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  • John Chambers, PhD

Product Manager as Maestro

“The conductor’s role in the process is to guide the orchestra to find the essential in the new field. This may mean different kinds of clarifications for the new indications on the ‘map,’ zooming out for an overview, and zooming in for a special focus… sometimes even just a bit more time may be needed, but when a work is well-written and has a clear personality, it’s the music which finally guides us all.”

Susanna Mälkki,

Chief Conductor,

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra*

Maestro Mälkki’s words guide your symphony. They speak to music and, of all things, your role as product manager. Indeed.

You are the conductor, with your style and your methods of interpretation. But no matter what kind of conductor, yours is the leading identity for ensuring all musicians are attuned to the score. You are the overseer, the reconciler, the visionary, the interpreter. If you don’t see yourself as such, then you close the door to your own value and your company’s future needs.

Opening Theme

Memorize the product details.

Appreciate the landscape.

Paint a picture of the journey.

You are not the owner of the music, nor the dictator of the roadmap.

No, your job is much harder.

The conductor is not the owner of the themes composed by Jean Sibelius, Mozart or Mendelssohn. You do not strike a pen like a baton, and demand that version 3.3 of your orchestration appliance is next in the "concert schedule." Your role is collaboration, then leadership.

Whether you are a product manager for automated service catalogs, insurance experiences to policy holders, dashboards for your client’s data marts, cloud offerings to your subscribers, you are evaluating countless factors.

Those factors are internal and external, bringing to life and elevating the whole from the sum of the parts.

You understand the inner working of the orchestra, your firm, and you appreciate the expectations and demands of your audience, the customer.

Product managers who see their role as only tactical technician, calendaring versions and features, are diminishing their importance – just as the leadership or executives are, when they view product management as only a meticulous mapper of chronology.

This is not to say that precision and the thoroughness of the road-mapping scribe isn’t a significant aspect. Just as the conductor understands the rises and falls of several movements, requiring in-depth study and memorization, the product manager is asked to play back features and functions in a moment’s notice.

But the product manager also reconciles the strategy of the firm, the competition, and the details in achieving an advantage. If that isn’t enough, you are also expected to negotiate, calibrate, and mildly pontificate.

Ultimately, after all inputs from all the parties are agreed, you are managing the product journey.

The Orchestra

The team’s delivery is a tribute to the entire value chain, from the supporting roles that keep lights on, to organizational support structures, to the data scientists and the development engineers. There is no extraneous contribution, any more than there is for a musical performance. Your ears are tuned not just to sound but to interdependency of the musicians.

From the vantage point of your customers, what is seen and what is expected?

You have the responsibility to present the final deliverable, built from weeks of rehearsals, and sponsor requests. Their capital investments drive the firm’s future. But if you think those executive sponsors will devise the offerings, construct the plans, and delicately orchestrate the diverse departments who collectively perform, then you overlook your accountability.

I’ve seen product managers who await marching orders -- tickets spat out as rote requests for new widgets and buttons. They simply execute on demand – writing up features, dropping in a timeline estimate for CX practitioners, and swag the resource expectations in the development cycle. This relatively isolated behavior undermines the value of the product manager. It undermines performance in the firm.

Product management is a far more mature and sophisticated discipline. Responding to requests is indeed a requirement, a necessity; however, if the role is only that, then fulfil it with less experienced members of the firm.

Because the valuable product manager is a technology/business virtuoso, overseeing the portfolio, parsing the notes of the composition, understanding the needs of the sponsors, and imagining the piece's "fit" within the company’s suite of offerings.

Your position requires taxonomical prowess, urgency and empathy for both customer and internal developer. The product manager’s energy and passion should be contagious.

The Virtuosity

Your skill in describing product evolution is the skill in sharing customer value, their scenarios and their benefits, which in turn will benefit your firm. Your ability to see the granular details as well as broad impact is a capability that comes with experience.

You illustrate the scenarios.

Whether the teams build a hand-held app for loaning money, or a B2B web-servicing bridge for supply chains, the customer’s perspective is paramount. You differentiate your product’s value, understanding the strategic landscape, encouraging your product’s evolution, and simultaneously warning of competitors’ activity. You are expert of the product and the market.

