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Product’s Job: Do the Right Things

Backlog management at the point when it’s still easy

“Product” is one of the most ill-defined roles in the modern tech industry. Entire books have been dedicated to illustrating the differences in how different well-known technology-driven companies define our job. From mini CEOs to slideware generators to glorified project managers, our jobs, who we report into and what our expected outcomes are can vary drastically depending on how the company we work for is structured.

So, in order to write about product management, I have to start by defining my position on what it really is.

Traditional View

Let’s start from the basic trinity of digital product creation:

Tech | Product | Design

Everyone knows you need these three to build things, right? It’s often even visualized as a triangle where they represent three equal sides of creating great products.

But while design is designing and tech is… uh, teching, what is product’s role, really? What do we bring to the table that couldn’t have been done without?

Balance, that’s what.

Balance, as illustrated by a marvelous stock photograph

We harness a group of individuals skilled in their different crafts that do all the actual hard work. We make sure their skills are applied in the right place at the right time in the right way. We multiply their value!

  • A bad product manager will bring a team’s output to just north of zero.
  • A mediocre product manager will deliver value that’s roughly equivalent to what the team could’ve produced without her.
  • A brilliant product manager multiplies a team beyond their individual talents.

We achieve this by mediating, translating, summarizing, analyzing, contextualizing and using diplomacy. We represent every stakeholder equally. Especially those who aren’t around the table to represent themselves. We shovel in information and spit out clarity about what things matter, what don’t matter, what stands in our way, and how we can best position ourselves to succeed.

Ultimately, we make sure that the priority is the output of the entire system. Not tech, not design, not ultimate customer experience, not short-term gain nor long-term sanity… but the right balance of all these factors that pushes toward a larger company plan and strategy.

Outcomes of properly balanced products illustrated by this handy graphic

A Different Way of Looking at the Dynamic

If our main output is balance, that leads me to think that the aforementioned trinity (tech | product | design) isn’t really the right way to look at the way product interacts with the others.

I’ve found that a much healthier approach can be found if we start by separating between the two different types of contributions:

Product | Competencies

By “competency” I mean any group of craftspeople required to build products, like UX designers, front-end engineers, back-end engineers, QA engineers, data analysts, among others. Anyone with an actual, tangible output resulting in the end product.

Happy people of different competencies bringing their skills together to build superior products with the help of an expert Product Owner (not pictured)

What this then gives us is the ability to summarize the fundamental philosophy of the dynamics between product and competencies:

Product makes sure we “do the right things”

Competencies make sure we “do things right”

This might sound simple. Naive, even. But as we start getting deeper into detail in later posts, you’ll start seeing everything tie back to this idea and principle, from multiple angles. Especially once we get to concepts like decoupling work management from competency and human management, and truly embrace the cross-disciplinary nature of Agile.

What Does That Mean in Practice?

“Doing the right things” answers questions such as

  • What things are we working on?
  • Why is thing A more important than thing B?
  • What is the value of doing thing A?
  • If we prioritize thing A over thing B, what is the cost?
  • When do we project things to be delivered? (using tools like this)
  • What are things to consider when building thing A?

All these should be the responsibility of product.

“Doing things right” answers questions like

  • Are we solving problems correctly?
  • Are we confident in our solutions today, tomorrow and a year from now?
  • Are we using the right tools and approaches to execute our craft?
  • Are we better at our craft today than we were yesterday?
  • Are we keeping up with the industry in our craft?

All these should be the responsibility of the competencies.

What Next?

One of the key follow-ups on this is the decoupling of work and people management. I wrote about this in Why the Ghostbusters are the Perfect Agile Team.

This is naturally just the tip of a massive iceberg. I will be drilling into every possible topic hidden in the margins in much more detail in upcoming posts. Stay tuned!

But for now, let this simmer:

Product’s job is to bring balance and to multiply.
To do the right things.

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Tommi Forsström

Tommi Forsström


VP of Product at Teachable. Ex-Shutterstock, Splice & Produx Labs / Insight Partners. Lives in NYC, originally from Helsinki, Finland.