Domain knowledge or process skill?

The idea that one can be an expert of process and contribute something worthwhile in any domain is a key foundation of the management consultancy industry. After all, how can the likes of McKinsey, Boston and Bain make such huge salaries in just one industry? Once they’ve messed up two or three soft drinks firms and taken them for a $10m ride, they need to move on to pastures new. So appearing to be an expert, without the inconvenience of actually acquiring the domain knowledge, is vital to their survival.

Stewart recalls receiving advice from his mentor during his early days in consultancy: “As Luigi helpfully pointed out to me one day, when a consultant reboots his computer, he becomes an expert in information technology. If he bought the computer himself, he is a technology sourcing guru. And if he takes it with him on a flight, he becomes an authority on the aviation industry.”[i]

Stewart reports that Richard Rumelt, professor of strategy at UCLA, quipped “If you know how to design a great motorcycle engine, I can teach you all you need to know about strategy in a few days. If you have a Ph.D in strategy, years of labor are unlikely to give you the ability to design great new motorcycle engines.”

Of course, the answer is that we need Product Managers who have deep domain knowledge, technical understanding and great PM skills. If you are in a niche market there may be very few people with all of these characteristics, maybe none (if the few PMs in that market are self-taught).  So how do you choose? Here are some ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ to consider.

Pros Cons
Expert in technology Can see where technology is going

Imagines technical solutions to tough problems

Sees a technical solution when there may be a simpler alternative

May hear only technical issues rather than wider customer needs

Expert in the field Deep understanding of workflow

Knowledge of competitive products

Knowledge of standards

Lots of contacts

Can be firmly fixed in the status quo of “the way things are done” and may find it hard to ask the naive questions and conceive of disruptive products
Expert in the process Understands key issues of each stage of the product process

Knows how to uncover user needs

Used to negotiating priorities and resources

Can take a fresh look at habitual solutions

Could follow process into a product dead-end which experts in field of technology might avoid

Might miss the significance of key technology or market news

I believe a vital skill of a good Product Manager is the ability to listen with an open mind, and learn. That skill, coupled with an enquiring and intelligent mind, will help them through a lack of knowledge in a particular industry or technology. Similarly, that mind could certainly acquire expertise in the process given the right resources or mentoring.

Ultimately we have to make sure that our product teams have all of these issues covered adequately. That might be one super-PM, or more likely it could be two or more people who can cover it between them. If we include engineers and product designers in this team then we have the chance of making a smooth transition from need in a market to technology, design, and to an innovative product which delivers functionality which satisfies those needs.

So, hire the best possible PM you can, then make sure that the product team covers all the bases.

[i] Stewart, M. “The Management Myth”, W. W. Norton & Co. 2009