Featured Product Management Consultant: Bill Haines

How and why did you break into Product Management? 

Having started my career as a beer marketer, I needed some way to redeem myself! 

My time with Anheuser-Busch was a great learning experience which soon led me to become partner in a Mar-Com firm, leading the creative teams. For a half dozen years, I met with Product Managers who had come seeking creative for their new product launches. But many didn’t actually know what they wanted to say to the market. So, we had to start with Product Marketing 101: Know your message! That was a lot of fun. 

Then, as products and promotional efforts became more digital, I and some partners started a small software development firm and produced some good information products for consumer and professional markets. From that, I got an offer to lead Product Management for a big start-up and my redemption was really underway. 

What are some experiences you can share working with notable products and companies? 

That big start-up had $29M in funding and we spent it all. We built a company with 70 people from scratch while simultaneously designing and launching its medical/scientific information product- all within 18 months. We went cash-flow positive 6 months later. That was ground-pounding PM work, leveraging a very small team. The most important thing it taught me, (other than how to age 10 years in just 2 years), was that deeply understanding the problem you are trying to solve is the most important thing for success. We spent a significant amount of time and money working to really understand the problem space, and that really paid off.  

After that company was acquired by Elsevier, I became their VP of Product, gaining way more resources and a diverse range of digital information products in the health science market. But it was harder to keep folks focused on the problem space because there were so many talented people with market experience and plenty of ideas. They had lots of legacy knowledge and intelligent notions about how to enhance offerings or invent new things to fill portfolio gaps. But my initial lesson always proved true: Don’t create solutions looking for problems 

I later joined a large, competing company to run a portfolio centered on the drug information space (providing the level of information that pharmacists and physicians use.) That’s a really complex space, both because of the technical complexity of medications and the complexity of the workflow systems into which that information gets integrated. The biggest lesson for me there was that within such highly technical areas it’s often easier to turn a subject matter expert into a PM than vice versa. I had a dozen clinical pharmacists on my PM team, and half the time I didn’t know what they were talking about. Fortunately, I didn’t have to. My job was to give them a process and to get them thinking like PMs. 

Literally, on my first day in that job, I’d traveled to the office location where most of my folks worked so I could do initial meet-and-greets with each of them. That was derailed when a screaming call from the CEO was received by the management team gathered around a conference table. A complete re-forecast of the business, to be completed by morning was the demand, put in no uncertain terms. When the call concluded, a room of ashen faces turned imploringly to me, their new colleague. “Hey, I don’t even know where the bathroom is guys!” Pause. Silence. Then me again: “OK, I’ll have each of the PMs run through their plans and we’ll see what we’ve got. What are their names again?” Those PMs really knew their product space, and with a little PM-thinking help we were able to rework the forecasts enough to survive the first day on the job. 

What is something that a Product Manager can start doing today to be more strategic? 

I always talk about the importance of mindset and fulfilling that goal of being truly strategic. It goes like this:  

First, I think you’ve got to take an Ownership Stance. You just have to own responsibility for things: the results certainly, but also the circumstances that were not of your making, but which hindered you. No finger-pointing. When you take full ownership in that way others quickly gain trust in your integrity and are willing to be led by you. In turn, that gives you the license to be strategic. 

Second, you also have to demonstrate an Outcome Focus. Always put the business results you’re driving toward front and center. It’s related to the idea of always working first to understand the problem. Once you do, the focus becomes the customer and business outcomes that you will create. Outcomes are what strategy works to achieve. Without an outcome focus, you can’t have a strategy. 

Third, I’d say that you must have an Action Mindset… that old saw about asking forgiveness rather than permission. It has bounds to be sure. But being strategic isn’t just about planning. It’s about acting when the opportunity is ripe. No PM that let an opportunity pass because he/she was waiting for approval ever impressed anyone as being “strategic.

Lastly, (though there’s more of course), I say: Think Big. A lot of PMs diddle away their careers making tiny incremental improvements to products. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s necessary. But if you want to be that strategic PM leader, it’s not enough. What’s the big, unsolved problem out there? Where is the adjacent market we might forge into to capitalize on a huge opportunity? Think big. There’s nothing in PM that’s more strategic or more fun than that! 

What can a Product leader start doing now to up-level their team? 

Two things: 

First, you’ve got to push decision-making down to your PMs. It’s no use you being the hub through which all decisions are made. Been there, done that. It makes you feel important at the moment, but it shortchanges your people and the business in the long run. 

Second, to push down decision-making, your team has to have some wicked skills. You know each of these people and where they are strong or weak. But do they know it? Are they aware of the skills they should have or of the process they should be leveraging? Maybe they are subject matter experts with so many smarts in their field that, like me, half the time you don’t know what they are talking about. But can they think their way through the product process to arrive at the business outcomes you need? 

What’s your best advice for a Product Management organization? 

I’ll say just this: Make sure your organization is engaged in Outside-in thinking, NOT Inside-out thinking 

Inside-out thinking jumps into creating solutions before the full problem space is really understood. It asks what customers want, then just builds that. It focuses on filling portfolio gaps the company has rather than need gaps that customers have.  

By contrast, the Outside-in thinking organization spends a lot of time in the problem space. Those PMs do a lot of research. They leverage tools to dissect what they learn- tools like Design Thinking, and Jobs-to-be-Done, Journey Maps, and more. And most importantly, with every new piece of information, they constantly ask: Why?   

Establish that Outside-in mindset and the skills to go with it, and your organization will start producing real business outcomes. And that makes everybody very, very happy. 

What are your thoughts? We’d love to hear from you.

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