Minimum Viable Product Manager

Bringing up first time product managers

Susana Videira Lopes
May 5, 2020 · 10 min read

Despite a recent explosion in paid courses to develop product management talent such as General Assembly, Product School and Knowledge Officer, the main way product managers are brought up is through on-the-job experience.

Tech giants often have established associate product manager programs, such as Google and Facebook. Whereas early stage start ups often unknowingly morph some of their generalists into the first product manager.

In this post I’ll focus on what I see as the best approach for those in the middle: the scale ups. Large enough to hire junior talent, but not yet large enough to have established repeatable processes to grow those juniors into the leaders they need to become.

What job is the job doing

When thinking about the roles and responsibilities of a first time product manager, it’s helpful to reflect on what problem that role is solving for the organisation. Equally as important is to reflect on what problem that role is solving for the individual. For first time product managers, a large problem to be solved is the inevitable impostor syndrome that will settle in for being in a position of leadership by influence, without having the experience to back it up.

The role thus needs to introduce them to the discipline in a way that builds up their confidence, while at the same time delivering value for the organisation as early as possible.

Which way do you slice the job?

The product management discipline spans from very zoomed out strategic activities such as product vision and strategy, all the way to the tactical and execution focused solution delivery. For the purpose of this analysis, I’ve excluded activities that are directly about enabling other teams such as marketing and growth enablement. Focusing then on core product management activities, roughly I’d split it six ways:

And the question becomes, how much of this is the responsibility of a first time product manager?

Horizontal slice — The SAFe slice

Some companies, particularly those following some version of SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework), tackle the problem by creating a product owner role in which the responsibility is cut horizontally. Other companies might call this a business owner or commercial owner. I’ll use product owner.

In this set up a product owner would own the delivery, and maybe some of the solution discovery and validation, whereas a product manager would take care of the levels above.

While this might seem like a way to give a junior member of the team the least risky part of the job, it is not without problems.

Impact on the business

The business needs the right problems, which are aligned to the vision and strategy, to be solved in the right way, that is feasible, usable and valuable. When the responsibilities are split horizontally however:

It’s the worst of both worlds: the wrong problems are likely to be solved in the wrong way. As Cagan puts it in Product Manager vs Product Owner: “It is precisely this combination of deep customer understanding with the ability to apply technology to solve customer problems that enables a strong product person.”

Impact on the first time product manager

Not only does this model fail the business, it also falls short for the first time product manager:

With their career prospects, their confidence and their work relationships affected, product owners in this position are likely to churn at the earliest opportunity. And to make matters worse, those opportunities will be very slim, as any prospective employer will very quickly uncover their lack of product management experience, and pass on them for someone with the right experience.

This approach fails both the business and the first time product manager turned product owner.

The vertical slice — Minimum Viable Product Manager

Much like what was proposed by Jussi Pasanen when he first introduced his model of Minimum Viable Product, cutting across all layers of what a product should be, the Minimum Viable Product Manager needs to cut across all the layers of what a product manager should be.

MVP is cutting one slice across emotional design, usable, reliable and functional, rather than all the functional components.
MVP is cutting one slice across emotional design, usable, reliable and functional, rather than all the functional components.
“Minimum Viable Product: Build a slice across, instead of one layer at a time.” — Jussi Pasanen

Going back to our earlier question of “how much of the product management discipline is the responsibility of a first time product manager?”, the answer is all of it. Just in smaller, less risky quantities.

Minimum Viable Product Manager: all layers, just in smaller, less risky quantities.

As daunting as the first slice will be, this model allows for the first time product manager to flex all their product manager muscles as early as possible in their career. All the while keeping the risk as low as possible by scoping their work to a suitably small problem, under the watchful mentorship of a more experienced product manager.

And just as importantly, the business benefits by having a single person responsible for a proportional amount of scope to their skills. When the first time product manager is paired with a suitably small problem they have the ability to develop a deep understanding of the target user and technology needed. Maximising the chances of building the right thing right.

Onboarding and developing first time product managers

So where do you start? Depending on where the first time product manager comes from they will have strengths in different parts of the product management role. Someone from an engineering background would get up to speed on delivery faster than someone from a business analysis background for example.

