Question: How can I establish my authority when I am working in a new industry?
I have less experience in the industry / domain than most of the people with whom I work. How do you convince an audience that has spent more time working in the domain than you, that you have something that they should listen to? How have you managed to say that ‘persuasively’?
Answer from Adam Bullied of Write That Down: I’m going to strip this question down a little bit in order to address what I believe is being asked. Essentially, how can a product manager easily change industries?
This can easily be perceived as something that’s more challenging than it is. Especially if you are joining up with an organization that has founders (or a management team) with extensive experience in the industry the company is in.
It’s daunting. How can you possibly execute effectively and ramp up in time to add any value when others already have years upon years over you in knowledge about users, competitors, what works and what doesn’t, and many other factors.
To me, the answer is all about having the right fundamentals and knowing what being a product manager means.
I’m now on my third industry as a PM (enterprise e-commerce, then digital music, and now online travel) and each time I do dive in to something new, it has been much easier than the last. There are a couple of reasons why this is the case. And funny enough, it’s very similar to sales.
I’m sure everyone has heard the expression, “he could sell ice to an Eskimo!” Usually, it’s used to refer to someone who has an extremely firm, death-like grasp on what it means to sell something. Anything, really. Some widgets.
They can pick out who to push something on, and then once they start talking to that person (or those people) really pinpoint how and what to say to them to get them excited about the prospect of completing the order. And then they actually complete the order and get the money.
In all reality, this example refers to someone that doesn’t need to be an ice expert in order to close an order. All they have to know is the science (and the art) of selling.
Product management is extremely similar. I think there are just some more layers to it. To me, it boils down to one thing — you just need to know how to ship a product.
You need to know there are users that have a problem. They need a solution to it. You envision that solution (with the help of your peers) and then construct a multi-step plan (your roadmap) to deliver on that solution. Then those users you are trying to solve the problem for will tell you if you are right or not, or even if you are relevant or not.
I will always respect and try to leverage the knowledge of those with deep and broad industry experience. They have some great wisdom that can help you avoid potential landmines, or tell you what they have already tried, whether it failed or not (and hopefully) why it failed — or, why it was wildly successful.
For example, I’ve stepped into organizations that belong to an industry with which I literally have zero familiarity. I’ve created a product definition and complete roadmap (that only changed based on date for a six month time span) and pushed hard to execute and get that product out the door.
You really have to put yourself in the shoes of your user. Did it really matter if I experienced all they would experience or had all the knowledge the others in the business might? Not a chance.
The reason for this is very easy — and at the risk of repeating myself, I think the message is crucial enough to re-state. If you identify the problem, who you are solving it for, and then the stages by which it will be solved, you have already done more than those with all of the “industry knowledge and experience” have done – otherwise, you wouldn’t be in the organization at all to begin with.
If you take a step back and see this for what it is, it really is a career choice for you personally. Do you want to be a professional “industry veteran” that knows everything there is to know about the entire market and process of making and delivering a single type of widget?
Or, do you want to be a professional product manager who is outstanding at shipping product? My choice is the latter — I would rather be very good at shipping great products than I would be very good at shipping only one kind of product within only one industry.
Don’t let industry experience fool you for actual smarts and know-how. That’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, because you will start to put too much stock into what those experts have to say instead of listening to your instinct, and in fact, listening to your aggregated user data and statistics.
And that’s what being a professional product manager is all about.