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Will Co-Creation Save Product Management?

In the “2010 CEO and Business Executive Survey” by analyst firm Gartner, 85% of respondents indicated that retaining customers and enhancing existing relationships is their top priority. Last year, the top priority was cutting operating costs, so it looks like companies are now re-focusing on maintaining and enhancing their market position. Not surprisingly, maintaining competitive advantage was the second highest priority in the latest survey. All this should have been good news for product managers.

The best way to retain customers is to continue to understand their problems and come up with differentiated and innovative solutions. And that is, after all, the core job of product management. Yet, most product managers struggle with gathering and analyzing methodical, reliable input from customers, let alone fully understanding their customers’ problems and use cases. Why is that?

Several reasons come to mind. Product managers typically have outbound responsibilities too (sales training, trade shows, collateral generation, etc.), and often do program management as well (release management, launch management, etc.), especially in smaller companies. Many of these tasks tend to be more urgent in nature, having a deadline attached to them, and often take more of the product manager's bandwidth than intended. The cost-cutting measures of the last couple of years certainly haven’t helped with that …

Another culprit is actually the Agile movement. As Rich Mironov points out in The Art of Product Management: “Under Agile, there’s a lot more work for an Agile PM to do.” This is not only due to the added demands of daily stand up meetings and sprint planning sessions. The short release cycles in Agile require also that product decisions be made faster, on an ongoing, daily basis. Whereas in the past product managers had months to carry out market research and finalize product specifications, today they are continually asked to make product decisions within a matter of hours and days.

But the root cause of the problem lies in the product management methodology and in the information-flow topology that most companies employ. The common underlying assumption is that all product requirements from all sources (customers, partners, prospects, employees, competitors, etc.) flow to the product manager, whose job it is to analyze and prioritize everything and spit out a roadmap, release plans, and relevant MRDs/PRDs. This “star” topology, where data flows from stakeholders on the periphery to the product manager in the epicenter, naturally turns the product manager into the bottleneck of the product development process. Furthermore, it misses out hugely on innovation opportunities because the product manager is the only one who sees the whole picture.

What is the solution? We need to move to a collaborative model of product management. One in which customers, partners, and employees are directly involved in the product planning process, as a community. A model that harnesses the power of the community to come up with the best ideas and fully develop them to fruition in finished products. Co-creation. “Social” meets “Product Management”.

This should intuitively make sense. Remember the last customer advisory group you attended? The great insights you had, the energizing discussions, and the bonds your customers developed with you and each other? Why do that only once a year, and only at a strategic level? What if you could pitch any decision you had to make to a supporting community and get timely feedback that actually represents more than the couple of customers who you otherwise might manage to call?

Some companies have started going in this direction. But this movement is just starting and there’s much more needed as far as methodologies and tools, especially for high-tech companies and even more so for B2B firms. In subsequent posts, I’ll discuss how to adopt co-creation for high-tech product management.

What do you think? Do you agree with the problem analysis? Have you tried co-creation? Looking forward to hear your comments!



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