“The product manager is the champion, the evangelist, the strategist, the voice of the customer.” Eric Stover shares his vast knowledge on strategic product management, and sheds some light on the genius behind his data-driven decision-making capabilities in this exclusive interview.
Eric is currently the head product manager at Autodesk, and specializes in various fields such as general management, developing customer focused products, strategic planning and product life cycle management. He provides us with a unique and creative outlook on how to create a successful product while managing a functional and happy team.
We are flooded with buzzwords lately such as paradigm shift and synergy, where do you think product management as a whole is heading?
After 20 years in a variety of product management type-roles, I’ve seen plenty of new processes, ideologies, technologies come and go, all meant to help the product manager and her/his team be more effective, bring product/services to market faster with higher quality, and be closer than ever to the customer.
My view of product management is that you are on a journey with your customer. As a product manager, you will have endless new technologies circling around you to make your job more efficient, you’ll have new techniques for engaging the end user of your product, and there will be no shortage of ideas and opinions on best to rationalize and interpret the requirements from your extended team.
No matter the business you operate in, no matter the latest tools and techniques available, the product manager will continue to operate as the CEO of their product. Regardless of the size of the company you work in, no matter how big your staff is or the size of the team, you are responsible for the successes and failures of your product. The product manager is the champion, the evangelist, the strategist, the voice of the customer.
You will continue to build trust amongst your teams, ask them to spend their most important resource, their time, to join you toward a common goal of addressing the customer needs. As a product manager, this is your mission statement both now and into the future.
Let us in on some of your secrets…where do you look to for inspiration? For innovative and revolutionary ideas?
I’ve made the equity markets a hobby of mine for more than two decades. Nowhere else can you get a detailed view of every industry in the world, from financials, consumer staples, pharmaceuticals, technology, sustainability, even material sciences, it’s all here.
The market is like a vast library of the here and now, and each company’s position on the foreseeable future. Pick up an annual report from your favorite firm, it’s amazing the amount of knowledge and vision captured in these documents. I’ve learned more from disrupters lie Amazon’s utilization of drones to deliver packages, Tesla consolidating Solar City to become a major end-to-end energy service, the understanding/use of genomics for personalized medicine, to name only a few topics just by listening to the markets. All of this knowledge influences my day-day dialog with my team.
Another not-so-secret is that I dedicate time to getting out of the office and meeting with peers. I utilize friends and social networks to reach out to others who are working on topics I find fascinating. I never allow for “quick questions,” rather, I prefer to have deep meaningful dialog with people (which also makes me a liability at cocktail parties).
I’m a great listener, I love to hear people talk about their passion over a lunch or even a coffee. Even when I’m not on the clock, I find means to talk with interesting people. Ever take an Uber? I really enjoy listening to the motivations of the drivers- why drive strangers around every day? What other jobs do they have? Part of the product management experience for me is that I get to trap them for research for the duration of my ride, a full interrogation!
Lastly, a real benefit of living in a metropolitan area is that I live down the street from two major universities, Stanford and Berkeley. Every quarter I make it a point to attend one of the many free lectures/seminars the schools host one a wide variety of topics.
Remember how I like to follow the stock market? The lectures hosted by these schools help me make sense of what I’m hearing in the corporate world. Since both have a wide variety of disciplines they teach, I can typically learn more about any topics I read about as the schools tend to host leading edge dialogs across a wide spectrum of subjects. I would highly recommend getting in touch with your local school (University, College, JC and Trade School) -it’s amazing the kind of knowledge you can immerse yourself with. Never mind the great networking!
Based on your years of experience, what have you observed to be some of the most common mistakes product managers make? How can they be avoided when managers are often struggling to juggle numerous tasks?
I’ll start by pointing my finger in the mirror for each of these thoughts below. I’ve learned some hard and valuable lessons in my tenure as a product manager. Hopefully some of this knowledge will be helpful.
First, when was the last time you actually met the customer face to face? …I thought so. This is the easiest thing to deprioritize.
“I have survey tools.”
“I can interact with my users on Twitter or a discussion group.”
“I see some users at our annual show.”
By not spending some time directly with customers, we often miss the nuance if what problem the customers are truly trying to solve. I’ve seen surveys used as a proxy which tend to lead the audience to the conclusion the team wants to hear.
