WHAT MAKES A GREAT PRODUCT MANAGER
When reading Ben Horowitz’s “The Hard Thing about Hard Things”, he refers to his document on what makes a good product manager. Even though he originally authored this several years ago, it’s still highly relevant and filled with great advice.
As I was reading it, I found myself mentally checking off the things I’ve observed amongst the best product managers I’ve known. I’ve managed a couple of hundred product / program managers over the years and worked with countless others. I count many of them among the very best in the industry and a number have become some of my closest friends. So I put together my own list of the behaviors I’ve seen in best product people. These have become the skills and approaches I value and try to develop in others, and against which I measure my own growth. I’ll make no claim that it is comprehensive, absolute or any sort of truth.
I’ve left out the fairly obvious things like “is a decent human being”, “treats people with respect”, “gives credit to others” and so on. It’s written as if I were describing the ultimate product manager to a friend or colleague. In reality it’s impossible for a single person to exhibit all these traits and if you’re reading this for yourself, the key will be to figure out which resonate with you and your situation. Once you’ve figured that out, just do more of it (#9 — invest in strengths). Also, while I use the industry term “product manager”, what I really mean is “product people”. Great product people come with any title — whether that’s product managers, program manager, designers, developers, marketing or sales. In other words, skills over titles.
I intentionally left this list unordered as the value of each attribute is somewhat situational and depends on the individual, team and context. As such, feel free to read it as you might a guide and in any order. However, a friend reminded me I should still follow own advice (#10 — Prioritize). So, if I had to pick any three attributes in a product person, they’d probably be #1 (Starts with Why), #13 (Is curious / values curiosity) and #18 (Has a strong point of view / weakly held). Others' mileage will vary but I believe these are so foundational that with them, most of the other items can be learned.
1) Starts with Why. She always starts with the customer and has a clear articulation of why someone would want to use our product and what problems in their life we’re solving for. Simon Sinek summarizes her approach nicely. She writes the reviews that we aspire for our users to write. Once establishing a mission for the product, she rallies people around it and is stubborn on this vision while remaining flexible on the implementation and how to get there.
“Be stubborn on the vision, flexible on the details”, Jeff Bezos
2) Builds products that solve for her own problems. She knows that great products often come from building for yourself. While this advice is often given to CEO’s — it’s just as relevant to anyone who builds products for a living. By working on products she would actually use, she has empathy for the customer and an intuitive sense of what they need. She uses the product every day and is one of the best testers on the team, finding more quality issues than almost anyone.
“If you look at the origins of successful startups, few were started in imitation of some other startup. Where did they get their ideas? Usually from some specific, unsolved problem the founders identified.”, Paul Graham
3) Sets goals, measures, communicates clearly. She has a clear definition of success for any team and product she’s working on. These are goals that are aspirational (to help people dream), realistic (to keep people focused) and quantifiable (to help guide the way). They’re also shared goals — something the team fundamentally believes and wants to achieve. She tracks progress against these goals relentlessly but knows that metrics are only evidence of success, not success in itself.
4) Market awareness. She knows the market well and where our product fits in. She understands the competition and uses their products daily. She regularly shares information on the broader market context with other team members via news links, presentations and product tear downs. She uses this information to guide and inform (but not dictate) our own product directions.
5) Seeks out mentors. Mentors others. She knows that one of the best ways to learn is from those who have already done what you want to do. She invests in relationships with mentors and makes it easy for them, taking on the scheduling burden and being clear about where she wants to grow. She pays this forward by mentoring other up-and-coming product mangers and finds that by doing so, her articulation and point of view is continually reinforced and improved.
6) Builds trust. She is both trusting and trustworthy. She knows the difference between trust and blind faith, and invests in building a working environment where people have each others’ backs. She sets an example with her own behavior and works from the assumption that people have good intentions. She listens and always strives to understand others’ context, point of view and perspective.
Partly this stems from a desire to simply live in a world where people trust each other — but also because she knows this makes business sense:
7) Understands the “how”. She focus teams on good ideas that can be executed. Her knowledge of technical feasibility creates a tight and efficient feedback loop between idea generation and implementation saving many engineering cycles.
She doesn’t use things like experimentation or machine learning as a crutch (e.g. “we’ll just machine learn the user’s preferences”). She would probably have drawn the cartoon below if it didn’t already exist. While pragmatic, she isn’t overly focused on implementation (see #1 — Starts with Why) and also remains open to technical breakthroughs.
8) Embraces constraints. Many of the world’s most creative solutions have arisen out of deep constraints that would been paralyzing to many others. She understands the paradox of choice and knows that open ended statements like “we could do anything” can be counterproductive. She will even apply intentional / artificial constraints during ideation to help generate feedback, stimulate non linear thinking and test the boundaries.
