Key points to remember
- No matter where you work, product managers have one thing in common: finding, creating, and delivering products that have value for a market and create value for the business.
- The product community is further debunking a misunderstood article from almost 20 years ago: a product manager may, on occasion, look a bit like a CEO, but they are not mini-CEOs.
- Product management is not the same in all companies
- Data is what to aim for, not data
- In reality, Product Managers do more than “just create products”
Product managers: what do they do?
A perennial question, an ongoing discussion, often ending in debate.
Back in 2016, one of my favorite Product Managers @Omaya Robinson and I compiled a list of misconceptions around our discipline; the profession and the role of the PM. Fast forward to 2021, I was curious to see if any of the original beliefs were still relevant or, how much our industry had changed. So – I did some research.
I spoke with 20 product managers from the Australian product management community and posted the question to a few Slack product communities. Not an exhaustive sample but here is what I found.
The PM is the mini-CEO [repeated from 2016]
Looks like we’re still clearing up the misunderstanding of an insightful article by Ben Horowitz almost 20 years ago.
Even Horowitz himself has denied this, so let’s call it a straight shot: Product managers may, on occasion, look a bit like a CEO, but they are NOT mini-CEOs.
The biggest difference is authority.
Most PMs have little authority. Instead, they need exceptional influencing skills, the ability to listen, gather evidence, and present compelling stories and data.
Martin Eriksson shares his thoughts and Marty Cagan also reflects on his take on the subject.
Product management is the same in all companies [repeated from 2016]
No, no, nein and no.
The role of product manager is fluid. Every company, often every product within a company, needs something different from its PM. Several factors can affect how PMs do their jobs:
- Company size. In a startup or SME, you could be the one and only PM responsible for the entire product management lifecycle, spending a lot of time with stakeholders, talking, listening, coordinating. Or maybe you work in large established companies, for example Atlassian, Spotify or
- industry. Some industries, such as high tech, insurance, telecommunications or biotechnology may have unique requirements covering areas such as regulation and compliance or other markets where important issues such as ethics and privacy have impact on choices and decisions.
- The business model. PMs can be closely tied to marketing managers in a B2C or can tie into engineering, especially in a B2B. In sales-oriented companies, you are sure to work closely with sales. In product-focused companies, you might appreciate being part of a dedicated cross-functional product team where the product even makes it to the c-suite.
- The corporate culture. Some businesses are more team-driven and collaborative, perhaps even self-organized, where the team is empowered to pursue the business and customer goals of the business. Others may be more traditional, with goals and timelines set elsewhere, making the PM’s role less discovery-focused and more delivery-focused.
- The product life cycle: The role of a PM will be different depending on where the product or service is in its life cycle. If it’s an early-stage idea, you can do more validation, prototyping, testing, learning, and discovery. If the product is established in the market, the focus may be on increasing average revenue per user or building loyalty. Perhaps you need to kill a product or deal with its inevitable demise as it heads towards end of life (EOL).
- The type of product. Again, the role of a PM may differ depending on the product or service, whether it is a single product, part of a suite or a portfolio, whether it is acts as a platform game.
- Roles around you. As product management matures, new roles emerge. With the introduction of service design and UX, we have seen the role of the PM transform and mature. Today, discrete roles around Product Ops and Product Growth are once again seeing the role of the PM transform. Watch this place.
A few principles of project management will not change for these variables: think about customer and business needs; focus on identifying and solving the right problems; constantly prioritizing a myriad of good ideas and finding the best way to say no. Throughout listening, collaborating and communicating.
Product management is about data / should be data driven
The obsession with being “data driven” drives many PMs and we should all love data. Quantitative data and qualitative data. But above all, experienced PMs must never forget: the value of intuition and wisdom drawn from experience.
While some data-driven insights are a giveaway, I’m still not convinced bots will be great PMs. In reality, choices and decisions will always be part of art and science. If you’re going to get into the “data” conversation, use it to focus people, teams, and the conversation on being “data-empowered” rather than “data-driven.”
Good product decisions come from treating inputs equally
There are inputs everywhere: feedback from customers, from the team, from management teams; quantitative data will tell us something and qualitative data will give us another insight. But are they all equal? “Is the customer always right?” “Nooooooo, not necessarily. Let’s take customers as an example: co-designing solutions can be dangerous, but they’re good at helping you uncover problems, so involve them here.
Good decisions come from proper weighting and attention to inputs: data, customer feedback, the market, your experience built from your background, the skill of the team, etc.
Product managers only make products
Again, it depends on which company, which product, which market. I’ve been a PM responsible for almost everything from articulating and validating the initial idea to writing FAQs and call scripts for the customer service team. I’ve felt more like an executive producer at times, focused on vision and strategy, galvanizing multiple teams, vendors and partners, and engaging with a multitude of stakeholders. Perhaps you are a product manager as well as a product marketer, with your focus on positioning, pricing, and go-to-market. Similarly, you may be a PM with a single slice of the product, perhaps you own a channel or part of the user experience; in the latter case, yes you can work only on the product. But for sure it’s different every time you change organizations.
Product managers are responsible for delivery and milestones
Hopefully not, but in many cases you are seen as a project or delivery manager and end up spending more time than you would like to assemble teams that work within time, scope and budget. .
As organizations mature, we see the separation and respect of the product manager role and project managers can focus more on creating value, understanding users and driving business results.
Product managers need to be tech-savvy
This one came about about six years ago and, in my experience, partly stems from a Silicon Valley obsession that absolutely every PM should have a deep understanding of technology. This terrible misconception has seen many female PMs disappear because so few grew up as engineers or earned Comp Sci degrees. See Marty Cagan: Many of the best PMs come from a wide range of disciplines; design, business and liberal arts to name a few.
However, almost everything we do these days involves technology, so if that’s not a good place, you’ll need to develop your skills over time. You need to be able to navigate conversations with a range of stakeholders, including engineers, but your job is to ensure that all stakeholders, whether technical, operational, marketing, sales, financial, etc. ., are clear about the company and the client. results you are working towards.
My opinion? PMs are T-shaped. We add value by applying strong product thinking across all disciplines we engage with.
We are nearing the end 🙂 Not 10, not 5 but 7 ideas that I shared.
Like all good PMs, I want to hear from others. What do you think? What do you agree or disagree with? Would you like to add anything?
Thanks to my product community, you know who you are, and a special thanks to Ben Reid, @Digital Creators, for always helping and never backing down from an alternative thought or proposal. You rock, man.
Finally, whether you’re starting, middle, or heading into your golden years as a PM, here’s an assessment tool that might help you in your quest. We have defined four combined areas that make an excellent product manager. It is free to use and download. (We won’t even ask for your email address!)
About the Author
Over the past 25 years, through more than 35 digital products (hardware and software, B2C and B2B), Sandra Davey has developed a deep love for digital product management, agile ways of working, and a deep respect for the value that product-driven thinking brings to organizations. As a Product Coach at Organa, she draws on this experience to help individuals, teams, and leaders improve the value of what they create for customers, markets, and the business.