The Project Notebook

Product/Project Management and Strategic Thinking

Strategic thinking is about analyzing complex situations or making critical decisions involving large quantities of information. It includes a focus on “finding and developing unique opportunities to create value by enabling a provocative and creative dialogue among people who can affect…direction” (Center for Applied Research). The situations often require you to take a more high level look at your product or project to find a solution.

First off, this isn’t very easy when you are swamped with day-to-day firefighting. You will need to take some time out to think through the situations more clearly. Here are a 10 tips for developing capacity for this type of “out of the box” thinking and analysis:

1. Ask “What if?” Look at your ideas and decisions with a longer term view in mind. Think through multiple steps or stages of the solution to explore all the consequences and impacts.
2. Ask “why?” And keep asking. The 5 whys will help you drill down deep enough to get the full details or determine a “root cause”.
3. Seek counsel, not opinion. Everyone has an opinion, but you want to focus on those with proven experience and expertise. Be willing to accept criticism and look at the perspectives of others.
4. Get multiple perspectives. Our relatives and friends are more likely to tell us what we want to hear. Rather than ask one friend or current customer, show your product to 10 perspective customers that have never seen it before and get their feedback. This is the feedback you need to hear.
5. Challenge assumptions. Ask questions and examine things in more depth.
6. Find new ways to look at data. On top of that, gather new data. I recently expended a lot of effort of my own and others to build a more definitive client list. It allowed me to see the existing client base in a new way. This also helped to shape some ideas about how the client base has changed over time.
7. Think systems and processes. Observe how things work. In general, planning and systematic approaches add value through efficiency improvements.
8. Watch the competition. What are they doing differently? How are they structured and organized? How are their products different or better?
9. Volunteer. Use this to learn more about your organization or work with others to see their challenges and needs. My volunteer work with PMI always seems to afford me new ways of looking at myself and my profession.
10. Become a life long learner. Stay up to date on company and industry developments. Read books and magazines. Attend courses and seminars. Talk and interact with experts.

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The Relationship of Project and Product Management

I’ve started exploring the relationship of project and product management, particularly as they may relate to smaller companies. Each seems to have their separate body of literature, but there are some close ties.

Let’s start by looking at the PMBOK® Guide, Fourth edition definition of project. Note that “product” appears as part of that definition. This leads us to believe that to create a product, we should have a formal project:

“A project is a temporary endeavor to create a unique product, service, or result…Temporary does not necessarily mean short in duration. Temporary does not generally apply to the product, service, or result created by the project; most projects are undertaken to create a lasting outcome.”

Project managers know that projects have life cycles. Products have life cycles as well. The product life cycle usually starts with an organization such as Sales and Marketing or Engineering developing a product idea. This may be internally generated or driven by customers or consumers. The idea may be for a brand new product (e.g. the introduction of an iPhone) or for an improvement to an existing product (e.g. successive versions of the MS Windows OS since the introduction of Windows in the 90s). The final stage of the product life cycle is retirement – the product is no longer produced or supported by the product creators.

Projects may be necessary for one or more phases of the product life cycle. These may include R&D; projects to determine project feasibility, projects to create a new manufacturing facility, or the actual product creation.

For small companies or simple products, the product and the project life cycle may coincide — a single project. In this case, the product/project manager needs to bring together Sales & Marketing, Sr. Executives, and the Business Owners of the organization to develop the project charter. They must carry out several essential product management functions to define and create the product, such as:

  • Product ideation
  • Competitive analysis
  • Business case development
  • Generating the sales and marketing plan, including product introduction
  • Managing the infrastructure needs to support the product (e.g. order taking, order fulfillment, inventory control) which may generate internal projects
  • Make investment determinations

The project charter sets forth the high level product/project goals, budget, schedule, and resources and represents the initial product scope. These project charters will compete with other projects in the organization, possibly including those which support the product. The executive team will need to take a broad view of the product and project portfolio to properly sequence the work.

The small product/project has risk and cost management implications for the project manager. When products and projects coincide, the product/project manager needs to take a broader view than the immediate project. The profit and loss statement for the product needs to look at all the costs, including those outside the immediate product creation. These costs may include advertising and infrastructure costs. For project managers, cash flow usually isn’t a consideration, however in these circumstances, cash flow review is critical. A late product often has more far reaching implications and broader risks than a late project, and may include:

  • Loss of competitive advantage or position
  • Loss of market share
  • Loss of revenue contributing to cash flow
  • Wasted resources

These risks may be external and related to what competitors are doing.

A prime example is the case of the Burroughs Scientific Processor, originally expected to compete with Cray Systems for the very limited supercomputer market. The limited applications, high R&D; costs, and resulting high prices created a limited niche market. Burroughs and Cray both expected to sell no more than about 50such systems initially. When unmitigated, high impact risks caused set backs for Burroughs, more than 50% of the estimated market was captured by Cray. Faced with the prospect of limited or no sales, Burroughs abandoned the BSP product concept and mitigated the losses through the creation of an “attached processor” which boosted the capacity of their existing mainframes.

In conclusion:

  • Products require projects.
  • There may be overlapping or interweaving cycles for projects and projects.
  • For small companies and simple products, the project and product cycles may be nearly equivalent.
  • In the case of equivalent life cycles, the responsibilities of the product/project manager are broader and include examining profit and loss, cash flows, and broader risk management.
  • Failed projects in this environment often carry more risks that have broader implications for the organization.

For more information about product marketing, visit Pragmatic Marketing. If you have any thoughts on this, please leave a comment or drop me a line at

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© 2010-2012 Ray W. Frohnhoefer, MBA, PMP, CCP