Product management and the law of the vital few

Ed Anuff —  March 17, 2013 — Leave a comment

One of the challenges of building a strong product management team is that most people don’t really know what a product manager is supposed to do. Typically, the responsibilities ascribed to the product manager are actually product marketing or program management. In some organizations, these might need to be part of the product manager job description, and they can be important aspects of the role.

In my experience, the most critical responsibility of product management is the application of the Pareto Principle to the influx of requirements that flood the product planning process. The Pareto Principle, also know as the 80/20 rule or the identification of the vital few and trivial many, is a simple heuristic that we tend to apply every day except when it comes to figuring out what to build and what not to build. What happens if this isn’t done correctly? Lots of very bad things…

The unfiltered and unprioritized requirements flow downstream to the engineering teams who are forced to prioritize by implementation difficulty which may have no correlation to market fit. They might also overcommit to too much scope, with the typical result being too many features partially implemented. An engineering organization that’s forced to implement the expansive surface area of an unselective product management team eventually will deprioritize testing, resulting in quality issues and mounting technical debt. Documentation suffers, as there are too many features to describe. Across the board, all product related functions will feel understaffed and there will be mounting pressure to increase headcount.

On the sales side, the customers typically end up with a Swiss Army knife full of unsharpened blades and broken tools. The customer base becomes diffuse in their needs because every one of them who does adopt the product does so for a different reason, the end result is that sales velocity slows because there is no way to way to get the momentum that comes from either sales efficiency in identifying which prospects are ideal for tight product/market fit or the word of mouth and success referencability that comes when you’ve hit the bullseye for one customer after another.

Growing costs and slowed sales are the two most deadly conditions for a company of any size, so one would think this would be something that most organizations were more on guard for. The challenge, however, is that the alternative requires more hard choices, both on company leadership, who have to demand and support a more focused product vision, and on the individual product managers, who must realize that simply defining the feature set as the union of all customer requests and competitor features is, at best, the starting point in their efforts, and that failure will not come from missing the one important feature, it will come from the crushing burden of delivering a mountain of marginally important ones.

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