Combine today’s overworked and understaffed software industry with a familiar phenomenon I like to refer to as “So much software to manage, so little Product Manager to do it” and you’ve got a perfect case for using Virtual Product Managers.
Virtual Product Managers provide the output of regular Product Managers, except they don’t exist as a single person. In fact, as far as the rest of the company is concerned, they don’t exist anywhere but in your head. But as someone providing product management, you can define and deploy Product Managers who are virtual in order to help you with your workload of endless tasks that could get done if only you had all the time in the world at your disposal.
What exactly is a Virtual Product Manager? It’s part of managing by influence, and the acrobatic art of getting things done through others. You create a Virtual Product Manager when you work with one or more people to carry out a function that a Product Manager, if one happened to be available, would normally do.
As an actual Product Manager, you act as the lever that boosts and focuses the efforts of one or more coworkers to complete a project, and then exert the effort to champion and drive home the result in the organization.
Read on for an example of a Virtual Product Manager and how to create one
Example: A Virtual Beta Program Manager
Perhaps an example will help show what a Virtual Product Manager can do. Let’s take beta programs, the unwanted love child of Development and Marketing. Most companies manage them with the enthusiasm normally reserved for toothaches, and even less tolerance. In leanly staffed times, there’s probably not a full time Beta Program Manager to be found at your company.
And in fatter times, nobody’s enlisting for the job, though some people do get drafted.
But even if there’s nobody to manage the beta program, the work must get done. And you as Product Manager don’t have the time to do it all. That’s where you call upon the help of a couple of sales reps, some assistance from Marketing, project managers in Professional Services, the head of Development, and the QA folks.
Sales reps help line up customers and work with them to make them enthusiastic and keep them positive. Marketing does interviews to develop user stories, press releases and testimonials. Project managers work closely to set expectations and ensure that problems are reported, escalated as appropriate, and resolved. Development gives priority to bugs found and improvements suggested during beta. QA makes sure the fixes get resolved the right way.
And over it all the Product Manager works to paint a picture of the beta effort to all the participants so that each understands his or her role in and value to a critical component of your product’s success.
Finally, the Product Manager reports on plans, progress, and accomplishments, so that the beta program appears full-blown and virtually complete to the management team.
That’s “virtually” complete.
How Do You Create A Virtual Product Manager?
Getting others to pull in unison when they, too, have plenty of other priorities breathing down their neck is a kind of management through influence. You need to throw a little of everything into the effort.
Well, it may feel underhanded, but let’s face it, it’s not like Product Managers haven’t been on the receiving end of a fair share of wheedling by teammates in almost every department.
Sometimes a good whining, cajoling request that includes an explanation of how important the requested effort is to the company and the product is all it takes to get the help you need.
Toadying up is just a slimy way of describing the favor trade. There are many ways you can help out sales reps, Marketing, Professional Services, and Development that will leave a positive account balance that you can cash in on when there’s a virtual product management task to be done.
Just don’t expect the help to be offered without your asking.
Want to get someone’s attention? Listen! Listen to their experience, suggestions, and feedback. When people see that you take actions indicating you heard them and took their words to heart, you free up a wellspring of helpful energy. It’s an easy, incredibly powerful first step to empower those who can help you in your virtual efforts.
It’s as if listening unlocks your teammates’ hearts and minds.
Inspiration is what comes from your best efforts to paint the picture – to build the vision – of the virtual goal and the good things it will bring, to the company, to the product, and to the lucky person who takes part in the noble effort.
Product Managers are understandably focused on the how and the what of their many efforts. It pays – many times over – to take the time to present the why of the project, so that teammates see the importance of their contribution.
If everyone knew just what to do to help, they’d probably just do it with barely a word from you. But in reality, the people you have asked to pull for you may not always have that clear of an idea. And it’s hard to think clearly when you’re overloaded with work.
So a Product Manager’s role is to provide guidance when things are getting off track or bogging down. Guidance, provided humbly with a good explanation of its potential value to the individual in other circumstances well beyond the scope of the current project, is usually appreciated – and followed.
The Product Manager needs to be the first to crest the hill, with the bullets buzzing uncomfortably close. Be a fearless leader and others will follow.
Attack the effort like you’re not afraid of it, and point the way. Much of what you will be dealing with is hesitancy on the part of people who will be happy to follow once they see someone setting the example.
Not real kisses, but virtual ones.
There are two important uses for kisses: consoling and rewarding.
- Consoling. Product Managers need to be quick to provide sympathy and comfort. After all, getting a beta customer to actually use the software and provide feedback is no picnic.
- Rewarding. For hard work, take the virtual team out to lunch, or provide treats that mean something to your teammates, whether that’s chocolate, candy, free movie tickets, or trade show giveaways.
Listening, inspiring, guiding, leading, even sweet kisses all help empower your virtual teammates. With time and effort, Product Managers can unleash the power of their teammates, and stand back and watch the very heartening results.
Driving It Home
Finally, it’s the Product Manager’s role to drive the whole effort home. Intervene enthusiastically when problems are escalated to you. Champion the project. Present the plan, report on progress, and trumpet its success, and give all the credit that you can to the teammates who made the virtual job possible.
Make sure the management team understands all the work that went in to the effort, who helped and how, and why the virtual product management effort has made such a difference to the product and the company.
When you drive it home well, you build the support for the next Virtual Product Manager job among those who can release the resources for it.
— Jacques Murphy, Product Management Challenges