“The enemy of art is the absence of limitations”, Pablo Picasso
9) Invests in strengths. She’s not a jack of all trades which is meant to imply “good at everything”, but can sometimes mean “good at nothing”. Instead, she has clear strengths that differentiate her and she continually invests in developing them. She’s interested in turning her strengths from good to great and while she’s aware of her weaknesses, she’s not consumed by them. Her greatest strength comes from the cross fertilization and knitting together of her unique skills.
She has a respect for other disciplines (dev, design, etc) but doesn’t over identify with them, knowing that skillsets are more valuable than titles.
10) Prioritizes. She is a natural list-maker, and has found many complex problems can be solved by simply writing down a list of things and doing them in priority order. She’s a hardcore prioritizer, and will force important tradeoffs at the right time and has an intuitive sense of the quality required for a given situation / stage of idea. She’s not afraid to cut ideas / features when it leads to a simpler or better customer experience, even areas where she has spent significant time and effort.
“By doing everything, you fail at the most important thing”, Ben Horowitz
She also understands that while it’s important to cut and remove things, the hard thing is knowing what to cut, and she intuitively thinks in terms of scenarios and complete experiences than features. This skill is evident with her approach to building MVP’s.
11) Asks for forgiveness, not for permission. While this may not have come naturally for her, she realizes that great workplaces encourage and reward risk taking and she takes this at its word. When acting in the best spirit of her colleagues and customers, she leads with action and asks for forgiveness in the event of mistakes rather than waiting for permission. She expects others to do the same also.
12) Thrives on change and ambiguity. While few people love a high degree of change and ambiguity, she accepts them as natural consequences in the pursuit of innovation and performs extremely well during these periods. During these volatile times, she consistently helps others, providing clarity and assurance wherever possible.
13) Is curious, values curiosity. She is highly curious and considers herself a lifelong longer or learn-it-all (a phrase which Satya Nadella is also a fan). She is always more interested in the right answer than being right. She values diversity of thought and sees opposing views as an opportunity to learn a new idea (or at the very least learn about a person).
14) Is data driven. She thrives on collecting and understanding data to help inform a decision She does this informally, efficiently and by using tools herself wherever possible (vs complex or expensive processes). While she loves data, she’s not beholden to it and understands that it’s “just another input” given even the best studies, experiments, surveys and analyses often tell only part of the story. She has an intuitive sense of when we’ve reached a law of diminishing returns on data collection, and is able to make decisions with incomplete information.
15) Simplifies the complex. She always looks to decompose problems into the most important key questions and solutions. Whenever sharing information she considers audience and ‘what do they need to know?’, not ‘how much can I show’. She anticipates future problems but remains focused on likely risks and not the complete set of what might happen. She loves to summarize (TLDR).
“I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have time (Mark Twain)”
16) Values trying over talking, impact over activity, creation over criticism. She leads with action and avoids long and expensive debates on a potential solution that would have only taken 1 day to prototype, or could be answered by simply asking a customer. She’d choose a good idea, with great execution over a brilliant idea, poorly executed. She has no problem getting her hands dirty and regularly looks across the team to see what’s needed and where she can fill in.
17) Can zoom in, and zoom out. She finds the right “level of zoom” for a given situation and can comfortably operate at both the detailed or the bigger picture level. She doesn’t “suggest to take a step back” when progress is required and doesn’t become lost in the details when a broader perspective would be more useful. In Pathwise, we call this “Systems Thinking”.
18) Has a strong point of view, weakly held. Whenever faced with a need to press forwards in uncertain situations, she expresses a strong point of view but “holds it weakly”. This benefits everyone involved on a product, providing a default direction while suppressing over confidence and stimulating debate. Her strong view / weakly held shows up in the products she works on, which are described as opinionated rather than confused. She openly challenges her own assumptions through a dialectic process and invites others to do so as well. With sufficient evidence and data, she pivots to new ideas and concepts, restarting the cycle once again.
19) Creates material that can be highly leveraged, and always in a style that is “fit for purpose”. She is a prolific creator of content — not merely for the purposes of documenting, but as a means to communicate ideas, provide repeatable instructions and offer guidance. She recognizes the importance of specs, but knows these are a tool and will always consider the best tool for the job. She doesn’t over engineer a spec when a one line email will do, she knows that sometimes low fidelity UX mocks are the best way to express visual ideas and will build prototypes when specs, mocks and emails won’t do.
20) Gives feedback. Seeks feedback. Strives to give feedback that is specific, useful for the recipient and delivers it with the best of intentions. Always asks the question “what would be useful?” not “what do I want to say?”. Gives and receives product feedback so that the product is under the spotlight, not the person. Understands that being clear with someone is not mutually exclusive with being kind and in fact can be an act of kindness when delivered with authenticity. Because she understands the importance of feedback, she shares her own work early, and shares it often. Does not wait for a “grand unveiling” but instead strives to get input as early in the process as possible, when the cost of change is low.
Thats it for now! Thank you to all the amazing product people out there — you basically wrote this list by simply doing what you do. I’ll likely refresh in the future as I get a chance to reflect more.