Product Management is not well-understood, and PMs seldom receive the guidance necessary to learn and grow. When PMs do receive coaching, it is often focused on the hard skills they need to learn in order to advance in their career. Mastery of specific skills is crucially important, however accessing our growth along key dimensions is equally, if not more, important in our effort to become skilled and well-rounded product managers and leaders.
Above all else, great companies value autonomy and empowerment. With empowerment comes responsibility. An essential dimension of PM advancement is the independence we exhibit in our role. Associate Product Managers and Product Managers are expected to operate with some independence, but with regular supervision and check-ins with their manager. As we advance to Senior Product Manager and beyond, we are expected to operate in the role independent from such supervision. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t leverage our manager as a coach to help us through various product problems and challenges that we face — it is our manager’s responsibility to help us advance our capabilities to the next level at all stages of growth. To operate independently means that manager oversight is no longer required for us to successfully execute a given product initiative.
Independence is earned through accumulating and successfully executing against a variety of product initiatives across all stages of a product’s lifecycle, including early product planning, customer research and validation, roadmap planning, product development sprints, user testing, product launches, metrics analysis, and post-launch iterations. The key to advancement along this dimension is both exhibiting that we have had such experiences across the product lifecycle and, as we have encountered new situations we have been able to tackle various challenges successfully with minimal supervision.
How to grow along this dimension
Starting at the earliest stage of our careers, we should seek out challenges that allow us to gain a breadth of experience across various phases of the product lifecycle as quickly as possible. Fast-moving product teams with strong execution velocity allow us to build up such experience quickly. If possible we should rotate across teams in order to gain the experience of facing diverse sets of challenges.
Product Scope & Execution
Product scope covers both the overall amount of product functionality that we drive, as well as the complexity of the product offerings for which we are responsible. For example, a relatively new product manager may be responsible for feature enhancements to an existing feature in the product. Whereas a more seasoned product manager is responsible for an entire product Squad, including new product offerings that haven’t been brought to market.
Scope increases in this way: Contributor -> Squad Leader -> Product Group Leader -> Product Area Leader. The complexity of product increases from incremental improvements to existing functionality to ownership of more complex offerings as well as innovation in new product categories.
How to grow along this dimension
We should focus on exhibiting mastery of a given product area. Such exhibited mastery demonstrates our readiness for increased scope. Once this is accomplished, it’s important that we identify opportunities to expand our scope. Proactive managers may help us find logical adjacencies that we could take on. But it remains our responsibility to create new opportunities and build compelling cases as to why the organization should invest in them.
Product managers can also increase product scope by tackling new product categories that the company is not yet involved in or leveraging the success of our existing domain to increase the product’s ambition and scope.
In short, we are the masters of our own destiny, and it is up to us to identify new opportunities and rally the company around them.
Product management is largely a leadership role. Initially, this involves exhibiting mastery of the core dimensions of product leadership within our team: strong written and verbal communication, an ability to articulate and evangelize a product area’s vision and strategy, and an ability to work cross-functionally to achieve shared objectives.
As we grow in our role, our scope of leadership influence expands beyond our team (the specific designers, engineers, etc. that are implementing features) to broader sets of people within the organization. This includes cross-team and cross-disciplinary leadership, executive leadership, and customer leadership. The best product experiences span across an individual product manager’s ownership, therefore making it vitally important that we drive alignment with other product managers through strong cross-team product leadership.
Similarly, our product scope generally speaks to only part of the user journey, so it is important to develop strong cross-disciplinary leadership across marketing, customer experience, business development and more. Executive leadership, or the ability to manage up to the executive team, becomes critical to building support and investment in new product categories as well as accelerating investment in existing product areas. And finally, customer leadership involves the ability to directly engage, understand and learn from our users.
How to grow along this dimension
A critical component for advancement is our ability to lead and manage a team of product managers. People managers increase their leadership through mentoring, providing feedback, coaching, developing others, and driving results through a team of managers, some of whom report to us, and some of whom do not. While product management is inherently a leadership-based profession, the highest level roles within the profession are reserved for those who are most capable of leading people. They exhibit mastery through their ability to effectively mentor and coach people, their ability to drive strong operational results through team members, and their ability to coalesce and align the team with a broad vision encompassing several individual product areas.
Innovation is often misunderstood as a rare, innate gift to create and execute original ideas. This is seldom, if ever, the case. In truth, innovation has little to do with new ideas. Most often it is the application and extension of existing technologies to solve a new or existing business problem or user need. These problems/needs generally take one of two forms: unmet needs are those that users understand and can easily express; unrealized (or latent) needs are those that users don’t know they need until they experience the solution.
Meeting unmet needs is achieved by improving upon that which has already been created — iterating incremental improvements based on quantitative and qualitative user signals. In this sense the solutions that are applied to unmet user needs are best described as user-inspired. Innovation in this area is evolutionary. An example would be improving search ranking through the application of machine learning.
Identifying and addressing unrealized user needs is more challenging. Since a product or feature does not yet exist, there is no user data to validate our ideas or generate new ones. These are needs that users aren’t aware they have, but when realized have the potential to profoundly change their behavior. They can become part of the fabric of people’s everyday lives — so much so that they can barely comprehend life before it. These are best described as revolutionary innovations.
We need to look outside of our own product and industry segment and consider the problem through the lens of various technologies and business models. We need to identify the unique assets of our company and consider how those differentiators could be leveraged in new ways, while disregarding established industry practices. Existing domain knowledge may stifle creativity and limit the realm of what’s possible. Ideally we are capable of building domain expertise without becoming creatively constrained by status quo thinking.
Solutions that address unrealized user needs are often technology-inspired (as opposed to user-inspired). The source of innovation is the enabling technology itself. A technology, whether existing (like a phone sensor) or newly developed, like a recommendation engine, is the creative conduit to an innovative solution.
Technology-inspired solutions often lead to improvements of the core technology itself. Since it hasn’t been applied to this specific problem, improvements or changes are required in order to best address the problem. A further byproduct of technology-inspired product thinking is that it often leads to the identification of more unrealized user needs. Now that we are equipped with a new tool we thoroughly understand, we can more easily identify additional problems to which this tool can be applied.
How to grow along this dimension
PMs are expected to master the craft of meeting unmet user needs in the first few years of their career. This includes identifying user needs, ideating and researching potential solutions, running experiments and studies to validate hypotheses, analyzing quantitative and qualitative data to inform decisions, understanding the cost/benefit of various solutions, instrumenting features to capture the necessary metrics to evaluate impact, demonstrating objectivity and non-attachment (often expressed by a confident willingness to deprecate features that aren’t working).
More senior PMs need to develop a capacity for product vision and acquire the cognitive skills and knowledge to realize technology-inspired transformative innovation.
While addressing unmet user needs is mostly a function of analysis and process. Identifying and solving unrealized needs requires the capacity for creative problem solving, openness to new ways of thinking, deep technological understanding and broad knowledge of how leading edge technology can be applied in novel ways across a range of industries and user needs.
Simply put, more junior PMs can be successful by following process and honing their analytical skills, while senior PMs need to become both expert technologists and creative, free thinkers.