A while back, I had a spirited exchange with someone who took a rather extreme position about the role of product management in software as a service companies. The less polite version: He staked out a silly position – just poll your customers about what to build, and eliminate the PM role altogether – so I felt obliged to refute it. With two additional years of research into SaaS and PM, it's worth returning to that contretemps for a moment.
Then, I argued that PM was necessary in SaaS ventures.
Now, it's clear that PM is not merely necessary but essential.
Product Managers Are Really Innovation Managers
If the sole responsibility of PM were requirements, as my foil assumed, a poll might replace a person, but only if you had no interest in the long-term success of your company. Polls are extremely useful tools, and it's far better to use them than not to. However, polls have their limitations: most obviously, as a tool for taking the temperature of the customers you have, they tell you absolutely nothing about the customers you don't have yet.
Recently, the city of San Jose used a serious game, Buy A Feature, to address some tough budgetary challenges. Since serious games have relevance across a wide range of contexts, including application development and delivery, it's worth relating one anecdote from San Jose's exercise that demonstrates the importance of having a shared vision.
I was a "facilitator" for this exercise, which involved more than 100 members of the community, plus a couple dozen city officials, including Mayor Chuck Reed. According to the ground rules of this exercise, organized by Innovation Games, each group of several community members had to decide which municipal projects (libraries, parks, school programs, fire, police, etc.) to fund and which not to. These "wish list" items formed List A. A complementary List B included other projects that the participants could decide to cut and then shift the money into projects from List A.
Every participant had a small amount of money, but not enough to buy anything from List A outright. Funding anyone's favored project, therefore, required investment from more than one person. Money from any List B project was available only if everyone at the table agreed to cut it.
For the past few years I have watched enviously as the Finovate online financial technology show has gone from strength to strength in San Francisco and New York. So I was thrilled to hear that Finovate was coming to Europe and today I was lucky enough to go along to the show in London.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Finovate, it’s a fast-paced format with seven-minute live demos and pitches from 35 financial technology vendors. It’s produced by Online Financial Innovations, the people behind the excellent NetBanker blog.