On Wednesday, July 6th, I attended the SVPMA monthly meeting. This time was different from the usual invited speaker, it was Steven Haines of Sequent Learning who hosted a “role play” of a cross functional product meeting.

An interesting role play, Steven lined up 6 victims willing participants, to represent the major functional groups in an organization, Product Management, Operations, Sales, Marketing, Customer Support, and Development, providing each of them a backstory to guide their motivation.

Additionally, a scenario of a product group as part of a large company that had good initial revenue and traction, but beginning to really falter in the middle of the third year. Provided to the audience was a financial balance sheet, some KPI’s, and a short summary of the history.

Prior to the exercise, Steve talked about the whole product lifecycle, and what product management often gets too focused on (the “development” piece) and the parts that are often neglected, or downplayed (the up front market research and validation, and the post launch promotion and marketing).

The exercise was interesting. Lead by the Product Manager, he did a great job of setting ground rules, and diffusing some of the potential hostility. From reading the synopsis, it was obvious to anyone who could read a balance sheet (more on this later) that this was a product in serious trouble, declining license revenue, poor customer retention, and scalability issues that lead to customer frustration.

Limited to a 20 minute meeting, the group was asked to establish a 90 day action plan to begin righting the ship, and keep their bonuses in play (one of the motivations to get the team to work together was the fact that their bonuses were on the line, a powerful motivator.) The dynamic was largely expected, and there were some constructive actions presented by all the functional groups. So in that way it was a success.

However, it left me wanting. First this was the first time that all the functional leads had met together (or at all, if you read the synopsis correctly). That is a big red flag to me. The product manager needs to have high visibility to the functional groups, communicating easily with them all, shifting priorities to match the audience.

Second was that it felt somewhat artificial. Yes, all role playing is, but even with the “leader” – Product Management – defusing the potential hostility, I expected to see more passions. When we debriefed them, universally all the panelists had real reasons to spit the dummy, and I felt that some of that should have been tolerated, if only to let all the team members understand that everybody has issues.

Still, it was illuminating. In the post session discussion, I was a bit shocked to see that when Steve asked if the product managers in the room had meetings like this, more than half didn’t. Yikes. One of my core beliefs of product management is that the product manager is as much a leader of the product, who balances the pull from the various organizations, keeping the piece, and the ship headed in the right direction. Playing the politician when needed, as well as being the stern petite dictator when justified.

Summary

Having been a member of SVPMA for 6 months now, this was probably the best monthly meeting I have attended. Steven Haines is truly a monolith in the product management field, from his outstanding “Product Manager’s Desk Reference” which has something for everybody, to his books on managing product managers, and survival guides, he gets it, and can teach it.

My one criticism is that there needs to be a longer time slot, 90 minutes for such a meaty topic isn’t enough. I am certain that I am not the only one who thinks that the speakers are often rushed.

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