Product managers must have the opportunity to be leaders

Advice to PMs about how to do their jobs better is valuable, up to a point. Inspire PMs to be stronger, better, faster. Delineate all the important contributions they might make. Arm them with advice on how to make these contributions. None of this guidance will have any substantial effect if PMs don't have the backing of their employers.

A prime example is PM's role in innovation. PMs are usually better positioned than anyone in a technology company to answer critical questions about innovation such as, Is this a good idea? If so, what's the market for it? Can we operate in this market? And so on.

Unfortunately, opportunity and reality don't always meet. Maybe the PM raises these questions, but can't get the answers. Or, the PM has the answers, but the organization isn't inclined to listen. Frequently, the innovation process—or, more accurately, the lack of process—doesn't give the PM the opportunity to ask and answer these questions at all, particularly as an idea gets momentum in the development cycle. (For instance, try pulling the plug on a CTO's pet notion, once development is underway.)

Leadership doesn't just happen, just as innovation doesn't just happen. Just look at the history of the US highway system.

It's easy to take the interstate highways for granted. However, before the 1950, the US had only a patchwork of roads that spanned only a county, or in some cases, maybe a state. In 1919, a military convoy left Washington, DC, to test how effectively the US government could shift its armed forces across the continental US. Nine vehicles out of the 81 in the original convoy never made it to San Francisco. Because of horrible road conditions, the convoy averaged only 5 miles an hour.

The colonel in charge of the convoy reached an obvious conclusion: the poor roads system was a problem for the US economy, not just the US military. When that colonel, Dwight Eisenhower, became president of the United States, building an interstate highway system was a high priority on his domestic agenda. The price tag was high, but the ROI would be enormous.

Once started, highway constructed proceeded at a brisk pace. From 1956, when Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act into law, to 1960, crews built an average of 7 miles of new highway per day. From 1960 to 1970, when the majority of the highway system was built, the pace slowed only slightly to 5 miles per day.

The mega-project hit mega-obstacles, such as unpredictable funding, corruption in the handling of contracts, resistance from city governments, and environmental concerns. Credit for overcoming these obstacles certainly goes to Rex Whitton, the first Federal Highway Administrator.

Whitton was, for our purposes, the chief product manager for the interstate highway system.  He combined both technical knowledge and business acumen; he was responsible for identifying and removing barriers to adoption; he managed the quite literal roadmap for a huge engineering project that would stretch on for years. You can read the whole fascinating story here, if you're interested.

Whitton was a helluva good pick for the job, and on paper, he was officially responsible for the project's success. In truth, one person, no matter how capable, could not have succeeded in dealing with myriad stakeholders (members of Congress, mayors, governors, construction company executives, etc.) over which he had no direct control, unless he had the top cover of the three presidents (Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson) during the peak period of highway construction. Whitton could do more than just wave his credentials under the nose of an instransigent county commissioner—he could get the support of the White House, if ultimately necessary.

If product managers are going to play a similar role, on a much smaller scale, they too need the backing of their management. Best practices for PM's role in innovation, or any other job function, are great, as long as PMs have the authority, capability, and responsibility needed to act on them.

Comments

Senior Product Manager interview about using innovation...

Just ask Lisa Underkoffler, Senior Product Manager of Adobe, on how she uses Brightidea to get innovative new product ideas into Acrobat.com. She uses WebStorm which saves her time since she tells everyone who has an idea to put it into the WebStorm whereby everyone can vote and collaborate on them....the best ideas get into the product roadmap. You can check out what she's doing at http://ideas.acrobat.com.

Paul

Innovation Process and Manageemnt Buy-in

Tom,

You are so right. Innovation often goes against current operations and does require strong support from upper management, if not the CEO of the company. You may be brilliant, you may be dead-on, but if your vision is killed by politics, there is not much you will be able to accomplish. I love that analogy to the US Highway revolution. Perfect.

I wanted to build on your point though around process. I totally agree that coordination and structure are key. I would highlight nevertheless that process does not mean rigidity. Having a process to vet market potentional, and everything you find in a business case, does not mean that you need to be narrow-minded in doing so. Innovation may very well go against what your customers tell you they want because they cannot put their "true needs" into words yet when the solution has not been invented -- I would refer to the famous Henry Ford quote “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

CEOs that want innovation must be ready to take risks. Innovation may not fit in the current business model because revolutionary technologies rarely do. This is not a free pass for trying anything and everything under the banner of innovation. Just a reminder that great Product Managers are those that have a vision of what is needed even when it has never been invented or even articulated before, and can anticipate how that is going to work: how technology revolutions, big and small, do fit where the company wants or needs to be.

What an inspiring post, Tom! Thank you!

Carole-Ann Matignon
Twitter: CMatignon
Blog: http://techondec.wordpress.com