The Polar Opposites of Product Management

John Vars
6 min readMar 22, 2016

[Note: I have changed the title of this post from “The Bipolar Nature of Product Management” to the current title. I have also slightly re-written the first paragraph. I did this to remove the word “bipolar”. When I originally used the word “bipolar” I meant the definition: having or marked by two mutually repellent forces or diametrically opposed natures or views (Merriam-Webster), not the mental illness. I tried to emphasize this in the first paragraph of the original post, but I did a poor job. Enough people have commented that using that word is unskillful and/or hurtful. I definitely do not want to cause any pain (or distract from the subject matter), so I changed it. I apologize to anyone I’ve unintentionally offended. — JV]

The best product managers must embody skills and sensibilities that are extreme opposites. Here are some examples of the opposing skills I often find in star product managers.

Strategic vs Execution Focused

A product manager must be able to see the big picture. He or she must have a strong understanding of where the market, the business, and where their particular product will be in 12–18 months. They must have some plan or roadmap on how they are going to get there. The ability to articulate their strategy well and get stakeholders to buy in cannot be overstated. Strategic thinking cannot be a side project done in between meetings, in the shower and on the commute. Time must be made for big-picture thinking and planning. It’s a muscle that must be used in order to develop.

Conversely, a product manager must be able to execute and thrive within the world of details. Every backlog needs prioritization. Every design treatment requires specific feedback. Every sprint demands good stories. Every a/b test necessitates deep analysis. Every standup brings to light a product nuance that needs clarity and unblocking. The product manager must have command of the details and be ready to dig in at any moment. It’s the only way progress can be made.

Divergent vs Convergent Thinking

As a youngster in Product Management, I remember getting very frustrated in brainstorms or discovery meetings when team members would suggest ideas that we couldn’t possibly do given the constraints we were dealing with at the time. It was a critical lesson for me that divergent thinking is a really important part of the product development process. Product managers must facilitate and encourage thinking that is outside the lines. They must separate these “jam sessions” in name and form from normal execution-focused conversations. Anything is possible in these conversations. In fact most of the ideas should never, never happen. But, if you don’t explore all the possibilities, no matter how crazy, your product’s potential is seriously reduced.

On the other hand, you can’t spend your days dreaming with your head in the clouds. At some point you need to stop talking cray cray and things need to get shipped. Big ideas need to get refined into specifications, wireframes, visual designs, stories, sprints and what have you. Additionally, the product manager needs to understand the capabilities of the team, the effort involved in bringing an idea to life, the impact it will have on key metrics, and the varying business needs. They need to have the ability to converge on a plan, rally others around that plan, and execute it with strength.

Vision vs Data Driven

I don’t know who said it first, but it so true. “Data-driven optimization taken to its extreme just leads to porn.” Don’t get me wrong, being data driven is great. But you know what’s even better? What’s better is having a vision of where you want to go and what you are doing to make the world a better place. What’s better is holding yourself and your company to a higher standard. What’s better is thinking about who the future customer is going to be and what the future market is going to look like and building for that. The best product managers are like Wayne Gretzky–they are skating to where the puck is going to be, not to where the puck is right now.

Now as long as you don’t let data lead you off a cliff, it’s one of the most powerful tools a product team can have. Product managers have to understand how to use it really well. PMs should have a decent fluency in statistics and analytics. They need to understand how to use metrics and analysis well, but not fall into the easy trap of bullshitting numbers to justify something they want to do. They need to be seeking the truth and not seeking to push their own agenda. They should change their minds when there is new information. Does this sound exactly opposite of what I wrote in the paragraph before? It is! Being a product manager is hard!

Consensus Building vs Making the Hard Call

Product managers work with designers, UXers, developers, researchers, data scientists and cross-functional stakeholders. And, guess what? None of those people are on the Product Management team. The PM has no direct organizational authority over those people. This means if they want people to do their best work they need to engage and inspire them. The PM needs to influence others because they have little authority. However, they must resist being manipulative for this is the dark side of influence. They need to develop strong relationships, make compromises, give a ton of context, and most of all create a sense of shared ownership over most decisions. PMs that don’t do this won’t last long at a company. They just won’t.

So, 95% of the time it’s like that. The product manager works hard and gets everyone on the same page, aligned and committed in the right direction. Great. But 5% of the time, that’s not happening. 5% of the time people think what you are prioritizing is not right, they think you are pushing a product out too fast or too slow, or they simply think it’s all crap. This is when the PM has to make the hard call. Assuming it’s not all crap, this is when the PM has to go against the grain and make the difficult choice to take a certain course of action. Sometimes that means stopping a launch or prioritizing this over that when few others agree. Sorry, product managers, that’s the job. Make the right call, not the popular call.

Bringing the Donuts vs Ruthless Management of Time

Ken Norton, famous GV Partner, Product Manager and newsletter author, says the product manager must do whatever it takes to help the team ship the product. This might mean taking notes at a meeting, testing the product, messing with Hangouts and the projector for 15 minutes so that the meeting can start, or it might mean bringing donuts for the team. The product manager might be the “CEO” of the product but they are also the janitor (no offense to janitors). No task should be below the product manager. “How can I help?” should be coming out of the PM’s mouth all the time.

If you’ve read this far, you can see that product managers have a lot to do. As much as they need to be willing to whatever it takes to help the team, they also need to be able to say no. For example, I had a kick-ass product manager on my team who embodied everything I mentioned above. And, therefore, everyone liked and respected him. He literally brought donuts. Often. When performance review time came around he would get asked to write 15 peer reviews. He is not one to take short cuts and he would invest a lot of time and energy into these. They were quality, but it was locking him up for a week or two. As we talked through the problem, he came to the realization that he needs to say no more often. He needs to focus his time on the highest leverage activities he can take. Product managers must wisely choose how they spend their time. Get good at saying “no.”

Fire and Ice

There are a lot of other skills that are important in product management. However, most of those are more straightforward. They may be difficult and hard, but can be learned for those willing to put in the time. What takes talent and is harder to learn is how to balance the sharply opposite abilities and understanding when is the right time and context to engage them. A great product manager needs to possess both fire and ice as well as the wisdom to know when best to use them.



John Vars

CEO @Mixhalo (formerly CPO @GetQonto, @VaroMoney, @TaskRabbit and Co-Founder @dogster)