The Simple Questions You Should Ask Your Manufacturing Product Managers to Avoid the Reactionary Problem-Solving Cycle

By Jim Perdue, Director, Client Strategy

Manufacturing product managers have a uniquely challenging job, one that makes it especially difficult to find time for bigger-picture thinking. As the product expert, product managers have a hand in every aspect of an individual product’s design, production, distribution, and sales. Product managers may do a great job of keeping projects on deadline and under budget, but if they aren’t attuned to industry trends and Voice of the customer (VOC), that effort will ultimately be wasted. Without thoughtful guidance coming from leadership, your team can get stuck in a reactionary cycle of day-to-day problem-solving that hinders your focus on strategic thinking. Your team’s ability to break out of this cycle depends on how well you communicate your product management strategy to your product management team.

Of course, product management leaders face pressures from executives and board members to keep sales and revenue objectives on track. The weight of those expectations can make leadership overly focused on the next quarterly sales report. When that happens, you too get stuck in reactionary attempts to address immediate problems rather than correcting the root of those issues.

You know the drill: revenue-to-plan updates; can we make initiative X move faster; can we find more margin; or the sometimes never-ending headaches of SLOB (Slow and Obsolete) product issues. These topics are crucial to the success of your overall business health. But they can easily consume the majority of your product manager’s time and leave little left for thoughtful discussion focused on long term success.

Product Management Strategy: Key Questions to Get Your Product Managers Thinking Strategically

As a leader in product management, you have the greatest ability to reverse this reactionary behavior by making time to elevate the conversation.

You need to regularly ask your product managers simple questions that bring everyone back to big-picture basics. Here are some examples of the sorts of questions you should be asking. You’ll notice that many of them are linked, and all of them depend on a current understanding of VOC.

  • What feedback are you hearing from customers this week? What is the biggest thing you learned from those interactions, and how can it be applied to your current projects? Encourage your product managers to set aside 20 or 30 minutes a day to check in with a customer. When product managers develop a regular pattern of unstructured customer contact, the result is an intimate understanding of your customers’ needs and how they are evolving. Staying current with your voice of customer analysis is key to developing products with a strong foothold in the marketplace. Customer contact does not need to be a complex process to stay current.
  • How does your core customer make buying decisions? How do your targeted customers make decisions? Do we know the biggest difference? Even in an industry with a slow rate of change, your customer is evolving over time. Ask your product managers to really consider what matters to both their regular and new customers. How does that vary? The answers to these questions should result in valuable new insights and opportunities.
  • What trends are you seeing in your sector? When is the last time you visited a customer to verify? Do you have a plan to implement these changes in future product? Product managers are true product experts. But if they don’t stay on top of new trends and technology, their knowledge will go stale. With so many members of your organization relying on product managers for their expertise, it’s crucial that they make field visits to maintain a deep understanding of what may impact their product line in the future.
  • How are you working with other teams to improve your product line and implement strategy? When is the last time you sat down with members from cross-functional teams? How often do you do so? In order to be successful, it’s crucial for your product managers to be in regular communication with members of the sales and marketing teams. Everyone must be aligned in order for a product portfolio to achieve sustainable growth. To start, your product management team needs to know the core strengths of the other divisions. They should be able to tell you how they are leveraging those strengths to improve their product performance. They also must understand where the other divisions are weak. Identifying and understanding the weaknesses are just as critical as leveraging the strengths. Finally, ask your product managers how often they are communicating their product strategy to other teams. Does the entire organization understand where responsibilities lie in order for the strategy to be successful? What if the strategy isn’t even possible for one of your core divisions to implement? Without frequent cross-functional communication and interaction, core alignment is impossible.
  • What did you learn from your last launch strategy? How will these findings be implemented in your next launch strategy? Are you comfortable with the evolution? No one wants to hear it, but it is far too easy to fall into the routine of a standardized launch. Like everything else in your business, a launch needs to be frequently tracked and improved upon. But relying just on sales data does not drill into the big picture. Launch post-mortems need to be conducted by the product manager with other cross-functional divisions. The lessons from these meetings will strengthen future launches and help everyone be more prepared to address the next issue at hand.

Training your team to balance day-to-day responsibilities while encouraging them to think and act strategically is an ongoing effort. By regularly elevating your questions to address bigger picture issues you, will be able to help formulate a healthy style of organizational thinking and ensure that your team is leading the charge in growing your business.

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