Five Dangerous Myths about Product Management
Product isn’t a major one can study, few folks graduate into, and most people learn by apprenticeship. The result has been a number of dangerous myths about what the role actually is.
After more than a decade working in product across Google, Foursquare, and Slack, I still often struggle to define the role of “product manager” (PM) succinctly. Explaining what makes a PM great is even harder.
Product Management isn’t an academic subject that one can study; most people learn by apprenticeship. They have diverse backgrounds, murky responsibilities, and wildly varied role definitions across companies. They typically sit at the intersection of development — design and engineering — and go-to-market — sales and marketing — where they research opportunities, guide strategy, and help take features from idea to launch.
It can be easy to romanticize product from afar. I’ve seen many people transition from another role to a job as a PM, only to feel disenchanted with the reality. Whether you want to become a PM, are a PM looking to grow, or work with PMs as peers, there are a number of dangerous myths about the role worth dispelling.
“PMs are mini CEOs”
This is admittedly a catchy tagline. But CEOs have direct management responsibilities, decision-making authority, business-level objective ownership, and often founder-level credibility for the original vision.
In reality, PMs have none of these. It’s a pernicious trap, because the PMs who act as if they are mini CEOs for a feature are the most likely candidates for a team organ rejection. Teammates want product leaders, not dictators.
“PMs are the decision makers”
Many people who convert from another role into product see it as step toward “making the calls”. It’s a common pattern, especially for disempowered engineers on dysfunctional product development teams.
PMs are responsible for the pace and quality of decision making. Full stop.
That does not, however, mean they should make even a small fraction of decisions themselves. They should be the ultimate facilitator: pulling the best ideas from their team, coordinating with cross-functional partners, and getting executive context.
PMs should lay out well-researched tradeoffs, set timetables, and structure great discussions.
Only in rare situations should they actually “make the call”. When they do, it withdraws from their organizational capital account balance. That needs constant deposits as a counterbalance.
“PMs are the idea generators”
More than any other product development role, PMs are judged nearly exclusively on the output of their team. Unlike engineers or designers, they produce few independent artifacts.
As a result, some PMs wind up viewing their ultimate work product as new ideas. They churn out 10x more concepts than their team could ever build.
This has a two-fold downside: their team execution suffers without sufficient PM attention, and it stifles the potential creativity of non-product teammates.
PMs do need to immerse themselves in context and research that helps their teams come up with great product ideas. Every hour in the field with customers is an hour well spent. In an ideal world, creative brainstorming is a constant team exercise that the PM just happens to drive.
“PMs have to be great at company politics”
Unfortunately, at the largest companies this one is a bit true. But at companies who have a few thousand employees or less, that degree of politics only happens when shared alignment breaks down.
Great PMs are an antidote to startup politics.
They keep disparate groups bought into a shared vision of where the company and its product need to head.
This requires developing deep domain knowledge, communicating compellingly, and setting an inspirational strategy.
“PMs need technical degrees”
While a technical foundation is certainly useful for PMs, like every hiring heuristic applied unconditionally as a filter, it produces far too many false negatives.
PMs do need to have a deep curiosity about the underlying technology behind their projects. They need to have some humility about the details, and the ability to develop strong partnerships with engineering.
What makes a Great PM, then?
Great PMs live in the future and work backwards, focus on customer and business impact, and amplify their teams. They drive high-quality decisions, optimize for learning, and execute impeccably. They have product design taste, data fluency, and technical acumen.
They didn’t study “product management” in college, because that major didn’t exist. They come from a wide diversity of backgrounds and relish wearing many hats. Though it’s nearly impossible to succinctly define what makes a PM great, you know it when you see a team they join make a step function leap in its pace of delivering impact.