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Book Review: The Product Manager's Desk Reference
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Book Review: The Product Manager's Desk Reference by Steven Haines

The Product Manager's Desk Reference

Written by: Steven Haines. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009. 704+xxxix pages.
Reviewed by: George Castellion

The Product Manager's Desk Reference

A product management book calls for a closer look when its strong acceptance results in a third printing eight months after launch. Steven Haines's exceptional teaching and writing skills explain a good part of this acceptance. Add to this his 25 years of corporate experience in finance, marketing, and product management, and the result is a welcome authenticity to the book's how you do what and whenpresentations. Much of the author's corporate career centered on management of innovations. This focus makes the book a valuable desk reference for product innovation practitioners and consultants who want to polish or add to their skills.

Product management is overall business management at the product, product line, or product portfolio level. Haines labels product management as an “Accidental Profession” with individuals coming to it from many different careers, training, skills, and experiences. To learn how to be an effective product manager, you start near the bottom with coaching and mentoring by seasoned practitioners. So he divides the book into six modules to show others how to navigate productively through this accidental profession.

Module 1, Foundational Elements for Product Management, builds the basic set of systems that sustain product management and help integrate it as key element of a firm's business model. Each of the six chapters in this could stand alone as an objective and comprehensive summary of how, what, and when an effective product manager decides on issues surfacing within a chapter's topic. You will learn what works in topics as diverse as leadership, getting things done through cross-functional teams, decision making, and finance. Haines's belief is that the product manager must own the hard work of understanding customer needs. This ownership is necessary to prevent biases typically associated with function-driven market research by marketing, sales, or technology.

Four chapters comprise Module 2, Making the Market Your Primary Focus. Haines recognizes that there are many different interpretations of what practitioners mean when talking about focusing on the market. He cuts through the confusion by defining market: where buyers and sellers come together. If a business unit focuses on the market, then it objectively tries to understand the forces shaping the place where buyers and sellers come together.

New product development's importance to product management means the author devotes more than a third of the book's pages to Module 3, The Start of the Product's Journey and the New Product Development Process. He begins with a 10-page introduction, the content of which could provide the sole incentive to buy the book for journal readers who want to improve their new product success rate. Haines lists 17 causes often cited as the reason a new product failed in the marketplace. In his view, the chief cause of lack of success is failure to do the work needed for correct decisions. Failure means either people don't know how to do the necessary work because of skill or competency gaps or don't take the time to do the work.

The author notes that most product and innovation managers plan their new product's journey as if seated on a high-speed passenger train. Their center of attention is on the laptop directly in front of their faces, and they do not focus on the rapidly moving countryside passing by the window. For the planning part of the journey they need to get off the train and walk, taking in the details. Doing this walk may take longer than going by train on the journey, but the result is a speedy carrying out of the development and launch phases that follow.

The new product's business case is an unprompted document that evolves throughout the product journey beginning with the concept. Within the context of the business case, the product manager takes on a role equivalent to that of an investment manager—protecting the assets of the company and managing its exposure to risk. The case must be believable to the executives who oversee the business unit's product portfolio and who have limited people, time, and money to invest in a project and, often, limited patience. In addition, product managers must always think about building their credibility horizontally and vertically within their organization. The business case is a primary tool for doing so.

Often overlooked in the fervor of having imagined “the winning” concept is a valuable insight. If you can't come up with a concept owning something unique that differentiates your concept in the buyer's mind from the competition, then your development process is worthless. Your new product must make it in the marketplace and make a profit at the same time, and such concepts are rare.

The author remarks that giving up on a product can be a major challenge for many firms. One reason is that product and portfolio managers don't take discontinuation seriously. They continue to support products with people, time, and money that, if employed elsewhere, would turn a profit. Sometimes old products, limping in the market or financially strained, have political connections to powerful individuals in the firm. For whatever the reason, the work going into the Product Discontinuation Document, described by the author in Module 4, Continuing the Journey: Post-launch Product Management, builds broad support for withdrawal of the product from the market.

At the conclusion of Module 5, Professionalizing Product Management, a six-page case study shows how moving to professional product management can achieve higher levels of market success. The case study comes from the experiences of ARC, a small U.S.-based company owned by 11 major airlines, in creating a new business line through professional product management. In just five years substantial revenue was attained, while core operating costs were cut $12.5 million.

The final module, The Product Manager's Toolbox, gathers into 49 pages the templates, tables, and diagrams used throughout the book. Each tool here has a brief explanation to guide the manager through procedures that may seem complex. Some are annotated so that readers can see how the content of one tool is related to the content of another. The book closes with a glossary, a bibliography of recommended reading, and a convenient index.

The Product Manager's Desk Reference is outstanding in covering the breadth of the tasks and thought processes involved in product and innovation management. Practitioners cannot learn about how to develop a product concept into a successful product by reading about tasks such as gathering the voice of the customer. They must do these tasks, preferably with a mentor who understands how everything works when it's running right. For beginning practitioners this book is a reliable guidebook and mentor. For experienced practitioners who want raise the level of their game, this book contains nuggets of gold.

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