Product Management at HSI: Blending Science and Art

Product Management reminds me of political science in the fact that it is both science and art.  There is a definite quantitative component to product management.  Market potential, the competitive environment, ROI, can all be measured or estimated.  However, we usually regard the great product managers or product innovators as extremely creative individuals.  This is in direct contrast to the perception of analysis.

What is our approach at HSI?  Feed both sides of the equation!  The analytical portions of the process are in a block font and the creative portions are in an italicized font.

On the foundation, we place the organization and formality of product management.  We analyze our customer base, collect our collective intelligence from sales people and engineers to organize our priority areas for development.  The focus areas are developed by what we call industry.  This is really a specific customer profile or segment.  The top industries become the foundation for product innovation.  Since that is where our strength already lies, it is where we start. 

Next come the ideas!  We get our creative thinkers together on multiple occasions to discuss the best product innovations for each industry.  We discuss the products we currently offer, the competitive products we know in the market space and the problems that remain unsolved by the industry.  The output is a list of potential improvements to existing product lines as well as new products for this specific focus area.  This is narrowed quickly to the single best idea for each market. 

These ideas go back to marketing for further analysis.  This is when the market potential is estimated.  Research on competitive products is conducted.  Ratings are given to each idea for speed to market and potential.  The final prioritization process involves a cross functional team of sales, marketing, engineering, production and quality.  As President I facilitate this conversation to draw out a well-rounded discussion of the ideas and their analysis.  Once the team lands on a set of priorities, project scope and milestones are created so that engineering can get to work, marketing can plan and sales can begin generating customer interest. 

Once engineering gets to work, the product projects take on a life of their own.  The R&D process is creative, messy, circuitous and involves lots of back and forth discussion across multiple organizational disciplines.  The projects never meet the exact specifications originally set out.  Sometimes reality of the research causes compromise.  In other cases the ideas get bigger and better to involve a whole range of products instead of just a single development.  Both warrant more discussion as it is an adjustment to the original intent, which may or may not have an impact on the intended goal of revenue growth.  As the product evolves so does the marketing strategy for launch. This continues until every obstacle is overcome and the product is ready to sell.  Then all the challenges associated with marketing and selling a product begin.

This is how the process works in general as we discuss products to proactively develop.  Research & Development is an emerging part of our business model.  We have launched two products in the last two years and are in the process of launching a third.  There are more to come this year as innovations on some existing product lines.  However, the core of our business model is the development of solutions to meet specific customer needs.

This too has a product management strategy.  Just like we have an R&D product roadmap, we work with many of our customers to plan their customized product roadmap.  The process looks similar, just narrowly focused at the outset on their market segment.  We discuss with their product management professionals their best growth opportunities.  Then we align our development plans to support the launch of their products.  It is common for us to carry out the engineering of our component as part of a larger system.  The customer’s engineering team is ultimately responsible for the system as a whole, but we understand our component and can make the overall development easier by taking full responsibility for one aspect.  In some cases our component is so central to the overall functionality of the system, it is our innovation that makes their product development possible.  These customer roadmaps require both the scientific approach of engineering development and the art of customer relationship management.

Product management does not have one path, but many.  There is no straight line process, but an outline for an iterative interaction between many disciplines including analysis and creativity.  So how do we really attack it?  With determination to create products that meet the needs of our customers and their markets, then putting in the effort required to actually achieve the goal.