When you sit with the customer and walk a mile in their shows, you really can get to the bottom of the problem that needs to be addressed. Having that experience alongside the customer speaks volumes back with the project team.
Wait, it gets worse! By not having a direct contact with your customers, the pendulum starts to swing toward inside-out thinking. That your project team’s groupthink starts to take over and you get on a path toward endlessly evolving the product you currently have.
Survey response shows that if we build these 10 features, we’ll appease some portion of our installed base. Guess what, you now have an option-heavy, difficulty to use, hard to explain end result on your hand.
Get out and meet the customer, don’t rely on tools and technologies to do your investigative work for you. Purposely block time in your calendar for these activities; make it the same time each week so your team gets in a cadence on when you’ll be out of the office.
Next problem- I have a product management past as both a hiring manager and an individual contributor. It is incredibly simple to hire (or even help interview others for your extended team) those employees who offer to keep your world at the status-quo. These are people who can fit it with the team today, who will adopt to your processes, and listen and obey the will of the team. However- this couldn’t be more self-destructive.
If you don’t hire (or help others hire) the best person for the job – and I mean, smarter than you, better than you, someone who will challenge your thinking, maybe even take your job someday, then you are doing your team and company a major disservice. The rising tide aphorism couldn’t be truer. You want to surround yourself and your team with the very best personnel. They elevate your game, invoke necessary change, and even challenge the status quo. The quality of what you deliver to customers rises and everyone benefits from the energy these amazing employees will bring to the team.
Lastly, one of the most commons mistakes I see in product management is that we don’t spend enough time developing out the business need/case for what we want people to build solutions for. I’ve witnessed on too many occasions that a product manager will agree to build a feature which “sounded like a good idea.” Why wouldn’t the customer want that? It makes sense to all of us, we can build it in no time at all.
It is really easy to go right into “Execution Mode” – where everyone gets excited and starts building right away. You can quickly show your executive sponsor how nimble your team is and that you can be more responsive than any of the other teams in your division. But then somewhere in all of this excitement, someone decides to ask the question, “What is the business rationale for doing this?” Oops, I didn’t hear that. Competitive threat? Sales enabler? New business in country X? Now everyone have stop what they’re doing, take a step back, look at the Product Manager and ask the “Why” question.
If and when this happens, you just lost some portion of trust with your team, which will now take twice as long to get back. Oops is right! I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to fully understand your market, the business opportunities and gaps you’re trying to address, among other aspects of the space you are building products in. Every feature you want your team to develop needs to be tied back to the needs of the business and its customers.
It will be critically important to have this information as you have your dialog with all members of the business. Always take a step back when the next “great big idea” comes around. Ask the right questions on behalf of the business, nobody else will-but you and only you will be able to champion its value with the other parts of the organization (Support, Marketing, Sales, and C-Staff).
What are some innovative trends that you recognize in today’s product management?
Our company recently adopted techniques from the LUMA institute in both our User Experience and Product Management functions here at Autodesk. The subject matter isn’t new per-se, but the techniques to gauge requirements, priorities, and product focus are wonderful. Simply put, LUMA forces everyone in the room to get out of their seats and collaborate on getting to the point of the gap you’d like to fill and how best to do it. It’s very customer-centric and includes well thought-out set of procedures for engagement.
Like many firms, we test drive new technology all of the time. In the past 12 months, we’ve been focusing on tech that lets us better communicate inside our office as well as with our customers.
We are avid users of Medium, Slack, and Salesforce Chatter for our team communications, and we use Radian6, Sprinklr, Intercom, and SurveyMonkey for engaging with our customers either 1:1 or 1:many. It’s important to understand what channels your particular customers like best for communication; there will always be new technology for surveying and listening to customers to support the product management function, and it’s our role to keep up-to-date on what’s new and relevant.
Another trend I’ll point to is about how teams organize to support a project. Based upon observation, I think this is one of those areas where project teams tend to get comfortable in their current environments and never ask themselves if they are optimized for product delivery based upon a seating chart. Seems simple, right? Should we have doors or cubes? Should we locate in an office we all commute to, or all at home connected with video and audio devices?
Based on the product you are about to embark on, one of the topics you should consider is how and where you are going to organize to best complete your teams’ project. The product manager should take this on – it’s a matter of either having a healthy, excited, executing team or a stale environment where everyone has had the same desk for the past 12 months, with the same view, the same conversations…you get my meaning.
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