Featured Product Management Consultant: Greg Cohen

Product Management Consultant Greg

Every few months or so, we will bring you a new interview with a featured 280 Group Consultant/Trainer who discusses a number of Product Management issues.

Our second Featured Product Management Consultant is Greg Cohen, an Agile PM expert who discusses the most important skill a Product Manager can possess and the most common mistakes made in an Agile environment.

The best product strategy and plan in the world isn’t going to succeed if you can’t collaborate with others to bring it to fruition.

1. What’s your background?

I graduated Tufts University with a double major in electrical and mechanical engineering and joined a team that was chartered with establishing a national accelerator laboratory to study the global carbon cycle. The facility was being housed at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It was a great first job after college and the location couldn’t be beat. After helping to bring the lab from concept to routine operations, I pursued an MBA at Babson College. I then spent a couple of years in medical devices and diagnostics. I loved working in health care but the product lifecycles were long, and I was impatient.

I headed out to California during the dotcom boom and, somewhat by chance, ended up in the emerging field of hosted software, now called SaaS. It was a good fit because the SaaS software is always in a state of continuous improvement. Then in 2000, I joined an ideaLab! company and became immersed in Agile development. I was hooked on the power of communicating through user stories, a development cycle measured in weeks, and the rapid market feedback. The combination of SaaS and Agile was game changing.

IdeaLab! ended when the dotcom market crashed. I took a role turning around Instill Corporation, which developed application in the spend management and supply chain software space for the food service industry. It was one of those companies that no one ever heard of, but everyone knew our customers which was a who’s who of the restaurant industry. With revenues tripled and the company profitable, I left to join the 280 Group, entering the most fulfilling period of my career yet: helping product management teams from top companies around the world improve their process and governance as well as master skills such as lean methods, agile development, road mapping, prioritization, and strategy.

I am the former President of the Silicon Valley Product Management Association, the author of Agile for Product Managers and Product Owners, and a contributor to the Agile Excellence for Product Managers and Product Owners Training Course.

2. What do you think is the most important skill a Product Manager can possess?

To succeed in product management, you need to be able to excel at both hard and soft skills. In the hard skills category, product managers need to master critical thinking. It is the foundation for market analysis, customer research, financial analysis, prioritization, strategy development, and the day-to-day tradeoff decisions that need to be made to bring a successful product to market within time and resource constraints.

But critical thinking is not enough. It needs to be matched with the soft skill of influence. Influence is essential to motivate the product team, secure budget from the executive team, and align diverse stakeholders including marketing, sales, support, operations, and customers. The best product strategy and plan in the world isn’t going to succeed if you can’t collaborate with others to bring it to fruition.

3. What do you think are a few of the most common mistakes made by Product Owners and Product Managers in an Agile environment?

I became involved in Agile development in 2000, and as I said, the combination of SaaS and agile development, which were both just starting to emerge at the time, was game changing. Now that we’re in 2017, the problem I see now is one of unintended consequences.

Agile is so flexible that I fear Product Owners and Product Managers are becoming reactionary and losing the hard analysis skills needed to develop the strategies that will position their product lines for success not just three months from now but also three years from now. This topic is the focus of my upcoming book, Strategy Excellence for Product Managers, due out in September.

4. How does writing an Agile Excellence for Product Managers book compare to designing an Agile Excellence training course? What prompted you to revamp the course?

When I design a training course, I have the benefit that when it is delivered there is a two-way dialogue with the student. Each PowerPoint slide is a bit like a user story in that it is a place holder for a conversation, and each activity is a further opportunity to observe in action and talk through ideas.

When I write a book, it’s a one-way conversation with the reader. I have to be concerned that if my words create any ambiguity, the reader may take away the wrong lesson. I try to focus on being precise in my use of language and am grateful to my many reviewers who still find many places where I can be clearer.

Regarding the updated course, when the book and first course came out in 2010, Agile was in the early majority phase of adoption. Development teams were switching over to the methodology, and it was creating a lot of confusion in the product management community. Product managers felt anxious because they were uncertain regarding what this Agile things was and what their role would be. But by 2016, Agile had established itself as the predominant software development methodology. The question in the product management community switched from what is agile to how to make agile work in different contexts. The primary challenge now, it how to build a high performing Agile team.

5. What’s unique about the AIPMM certification for agile?

What has always impressed me about AIPMM certifications is the rigor required to earn them. Some certifications are handed out just for showing-up in class. There is no test. But if you can pass an AIPMM certification exam, you have proven you have command of the content area.

6. BONUS: If you could have dinner with anyone from history, who would it be and why?

I have always wanted to have dinner with Richard Feynman. I have listened to his lectures, read many of his writings, and stories about him. I feel no matter what we would talk about at dinner, I would come away learning so much and likely a new perspective on the world around me.

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