Managing an Existing Product: Day 1
An important skill for a product manager is the ability to parachute into an existing product and land on your feet. When parachuting into an existing product you have to immerse yourself in your new company and learn as much as you can as quickly as you can.
I’ve been in product management for over ten years and have parachuted into several existing products, all in different industries. The industries I’ve worked in include budgeting/playbooking software, life sciences software for the pharmaceutical industry and health tech software in well-being and population health.
It's important to remember that first impressions are critical. It's difficult or impossible to recover from a bad first impression. Whether or not you make a good first impression, some people are not going to like you or like having a product manager at the company. That’s why it’s important to understand how others might perceive Product Managers.
In growing start-ups, where the founders still have a strong influence in the company, product managers are often hired to have more of an execution-focused role, executing on the founders ideas. It could take a lot of effort to convince the founder to give up the product reigns enough to allow true a Product Management life cycle to take root and for the company to become truly customer focused. At a company with an existing Product Management infrastructure it should be easier, since people understand what Product Management is there for, what product managers do and they're used to working with product managers.
Step 1: Meet with key stakeholders
Meeting with key influential stakeholders will give you a window into the short term urgency for your position. Every stakeholder thinks their product ideas are the top priority but your goal is to find out what the real priorities are.
Listening to stakeholders and customers is crucial to successful Product Management.
Who are the stakeholders that you need to talk to during your first two weeks in the company?
- CEO/Founder(s) (if you can)
- Marketing director
- Adjacent product managers
- Sales director
- Playbook Management
- VP Engineering / Development Lead
- QA Lead
- Customer Support Lead
This list isn't exhaustive and these are only the obvious ones but there will be some surprise stakeholders also. People you didn't know were important stakeholders or even existed can be important to talk to. People like the co-founders of the company who might not be in your direct chain and whom you might not usually interact with can have some really good insights that can help you. Other surprise stakeholders might be the individual contributor developer who is still with the company 10 years later. They may not have a high profile in the company and they may not be a really outgoing kind of person, but they've probably got a lot of good insight into what the company's been doing right and what the company's been doing wrong.
You need to quickly figure out who these people are and include them in your first stakeholder conversations. There is no magical correct number to how many people you should meet with but you need to identify all the critical stakeholders as quickly as you can and speak to as many of them as possible.
I recommend having these initial discussions with stakeholders face to face if possible. When you're talking to the stakeholders listen, don't talk too much and take lots of notes. We’ll see in a bit why those notes are so important.
What should you talk with the stakeholders about?
You need to figure out what the problem is that your product is designed to solve.
The stakeholders you meet with might be telling you what the product is and they might also be able to sell you on the features but you need to make sure you truly understand what the problem is that it’s designed to solve. For B2B products, if you cannot solve a company's problem or one of their many problems, they are not going to spend money to buy your product. B2C definitely has an aspect of buying for Want vs Need but most companies will only buy for a need.
Some of the key questions that you want to be asking in these initial discussions with stakeholders are:
What's not working?
Why do you think that's not working?
What could be done better?
Who are the stars?
The stakeholders you meet with will have an opinion on all of these questions. But that’s all they are, opinions, not facts. It helps you to start establishing your own opinion and eventually establishing fact.
When you talk to stakeholders on the development team keep in mind they are usually not involved in discussions about what the product should be doing or what kinds of things could be done better and other product discussions. They might be surprised you’re asking them those kinds of questions. They really should be involved because they're deep in the product and they might have good insight as to how to make the product better. They’ll also be able to talk to you about technical debt that exists in the backlog and its priority.
Ask each person you meet with who the stars are in the company. Their answers will guide you to the surprise stakeholders you might not have thought of.
In addition to finding out the answers to the above questions and learning about the dynamics in the company (who plays nicely together in the sandbox), it’s also important to keep digging into the problems that your product is trying to solve.
During these meetings you are going to learn a lot about the company and its products. It will be like drinking from a fire hose at the beginning and you'll have to digest a lot and that's why it's important to take notes. After you’ve been at your company for a month or two you can review your notes and understand a lot more. You can then go back to these same people and schedule additional meetings to learn even more. You’ll understand more of what they are saying the second time around.
By having these meaningful discussions with the stakeholders they will understand that you’re interested in learning as much as you can in as short a time as possible. They'll respect that you are trying to understand the situation on the ground and will move forward working on as broad an understanding of opinion and fact as possible. It will also let people know that you aren't trying to come in and take things over based on your own ideas, rather that you're trying to understand everyone's concerns and ideas and establish facts before you act on them.