The product manager is one of the most difficult and rewarding roles in technology. 1
Ultimately, your job as product manager is to move the business forward in a significant way — think 10x instead of 10% — which means working on really hard problems. Yet it’s far too easy to get caught up in the daily grind of can’t we just fix it quickly and zomg this customer really needs x or we’re going to lose the sale.
Getting a product from idea to launch is hard enough. Building the right solution that customers will actually use and which will have a big impact on the business can seem almost impossible.
How do you cut through the noise and preconceptions so that you can focus on being an effective product manager? Here are some thoughts.
Before we get to what an effective product manager is, let’s start with what a product manager is not. 2
1) A product manager is not the CEO of the product.
As a product manager, you are the primary person responsible for building the right product and ensuring that it solves the problem that you set out to solve. But this is a lot different than being a CEO, and you should not conflate the roles.
You do not have HR authority over any members of your team. Even if you have a staff of product managers, you will need to collaborate with people who do not report to you in order to deliver your product. Some of these people may not particularly want to work with you or on your product. 3 And even if they do, you have to work hard to make sure that they are passionate and engaged. This means you must always operate as a collaborator and consensus builder.
It’s also very possible that you are not the person ultimately accountable for your product’s success or failure, which might fall on the CEO, or CPO, or department head. You also most likely won’t have P&L ownership, although you are certainly responsible for driving revenue.
Ultimately though — and this is a very important distinction — the product manager does not, and should not, exert the same level of power as a CEO. 4
2) A product manager is not a project manager.
While you are absolutely responsible for delivering your product — and if it fails, your head is the one that should roll — you and your company have failed if you join the process after the solution has been identified. And if you spend the bulk of your time helping your team get a product over the finish line, instead of focusing on what the product should be, then you are not applying the right levers.
3) A product manager is not a product designer.
While you absolutely should be involved in product design — and you should sit next to your designer, talk to them every day, and influence and guide them — if you are owning UX or UI design, not only are you failing to properly leverage your role, but you may even be screwing up your product. Never underestimate the value of dedicating someone to design.
4) A product manager is not a solo contributor.
If you find yourself working in a silo or vacuum, and you are not constantly collaborating with engineering, design, business, marketing, and other support teams, then you will not be able to do your job. Full stop.
5) A product manager is not a roadmap manager.
While this might seem counterintuitive, your job as a product manager is not to manage the roadmap. If that’s what you’re doing, you’ll need to reassess your situation, as well as the culture of your company.
Roadmaps can be useful to plan out where you want to go — and you should absolutely have product vision roadmap — but a detailed roadmap is dangerous because it sets expectations that you very likely won’t be able to meet simply because your business will change, your problems will change, and you will have information tomorrow that you didn’t have today.
The minute that you build a roadmap — even if you call it ‘proposed’ or ‘draft’ or ‘subject to change’ or ‘something I pulled out of my arse’ — your team and business leaders will nonetheless take this as a commitment.
Don’t fall into this trap.
Which leads me to my next point …
6) A product manager does not promise dates.
Not only is committing to dates not something you personally should be doing — only your engineers can estimate how long things will take once you give them sufficient information about what they need to build — but you are doing your company and your team a disservice if you are driving toward dates instead of results.
Of course, I live in the same messy world that you do, and sometimes you have deadlines that you have to hit. It might be a major conference, a deliverable for a major client, etc. I get it, but you should still try to push back.
If you do absolutely have to commit to a deadline, make sure that you:
- Are giving yourself the time to determine what needs to be done before you commit to the date
- Tackle the biggest risks up front
- Aggressively slash the scope of the project to give yourself some wiggle room for the inevitable derailments along the way. 5
7) A product manager is not a UX researcher.
UX is obviously very important to the end result of what you’re going to build. But if you’re not empowering your designers to be own UX and user research, then you’re doing a disservice to your team, yourself, and your product.
8) A product manager does not need to have a technical background.
It’s becoming increasingly common for product managers to come from engineering backgrounds. And as a product manager, you should absolutely know (or learn) the technical jargon that your engineers use so that you can more efficiently communicate with them. There’s also something special about being able to commit a fix to Github. But these are all things you can learn, on your own, and without any formal education or past life as an engineer.
So go ahead and take that dev bootcamp and learn how to code (but learn how to really code, not just write HTML!). Just don’t sweat it if you have no technical chops. You’ll learn what you need to learn, even if it requires a bit of the school of hard knocks to get there.
