Business Mentor: Evolving from desktop icon to product manager

CIO success results from a product manager rather than a service provider approach.

I recall it like it happened yesterday. I had just started my first CIO job and wanted to be successful. I had heard rumors about a CIO "dalai lama" who knew the secret to success. I climbed many mountains looking for this mystic and at last found the cave where she dispensed her advice. Her assistant told me that I could ask only three questions.

So I approached the guru and asked, "What is the most important thing to know about being a CIO?"

"Remember this," she replied. "To your IT customers, you are a desktop icon."

Her answer was disconcerting. "I'm a desktop icon?"

"Yes."

"Really?"

"Yes."

Confused, I asked, "What does that mean?"

"I'm sorry, you have asked your three questions," her assistant said. "Step aside."

OK, so it didn't really happen quite that way, but the result was the same. I met with a highly successful CIO with a reputation for being a visionary. I asked her about her secret for success, and she really did say that IT customers view IT as a desktop icon. She explained that internal and external customers interact with IT by double-clicking on a desktop icon. They expect that technology will respond with the product or service they want to use.

As I pondered this advice, it made sense. One perspective of an IT leader's role is to provide technology products and services to customers. In this view, I am a product manager (much like a commercial software product manager or a manager of any other product line). So using the advice of this model CIO, I have found success in applying product management best practices to my IT leadership, including the following strategies:

Understand market needs. In a product manager role, we need to understand our customers' needs (even if these customers don't know how to or aren't able to articulate them). We need enough familiarity with customers' needs that we can propose and design solutions. One helpful way to do this is to spend a day in the life of a customer: Spend a day as a material handler, work a day in a retail store, volunteer to work on a marketing campaign, go on sales calls with the sales force. These experiences give us the context to design solutions that truly add value.

Develop product roadmaps and product lifecycle plans. Effective product managers create multiyear, multiphased features and function maps that take their products from launch to retirement. We should have the same approach to our IT products and services. Does our network design anticipate (based on and prioritized according to market needs) future enhancements? Does it factor in its eventual replacement? Do we have something similar for our financial applications and decision support tools?

Conduct formal product launches. I hope to avoid comparisons to marketing people (they frighten me with their lack of logic), but we should approach the release of new products and enhancements the way they do. We should conduct market tests and pilots, identify gaps in capabilities, train to fill the gaps and communicate via formal company-wide launch campaigns.

Define and use product success criteria. As we design our products and services, we should also identify ways to measure product performance. For example, we might define the acceptable wait time and drop rate for transactions in an interface table. Our product works if and when we meet these criteria.

Our customers depend on us to deliver technology products they need. Approaching their needs from the product manager perspective can foster success by making you more of a business partner and less of a desktop icon.

Niel Nickolaisen is vice president of strategy and innovation at EnergySolutions Inc. in Salt Lake City. He is a frequent speaker, presenter and writer on IT's dual role enabling strategy and delivering operational excellence. Write to him at nnick@accelinnova.com.

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