What is a Product Manager? A different perspective

For as long as I have been a product manager the role of ‘product manager’ has been the subject of much debate — specifically, what is a product manager? It’s important for a role to have definition otherwise it’s unclear how you do great in that role. It’s also difficult to understand how and where you fit in the organisation and for others to understand how they interface with you in the absence of a clear definition.

I am aware that a the role of ‘product manager’ has proven one of the more difficult to write a formal ‘specification’ for and it’s a role that has been bastardised as organisations have introduced the role type/title without fully understanding it, often in reaction to those that have gone before them. It’s a role that’s been confused by recruiters that have been tasked with hiring for a diverse range of jobs that have been forcibly preceded or appended with the word ‘product’. It’s even been rebranded many times over within the product community — older terms such as ‘product owner’ now carry disdainful undertones or ‘customer evangelist’ add superfluous vagueness.

What I do firmly believe however, is that the role that we have come to refer to as ‘product manager’ is very important to the success of the product and that a great product manager will deliver considerable value to your customer and to the organisation. This belief was reinforced upon hearing a speech by Marty Cagan called ‘Behind Every Great Product’ — he did something that I’d previously struggled to do and that is to articulate my belief in the importance of what we know as a ‘product manager’ in a way that was consumable by anyone and everyone.

“What has not changed is my overarching belief that behind every great product, there is someone, usually someone behind the scenes, working tirelessly, that is playing this critical role. They usually have the title ‘product manager’ but they might be a startup co-founder or the CEO, or they might be in another role on the team and stepped up because they saw the need. The title is not important; the work they do is.” — Marty Cagan

Think about that, “the title is not important; the work they do is”. I think Marty sums it up better than I ever could. Another important statement in that quote is that, “They usually have the title ‘product manager’ but they might be…in another role”, let’s talk about this because it’s important. Firstly, having the job title ‘product manager’ doesn’t by default mean that you’re the person Marty is describing and nor does it mean that the success of a product comes down to the merits of a single individual or job role. I couldn’t care what role title I am given, it wouldn’t change my motivation or willingness to step up to make that product a success. I know that behind the great products I work on — there’s a team of individuals who are all ‘product managers’ by the above definition, even if it’s not what’s listed in the HR system.

So what does a great ‘product person/team’ look like?

So far I’ve asserted a couple of notions — the first is that the role we typically refer to as ‘product manager’ is an important, crucial and very real role. The next, that the title per se is not important but as Marty rightly identifies…the work they do is; that’s the winning ticket.

Roles are typically articulated by listing the responsibilities, skills and character traits an individual would be expected to exemplify were they do be someone that could grow, shine and perform in that role. The role’s title is important in that it serves as a proper noun against which we can articulate these things. It’s always been something that again that we’ve struggled to codify — often resulting in fluffy terms such as ‘CEO of the product’ or ‘ambassador for the user’, which doesn’t help anyone. Aren’t we all?

So if the role title isn’t important but the person and the work they do is then what sort of person should we be looking for? What skills and traits should they hold? How would we know a what good looks like? In all honesty, I couldn’t begin to sum that up in a way that would be succinct or complete (or that wouldn’t need later refactoring when I stumble across some better analogy, adage or adjective).

I stated earlier that it’s important for a role to have definition. What I’m not going to do is write that as some kind of specification — typical of what you may find one an organisations recruitment portal (owns the backlog, prioritises features, communicates effectively with stakeholders etc). The specifics will vary organisation to organisation. However, what I’m going to take a punt at doing is specifying what some of those traits, characteristics and mindsets are that make a great product person. If you choose to decant from this a a bullet point list of responsibilities and hard requirements then do so, but at a minimum I hope that the below puts that into context.

