Product Managers and the Iceberg of Ideas

Photo Credit: Anders Jildén

Product management is a wonderful job on its good days (aka days you ship things) and a thankless one on bad days (aka every other day).

Product is challenging for most people to understand because its function is so misunderstood. For most, product is about ideation and prioritization, but truth be told, that’s just the start. Product is a function designed around iteration, interaction and insultation, I mean feedback.

Product’s job is only made harder by the simple fact that everyone thinks they can do it. To that end, it’s worth taking a look at the underbelly of product management.


Product Management has as many definitions as aloha has meanings. From my experience, product management at software startups usually boils down to these 4 things:

  • expectations
  • ideas
  • constraints
  • timelines

Expectations

Expectation is the devil that haunts us all. The greatest challenge with product development is managing the massive expectations that so many different constituencies. Consider all of these expectations:

  • Customers expect custom solutions to their problems
  • Founders expect solutions that will give the company an advantage
  • Sales expect solutions that will sell themselves
  • Support expects solutions that eliminate tickets
  • Engineers expect solutions that will be direct and interesting to develop
  • Everyone expect solutions that solve their frustrations and embody their ideas

Unless you’re a glutton for punishment, it’s clear that managing all of these things is likely impossible. People get extremely upset and frustrated when we don’t meet their expectations. Product managers must find a way to build solutions that attempt to rationalize all of these very real points of view.

Ideas

Ideas come from everywhere you can imagine — and they come constantly. Almost anyone can have a good idea, and that’s a huge part of the problem. Those ideas are important, but not necessarily valuable.

Consider there are fundamentally 3 kinds of product ideas:

  • Specifics — pointed feedback on specific improvements
  • Wonders — directional thoughts
  • Opinions — preferences posing as feedback

Each of these kinds of ideas offers value at different stages in the product process.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these, but knowing what kind of idea you’re working with is really important relative to prioritization. The real test for a product manager, though, how quickly they can separate the whimsical from the valuable.

Constraints

Startups are beasts trained to do more with less. Their secret weapon is not having infinite resources, leading to both resourcefulness and optimism — we have no choice. Constraints are the counter-balance to expectations.

Product management requires the practice of constraint. While we would love to make everyone happy, we must work within the boundaries of our own universe. Many different forces work to constrain product development:

  • Money — can we afford to do it?
  • Technology — can we built it?
  • Opportunity — will customers buy it?
  • Company — will our team support it?
  • Time — see next

Most people don’t consider all of these constraints when they have an idea, nor should they — it’s not their job. Product managers are constantly evaluating not just the Constraints suck because nobody wants to acknowledge they exist. One of the most common refrains heard in the halls of startups is “we should just start over” — a cry for a world without constraints

Timelines

If startups are about constraints, then time is the greatest constraint. Given enough time, we could do almost anything — but we don’t have an infinite amount of time. Product management is all about managing time.

Here are just a few ways that product managers spend time:

  • Ideation — time to capture and organize new ideas
  • Research — time to explore the impact and value of new ideas
  • Specification — time to document and embody new ideas
  • Review — time to incorporate feedback and input from stakeholders
  • Roadmap — time to prioritize our best, most urgent items
  • Sprints — time to slice, dice and negotiate to a shippable state
  • QA / Acceptance — time to review the work and make sure it’s perfect
  • Delivery — time packaging new capabilities for customers

Note that only the first item on this list is ideas, followed by a long laundry list of additional considerations and concerns that all iterate over and over.


Product management is like very much like an iceberg. Tipped with ideas, the real opportunity or threat isn’t known without exploration and research. Therein lies the intensive, process-oriented work of the product manager.

Ideas are just the tip of the iceberg. They are visible to almost anyone who bothers to look. Knowing they exist is not nearly as useful as understanding the potential they represent. Every once in a while, something amazing is there.

The more awareness we have of the nature of our ideas, how they can help the organization, and understanding off the process to move them forward or abandon them, the shorter our path to success.

So maybe, just maybe, before your next “You know what would be great? Why don’t we? We should… Have you thought about…”, remember they likely have, would love to, just may, but can’t promise.


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Gregarious Narain is a serial entrepreneur and product strategist. A reformed designer and developer, He writes on his experiences as a founder, strategist, and father on the regular. Connect with him on LinkedIn or say hi on Twitter.