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Posted by Tom Grant on April 8, 2010
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.
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