The sad state of the product manager's toolbox

The product manager toolbox has nothing product management-specific

Face it. As product managers, we have a pretty poor set of tools. I don’t know you but I can guess what’s in your toolbox (coincidentally, Scott Gilbert posted a list of what’s in his toolbox yesterday):

  • Microsoft Word or Google Docs
  • Excel or Google Docs
  • A bug tracker like Jira or Bugzilla
  • A wiki like Confluence
  • Balsamiq or Axure or Omnigraffle for mockups
  • Microsoft Project
  • A to-do list manager – Trello or Asana or Outlook
  • A mind mapping tool if you’re really advanced (I use Freemind)

I “get” to use a subset of that list as well. They are general purpose tools, all great in their own way, but nothing on that list has product management-specific functionality. (And woe be to you if you think Microsoft Project is a “product management tool.”)

Look around at your non-product manager colleagues. They are in much better shape. They all have tools that are built for them, that provide specific functionality for their jobs.

In fact, look at just for one example. Your product marketing colleagues – there’s about the same number of them as product managers – probably spend literally 100x as much on tools as product managers do.

Sadly, that’s the PM tool situation for now (aside from a small number of bright spots, some I’ve mentioned in a few previous posts). I hope the situation will improve.

Using heuristics instead of tools

But in the meantime, what do we? We take it up a level. We use tool-independent heuristics to help us be better product managers? Heuristics are:

  • Simple
  • Compelling
  • Cognitively appealing
  • Relatively easy to do
  • Flexible enough that they are applicable to most situations
  • Recognize that there is no right answer
  • Don’t try to put you in a box or methodology

I’ve written about a number of these already including Cynefin, The Three Laws of Marketing Physics, and the Mission-critical Core/Context model (see yesterday’s post for a list).

The Sad State of The Product Manager Toolbox 1
Dad’s Old Toolbox, from e.b. image, CC 2.0 licensed.

Supporting these heuristics with tools – I can dream, right?

These heuristics are great, but wouldn’t it be awesome if we actually had tool support for them? What if there were a product management tool that helped me work with my heuristics? What would that look like?

  • Helping me find the right heuristic for the situation: There’s exploring the space (looking for a problem), creating and validating your solution (product planning, design, and execution), and creating and validating your value proposition (product marketing, positioning, selling). Different heuristics are useful at different points, some are useful throughout.
  • Helping me organize my work with respect to the heuristic. For example, if I’m doing a Minimum Viable Product, the tool should insist I have a hypothesis I’m testing, and that I’ve designed the MVP to actually test that hypothesis.
  • In some cases the heuristics involve doing research, such as “Get In The Van” and “Probe, Sense, Respond,” and the tool can help me collect the results and make sense of them.
  • In other cases the heuristics involve me being creative, such as articulating a value proposition (that encompasses elements of the Three Laws of Marketing Physics). So the tool could guide me through this creative process, especially enabling productive collaboration with my colleagues and partners.
  • Some heuristics help me structure information so it reveals useful patterns, such as the Mission-critical Core/Context model. The tool should provide the structure for me to fill in, and guidance on how to fill it in. It could even help me with analysis of the patterns and how I might take actions based on them.

A tool that did that stuff would be amazing. But I’m not done yet – there’s a lot more I need and expect. I can’t wait until my product manager toolbox has a whole bunch of tools that understand my job and help me do it better.

All I can say is, stay tuned.

About the author

Your host and author, Nils Davis, is a long-time product manager, consultant, trainer, and coach. He is the author of The Secret Product Manager Handbook, many blog posts, a series of video trainings on product management, and the occasional grilled pizza.

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  • It's great to see someone taking a wide view of the product management world and the tools within. Really good to see you list out your ideal requirements. As mentioned on a previous post, I invite you to take a look at what we're doing at ProdPad – I think you'll find it actually answers more of these challenges you listed than you might think 😉

    • Janna – I'm just getting started! I've started conceptualizing a the outline of a review of several of the new tools that are out there, including ProdPad which is very promising.

    • I believe it is a combination of several factors:

      1) the problem is actually really difficult. As I discuss in several posts, the product management domain is complex, in the Cynefin sense. This means that the types of solutions that worked for simple and even complicated domains – simple being e.g., accounting/backoffice/ERP, and complicated being arguably CRM – will not work for product management. We’ve seen this over and over again in solutions that primarily focus on managing lists of requirements. Our requirements actually go through a complex lifecycle (not just complicated) where emergent behaviors are normal – and requirements management tools don’t really support those emergent behaviors.

