You are not a mini-CEO. There is no responsibility for cash flow, invoicing, payroll and a myriad of other responsibilities that come with such a role.
You are not a project manager. You don’t just shuffle tasks around and report on them being completed.
You are not the glue between design, marketing, and engineering. Unlike you, none of these professionals focus on the needs of the customer
You are a Product Manager. You manage products.
So what does managing a product really involve?
Vision & Company Advocacy
It starts with understanding where the company wants to go, why, when and how success is measured. For some companies, it may be revenue per customer, for others is may be overall cash flow. Some may even want to change the world. Some have no vision at all and just want to keep doing what they’re doing.
Once understood, you need to ensure that everyone working on your product also shares the same understanding of the vision and how the product and team help to achieve that vision.
You are a leader. You indirectly manage people who report to others. You need to inspire, encourage and build a virtual team around the product.
Your job is to ensure that each and every person on the product, knows what they are doing, why and that they have enough information to make micro-decisions on a daily basis.
You should not be sitting with developers or designers for more than a few minutes unless it is a review that requires their attention. This is controlling behavior and can lead to a situation where nobody will do anything without your say so, holding everything up. Not only that, people feel disempowered, causing friction and resentment in the team.
You should not be planning which developers will work on which features. That is the job of the dev lead. Your job is to make sure that either the work is prioritised along with the developers or dev lead, in order that they can best manage who does the work. They know their skills better than you do, no matter who you like working with.
If you can get the team in the office working independently, cohesively and effectively, you can spend more time understanding the needs of customers and exposing that to the team directly and indirectly.
The customer doesn’t always know what they want, sometimes they don’t even need it. Your job is to figure out the size of the need vs the effort and opportunity to your business. You can sometimes work with an analytics team to help you with this, but sometimes instincts are good and you can do some testing yourself for validation through experimentation.
For example, it’s not hard to see that it would be useful to juice and freeze mangos, to keep them fresh for longer. But do you think that you can cover the extra costs of freezing them with an increase in price that customers would be happy to pay and does the freezing change the product such that it is no longer desirable? You need to observe real behavior in a safe and quick way or ask.
Whether you have the title ‘it’s my decision listen up’ or not, you are expected to make decisions. If you just decide things without input, you won’t be respected regardless of your title. Managing staff indirectly is a perfect training ground for becoming a great leader of teams. You learn to collaborate, listen, mix and observe ideas. You learn to disassociate yourself from the ownership of an idea and align with the best outcomes for your products. You are measured by the success of your product. The ideas you took forward and those which you validated and rejected early are how you get those results.
You need to be saying no a lot more than yes.
If you go ahead and freeze the mangos, then it would be easy to begin adding more features, like a plastic wrapper and maybe a handle. But that’s more cost, more time and you haven’t even tried it with customers yet. You need to say no. Not forever, just no now. Get the stuff frozen, test it out, figure out what works and doesn’t. You might find people want it cubed and in a plastic bag for smoothies and that’s cheaper for you to produce, less packaging and waste and maybe more in demand than a frozen mango stick.
You might even find they don’t want frozen mango, but frozen lemon for cooking.
As the Product Manager, you need to report on progress towards goals.
Whether that is to your project team or directly to your manager. You need to be proactive, tell a story with real data, share your concerns and what you’re doing about them. You need to have consistency with your information, so you’re not measuring click through one minute and visits the next. You need context, over time and against peers. What you also need to do, is get the teams who are doing the work to help tell the story, you can pull it together in a summary. The more information you give out freely, the less time you’ll spend asking demanding questions from management on every seemingly random number.
Setting expectations is about being up front early with your manager, if something isn’t going as planned ask for help, say what you think you should do and gauge their appetite to help. Sometimes they actually do, it’s not all a big test.
Product planning is about figuring out what should be done and in what sequence. You may then also need to seek financial sign-off through a business case or other process.
If you’re listening to the data, assessing the market conditions and talking to customers and your team, you should have a lengthy list of ideas. That’s the easy bit.
Figuring out the priorities is hard. Making mistakes can cost a lot of money and cause you a lot of pain.
The best way to do this is fast and furious.
E.g. Gather anyone who is interested and your boss. Get them to write down on post-its all the things that need to be done, should be done and could be done.
Stick them on the wall and group together similar ideas. You’ll see straight away that a few stand-out, there’ll be some outliers and you might be surprised to find something new. Get the team to silently mark 2-3 things they think are essential. You’ll get a natural order emerging.
This common sense approach means you are utilising the collective knowledge and experience of the group. You can use this as a starting point, perhaps do some testing and validation on the ideas and there you have it.
Along the way you’ll create lots of artefacts, you should see them as transient and changeable and not set in stone. But each should build and learn from the last and flow naturally from one to the other, so you can clearly see the journey and decision points.
Roadmap: the features you think you will need over time
Sprint board: the way you manage the work in progress
Strategy: an overarching view of how you’re going to get to where you want to be, how it aligns with the company vision
I believe that you don’t need to be terribly technical to be a great product manager. It certainly helps, but it can be learned. Great leadership skills, open-mindedness, and the capacity to see the bigger picture is far more important.
You need to trust people. To do that, you need to provide every opportunity to impress you. Every opportunity to make the right choices. Every opportunity to tell you things as they are.
This article was originally published on LinkedIn