The principles that make me a better product manager

As the UK Government’s Head of Community for product managers, I have the privilege of visiting teams in our departments and agencies to deliver training and explore ways of working better together.

FAQ

I’m often asked to list the product management tools that I’d recommend. Which is a fair question, aimed at making product management processes simpler, faster and better.

It’s also something that new starters at GDS often ask me. Again, it’s a reasonable thing to ask — what are the standard things that I should use so that I’m in step with my peers?

First principles

I do my best to answer this question directly but I also make the point that, what is more important than the methods, are the principles you deliver by. This is something that I learned early on at GDS and I think it’s the best advice I can share with anyone who is interested in being an effective, valued product manager on a team that is doing good work.

While the tools that we use — the software, the processes, the documentation — are important, they depreciate quickly and we ought not to be overly reliant on them. We are after all in the business of iteration; we’d hate to think that people were still using old versions of our products and not the latest, up to date improvements we’d made.

Foundations of how we think and behave

Principles — the foundations of how we think and behave — ought to be what we prize more than methods. We ought to be fickle with our tooling. But nurturing of our principles.

Principles that are applied consistently and critically help us make the right decisions about doing the right thing, in the right order, at the right time.

Principles need to be flexible and adapted over time, for sure. They do also age, but on a far slower basis, over the course of many years rather than months. A decent set of principles can guide you to good outcomes and through hard times, again and again.

As a product manager — on happy, productive delivery teams — I think it’s been an essential step to establish and then periodically check our principles. It’s been important to be able to articulate these principles, so that people who rely on you know what you are all about.

My recommendations

On which note, when I’m on my visits and I’m saying my bit about principles, I highlight two sets of principles that have guided me especially well over the years.

Firstly, to frame the product decisions I make as a product manager, I like to use the Government design principles as a set of tests:

1. Start with user needs
2. Do less
3. Design with data
4. Do the hard work to make it simple
5. Iterate. Then iterate again
6. This is for everyone
7. Understand context
8. Build digital services, not websites
9. Be consistent, not uniform
10. Make things open: it makes things better

If I run a decision through these and each one turns green, then I feel confident. Based as they are on the collective wisdom of some very smart and storied people with many more scars and medals than I could ever hope to earn.

Secondly, to help me be the best leader and colleague I can be, I have been regularly drawing on a set of principles, which I have tuned for the public service settings I’ve worked in:

Lead without authority
Take blame, give credit away
Make good decisions with imperfect information
Prepare for what’s next
Navigate through mistakes and crises
Operate optimally under pressure
Prioritise people

The methods that I use as a product manager are constantly changing. But these principles have been with me a very long time. Whether or not I was always truly conscious of them, or could articulate them clearly, or say with confidence that I was honouring them.

That’s the other thing about principles, they don’t come as easy as methods, which is why they hold their value.

Strong principles, deft wield

I think that what makes a good product management community is less about using exactly the same prioritisation technique or canvas or mnemonic or roadmapping software.

I want to work with people who judge the right tools for the job based on the abilities of the people they are working with, the constraints they are under at the time, the type of thing they are building, and the needs of the users that are driving the whole enterprise. Product managers who can be trusted to make these choices effectively because they work to a set of principles. Sometimes personal, sometimes widely held, but constantly being tested and improved.

I’m always pleased to hear from people and teams who are aware of their own principles. You can tell those who are principles-based, due to the good results they’re achieving.

As I go around working with the product managers in our community, I always look forward to learning from the example of others, as a means of improving and eventually — inevitably — superseding those I currently rely on.