Now let’s get to how an effective product manager operates.
1) A product manager is a strategic thinker.
If you don’t come up for air regularly to think about company, product, and team strategy, you’re missing out on one of the key ways that you can apply leverage.
Let’s face it though. Strategic thinking is hard, especially when you’re being bombarded with constant requests, ideas, and deliverables. But if you don’t have a clear strategy and you’re not constantly thinking about how to improve your team’s effectiveness, then you might as well just build out a detailed feature roadmap, hire a bunch of project managers to execute on it, and call it a day.
The best way to tackle this is to put time on your calendar every week to think about product strategy, and periodically communicate with team members on every level about what is working, and what is not.
2) A product manager is an expert tactician.
This is one of the things that makes the job of a product manager so hard. You have to rock both strategy and tactics on a regular basis in order to succeed, and switching between the two modes is difficult.
The key is learning tactics that elevate both the work of yourself and your team and finding the right tools to match. You might have an excellent and clear strategy, but if there is no clear path to executing on it, you will fail.
As the product manager you should always have the sharpest tools at the ready, know which ones to use for each situation, and seek out new tools when the need arises. 6
Concepts like design sprints, lean, and agile are useful here, and there’s a good chance that your team is using some or all of these. But tactics evolve, and every team is different, so you must constantly review your tactics, look for problems, and adjust.
It’s also one area where you should be continually striving to be better — through reading books, learning from the community, and having open and honest conversations with your team.
3) A product manager is a persuader.
I chose a particular mode of communication here on purpose. While a product manager absolutely must be a clear and constant communicator, it’s the type of communication that matters. And you will find yourself in the role of salesperson and persuader on a regular basis. You might not be comfortable in this role, but you must embrace it.
Change is hard. People are fickle and worried about how something might affect them or are driven by fear. Ideas are incredibly difficult to execute on. Many companies and people suffer from a lack of vision which in turn makes it hard to execute well.
As a product manager, your role is to overcome all of these things so that your products — and your company — can be successful.
This means crafting and clearly communicating the vision and then persuading your team and your company to buy into it, and then doing it over and over again. And recognizing that when you launch the product or feature, you don’t stop.
It also means listening to people’s fears and concerns and addressing them before they infect others or derail your product.
And it means learning how to present well. 7
4) A product manager is a talented writer.
Clear thinking leads to clear writing, and vice versa. A key tool in the arsenal of persuasion is your ability to write well, and without clear thinking behind it, your writing will be muddled and ineffective. But how do you get better at clear thinking? By honing your writing skills to the point where they are clear, concise, and direct.
Clear writing comes with practice, revision, and time. There are also a number of great books on how to improve your writing which will help you get there faster. 8
5) A product manager is highly organized.
If you don’t have a framework for time management and prioritization, you’ll constantly get sucked into the vortex, instead of focusing on moving the needle.
There are a few key elements to any effective personal organization system.
- Focus. You must be absolutely focused on your top priority, and know what it is at all times. It might change from week to week or month to month, or it might not, but if you don’t move the needle on it every day then you should consider it a personal failure. If you find yourself unable to focus, you’ll need to level up your time and priority management skills. 9
- Morning routine. One topic that constantly surfaces in conversations with successful people is the importance of their morning routine. This is for good reason. The morning is your chance to set the tone for the day and make sure that you are productive. Your willpower is also higher than it will be later in the day. And it’s the time that everyone else is either winding up or distracted. Add all of that together and it’s your opportunity to clearly set your goals for the day and knock out your most important work.
- Exercise. Charles Duhigg calls this a keystone habit because it is often the key to unlocking other good habits including diet and discipline. It is also a good way to set the right tone for your day.
- Rest. Your brain and body need time to rest and recharge. The gaps in between tasks are also critical for generating new ideas or solutions. You can’t force your brain to do it’s best work, but you can give it the space that it needs to get there. This is especially important when you’re working on a big problem or big idea. 10
6) A product manager is disciplined.
I’m not talking about military discipline here, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to expose yourself to some of those ideas. 11
Discipline means sticking to your personal organization framework, regularly communicating with your team and your superiors, and following through on something that you agreed to do.
It also means being able to say no, and setting good expectations on what you will do and what is possible.
