Are PMs ready to focus on research?

Several forces are pushing PMs in the same direction: both product managers and product marketers are under increasing pressure to be good researchers. Here are a quick summary of but a few of those industry changes, and how they put greater stress on the research part of the job:

  • Demanding customers. Even before the recession, customers wanted better explanations of a technology's value, and they were increasingly impatient about receiving that value post-purchase and post-implementation. Who's going to do the research about what these roles want, and how products and services can deliver them?
  • Innovation. Tech companies realized the cost of making inventions that people don't want to use, or can't figure out how to use, or are not economically viable for the vendor to produce. From ideation to adoption, therefore, PMs are asked to get the information needed to decide whether to continue working on an innovation, and what direction it should take.
  • Social media. There's a lot of user-generated content that's potentially relevant to making product decisions, but someone has to make sense of it. If you're a PM for a BPM product, you might get a strong read through different social media outlets that mobile support is important. But for which users? And what use cases? Are these requests coming from your part of the market?
  • Agile.  Once product teams get into the pace of shorter iterations, they pose regular questions to help them make good prioritization and design decisions. PMs therefore need to be constantly on deck, ready to take a swing at each of these questions as they come in.

Normally, when I present a list like this one, I see a lot of nodding in the audience. The good news for both product managers and product marketers is, Congratulations, your organization sees the research you do as a strategic asset. For many PMs, the bad news is, You're going to have to give up some other tasks.

Of course, many are eager to do so. The biggest complain among PMs we've surveyed is, We don't have enough time to tackle everything on our to-do list. However, from talking to a lot of PM group leaders, as well as having being one myself, I know how hard it can be to detach PMs from one set of tasks to focus on another.

For some PMs, it's hard to give up on the excitement and glamor of many of the very same tasks that they grumble are distracting them from their core responsibilities. Sales calls are unpredictable and time-consuming...But for people who are interested in what people want to do with the company's technology, talking to these people hardly ever seems like a waste of time. Marketing support, such as staffing the booth at trade shows, carves out weeks from the schedule...But they also can be fun, and they're a way to peek over the shoulders of partners and competitors.

Some PMs have a harder time than others of letting go. One person who worked for me got addicted to questions from the field, the dozens of e-mails that flowed in, every day, and started with the same stock phrase, "I have a customer who..." We needed him to put more effort into product requirements, but it was hard to get him to focus. He hated to let any question go unanswered, or trust someone else to do as good a job of answering it.

Other PMs have a hard time letting go of bug meetings. If you see yourself as the voice of the customer, then Q.E.D., you want to be sure that the customer gets strong representation in decisions about bugs. If you never  do a better job of collecting customer insights and communicating them to the team, you'll continue to sit through hours and hours of bug discussions.

PM managers may worry that, as the demand for research goes up, their team has the necessary skill and talent. They should also worry about the force of habit, which as Thomas Carlyle argued, may be "the deepest law of human nature." PM managers need to think about the psychic rewards that research priorities can provide, as replacements for some old sources of job gratification.

[Cross-posted at The Heretech.]