkers such as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Tesla’s Elon Musk are also great visionaries and strategic thinkers - they can accurately predict customer needs in the future and alter their strategies in time to stay ahead of the competition. Product managers play a strategic role as they serve as the communication hub between the engineers and designers and everyone else in the organisation. Design thinking (the ability to generate and validate ideas) and creativity are the key tenets of product thinking. It starts with having a sound understanding of sales, marketing, service, and manufacturing strategies to be able to tie them all together and create a winning product.
#2 Business savvy: Being able to visualize a great product is just the beginning, tying it to business objectives and enabling business models to achieve the objectives is the real mandate for product managers. Product managers must therefore be adept in business planning, product visualisation, market understanding, sales enablement, competitor analysis and overall business management.
#3 Product engineering: This comes as no surprise – product managers must possess solid technical know-how of diverse platforms, systems, technologies, and devices available today. This doesn’t mean that they have to be coders, developers or programmers themselves but they must have an understanding of these disciplines to be able to talk intelligently and lead teams. A strong foundation in systems thinking, project management, product creation process, agile thinking, and idea generation and validation is a must.
#4 Effervescent leadership: Cultivating a product culture in any organisation starts with leading by example. Product managers must have entrepreneurial as well as intrapreneurial thinking to be able to encourage people to experiment and treat the company’s product/services as their own. They should be careful to mentor team members by being a coach and influencer, rather than someone who spoon feeds ideas or imposes restrictions on creativity. Ability to tell business stories, organisational acumen and negotiation skills are some of the other important capabilities needed for successful product managers. B2B as well as B2C product managers will increasingly spend approximately 30% of their work time on external activities such as interacting with teams, customers, and partners.
Why ‘product managers’ need to evolve into ‘product success managers’
Traditionally, a product manager’s job has been limited to building a product that works. Whether customers find it easy to use and adopt the product or whether they encounter recurring issues is something the customer success manager must deal with. Not anymore. The lines between product success and customer success are fast blurring and for good reason. By 2020, customer experience will trump price and product to be the single most important differentiator for companies. What’s more – 86% of consumers would be willing to pay more for a product/service in return for a positive experience.
This makes product success critical for survival. According to world-renowned Product Management and Product Marketing Guru, David Fradin, “Product failures are costing the world around half a trillion dollars today.” In India, the failure rate for start-ups ranges between 35 to 95% as many companies lose sight of one important fact - the customer they had in mind when they designed their product" Aligning product managers with customer success managers is the key to avoiding this pitfall. This means product managers must think deeply about optimizing customer relationships, boosting product adoption, and reducing churn. Creating and improving products to meet customer goals should become a part of product manager’s vision. In essence, ‘product managers’ must evolve into ‘product success managers’. Taking such an approach can help product managers build the right onboarding processes, optimize free trial experiences according to prospect segments, reduce cost-to-acquire, boost retention, and enable feedback driven product development for superior adoption.
How can companies get the product management talent they need?
To ensure the right product management talent, companies need to customize their hiring strategies and simultaneously upskill or re-skill their existing workforce. Identifying strengths as well as areas of improvement is critical to developing targeted training and coaching initiatives aimed at filling the gaps. Manipal Global’s proprietary 5i Product Management Framework, developed in consultation with David Fradin, can help organisations satisfy both their hiring as well as up-skilling needs(see Figure 1):
⦁ Ideate: Idea generation and validation, market validation, and target pricing decisions
⦁ Innovate: First product prototype, and draft market strategy
⦁ Implement: Strategy building for marketing, branding, sales and service; as well as building the product
⦁ Industrialize: Strategies for manufacturing, marketing, sales, distribution, and support
⦁ Improve: Ongoing improvement based on end-user feedback, cost optimisation, and technology obsolescence
Figure 1: Focus areas and learning outcomes of the 5i framework
While building product management capabilities in-house is one thing, hiring the right product managers is quite another as there is no formal educational degree for product management. Moreover, even for building capabilities in-house, companies need to identify the right fit candidates who have a product-oriented mindset. How can businesses achieve this?
A scientifically designed assessment such as the Manipal Product Management Pre-Assessment (MPMP) holds the answer. MPMP enables assessments at scale to identify individual’s areas of strengths and improvements and provides training recommendations.
Manipal Product Management Pre-Assessment (MPMP)
Shaping the future of product management in India
Come 2020, India will need double the number of product managers it currently has, with IT, telecom, and retail sectors being the three most prominent demand generators. Indian firms are fast realizing the importance of hiring good product managers for efficient product planning as well as product and customer success. This shift is not limited to India alone. MNCs like Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple who previously outsourced service delivery or hired Indian talent for core engineering roles are now gradually looking towards Indian talent for their product management needs as well. Take for instance, the Indian product engineer from Ranchi, Rohit Prasad, who is the brain behind Amazon’s hugely popular AI-powered virtual assistant device Alexa.
The analysis of the product management scene in India makes one thing abundantly clear. To create product managers of the future, India needs more industry partnerships and collaborations between schools, colleges and higher education institutes, to instill innovation and a product mindset in the psyche of aspiring candidates.
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