So what traits, characteristics and skills does a great individual behind any great product embody? I’m going to answer that using the analogies, anecdotes, adjectives and adages that I’ve stumbled across and have personally found to hold true:

1. Multi Disciplined: There is an overused venn diagram that’s often referenced when describing the product manager role — it places product managers at the intersection between business, technology and UX. This does not mean that a product manager will be a unicorn, someone that is exceptional across all three of these dimensions. It also doesn’t mean that the product manager will be equally balanced across these three dimensions. Finally, it also does not mean that an engineer or a designer couldn’t make a great product manager, they may spike more heavily on certain dimensions but they may also be strong on the other dimensions too. In the wise words of Martin Eriksson a product manager should be:

“Experienced in at least one, passionate about all three and conversant with practitioners in all.” — Martin Eriksson

2. A leader & an influencer; without authority: When we use the term ‘CEO of the product’ we should use it lightly, because a product manager often doesn’t (and shouldn’t) have authority over those that are crucial to the development and evolution of a product. Instead, we often find the great people behind great products possess the ability to rally those around them, those with tools and skills they don’t necessarily hold to solve for a need that has been identified (or even identify a need in the first instance).

3. Makers: The people behind great products have a tendency to be makers and if they’re not makers by mould then then they should aspire to be so. OK, but WTF is a maker?

A maker to me is simply someone who makes or produces tangible things in order to bring ideas to life. The power of ‘making’ is that it gives those with little context as to the problem your trying to solve (or the solution you’re trying to articulate) something that they can interact with to piece together their own understanding. The benefits of ‘making’ are multifold:

  • You begin with a solution that is somewhat ignorant of constraints, which allows you to explore possibilities that you may not approach were you to start by doing all of your analyses and eliciting stakeholder input up front.
  • You have your first iteration — it’s probably far from perfect and you should be prepared to reconstruct it or throw it away entirely but in the process of making you will have learned something (and learned it well in advance).
  • It changes conversations with stakeholders from “‘you can’t do that/that’s not possible” to “how can we support you/oh, you’ve begun to figure it out”. Oftentimes, it’s hard for those not close to the product or in different disciplines to visualise what you’re trying to articulate through words, user stories etc alone.
  • The final reason why being a maker is so important to me and valuable is this — the phrase ‘meet user needs’ is valid but it conceals some important truths. Users can’t always articulate their needs and some don’t even know what there needs are in order to articulate them. Users sometimes can’t imagine a certain reality or realise they had a need unless you explore, prototype and create new things for them to interact with.
“Humans do two things that make us unique from all other animals; we use tools and we tell stories. And when you make something, you’re doing both at once.”

You may be thinking — but I’m not a designer or a coder, how can I be a maker? You don’t need to be proficient any design or coding to be a maker. Anyone can make a prototype using pen and paper. You should never underestimate the power of a sketch in any fidelity. Additionally, some people are blessed with the gift of being excellent story tellers and are able to make things tangible through words, presentations and other mediums. An important mindset of design thinking is to ‘show, don’t tell’. I’d encourage anyone now familiar with design thinking to get to be so.

We often hear product managers referred to as orchestrators. While this analogy has it’s merits I think the value is really realised when an individual can switch between ‘making’ and ‘orchestrating’. At a minimum, if you’re not a maker but you work with people that are, the best thing you can go isrespect their schedules and how they work.

4. Building the right thing vs building the thing right: Both are valuable, however it is crucial to have great people working their magic behind the right solution — and if not, you need to be able to identify so and pivot. It’s easy to get going on the wrong thing. I want to stress again, you should care as much about building the thing right but it’s a pre-requisite to a successful product that you’re building the right thing in the first instance.

Sometimes we have a magpie tendency and go for the shiniest work, sometimes we identify a valid problem to solve but don’t keep tabs on whether that problem still exists and sometimes we misinterpret data and get going down the wrong path. To be a great person behind a great product, you need to have the ability to tease out what the right problems are that need solving and when you do, focus on solving them properly.

5. Divergent/convergent thinkers: Great product people (note, I’ve not been using the term ‘product managers’) are able to vary their thinking between being ‘bigger picture’ and ‘action oriented’. In design thinking the phrases ‘flaring’ and ‘focusing’ are used to refer to the different types of thinking and to frame the elements of an effective brainstorming process. Different ‘stokes’, methods and tools and embracing a design thinking mindset are used to facilitate moving between these modes of thinking.

