Ask A Good Product Manager

Your product management questions answered

How can I persuade others who have more industry experience?

Posted on July 14, 2008 · 9 Comments

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.

9 other answers so far ↓

  • Scott Sehlhorst // Jul 14, 2008 at 8:15 pm

    Great selection of a question, Jeff – and great answer, Adam!

    I’ll add some more fuel to the fire. As an independent consultant product manager, my career is a continuous string of helping out people who know more than I do about their industry. It is absolutely possible.

    Since Adam already has a cohesive answer, I’ll throw out a series of anecdotes of stuff that has worked for me. Please insert these into Adam’s context.

    When dealing with a large group, assume that they understand their current customers. Ask them if they understand their non-customers. The answer is usually no. Use that as a catalyst to diving into an understanding of the market and its problems. Remember, your opinion is just as irrelevant as theirs. And the way to grow your business is to understand what your not-yet-customers need.

    When dealing with a group of “collectively closed minded” people, pick one of them – ideally someone influential – and get her to listen to you one on one. Convince her of the merits of your argument (show her the data, convince her of the need for data, whatever). Let her initiate the changes in the organization. It isn’t important that you get the credit, just that you make a difference.

    Industry experience provides great context. Great product management springs forth from having insights (and data!) about a market. Those insights _can_ come from experience, or they can come from a _lack_ of experience.

    I have used the “I’m new to your industry” crutch to ask questions. Those questions may be naive, accidentally insightful, or deliberately challenging. The crutch is disarming, and often opens the ears of closed-minded people.

    Ultimately, you form personal relationships and establish trust. You build on those things to create opportunities to influence an organization. That’s what I assume you mean by “something that they should listen to”.

    Sorry for the lack of structure – hopefully the tips are helpful.

    Again – great q&a! And thanks again, Jeff, for setting up this great blog.

  • Raj // Jul 15, 2008 at 12:17 am

    Great answers by both Adam and Scott. I agree with their points.

    I’d like to add one more thought.

    Believe it or not – you have “advantages” due to your lack of “domain knowledge”. Folks with a lot of “domain knowledge” usually have been in that domain for a long time, and they often see things with “colored glasses” of that domain.

    You see things with a fresh pair of eyes, which in a lot of markets is much closer to how a prospective customer would look at things. As a result your insights are uniquely valuable – but they have a shelf life, because pretty soon you too will be an “insider” and won’t have fresh eyes. They should listen to you before you lose these insights!

    Hope this helps.

    – Raj
    Accompa – Affordable Requirements Management Tool for PMs

  • Steve Johnson // Jul 15, 2008 at 6:17 am

    We have a saying, “when in doubt, leave the building.” Too many product managers rely on domain experts. Rely instead on problems in the market. Well done, Adam.

  • New Ask a Good Product Manager Answer : Write That Down // Jul 15, 2008 at 10:10 am

    […] “How can I persuade others who have more industry experience?” […]

  • Gopal Shenoy // Jul 15, 2008 at 2:09 pm

    Excellent post and I cannot agree more with everything said here.

    As a matter of fact, when I was interviewing for my current job, I was drilled on this. I had no experience in the HR industry other than my experience being a manager and an employee and dealing with HR issues.

    I was honest and said – yes, I will not try to claim that I have HR domain experience other than being an employee/manager, but here is my strength – I bring 12 years of experience listening to customers and building successful products and here is the evidence.

    Unless you are working in domains such as medicine, product design, financial services, rocket propulsion etc., I will bet that majority of your customers don’t have the domain experience either. Their job revolves around getting their job done and not getting an expert at using your product or your domain. This is especially true in small businesses.

    If you have the ability to talk to real customers, understand what keeps them awake, figure out which problems they will pay to get solved, communicate the problems to internal stakeholders and create solutions to solve them, your product management skills should be portable across domains.

    I am not saying that domain experts are not needed in an organization, they are absolutely needed. But as Steve mentioned, you need people who have the instinct to figure out the market problems.

    I had blogged on a related topic – on what you sometimes hear from the so called in house domain experts as to why you need to talk to them to figure out the customer problems


  • bob corrigan // Jul 15, 2008 at 2:39 pm

    Solid answer, Adam.

    When hiring PMs I typically look for PMs who can to demonstrate a strong track record of getting up to speed quickly in an industry that is new to them, even if they have a background in the industry I’m hiring them to work on.

    In fact, I’ll argue that PMs who come to the table slathered in multiple years of narrowly-defined “industry experience” may not have the “fresh eyes” required to solve problems for that market in innovative ways. If all they know how is to solve problems the way they’ve always solved them, my products will never be more than also-rans. It’s the innovative, disruptive “spark” that I expect from PMs, not retreads.

    As always, the core requirement for PMs IMO should be “ability to detect, investigate, qualify, communicate and prioritize market problems”, followed closely by “research, define, qualify, communicate and prioritize the development of solutions to those problems”.

    It’s amazing how much you can learn about an industry in no time at all. Must be that “internet thing”.

  • Michael Valiant // Jul 16, 2008 at 1:38 pm

    Tons of excellent information here!

    I was going to add one thing and see that Raj already has… but I’ll expand the idea:

    By nature, people learn to accommodate and eventually accept things that may not be good, or even right; we just get used to seeing them a particular way and start to accept it as correct.

    I see it all the time. People need boundaries and restrictions, so while we’re wide open when we’re forced to learn something new, like a new industry, we use what we learn to build the walls of our knowledge and eventually ‘KNOW’ how that industry works.

    So I’d argue that a product manager who is new to an industry, has the potential to be a lot more effective than one who has spent their entire career in an industry.

    One of the little tricks I like is to haunt all new company hires. It lets me get to know everyone (which comes in useful if I ever need that person to help get stuff done!) and new employees (with fresh perspectives) are one of the best sources of inspiration and ideas! (like a new customer, but with easier access)

  • Dave Marcus // Aug 10, 2008 at 10:06 am

    “How can I establish my authority when I am working in a new industry? 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?”

    You cannot “establish” authority nor should you try. It will come when you are ready for it; when you deserve it. Look into your motives (on a personal psychology basis) for wanting to establish your authority.

    Are you saying “nobody ever listens to me”. If that is true, ask yourself why you are making that complaint. Is it true? Is is a pattern in your life? What are you doing that creates this?

    Do you think any of these ideas will help?

    1. Listen to others.
    2. Learn. Learn. Learn.
    3. Shut up most of the time.
    4. When you think you know something useful, pose it as a question. It is much easier for people to not-listen to a statement than a question.

  • Dave Marcus // Aug 10, 2008 at 10:42 am

    PS – Obviously, I took your question as a personal and human relations question, not a PM theory question as have others. I hope that was not incorrect.