7) A product manager is versed in the art of the possible.
I’m going to skew this toward the technology product manager since that is the world I live in. But this point readily applies to other disciplines as well.
As a product manager, you must deeply understand the tech and tools that you use today, the tech that exists but which you aren’t using, and the tech that is on the horizon. If you are relying on your engineering team to be the only experts in this area, you’re missing out on a massive opportunity for yourself and your company. You might also find yourself in a position where the technology solution just doesn’t work for the end user. Avoid this trap like the plague. 12
8) A product manager is in love with problems, and not solutions.
Human nature is to focus on solutions. It’s also very hard to put yourself in the shoes of another person.
But when you fixate on problems, something interesting happens. You have more empathy for the user. You’re more open to opposing viewpoints or ideas that you hadn’t considered before. You get creative in terms of solutions.
As the product manager, one of the areas where you can add significant value is to remind everyone about what problem you’re trying to solve and who you’re trying to solve it for. Just make sure that your team doesn’t rest until you’ve truly made a difference. 13
9) A product manager stays close to the customer.
While you may very well be working on a product that you actually use — and you should certainly be dogfooding your product if you don’t — you are an N of 1. At some point in the process of scaling your product, your opinion won’t matter anymore (if it ever did). And you are likely to be blinded by confirmation bias anyway.
The only way to know whether your product ideas will work or whether the product you have now is the right product is by truly connecting with your users. Absolutely use quantitative data to help guide your decisions, and to make the case for changes or new products. But if you are not talking to your customers regularly — ideally in person — then you are more likely to fail.
Being an effective product manager is hard. But if you focus on right set of strategies and skills, there’s a good chance that you’ll be successful.
What tips do you have for being a more effective PM?
- There is some personal bias here of course. But some would argue — such as the esteemed Marty Cagan — that the skills and strategies you need to be effective as a product manager are the same ones you need as CEO. Which means that at the very least being an effective PM will set you up to be an effective CEO. Not a bad path to be on. ↩
- For early-stage startups, none of this is likely to be directly relevant unless there is a CPO or dedicated product lead. The CEO or CTO may own product, or it may be a shared responsibility. ↩
- If this does happen — and you’re not able to turn these people around especially after significant effort on your part — get them off your team, or find another project. You are not doing your company or yourself any favors by setting your team up for failure before the product launches. ↩
- There is, of course, some nuance to this statement. Marty Cagan addresses this topic really well. Specifically: “Most also appreciate that the product manager’s job is to understand and balance the many, often competing, needs of users and customers, sales, marketing, finance, customer success, legal, business development, engineering, design, and more.“ ↩
- Marty Cagan addresses this issue in his book Inspired, and calls it “high-integrity commitments”. ↩
- Here are a few suggestions: via ProductHunt, via ProductPlan, via JotForm ↩
- I won’t go into the details here, but some presentations — especially those with execs or other high-level managers — should be focused on ratifying an idea rather than persuading people of it. The persuasion certainly needs to be done but should happen with each influencer independently. See Andy Grove’s High Output Management for more details on this concept. ↩
- Some recommendations include On Writing Well by William Zinsser, The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, Story Genius by Lisa Cron, and On Writing by Stephen King. ↩
- See Getting Things Done by David Allen, The ONE Thing by Gary Keller, Deep Work by Cal Newport, the Pomodoro technique, and these answers on Quora from Paul A. Klipp and Mikael Cho (Founder of Unsplash). ↩
- When it comes to big projects, consider what Ryan Holiday refers to as the draw-down period. He will set a start date for a new project so that his brain has time to prepare itself. ↩
- See Jocko Willink’s Discipline Equals Freedom. ↩
- Your engineers may be tech experts, but their main job is to build and implement, not figure out whether customers want the thing you’re building or whether it represents a significant opportunity for the company. Your engineers also may not be thinking about long-term industry trends, or how suited the technology is for the end user. This is your job, and you should be willing and able to help steer the technology ship — in a collaborative way, of course. Absolutely do involve them in the product discovery process though. They will likely think of things you haven’t, or come up with a better or more efficient way to solve a particular problem. ↩
- Amazon writes pretend press releases announcing products, which gets the team focused on value and outcomes instead of solutions. Another approach is the happy customer letter, where you write a letter from an ecstatic customer to the CEO explaining why the product you just launched changed their life for the better. ↩