The One Thing a Product Manager Must Do

TL;DR: Above all, product managers must focus on the problems that need solving, and ignore the solutions.

Right before I started a new job as product manager, my friend who had done it before told me one thing:

You’ll be responsible for everything and have the authority to do nothing.

Being the manager of a product makes you accountable for its success, but you can’t tell a product what to do. In many technology companies, software developers are doing most of the work on the product, but they have their own supervisor. So what can a product manager do, within their own locus of control, to drive results and feel ownership over their product?

If you can’t tell people to do what you want, you have to get them to want to do what you want.

The solution is conceptually simple: if you can’t tell people to do what you want, you have to get them to want to do what you want. So how do you get a software developer to make your priorities their own? Show them the challenge or problem you’ve discovered that customers urgently need a solution for. How do you prioritize all of that non-feature work that engineering is saying you need? Elicit from them what problem their solution is trying to solve and understand what would happen if nothing was done. It’s easy to focus on potential solutions, but a product manager should think and speak only in problems.

Prioritize each aspect of the problem to help define requirements for a minimum viable solution.

Having a laser focus on problems will minimize conflicts across teams. The initial identification of a business need is very rarely the complete picture; investigating further before jumping to conclusions is essential. Get input from people with perspectives from every touchpoint; they’ll appreciate that their team was brought in early in the process. Once you’ve fully qualified the problem, prioritize each aspect of the problem to help define requirements for a minimum viable solution. Once you have those requirements, you can facilitate discussions to determine solutions with an objective way to assess the merit of each option.

Staying focused on problems can be challenging in a solution-oriented environment. Two specific tactics can help you avoid getting sucked into talking about solutions.

  1. Be a Broken Record. Any time it make sense, refocus conversations on the problem. Choose a specific way of saying it, and eventually people will anticipate when you’re about it say it and adjust proactively. For example: “It seems like we’re talking about solutions, but let’s try to fully qualify the problem first.”
  2. Use the Socratic Method. Seriously, ask provocative questions that force the conversation to shift focus back to the underlying problem. Do it in a way that empowers other participants in the conversation. Ask questions that allow others to weigh in with their own expertise.

Product management is a bit of a subtle art, but it doesn’t happen by accident. It takes a huge amount of consistent, focused effort. The right person can truly make the difference in the success of a product.

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