The puzzling paradoxes of product management

I like a good puzzle. The best puzzles are those that require resolving seemingly opposing ideas. And a PM’s job is largely about devising solutions that balance competing priorities — trading off short-term vs long-term, say, or weighing technical, business, and UX considerations. What’s less-discussed are the internal tensions that are inherent in the role. A PM needs to untie these knots in order to thrive.

You know less than every single person you work with

One of the most interesting things about PMing to me is that you typically know less than every single person you talk with about their area of expertise. That’s a humbling position. Instead, your value is in knowing more about all the other parts and pieces of the product and broader context than they do, and synthesizing that information into informed recommendations. You are every other function’s partner. You are the hub. You are the voice of the customer. And you are often the voice of marketing, or design, or finance, or legal, or PR, or sales, or engineering, or management.

You’re expected to have a wide range of competences, but have no defined outlet for your skills

Many PMs have engineering backgrounds, but usually they should not be coding for weeks on end. Others are Excel jockeys, but whose main use of spreadsheets these days is to make little tables or project plans. Some have design backgrounds, but now have to ask their design team to export their Photoshop files to PNG. This can be frustrating, but good PMs are like water — they fill the gaps. They do what’s needed to do, and that constantly changes. If design is underwater, they help with some wireframes. If the team doesn’t have marketing resources, they write the blog posts. If engineering wants to talk through technical implementation, they step up to the whiteboard, or hack away. And if all is running smoothly, they step away, take care of the trash, and make sure nothing new blocks the way.

You are expected to be “Mini-CEO” of your product, but have no hard power or authority

It’s commonplace to pitch the PM role as that of a mini-CEO… at least to prospective PMs ☺ But the differences are obvious. You have bosses and bosses’ bosses, not boards. And you don’t actually manage most or any of the people you work with. This means that PMs have to align and persuade others in more nuanced ways to make progress. No PM can achieve sustained success via an iron rod. Instead, PMs clarify, nudge, encourage, and collaborate their way to success.

So how do PMs resolve these internal conflicts?

When taken together, these tensions lead to an under-recognized trait being crucial for great PMs: humility. At more senior levels, sometimes this is referred to as servant leadership. You need to respect and trust your teammates. We have the tendency to celebrate individual brilliance. But one of the most powerful realizations a PM can have is this: The best way to be a 10x PM is to make 10 people around you twice as good. This is how you square away the apparent contradictions of product management.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Conrad Wai’s story.