This week, while I have been working on performance reviews for my product team, I’ve been thinking about what makes a strong Product Manager. How do they behave? How do they help their team to be more successful? How do they navigate their role in a complex enterprise? While a ton has been written about what makes a great PM(see here, here, here), largely the focus has been either on helping leadership know who to hire or helping potential PMs figure out if it’s the right job for them. But there’s been less discourse on what a PM looks like after they show up and dig into the work you hired them for.
Over the last few years, I’ve discussed with my team at length about what the essence of product management really is. We try to articulate the role by using terms like navigator, translator, negotiator, advocate — each of these is true on any given day. But time and again I am drawn to the whiteboard to illustrate what I see as their greatest challenge (and for many of them, their greatest strength): how to best balance across the wide spectrum of their role.
Balance Point #1: See the Big Picture while Sweating the Small Stuff
Product Managers own the vision of their product; I expect them to know more than anyone else on the team or in the company about what their product currently does, will do soon, and should do in the future based on consumer need, competitive benchmarks, and business strategy. They also have to know their product at the pixel level (and all the back-end wiring) to know how to articulate to their design and technical partners what they need created, as well as to be able to know how to evaluate and accept features once built.
Since as human beings we naturally gravitate to one end of this spectrum or the other, this balance can be really challenging for some PMs. Depending on the situation, the best PMs on my team can dial into any particular point — design sprints and future planning require a heavy lean into the vision, whereas they have to be able to keep that vision in mind while zooming in on the details for the creation of user stories and backlog refinement. A PM with all vision and no details frustrates their team because they can’t get their head out of “someday” to handle the here and now. Yet a PM who is all details and no vision means a messy product and team with no sense of direction or knowing what to/not to build.
Balance Point #2: Gather Input in Order to Take Action
Working in an enterprise environment, my team serves two customers: the lines of business and the end user. These are in conflict more often than you might imagine — when they work to serve the business needs, they can get detached from the actual end user of the product; conversely, when we bring in the voice of the customer to help clarify direction, we may be recommending a feature with an untenable operational impact.
All of these inputs and considerations are critical to the PM’s ability to build a compelling and competitive product, leading their design and technical partners to creatively devise elegant solutions. Time and again, however, I’ve seen PM’s get stuck in the input phase and become paralyzed by the problem. A strong PM will know the moment when it’s time to say “OK, enough: we understand the problem, it’s time to find a solution and act.”
To move the team through this paralysis, there are the moments where a dedicated design sprint (or even just a really focused working session with business, technology, operations, and design in the room) can work wonders. A PM that knows when to deploy these kinds of tools is invaluable.
Balance Point #3: The Art of the Science
As of late, there has been discussion on our team and in the product-sphere regarding this balance point and how “technical” a PM needs to be to find success in her role. This varies widely by company, of course, and depends on how the broader team is configured. Certainly, it can be helpful to have a PM with more technical chops on some teams, just as it can be helpful to have a PM with more business or UX design skills on others.
The “art” of Product Management is about developing the right skills to get stakeholders into alignment and agreement, to know when to fish or cut bait on a solution that isn’t getting traction, or to have the curiosity to boldly look around the corners that no one is paying attention to.
Here’s the rub: while the other balance points I described require the PM to adeptly flex and move across the spectrum within the daily requirements of the job, on this particular continuum a successful PM can (and must) occupy several points at once.
Additionally, I’ve found the points they occupy remain more fixed for most PMs — certainly, there are development opportunities to increase their technical or design knowledge, as well as the mechanics of Agile product management — but it’s incredibly hard to teach the intangibles a PM must tap into in order to move their products and teams forward.
PMs who want to grow in the Art of Product Management have to learn to listen to their intuition, find ways to prove their hypotheses through data and research, and take calculated risks to push their teams forward when there isn’t always a clear path. They will get it wrong from time to time. That’s where having a fail early/learn fast culture is critical to providing the opportunities for your PMs to develop a comfort operating on the balance point.
This article was originally posted on the author’s blog at www.jenswanson.net.