What the hell is a product manager anyway?

Fiona McLaren
May 3, 2016 · 5 min read

I recently gave a talk at Front-end London to try to answer the question: “What the hell is a Product Manager anyway?”. Here’s a written adaptation. If you’d rather just watch the video, then feel free to skip to the end, if not…

Let’s start with a scenario

Picture one of those cool house parties, full of people you don’t know, but think you might like to. The opportunity to escape our tech-y product innovation bubble! Meet new people! All the good stuff!

BUT — these occasions strike fear in my heart. It’s not that I don’t like fun (I do! Honest!), but I hate the inevitable first question I’m always asked:

So, what do you do?

I take a deep breath before replying.

I’m a product manager

Then it happens. I almost always get a blank stare, or follow up question of “…so what do you do exactly?”, or even worse “Oh, a project manager!

Why does it matter?

Now, all of this leads to some awkward introductions and faltering conversations, but ultimately it doesn’t matter if someone at a party understands what I do.

It does matter that my team understand what I do, because a big part of my job is actually to help everyone else do their job better — so that, ultimately, we can make better, more successful products.

And, in talking at Front-end London I was hoping to help developers understand a bit better what it is that product managers do. And more importantly, how they can benefit from that, and maybe even think a little bit more like product managers themselves.

So really, what do you do?

In trying to answer this, I started where any self-respecting Internet-y person wanting to express an opinion starts: by reading what everyone else has said on Medium.

And hey! Product managers of Medium! You’ve said an awful lot. There are posts on what product managers are, what they aren’t, what they should be, how to be better, and what they definitely shouldn’t be. There’s even satire!

I love so many of the definitions and opinions expressed — but they all ultimately led me to the conclusion that everyone has a slightly different definition for what a product manager is and how they work. There is no single definition. The role shifts depending on individuals, the products you’re working on, the stage they’re at, the size of your organisation or the industry you’re operating in.

So it really comes down to this: what does product management mean to me?

Introducing the Triangle of Ambiguity

What is the right product? Why is that the right thing? and How do we make it happen?

I think product management boils down to being concerned with three big questions:

What is the right product? Why is that the right thing? How do we make it happen?

These questions are not ones that can be answered in isolation — each is continually informing the other. As we find out more about what something should be and why, we need to ask how we achieve that?

And as we start making progress on “how” we probably need to revisit exactly what it is, and why, so we can figure out how an individual feature should behave in order to achieve that.

The big “what” that I hope we’re all aiming for is to make the “right” product — here at Made by Many we have this handy venn diagram to explain what we mean by the right thing. The right thing is something that meets a real customer need and is good for the business.

But that “what?” of the “right product” needs to be continually guided by the why and how — and ultimately, that means we need to navigate a lot of ambiguity.

Navigating ambiguity means asking many questions

Now we’re starting to get to the core of what I do. Navigating this, for a product manager essentially becomes about asking the right questions, at the right time, to the right people.

It’s all about facilitation

As a product manager my experience and knowledge base is broad — but not deep. Ultimately, I can’t do my job without the rest of the team. Developers, in this example, are the experts in how best to make something and actually write the code.

If I wasn’t around, they might miss me, but they’d still be able to make something. I don’t think it would necessarily be the right thing, but they could still build something.

A rather crude visual representation of broad vs. deep skill sets

But even with this deep knowledge each team member is just one part of a much bigger team that needs to be able to use each other’s strengths to achieve the vision we’re aiming for, and find the right product to fit customer and business needs.

We’re all part of a bigger team

In any given organisation there might be the product team of designers and developers who are making stuff, and then you might have marketing, sales, customer services, a CEO or strategist — and importantly, our actual customers — to consider.

All of these people have deep knowledge in particular areas that are all vital in being able to answer our questions of what to make, why and how.

That’s me, in the middle

So for me, as a product manager, I am somewhere in the middle trying to gather information from everyone, consider their objectives, find out about their problems, make sure they’re all communicating with each other, understand where we’re headed and ensure they are all able to work together to make the best possible thing. And then to support it to succeed.

And it’s not just people that are inputs to this process — there’s also quantitive data, what competitors are doing, consumer behaviour trends, the realities of time and budgets, and a whole other bunch of potential curveballs to be considered.

Getting all of these parts to work together, means that product management is a position of facilitation, negotiation and persuasion; far more than it is of leadership.

And as I said, my best tool for negotiating all of this is by asking the right questions, or forming hypotheses and then finding ways to validate them. It was at this point that I set a challenge for the developers at Front-end London to think a little more product manager, and how that might be able to benefit their work.

And, I think the best way to understand that part (and the stuff that was edited out in written form) is by watching the talk:

Made by Many

Fiona McLaren

Written by

Senior Product Manager at Adaptive Lab. Previously Made by Many, London 2012, Amnesty UK and Last.fm. I like American football, whiskey and imaginary worlds.

Made by Many

Stories by the people of Made by Many, a digital innovation consultancy. We put people and product at the heart of business transformation.

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