The Road Not Taken In Product Management

Vaibhav Vohra

This is the second blog in a series on product management. Check out the first: Applying Shannon’s Information Theory To Product Management.

Perhaps you have seen—or experienced personally—a scenario like this: A product manager (PM) is asked to build a product that serves a given vertical (i.e., banking) and technology area (i.e., artificial intelligence). This role may not be a perfect fit; the PM’s background might be in a completely different field. Because PMs tend to be practical in balancing risk vs. reward, they second-guess themselves. Should the PM take on such a role?

I’m reminded of “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

As the PM gazes down the two paths, he/she should consider the following:

1. Never underestimate how a fresh new approach can jump-start an industry.

Often, experts are prone to groupthink—relying on defined terminology and methods. While it helps to have a deep understanding of a topic, this can lead to a failure to question fundamentals that by its very nature halts innovation. New PMs can think outside the box and leverage their experience solving similar problems.

For example, here at SAP Digital Interconnect, we are making multichannel communication more programmable for organizations of any size to use within minutes. Many competitors focus on rigid documentation because the consensus has been that a well-defined set of APIs is all the industry needs. However, we have learned from our user trials that this approach slows customers’ application and business process dev timeline. Having projects that “come to life” inside the service tailored to specific use cases and business needs has expanded the customers’ understanding of what’s possible.

2. Novices focus on the problems, not preconceived solutions.

One of the biggest missteps I’ve seen PMs make is polishing the “it” while not being obsessive about understanding customers’ problems. In the end, the product is fragmented from the customer’s evolving need. Novice PMs fear that they do not understand the competitive landscape and intricacies of a new space, so they are constantly on edge. This is a healthy place to be. As I jumped from designing satellites to building software that helped enterprises stay connected with their consumers and employees, I used this fear to motivate me to learn my craft better.

3. History favors the brave.

Consider the following historical examples:

  • Albert Einstein was a patent officer before his inventions in relativity
  • John Pemberton developed modern cola while attempting to create cough medicine
  • Charles Richard Drew contributed to the founding of blood banks and mobile blood units even though his specialty was surgery
  • Richard Feynman was revered for his Nobel Price winning work on quantum mechanics (theoretical physics), but his work in nanotechnology and quantum computing was highly instrumental in modern computing today.

As Feynman once said, “Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent, and original manner possible.” Likewise, I believe PM’s need to be challenged.

For example, we initially looked at one of our new products, SAP People Connect 365, as a corporate communication tool in times of disruption. We learned, however, that it could be used by not only resiliency experts within organizations, but also security, facilities, HR officers, and even the CEO office to respond in ways that had not been achievable in the past. We think this is because industry experts have looked at incremental innovation of personalizing communication, while we have sought to create a set of tools that enable any organization to respond in hours rather than days.

By not following the industry as a “me-too” solution, we have enabled enterprises to be more empathetic and responsive to planned and unplanned business disruptions, rather than being just another platform. Being bold has enabled us to solve big-picture customer challenges.

4. The world has changed—possibly by the time you have finished reading this blog.

Go out and build something great—otherwise, someone else will.

As Robert Frost concluded:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference

The PMs who take the path less followed are those who change the world forever.

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Vaibhav Vohra

About Vaibhav Vohra

Vaibhav Vohra is Vice President and Head of Product Management for SAP Digital Interconnect at SAP. Leading an organization within SAP that intelligently connects everyone, everything, and everywhere, he has launched award-winning cloud solutions in the fields of marketing, business continuity, and developer ecosystems. Most recently, the team launched SAP People Connect 365, which enables organizations to manage intelligent communications during times of planned and unplanned business disruption.