The following is a framework that works for people who have just graduated university, or have very little professional experience in the world of building software. It gradually introduces all the elements of the job in a safe and controlled way, building up the new product manager’s skills. The timelines are very rough, and need to be adjusted depending on the person’s background and the context of the company. The aim, is that by the end of their first year, the first time product manager is working all the layers of their slice, and being a full time minimum viable product manager.

Depending on the organisation the title of a first time product manager could be junior product manager, graduate product manager, associate product manager or other similar variations. I’ll use associate product manager.

The first year of an associate product manager: a controlled crescendo of increased responsibility building up to full minimum viable product manager.

In the first two to four weeks the associate product manager should have shipped something, and shadowed at least two to three calls with users. These calls can be anything from sales conversations with prospects to user research calls with a particular target user. The idea is to get this person in front of the people who use and/or buy the product.

Ideally they can be onboarded on to a team that is more or less mature, and with a list of already validated solutions ready to be picked up and delivered. The associate product manager should be assigned one of these solutions, given all the necessary context and prior work as to what problem it solves, and how the solution came to be validated. They are then responsible for shipping it a measuring its impact.

Ideally this can be done within the cross functional team which the associate product manager is set to work in permanently. At this stage a more senior product manager should still be heavily involved in driving the remaining work of team, and supporting the associate product manager in their tasks.

Some companies prefer to do this as part of a rotation program, where the associate product manager owns the delivery of various solutions for a couple of months in different areas of the business. This helps develop relationships and exposure to the wide business context.

In the first three months they should have moved up on their slice, and started to work more in the solution space, which includes relevant user research interviews. The associate product manager should be given problems worth solving, and be responsible for finding the right solutions to those problems with their cross functional team and going all the way down to execution, measuring success and defining next steps. The associate product manager should ideally be scripting and driving the user research interviews, or working directly with a user researcher and playing an active role during the interviews.

By the end of first six months, they should have had multiple cycles of shipping and learning and had enough direct customer exposure so that they have probably started to run into other problems the customers have. At this point they should start assessing whether these problems are worth solving, the impact solving them would have, whether they are aligned to the product and business strategy. They should be making clear priority decisions between various problems that are worth solving, based on their acquired customer insight and overall product strategy. By this point they should have settled into a permanent cross-functional team they work with on these problems.

By the end of the first year they should have made a contribution to the product strategy cycles. They should be presenting the problems worth solving in their area and how that fits into the product strategy. They should also be supporting in market research activities, and spending time understanding the wider industry of where their product fits in. This includes desk based research, but also attending industry events. At such events they ideally would play a supporting role to the sales function as a subject mater expert of their area, and generalist of the whole product. They should start to feel comfortable giving small presentations, and/or writing publicly about what their team has achieved and what they learned.

Career ladder

Depending on the size of the business, and its complexity, a suitably small problem for an associate product manager might translate to a single feature, or a small product.

A career in product management is then a ladder of increasing zoom levels, increasing uncertainty. Start out small with a single feature, then maintain a small product, then create a new product, then enter a new market, maybe start a new company… As it goes up, the harder it is to validate upfront whether something is going to work, the riskier the bets, and more likely the bets are to fail, in larger more impactful ways.

PM career ladder: from feature, small product, larger product, multiple products, line of business to whole company
PM career ladder: from feature, small product, larger product, multiple products, line of business to whole company
Product Management Career Ladder.

The shape of the associate product manager slice in the pyramid is deliberate. Its base is wider than the top. An associate product manager will spend most of their time on tactical activities related to the lowest levels of the pyramid. They should also be involved in operations, strategy and vision setting, even if making smaller contributions. Melissa Perri contextualises this with the makeup of other product management roles:

Strategic, operational and tactical percentages of product roles by Melissa Perri in Escaping the Build Trap

Career development is getting comfortable with the increasing level of risk and uncertainty each step up the ladder. Getting more practice at being operational and strategic. Being mentored and set up to succeed at each step, to gain confidence to take the next one is critical. Starting with the smallest step, with all its wonderful layers will put Associate Product Managers on the right path for the rest of their product management careers.

PS: I’ve given a talk which explores the product management career ladder, emotional resilience and product failure at Jam London in 2019. You can watch it here.

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