In their thorough text on Strategic Management, Jay Barney and William Hesterley articulated a solid framework for competitive advantage, which seamlessly drive your product strategy: VRIO. This approach determines strength of your product set, and its advantage in the marketplace. Your virtuosity is composed of translating, articulating and perceiving each of the four VRIO factors, Value; Rarity; Imitability; Organization:

Is there Value in the product? Meaning, is the capability justified by demand and expected by clients? Or is it a niche that fulfils a need not yet quantified in the industry?

What is the nature of that value and why is it a justifiable investment?

Rarity implies the product, enhancement, capability is relatively unique. I say, “relatively,” as your competition is certainly building similar solutions. Is your interpretation, your performance, crafting something that is not yet a commonplace commodity?

Or perhaps it is a necessity, just to keep pace with the market.

What is the level of Imitability? Segueing from the "rarity," can your product be easily imitated, without excessive investment? This does not mean that yours will be the only product of its kind. But the level of imitability will decrease the duration of your value, and will demand more rapid execution and follow-on.

If your product is simple to imitate, determine why. Is there still really a market for it?

Organization is the oft-overlooked prerequisite. I spoke of this in my essay "Digital’s Field of Dreams." Your model for scaling, adapting, and supporting is the unforgiving expectation of your product portfolio. Otherwise, the customers will indeed stop coming.

Your product advantage will be fleeting, and embarrassing, if it is not supported by rigorous execution and a rigorous operating model.

In all your product streams, assess the competitive advantage, or justify feature-inclusion by way of the VRIO framework.

The Sponsorship

As I’ve written before about your uniqueness, reflecting on your carpetbags of versatile magic, be genuine in the trenches and in the presentation.

Be yourself.

You might be animated and flamboyant, in the mold of conductor Gustamo Dudamel, flailing madly (putting Joe Cocker to shame).

Or you have the controlled and serene approach, the reserved strength of Valery Gergeiv who sometimes performs seated. They both are their own personas, but they both have the same commitment -- the music, the belief in the creation, and the responsibility toward the sponsors.

Be passionate about your company's creations.

A product manager who doesn’t believe in the product is playing a funeral dirge against her own health and the viability of the firm.

Every conductor on the stage has their own style and approach in reconciling the roadmap and then selling the vision.

Now before you wince, rejecting the performance artistry in your role, think again.

You are project managing, cultivating, collaborating, influencing, interpreting the vision of countless voices and instruments:

From consultants who mark the competitive trends, to strategists who balance the ephemeral with the feasible, to the engineers and designers and technologists who package and protect the deliverable.

You are in the business of orchestration.

And your focus, among all those virtuosos is empathy for your sponsors, your customers, and an understanding of their desires.

Wrap your thoughts around this remarkable quote from conductor Susanna Mälkki, striking a note at the core of your accountability, as she also reminds us that yours is sometimes a thankless job:

“In the arts, the human spirit should always be in the center, and the message of a work of art is always more important than the messenger.”

In product management, that human spirit is your customer, always in the center. And while your skill and genuineness is required to sell your vision, either to coach your sales teams, or collaborate with sponsors, or negotiate difficulty with your product development office, you must believe in the vision.

All styles are welcome, as long as they are genuine.

The Coda

Never be intimidated in bringing the product story to the executive table.

The corporate product portfolio should be understood by the entire leadership team. Your skill in selling the old and new product capabilities, aligning them to the corporate strategy, is as critical as understanding the evolving functionality and compatibility.

You have orchestrated the diverse sounds and skills of every instrument, depending on best-in-class team members.

You read the musical measure on the sheet in front of you.

You saw how that measure advances the entire piece.

There are no extraneous features, no extraneous functions.

You understood the granular and the holistic.

You painted the picture of the creation, and saw its value in a sea of competition.

Demonstrate that there is so much more to your discipline than cataloging and scheduling releases.

In product leadership, embrace the voice of conductor Mälkki who said of music:

“… find the essential in the new field… different kinds of clarifications… on the ‘map,’ zooming out for an overview, and zooming in for a special focus…”

What better description is there for the art of product management?


* Mälkki's quotations came from her interview with Bruce A. Russell at

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