A handful of companies ago the CEO asked me, the head of product management, if I could feel the business in my finger tips. He went on to say (while rubbing his thumb over his finger tips) that you need to be able to feel the business on the tips of your fingers. I’ve kept that phrase with me for all these years and have asked the many product managers I’ve mentored over the years the exact same question.
What it means is that you get to the point where you have so much information about the business you are in that making product decisions is easy and that you can make them with such a high degree of confidence, you just know it is the right decision. Connecting the dots, developing strategies and tactics all come easy and natural. It does not come over night; it does not come by reading reports; it does not come by learning how the product works. It comes by getting out of the office and talking to people that are connected to your business – customers, partners, prospects, analysts, subject matter experts, and anyone else who is associated with your business.
Right from day 1 as a product manager in your new company make it a habit to talk to these people. Schedule on a monthly basis to visit (face-to-face) at least 4 customers – find out about the day in the life of a user; find out their challenges before they started using your product; find out how your product has impacted their business. Arrange with the sales team to sit in on 3 sales calls a week – don’t dominate the call, don’t influence/derail the selling process … listen and learn; contribute when asked. Attend regional sales meetings and user group meetings. Seek out the subject matter experts in your business domain, and take them to lunch or dinner. Ask them anything you want about your business … including what they think of your company and your product. Sit in on all of the webinars from the analysts in your business domain. Some of it may be directly relevant, some may not – the point is to understand your business and the bounds of your business (how do you know the boundary if you don’t know what’s beyond).
How do you know when you’ve reached this state? Good question. A lot has to do with confidence. You all of a sudden wake up and realize you’re there. You can answer every question confidently without saying “I’ll have to get back to you” … maybe that’s it. Every individual is different, but if you work at it you will get there and at some point you will realize that you are there.