How to Innovate by Introducing Product Management in SMB and Non-Tech Companies

I learned two truths this week.

During the Coffee with Digital Trailblazers, a LinkedIn audio event that I host most Fridays at 11 am ET, Jay Cohen shared that January was a good time of the year to focus on learning programs and driving department and team-level realignments. It makes sense because people return to work from the holidays refreshed and ready to learn, while the upcoming year’s new priorities may not have been rolled out yet.

Six steps: introduce product management in SMB and non-tech companies

The second learning came from three conversations with Digital Trailblazers over the week. One was a large bank, the second a midsize insurance company, and the third from a small county government office. “We have long backlogs, coming from the open-a-ticket mindset,” said one IT Ops leader, and another acknowledged, “We struggle to prioritize our work.”

Agile without true product owners is backlog management

These companies use basic agile practices, but their leaders acknowledge the organization’s struggles with the product owner role and product management disciplines.

My suggestion to all three: Use January to roll out a basic, rudimentary product owner role and product management function.

It’s common to find product managers and product owners in SaaS, technology, ecommerce, retail, and other B2C companies. Leadership in these companies long realized that understanding markets, determining product-market fits, defining customer personas, and understanding value propositions are all key to developing minimally viable solutions and delivering ongoing product enhancements.  

But identifying product managers and owners in non-tech companies, B2B businesses, SMBs, and the government remains a long-running work in progress.

An overly simplified way to introduce product management that can work

I’ll skip writing about why many businesses struggle with product management. Instead, I will shift to how more traditional, non-tech businesses and SMBs can quickly shift from a stakeholder or sales-driven mega backlog to defining market-driven roadmaps and delivering innovations.

Here’s the high-level process:

  1. Identify tangible and ideally measurable reasons why the company’s current product development approaches for delivering meaningful new capabilities to prioritized customer segments are underperforming.
  2. Redefine the stakeholder role as someone who provides input to the strategy, roadmap, or priorities. Most importantly, make it clear that stakeholders provide input, not a decision, and that there’s no guarantee that what they request will be prioritized.
  3. Broaden everyone’s definition of ‘ ‘product’ as a set of capabilities or services that are delivered and improved to a customer segment – external, employee-facing, or both. Then, select one product that everyone can agree on – a product with a defined customer segment, easy-to-define customer-product journeys, a known set of tech and non-tech assets, and operations tied to the product’s marketing, sales, and operations. 

I’m pausing here to provide some clarity:  Step 1 helps define a problem statement around what’s not working in the current product development process, and step 2 creates a clear separation on how non-product organizations typically function. Step 3 is challenging to do across a product portfolio, but most organizations can usually find at least one product that’s easy to define with few grey areas of scope. 

Define product management, dedicate a team, and assign a product manager

Now, if you get this far, you’re ready for the next three steps.

  1. Share a simplified definition of a product manager as someone who defines the product vision, creates a set of priorities for their team(s), and proposes a set of (ideally measurable) success criteria.
  2. Agree on the people who will be part of the team(s) working on the product and free up their time to be dedicated to its roadmap.
  3. Assign someone to be the product manager, relieve them of as many of their prior responsibilities as possible, and ensure stakeholders acknowledge that the product manager will filter and rank priorities for the team(s). 

I’m pausing again. Step 4 is simplistic by design, and there are many more skills and responsibilities to this function, but many organizations can start with the basics. Step 5 is where many organizations truly struggle when defining their agile organizations and team structures, a topic I may cover in a future post. But step 6 is ultimately where SMBs and non-tech companies stumble.

Internal product managers require training and mentoring

They find it difficult to pick a person, even though many products have at least one subject matter expert that understands the customer. If they assign someone to the role, they trip up on freeing them from prior responsibilities and fail to recognize that the person assigned to the role needs training and mentoring to learn how to manage stakeholder expectations. (Note: see my 12 posts for agile product managers and watch the embedded video as a starting point.)

To start innovating, it comes down to transforming from stakeholder-led backlogs to product-managed, market-driven roadmaps. Tech, media, and ecommerce companies figure this out right away because chasing stakeholder-driven features often yields subpar results. More traditional businesses are likely to misdiagnose the problems with stakeholder-driven backlogs as a technology execution or platform issue.

But there are a few secrets to making product management work even in the most traditional businesses. The key is simplifying and properly sequencing the 6-step list I just proposed, but how to go about this must be customized to the business’s culture, organization, goals, and products. Reach out to me, and I’ll guide you on where to start.  

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