How IT Can Learn from Product Management

Symptoms of Product Frustration

Years ago I worked in a government-sector job. I recall a frustrated public safety officer expressing his discontent with another government division by comically referring to them as akin to the Department of Motor Vehicles. If memory serves, his exact phrase was: “They are like dealing with the DMV! Every time I ask the same question, I get a different answer!” At the time I chuckled a bit, and chalked up the debacle to typical government bickering. Years later, it’s become crystal clear what the issue was all along: inconsistency and lack of customer empathy at the departmental level.

Let us forget about information technology (IT) for just a moment, and instead think about Starbucks. Just like McDonald’s, Home Depot  and many other franchises that came before it, Starbucks has become this cathedral of caffeine we all know and love as the place where we can dependably get our grande-half-caff-machiado fix regardless of whether we’re in New York or New Delhi. This is because Starbucks obsesses over customer wants and needs; all while operating under the major constraint of employing a low-paid workforce. So what’s the secret to getting consistent customer satisfaction regardless of staff tenure or geographic location? At McDonald’s it’s called “Hamburger University.” At Apple, it’s rumored to be called “Genius Bootcamp.” Regardless of what the program’s called, the solution is standardized processes that offer little-to-no deviation or employee discretion.

I’m by no means advocating that you run your IT shop like a McDonald’s. (Although something tells me business units would love to tell the IT department: “I want a #3 for CRM, but hold the consulting. Oh, and a #5 for ERP; super-sized!”) While IT could never be so rigid, the pendulum does swing radically in the other direction of free-form decision making. This leads to the confusing, DMV-like environment nobody can intuitively navigate. Naturally we need to find the right balance somewhere in between structure and freedom. In other words, we need a methodology.

Product Management In a Nutshell

Traditionally, products were thought of as tangible things one could buy, whereas services were delivered as transactional activities like metered electricity or a stylish perm you get at the local hair salon. Nowadays, just about everything is described as a service. Software as a service, monitoring as a service, security as a service, you name it!  Yet the the “as-a-service” paradigm is merely the delivery mechanism for the product; be it electricity or a beautiful self-image as per the prior examples.

There’s more to product management than merely thinking about IT services as “things” to sell. Product management is a holistic perspective that manages value across a product’s lifecycle. That means starting with a vision, building new product development strategies, knowing when to sunset older offerings, and much more. Yet we don’t “do” product management for the sake of product management itself. There’s a clear value proposition to adopting this type of methodology, including:

  • Time to understanding – Like time to market, time to understanding is how long it takes you (the IT service provider) to drive home the value proposition to your customer(s)
  • A familiar format for ascertaining value – With a product, you ask “what does this do, how much does it cost, who are the alternatives,” etc. This stands in stark contrast to IT’s “blank canvas” (and thus confusing) style of service offerings.
  • Value structures – This refers to the simplifying and/or operationalizing of value. For example, a consultant may have a silver/gold/platinum database monitoring service. If you were to ask the IT department for something similar, it would probably necessitate the dreaded “conversation.” In other words, a less mature IT department would attempt to build a custom offering for the very first time!

Product management is a complex discipline in and of itself that is both broad and deep. As such it can’t possibly be covered in a short article such as this. Nonetheless, having observed professional product managers over the years, there are a couple tactics that are both easy to implement and yield big wins. These include employing uniform consistency in your business relationship management as well as adopting a “what’s in it for me” style of customer empathy.

It’s all About Consistency and EmpathyTo reiterate, the objective here is not to transform IT leaders into professional product managers overnight. The goal is to borrow easy-to-adopt product management paradigms that yield quick wins. “PdM light” if you will. If you haven’t had your fill of silly mnemonics for the day, here is yet another: “Improve IT with a little C&E.” In other words, strive to improve IT efficiency and external perception by way of increasing consistency and empathy.

What’s In it for “We?”

Understanding customer needs requires a combination of sympathy and persuasion; but never manipulation. IT department customers want to feel empowered, and frankly, they want to influence the direction of a solution. After all they have their deadlines, too. The key is to deliver functionality the business wants by also giving the customer the proper technical solution they need. This is tricky at best, and impossible at worst when the business and IT can’t see eye-to-eye. I think we can all relate to customer experiences whereby we just want to fast-forward to results; thus skipping through the boring and unnecessary minutia. For example, I once asked an accountant if I could write off my home office as a consultant. After listening through roughly ten minutes of audit standard guidelines, I mentally threw in the towel and realized I would’t get a clear answer from this person. Sadly, the same phenomenon happens in IT departments every day, but it’s not because IT people don’t mean well. It’s just that the language they use doesn’t always resonate with their non-IT colleagues.

Just like the free market economy, selling a product is a two-way street: the buyer gets value via something she buys, and the seller receives value (usually money) in return.  With respect to this “PdM light” paradigm I’m describing, the goal is to accelerate that path to value; both for the customer and for the IT department. On the customer front, they obviously achieve value faster because IT is immediately aligned with business needs. Moreover, solutions themselves are “pre-designed” at least to some extent to foster rapid adoption. On the IT side of the house, IT achieves higher customer satisfaction and quicker time-to-market thanks to its “mature” solution offerings.

Put simply: IT liaisons should be thinking about the world from the perspective of the buyer first, then service provider second. While this order favors the buyer, we don’t forget the importance of professional IT service management. Hence why we think in terms of “we” versus “me.”

Consistency Over Anarchy

People say they want choices. What they actually need is a means of customizable parameters within a universe of predictability. In McDonald’s parlance: you can hold the pickles on that #4 Value Meal, but you can’t substitute sushi for French fries. When you start the conversation with a blank canvas, the conversation can go in a million different directions. Yet when you curtail the universe of options down to a finite set of building blocks, the various permutations and combinations of said blocks becomes far more manageable. Again, I’m not advocating that you put everyone in IT through some overly-rigid, Apple-esque Genius Bootcamp. Instead, I’m saying to curtail the universe of options and have a least some degree of customer experience commonality throughout the different IT divisions. Examples include using the same language for IT products (which requires cross-polination between teams) or standardizing on a uniform project management style. Even better yet: “market” IT’s current and future capabilities just as a commercial company would do, and give IT customer’s the ability to influence product direction along the way.

Finding the Right Balance

Thinking about the customer first isn’t necessarily a new concept. However, getting an entire IT department to think in similar fashion about its customer base is in fact new for many organizations. Consistency of language in IT products and services, as well as consistent behaviors lends a sense of predictability to the IT department, which in turn fosters a sense of reliability. Likewise, empathy instills shared shared goals between IT and business units, thus increasing trust between two otherwise disjointed divisions.