‘Brainstorming, out-of-the-box thinking, and radical innovation’ are a few of the buzz words that may come to mind. All of these words fall under the category of ‘flaring’ — thinking widely to incorporate unusual solutions, offbeat ideas, and to expand the solution set as widely as possible before narrowing down to one. — Jude Fulton

Flaring must be paired with moments of acute focus, in order to learn and move quickly. We all have a tendency towards one way of thinking over another and that’s fine. In fact it’s important to have people who are awesome at both of these things. However, it’s also great to have people behind your product that are adept at doing both.

6. Pragmatism (in sprinkles): I was told when I first started out as a product manager that the hardest part (but one of the most important parts) of the role was being able to say no. It still holds true today. It’s hard to say no, even when it’s the right thing to do. It also takes courage to say yes, even when it’s a scary thing to do, maybe something no one’s done before. A good product person can make the right call (and is willing to) when those decisions need to be made.

The ‘I shouldn’t use Wikepedia but I did anyway’ definition of what it means to be pragmatic is to ‘do what works best’. This is why I put ‘in sprinkles’ in brackets.

It’s not always that black and white. What works best differs depending on the lends through which you’re viewing things. What’s best for the organisations bottom line isn’t always what’s best for the customer. The best solution isn’t always one that will work best in a few months time. What’s technically feasible will sometimes mean compromising the design, which doesn’t work best for the designer or maybe the user.

Unfortunately, we have to make calls that are the lesser of evils. We’re often put between a rock and a hard place and it’s the ability to make and rationalise these decisions in a way that works for the greater good that is an important trait to have. Equally, it’s also knowing when ‘what works best’ isn’t good enough and being able to set and define a minimum benchmark against which to hold true. This is where having clear principles can go a long way.

7. Trust their experts for their expertise: A great person behind any great product knows that they alone do not have all of the skills and bandwidth to make a great product. I think it’s safe to say that behind ever great product their is a great team and behind every great product person there’s a great support network.

I borrowed a quote earlier from Martin Eriksson that outlined that a product manager is, “Experienced in at least one, passionate about all three and conversant with practitioners in all” with regards to their understanding of business, design and technology. A great product person is able to identify gaps in their domain knowledge and collaborate with others that have strengths in that area. A great product team will be greater than the sum of it’s parts as a result.

8. Love what they do. Love who they do it with. Love who they do it for: I stole this from BJ Cunningham because it sums things up pretty damn well. We all know great product people are supposed to care about the end users. We all know great teams are those that have a great rapport and relationship with one another. We all know that an organisation should have a mission that you believe in and can rally behind, one that gives you purpose.

However, you can’t make someone love what they do or who they do it for by telling them that they should. You can’t just state a mission and expect people to simply rally behind it. You can’t say your user driven and then ignore the customer when it comes to crunch time.

A great product person lives and breaths these emotions. They are infectious. They bring the importance of the product to life. They bring purpose into the everyday. They love what they do because that’s how they feel, not because they are supposed to. They love empowering others so that they can feel this way too.

You can tell people to love what they do, who they do it for and who they do it with. You can to some extent create environments that encourage those emotions. Or you can make sure you have individuals on your team that innately feel this way and hope their feverish passion spreads.

To summarise

The term ‘product manager’ is simply a title. The title is necessary but somewhat irrelevant, what isn’t irrelevant is the work the person/teams do and the mindset and traits they they display. I truly believe that behind every great product, is a great person or team. I think Marty is on to something here.

Sometimes we obsess about what our roles are (vs. who we serve) and what we are responsible and accountable for. It makes sense for sure to have clearly defined responsibilities, however sometimes we place too much emphasis on the definition. We want to codify things into responsibilities and bullet pointed lists vs. focusing on developing the mindsets and ways of thinking synonymous with great product people.

Can anyone do the role? Yes. Does that mean they’ll be great at it? No.

As people leaders your role isn’t to create the role of product manager but it is to enable those within your organisation to flourish by establishing the best environment, nurturing a great culture and equipping them with the autonomy and tools to become great people behind what will ultimately be a great product.

Oh, and how do we rewards those great people/teams? The product in itself is a reward for those that love what they do, who they do it with and who they do it for.

Finally, for those of you that can’t deal with the fluff of it all. If you really must have a more tangible way of articulating what a great product person embodies and exhibits then this is the list I personally hold myself accountable against.

Tim Platt (Maker)

@timothydplatt