Business Acumen for Product Managers

“Business acumen” is an abstract word. Saying someone “has good business acumen” may have a lot to do with the very business context. But willing and able to grasp this context, trying to consider the context in the product management process can be proof of a good sense of business acumen. How does one acquire business acumen? Some say, being outcome focused; some say, think of yourself as the “CEO of the product”; some say, get an MBA and you’ll have all the business acumen you’ll ever need. Since there’s no definitive answer or a single story to nutshell this, why don’t we try and dissect one of the above “theories”?

Note: We are aware that there are many anti-MBA discussions. This chapter isn’t remotely close to pro-MBA. It’s used as an example for me to explain the reasons and meanings of business acumen.

Decide and Focus Like the Business Depends on you

At business school, you are the Financial Controller, Chief Marketing Officer, Operation Excellence, and whatnot at the same time every day. The mind is trained to think through various business areas, thoroughly understand all competing priorities, and focus on reaching nothing but the business outcomes. The BCG framework, the managerial accounting formulas, and the audience segmentation tools are all means to an end. Sounds familiar?

Think Quickly Like you don’t get Another Chance to go Over this Topic Again

For each discussion, task, case study, presentation, and exam, there’s exactly one try before being publicly challenged in front of the professors and the entire cohort, oftentimes guest speakers and companies too. Sponge information as they come, process quickly, and accept the challenge is the survival skill. In a B2B context, where there are strong-minded stakeholders from Sales and Consulting, this mindset training is much needed.

Diversify your Own Ideas Like you Need Plans B, C, D

5 ideas per problem? 10? How many solutions and experiments do you conduct per customer problem? The answer is, it depends. You’ll likely never know how solid your ideas can stand until the challenge comes. Think broad and wild, when you can give one solution, prepare two. As we say in business schools, the backup slides are the real slides.

Enlarge your Brain Processing Power Like you can Learn and Act in the Same Second

It’s Monday. You have an accounting exam coming at the end of the week, but on Wednesday you have got to present your case study result for international marketing. Thursday afternoon and evening are for the live knowledge exchange with guest company representatives. From Monday through Friday, class goes from 9:00 to 17:00 as usual. The ability to hyper-focus and juggle quickly between topics that are all top priorities is another survival skill. Sound familiar again?

Wing it and Leverage Team Work

You don’t have all the answers. We know that no one who just read a 20-page case study with mock balance sheet data and made-up extensive and hairy business problem statement is able to come up with a sound strategic plan to turn around a sinking ship. But we know we analyze the case as a team, one takes operation, one takes finance, one takes strategy, and one brings it all together. Empowered team result. Familiar?

None of you will become an accountant, or remember any of these academic principles. The purpose isn’t to prepare you for bookkeeping but to let you understand the reason behind it because that’s how you’ll be able to make better business decisions.

This is one example and story about business acumen. There is more to it. Of course, you can get closer to the holistic business without enrolling in a business school. So read on. The principles in this chapter have been selected to help you navigate.