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Book Review: The Product Manager’s Desk Reference

There aren’t a lot of really good books available for Product Managers. That may be simply because only a few people  truly understand what Product Management is, AND have it in them to write good books about it.

There are quite a few books that try to cover specific parts of the Product Management function, such as up front analysis, pricing, product launch etc., but very few try to look at the breadth of tasks involved in Product Management and describe them at a thorough level of detail.

The Product Manager’s Desk Reference, (PMDR for short) by Steven Haines, tries to take on that daunting task.  At over 700 pages, this tome contains a broad array of information.

The book is divided into 6 modules each containing several chapters. The Modules are:

  1. Foundational Elements of Product Management
  2. Making the Market Your Primary Focus
  3. The Start of the Product’s Journey and the New Product Development Process
  4. Continuing the Journey: Post Launch Product Management
  5. Professionalizing Product Management
  6. The Product Manager’s Tool Box

As mentioned each of these Modules is composed of several chapters. There are 23 chapters in the book. Some of these chapters are:

  • Chapter 1 – What is Product Management?
  • Chapter 3 – Leadership: Creating Influence
  • Chapter 6 – Finance for the Product Manager: Keeping Score
  • Chapter 14 – Justifying Product Investments: The Business Case
  • Chapter 20 – Lifecycle Product Portfolio Management
  • Chapter 23 – Organizing for Product Management

There is also a good glossary and a healthy index. Both are signs of attention to detail by the author.

In Chapter 1, the author delves into defining Product Management in detail. He asks: “What is a Product Manager?

He provides 3 bullets to answer this question.

  • The product manager is the a person appointed to be a proactive product or product line “mini-CEO” or general manager
  • The product manager leads a cross-functional product team.
  • The product team’s responsibility is to optimize the product’s market position and financial returns, consistent with corporate, business unit, or division strategies.

Emphasis on the word optimize is mine. I like that word a lot because Product Management truly is an optimization function. i.e. define how to invest limited resources in an optimal manner to deliver product to market, ideally with a high level of quality that is inline with market needs and expectations and that achieves business goals. Yeah, real easy. 🙂

He later defines Product Management as follows:

Product Management is business management at the product, product line or product portfolio level.

Again, emphasis on the word business is mine. Note that there is no reference to technology, development, engineering or anything similar.

Product Management truly is a business function, and this is something that is clearly not understood or acknowledged by many in the high-tech community. Unfortunately, many within the high-tech community view Product Management as an adjunct to Development or Marketing.

For software and technology companies, one aspect of Product Management is related to technology, and gathering requirements and seeing them through the development process. But it is far from the only thing Product Management should do.

Given the book is 700 pages in length, there is a lot more that I could write about it.  Chapter 23 — Organizing for Product Management — is an interesting chapter. The author focuses a message towards “managers of Product Management and those who are responsible for evolving the Product Management organization”. i.e. management and Sr. Management in a business.

He covers cross-functional teams, Product Management objectives, how to transform an organization that doesn’t have Product Management well defined, coach Product Managers and a case study on Airline Recruiting Corporation (ARC) and their ARC Compass division.

How to best organize, structure and implement Product Management in companies is not a well understood topic. It usually just happens organically at some early stage in the company lifecycle. While far from perfect, this chapter is one of the few, if not only, texts I’ve seen trying to put some structure around this subject. There is a lot more to discuss and write on this topic, particularly as Product Management evolves, but this is a good starting point.

I only have one complaint about the book:

Module 6 — The Product Manager’s Toolbox — is simply 50 pages of templates of various documents printed in book form. While this does bulk up the book, the reader would have been better served by having actual templates downloadable from the author’s website, or some other place on the Web. I’m not a big fan of templates in general, but for the new Product Manager, they can provide some structure that may not be present otherwise. And I find it surprising that other vendors  and consultants actually charge for these kinds of tools.

Overall, it’s not light reading, but certainly much more accessible than the other commonly cited tome on the subject — The PDMA Handbook on New Product Development — which is rather academic in style and consists of a series of chapters written by at least 20 different authors.

The Product Manager’s Desk Reference delivers on it’s promise. It’s not a book that you will read cover to cover, nor is it a book that lays out a strict how-to or recipe for Product Management. It’s a comprehensive reference book that describes a broad business function that is ill-defined and ill-understood in many companies, and attempts to put some rigour and structure around it.

Will you use it every day? Not likely. But then like any other “desk reference”, you wouldn’t expect to. But when you need to better understand some aspect of Product Management, it’s likely that this book is a good first place to look.


  1. Beth Robinson

    Nice review, Saeed. It pretty much matches my experience with and opinion of the book. One thing that I loved that you didn’t mention was the list of potential action items at the end of each chapter. I finished reading it last month and need to go back in and start reading specific sections that I want to apply.

  2. Paco

    Ugh – you guys post too many updates, I can’t keep up! 🙂 I’ve recently been enjoying above-freezing weather, so haven’t kept up on the blogosphere for a little bit.

    I was happy to see you review this book. I just picked it up as well, and I was pleasantly surprised. Given the author’s background, I half-expected it to be a little too old-skool, but after browsing it in a bookstore for just a few minutes, it was clear this guy has not only worked in a variety of environments, he’s continually adapted his approach to the PM profession.

    However, there are parts I don’t so much disagree with as just think they’re not applicable to PMs in a lot of companies. So those with less experience should read it with a grain of salt – just because your job doesn’t involve all the activities this book labels as “critical” doesn’t mean you’re screwing up as a PM.

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