      2) the market is not that big, even though product management is the number one lever for most companies on increased revenue (for example, ERP *saves* money, but doesn’t make money, while CRM improves the effectiveness of selling existing products, it’s PM that gets new products and value propositions to market).

      3) Finally, PMs are jacks of all trades by nature, and we’ve managed to make-do with other peoples’ tools. I think that has meant that we’re leaving a lot of value on the table, and with better tools we could be creating more value faster and getting it to market.

      I hope that by recognizing point #1, and using new and modern development capabilities, we can create tools that are successful despite #2, and help deliver the value promised by #3.

    • Dan – also, I should note that there are some new tools out there that are taking a shot at these issues, including ProdPad, Reqqs, ProdThink, and several others I've mentioned in a few posts. I don't yet know how those tools stack up against my admittedly high expectations. I hope to do a review of several of them soon.

  • If we think that having a better or easier tool will make us more effective product managers, we may be fooling ourselves. I am more of a root cause kind of guy. Over 80% of our time is consumed by fire drills, outdated processes and justifying the lack of results. We are so inwardly focused…my solution, my roi, my position in the market, etc, etc. Sometimes we need to ask ourselves whether our whole approach toward product management makes sense. We should be spending 80% of our time understanding, measuring and tracking how our solutions impact our customers bottom-line. For that we need very few "tools" and that is a good thing because other than spreadsheets and good listening skills I know of only one software tool that really gets to this. For those product managers that want a simple and powerful approach to getting deeper into understanding what customers value check out: (although it has a bit of an academic feel the practical applications are awesome) LeveragePoint software does not do many things but really focus on measuring customer value. They walk you though some steps that lead you to quantify tangible economic value (cost savings, revenue enhancements) to target segments. They have built into their tool a well established methodology for doing this called EVE (Economic Value Estimation) and although EVE is typically used for making price setting decisions by answering questions like: how much of the value we deliver we want to capture through price? It is also a great methodology for testing assumptions about what customers value and would be willing to pay for. After all, what is the point of innovation if we can't convince customers to pay for it. If customers are not willing to pay for your innovation due to lack of real value then it is time to kill that solution and move and dig deeper to uncover what customers value and are willing to pay for. If we spend most of our time on customer value we will become more effective product mangers…applying the EVE methodology and spreadsheets may be all you need to get started.

    • Rob – very interesting perspective! I think it's true that tools don't solve problems. On the other hand, I guess I'd say that better quality tools, and especially tool innovations, often lead to better quality or totally new solutions. I have a cheap table saw at home, which I could use to build some kitchen cabinets. My cabinets would be kind of crooked, though. Some of that is because the tool is not good, part of it is because I am not good. But even if I were an expert, my cheap table saw would make it really hard to build non-crooked cabinets, compared to having a good quality table saw.

      Take a look at my post today and see what you think of that argument. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

  • Thanks for starting this great discussion. I agree that tools might be just a partial and small part of the solution. Many of us became Product Managers after cutting our teeth in other roles like Engineering Management and Project Management. Those roles have very well defined tools so it's easy to see how we long for something better. I agree that it would be nice to have a better tool for organizing stories, user feedback, etc, but I'd like to offer a different perspective.

    One of our main roles is to communicate and to influence. Therefore, soft skills are the biggest tools we have and need. Polishing our presentation, writing and negotiation skills can go a long way . But if we are talking about physical tools, I think the tools we need are those that can help us communicate better with others. Tools that can help us get our ideas across to different audiences, from engineering, to sales, to customers, etc. In that light, tools like PowerPoint (or better), white boarding tools, sketching tools, rapid prototyping tools, etc are the ones we need the most. We are always on the run, so these tools need to get much better in mobile devices. They need to not only look great on tablets, but also allow us to enter notes, capture things, share, etc. And if my iPad could only come with a built in projector, that'd be the ultimate. But now I'm just day-dreaming.

    My point is that us PMs could use better organization tools, sure, but I think we could also benefit greatly, if not more, from better communication tools. What do you think?

    • Daniel – certainly a legitimate point! In fact, one of my pet peeves is that I don't have a good way to create a powerpoint that reflects the information in my product planning tool – at the right level of detail/abstraction for the audience I'll be presenting to. I'll try to do some writing about my perspective on what you wrote – I think we need better tools like the ones I've described, and I think they need to do a better job of supporting the communication you describe. E.g., I don't want to have to send marketing an email with the value proposition for the new release – I want that in my tool, from which they can retrieve it. My tool which has helped me develop that value proposition in a collaborative way with other stakeholders, including marketing, services, sales, and so on.

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