The other day, the good people at Enthiosys were kind enough to let me sit through part of one of their product management seminars. They use "serious gaming" as a very serious product management tool, an idea that gets a strong thumbs up from me.

This short introduction to Enthiosys drove home a "meta-point" about product requirements. During a matched pair of games, the participants played both customer and product manager. Starting with a cryptic customer comment–and how many hours have we spent deciphering those–the PMs were responsible for understanding why someone might be unhappy with a pair of headphones. (Whispered aside: I’m passionate about my choice of headphones. I’ve gone through at least a dozen before finding some that work for me.)

The "Aha!" moment came pretty fast. Product managers are often in the position of the proverbial blind men and the elephant, trying to decipher the whole (what customers really want) from the parts (enhancement requests). The exercise made it clear that, based on the customer comment alone, there was practically no way to discover why a representative consumer might not buy a particular set of headphones. Only quality time with the end users could reveal what was right and wrong with the product.

Actually, the PM is just one of the blind men; here are the others:

  • Support: I need to close this issue–can you answer it quickly?
  • Sales: IHAC [translation: "I have a customer"] who has the following question…And by the way, if we win this opportunity, it’ll be strategic for us, so speed is of the essence.
  • Development: Do we have time even to discuss this enhancement? Every second that ticks by is further delay of the release…
  • Consulting: Before I can finish this SOW, a VIP in IT needs the 411 on where this fits into the product roadmap ASAP.

In other words, many (most?) technology companies are organized and managed in a way that makes it hard to discover the elephant. There’s no substitute for talking to the customer, understanding their use cases and business problems, and pondering what that might mean for your products or services.

But that’s not the "meta-point" I want to make. Instead, here’s my observation du jour, for what it’s worth:

PMs definitely can sharpen their skills through "serious gaming" and similar exercises. However, it’s just as important for other people in the company to have these experiences.

Unless complete decision-making power over product strategy rests in the hands of PM (i.e., never), the other decision-makers need insight into customer needs, too. PMs can be a vehicle for getting under the skin of the target customer, but sometimes, these other decision-makers (the CTO, the development manager, etc.) need to experience the customer first-hand.

That experience may need to be structured differently than the usual customer visit. Instead of a dialogue through PowerPoint (the customer summarizes their requests, the vendor summarizes the roadmap), other forms of communication may be necessary. Which is what makes innovative forms of communication, such as serious gaming, extremely interesting.

Postscript: A colleague, Thomas Keitt, is researching serious gaming. Look for some of his initial publications soon.