Cheffing-Up a New Product

image by martin borjessonCharlie O’Donnell‘s post on “Why Product Management is More Like Baking than Cooking” has some great points. In the post Charlie is lamenting the fact that when it comes to product management, the leadership of startup companies seem to want to wing-it (like a cook) as opposed to execute on a proven process (like a baker).

Having more than a little cooking experience, quite a bit of product management experience, and much less baking experience; I’d rephrase the title to say that being a product manager is more like being a Sous Chef than being an Executive Chef. If you haven’t worked in the F&B industry before the difference may escape you – follow me here, I think it’s worth the effort.

Executive Chefs provide vision. They start with a general direction, an idea of the dish they want to serve and a knowledge of the ingredients on-hand. They turn themselves over to the creative process, relying heavily on past experience and gut feel, and voila! they turn-out a plate. The success or failure of the effort will depend upon the skill of the chef, the quality of ingredients, and also rely a good bit on fortune. Many a chef has ruined a dish while learning something that later helps him to prepare a real gem of a meal. This is the software equivalent to R&D.

Sous Chefs, on the other hand, are professional managers. Their primary job is to productize a creation dreamed-up by the Executive Chef. While the Executive Chef has only to create the one dish, one time, and take as much time as she requires to finish it; the Sous Chef must crank out that dish a hundred times a night, with limited resources, while maintaining consistent quality. To be successful it’s got to be more science than art at this stage.

Which brings me back to the point of Charlie’s post. When you are cooking with someone else’s money, it’s time to hire a Sous Chef. Someone who can bring transparency, predictability, and repeatability to the process of taking new products to market.

Note that this does not mean, as some of the comments to Charlie’s post have implied, that the creative process ends when a professional Product Manager takes the reins. Nor does it mean that you are now following a waterfall process where the product goes into the oven and you are stuck with what comes out. As Charlie rightly points out, measurement tools are a critical component to the long-term success of the product. Going back to the analogy, the Sous Chef will monitor key performance metrics such as the amount of time it takes to prepare and serve a dish, what the temperature of the dish is when it leaves the kitchen, the number of dishes ordered per restaurant guest, and overall guest satisfaction. By monitoring these important indicators, the chef can course correct if things start to go awry. The same is obviously true for the product manager.

If your product is ready to leave the test kitchen and get out into the real world, take a big step towards repeatable, predictable success and hire an experienced, professional Product Manager.

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