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Execution Plans for Product Managers

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In my consulting practice, I focus a lot on how product managers can be more effective. There are countless resources available for what a product manager should do, but there is less concrete information on how to execute as a product manager.

Think of the times you've taken an instructor-led course and felt invigorated by everything you've learned. A week or two removed from the course though and your back fighting fires and only a fraction of what was taught has ended up in your daily work. Despite what G.I. Joe told us, knowing isn't half the battle. Knowing what to do is important, but execution requires implementing knowledge and that requires changes in behaviors.

Any plan for execution, should include three key items.

A big-picture vision

As Sun Tzu once wrote, "tactics without strategy is the noise before the defeat." Prior to identifying the work to be done, everyone must know why the work needs to be done. Defining this from the beginning is critical for providing motivation and the guiding principles for the work. This big-picture item might be a vision, values, a goal, or a strategy. It may or may not be time-bound, but it must be concrete enough for everyone to understand what success looks like.

Specific initiatives which lead to the vision

These tasks are the work to be carried out. They are the new behaviors we are trying to implement and they need to be quantifiable, time-bound and individuals need to be held accountable for their execution. Since they are tied to a vision, the importance of these items is self-evident.

A feedback loop for continuous improvement

Not every initiative will be carried out as it was intended and not every initiative will have the impact on the overall vision that was assumed. A feedback loop monitors the progress of the initiatives and optimizes the initiatives and even the vision if necessary. This feedback both reinforces positive behaviors and eliminates bad behaviors such that each series of initiatives can be more effective than the last.

As an example, when training product teams, our lessons don't begin with the definition of product management. It's first a collaborative session on why the organization needs an effective product team. From this collaboration comes the specific roles and responsibilities for each product team member. These roles and responsibilities are the overarching vision for each team member.

From there, we detail out what a product manager needs to do through training and process improvements. The processes put in place follow the three-step process above.

The Balanced Scorecard uses initiatives tied to quarterly objectives and feedback through weekly reporting and monthly planning meetings.

For data-driven decision making, the vision of being a market-driven product team is laid out in the training, the data collection is handled monthly and key activity reports detail how well the plans have been executed.

I also recommend ongoing mentorship for the product team to continue the process, provide perspective and maintain the feedback loop for continuous improvement.

This system of big-picture, individual tactics and feedback loop are not new. They are part of nearly every system of change management or execution; from the scientific method to Simon Sinek's, Start with Why, to Kaizen and the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle. Learning them and implementing them as new behaviors for will allow you to focus on delivering

Ultimately, product managers have few concrete deliverables that show tangible benefits. Sales people will sell, support will help the customers, engineers will build the next great thing. Product managers may have a few deliverables in terms of business plans, roadmaps, requirements, collateral or training, but for the most part, they are responsible for managing the product and ensuring everyone is executing on the product vision. As a product manager, you can't be content to demonstrate value through what you create, you must demonstrate value by how the organization executes the product vision.

To manage this execution, you should implement a similar system for your own work. Even more importantly implement the three-step process when dealing with other departments whom you depend on to execute the product vision. When talking with sales or engineering, don't just explain the task, talk about how it contributes to the vision and let them know you'll be following up with a feedback cycle to verify results and improve the process for the next task.

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