When people ask me what I do for a living I often struggle to explain myself – being a ‘Product Manager’ can mean a lot of different things but whether you’re building something physical like a car, or virtual like an app, a Product Manager has to be able to operate on multiple fronts to juggle business, technical, and creative demands.

Ryan Singer (of 37signals fame) recently wrote the best definition of Product Management I’ve seen so far:

“Managing the product” means deciding what we do to the product and then making it happen.

When you unpack that, it involves strategy (what is important to do?), resources (how much time can we spend on it?), managing development (what do we need to build in order to do it?), managing experience (how will it look and work, how does it integrate into what we already have?). And all of it with regard to the bottom line of the business. Given a strategy, resources we have, a user experience bar to uphold — given all that, what can we do and why is it worth doing?

Therefore a Product Manager has to be a generalist with diverse skills and the ability to successfully piece together a jigsaw puzzle from many (often conflicting) pieces which form the bigger picture. But how do you become a jack of all trades, master of many (as opposed to none)? Is it even possible?

While you don’t have to be a polymath or a Renaissance man to excel at Product Management (although it may help!), if you have a sound sense of intuition, good taste, focus and the ability to logically deconstruct problems then you’re well on your way.

On a daily basis I’ll be speaking with people from many areas – technical, editorial, design, marketing, sales, business development and somehow I have to pull all their and my ideas into something which is feasible and will generate the desired outcome. This can be interesting and exciting, but in big organisations there is a tendency to have to spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to keep competing egos happy which can become a major headache.

While there are many schools of thought about how you prioritise what to work on, it’s all to easy too get distracted by the deluge of requests which invariably come your way on a daily basis. To remain productive I’ve found it useful to constantly ask myself (and those making the requests) the following questions:

  • Why are we doing this?
  • What problems are we solving?
  • Is this actually useful?
  • Are we adding value?
  • Will this change behaviour?
  • Is there an easier way?
  • What could we be doing instead?
  • Is it really worth it?

Ultimately if you don’t have clear answers then the request stays at the bottom of the pile – if something gets mentioned often enough by different parties then it’s likely to rise organically which leads to a natural order of sorts. I usually review the backlog and roadmap once a week to make sure things stay on track.

Inspired by my experiences and some of the principles in REWORK (a must-read), I’ve tried to pull together a list of values a Product Manager should follow to be successful in a manifesto of sorts…


Product Managers strive to:

  1. Build products which matter to others – by providing value that improves lives
  2. Ignore “real world” constraints – they are just an excuse for not trying
  3. Understand what people want – before they know they want it
  4. Design for their users – make decisions based on user experience
  5. Relentlessly simplify and streamline – focus on doing one thing really well
  6. Build on what works – experiment, analyse, get feedback, iterate, improve
  7. Be influenced but don’t steal – copycats follow instead of lead
  8. Get into the habit of saying no by default – keep your priories straight
  9. Build consensus and set expectations – under promise, over deliver
  10. Create simple actionable plans – with assigned tasks and high-level milestones

For this to be more than just a fuzzy list I find it helpful to have it within eyeshot at all times in order to preempt straying from the path and remind myself of what’s important. This is a work in progress and I’ll try to update the above over time – feel free to leave a comment below to let me know what you think or if you have any suggestions.∗

Comments

  1. abhay says:

    well covered note. A product manager must look at product from opportunities perspective, that is ‘how can I make my product better fit of this market ‘ – something that point 3 mentions in your post. I would suggest that product managers should be more loyal to opportunity / target market than to product. Product is just another tool that will help address the opportunity. In other worlds, product managers are nothing but opportunity managers responsible for success for product in a particular market.

    @mathurabhay

    • David says:

      Thanks for your comment Abhay – the issue of target market vs product is an interesting one but I strongly believe that if you build something truly valuable (i.e. useful) then success will follow. The best way to do that is to scratch your own itch and be your own target market.

  2. Sunday says:

    Nice writeup. Focus on end user in product development cannot be over emphasized. Agile approach to product development if absolutely important if today’s fast moving digital environment.

  3. Amy Gryder says:

    Great write-up (must be recirculating!). Your list of 10 ‘pillars’ of product management are right on. I believe that #1 is critically important – it is the passion principle (WHY do we do what we do) that should drive our jobs, and #8 is the toughest to change in the business culture.

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