Not Everyone Should Become a Product Manager
But everyone should understand the fundamental modern Product Management mindsets and why they’re important
“The leader-leader structure is fundamentally different from the leader-follower structure. At its core is the belief that we can all be leaders and, in fact, it’s best when we all are leaders.”
― L. David Marquet, Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders
I recently worked with a product person who had been trying to refine user stories with a development team over several discovery sessions. One developer finally gave up and demanded, “Why don’t you just tell me exactly what you want?”
Obvious vs. Complex Challenges
Telling developers, testers, and designers “exactly what you want” works fine when the work is obvious and straightforward. However, when teams are tasked with delivering more innovative solutions, or achieving more significant and meaningful goals such as increasing NPS or decreasing churn, the challenges become complexin nature. Complex problems are considerably more ambiguous and have no single “best” way to conceive, design, or deliver them.
Implications for Requirements
User stories and Jobs to be Done stories are tools specifically designed to reduce those risks by recasting complex requirements in terms of simple stories or the expression of unfulfilled needs. This allows teams greater freedom in figuring out both what to build and how.
Interestingly, just as important as the solution the team arrives at is the trust, learning, and growth that develop over the numerous conversations that take place when these cross-functional teams embrace the Continuous Product Discovery process in parallel with Continuous Delivery.
Implications for Leadership
Looking more closely, it’s easy to see that this desire to see complex problems as simple and obvious cuts both ways – leaders who are used to “just telling people what they want” tend to pair well with people are used to “just doing what they’re told.” However, a leader-follower dynamic that’s better suited to solving obvious problems won’t be as effective in dealing with the deeper work teams face in delivering complex solutions that drive real business outcomes.
While all leaders intend to drive meaningful impact for their businesses, it may be counterintuitive for them to grasp that they could be getting better results by not telling people and teams exactly what to do, but empowering them and providing strategic intent. In order to trust them, they’ll need those teams to be made up of people who are ready to step up to those challenges.
Pillars of the Modern Product Management Mindset
Over several years studying the work of great modern product leaders and coaching product managers and teams, I’ve seen a core group of mindsets emerge that repeatedly deliver results:
- Proactive, Ownership Mentality
- Client-Centric Focus
- Continuously Learning
- Strategic & Analytical
These are the inputs, the constructive mental qualities that great product managers bring to their work. Each skill builds on the previous one to create critical mass. I believe that the more teams adopt these mindsets more broadly across the entire team, the greater their ability to deliver innovative, quality solutions that deliver meaningful results.
It’s a given that these teams need to be relatively stable, be granted some degree of empowerment and autonomy, and have the psychological safety to create a culture of continuous experimentation and learning.
Reading through this list, everyone can identify some of these mindsets they may need to strengthen, perhaps some in which they may already excel, and others they may have been completely unaware of until just now, and need to start getting ramped up on quickly.
While traditionally an enterprise problem, even smaller, newer organizations get weighted down by the fiefdoms, hierarchy, and heavy process or compliance constraints that appear over time. This results in a series of constant checks and balances at every product decision point, slowing down the team’s forward momentum. It’s easy for people on these teams to eventually slip into a victim mentality, become passive, and just “do what they’re told.”
People who give up in the face of organizational bureaucracy aren’t wrong – the impediments are very real. However, for those who are more passionate about their chosen vision than accepting the status quo, those constraints become just another set of data points, distractions.
Yes, they must work within process and governance constraints. However, they start by breaking out of their victim mentality, take ownership and keep their focus on what’s within their control now. The rare few who end up making a difference find a way to work through their complex challenges within the guardrails their companies provide and remain resourceful about how they and their like-minded peers continue to make progress towards their goals.
Client-Centricity Starts with Talking to Humans
Historically, putting the customer at the center of the team’s focus has taken some form of either “the customer is always right,” or building whatever the customer says they want, neither of which allow teams to make great products.
Modern product management approaches client-centricity in a fundamentally different way, through the lens of empathy. True empathy for clients’ needs can’t be faked, and there’s no shortcut for it.
Many organizations work to understand their clients by engaging external agencies to interview people, do research, and provide a slick report at the end. Another popular enterprise tool is to send out surveys and make decisions based on a few responses.
While these approaches can be helpful, true client-centricity is far simpler: It’s the people actually doing the work interviewing the people who use their product. It’s listening deeply to customers talk through their pain points to uncover hidden opportunities, and using the team’s skills and experience to come up with solutions.
Before teams can collaborate effectively, they need trust, respect, and psychological safety. The next step is to break down silos and hand-offs within the team, encouraging a more open, inclusive, and flexible working approach.
Some examples of this could be testers collaborating more closely with developers earlier on, rather than waiting for code to be handed off. Or designers reaching out to developers for feedback on different design approaches before waiting for a refinement session. As teams begin working across divisions, the team’s level of collaboration increases to the point that they’re able to handle progressively more complex challenges.
True collaboration means not only working together to solve problems, but also encouraging everyone on the team to fully share in presenting their work to others, and participating in the success and credit that comes as a result of that effort.
One of my favorite quotes illustrates the essence of this kind of collaboration:
“Faster alone, further together”
As the team is exposed to truths about their product and their process, they need to continuously adjust course and incorporate improvements on a regular basis. Equally, they need to pull data from all sources (see the next mindset on data) to derive any insights that could feed back into the next set of ideas and improvements.
One of the biggest mindset shifts teams encounter embracing agility is that Discovery isn’t something that’s done once and abandoned once their code gets pushed to users. Continuous Deployment to production represents just the next phase of their learning. Only once the application is in their customer’s hands will they begin to understand if it’s achieving what they thought it would.
There are two critical questions to ask:
- Has the application been properly instrumented with analytics?
- Has the team found the right metrics to track?
Ongoing customer interviewing and close collaboration with internal sales and client support teams is also crucial to gain valuable insights, broaden understanding, and continuously learn and iterate.
Continuously learning teams also focus on constantly expanding and broadening their skill sets and knowledge to work towards becoming more “T-Shaped” in their capabilities to allow the team to deliver a broader range of capabilities and solutions.
Strategic & Analytical
Critical, systems-based thinking is the foundation for creating a mental model, and coming up with the strategies that drive prioritization, decision-making, and deciding what to optimize for.
If the goal is to grow household share, and the strategy is to drive more daily active users (DAU), then paying those users to use products will work, at least in the short term. However, if teams are focused on growing a brand and creating a loyal, committed client base, teams need to work to provide solutions and experiences of much greater value.
Without hypothesis-driven thinking, everyone on the team will jump from one shiny object to another, unable to align on the strategy underlying the priorities and stay focused on the crucial outcomes.
Data Driven vs. Data-Informed
Analytical thinking opens the door to being more data-informed. In rigidly data-driven environments, decisions are purely made based on numbers alone. It’s easy to see how quickly this kind of thinking can lead even well-meaning people and organizations astray.
All teams need to ensure their products are instrumented for analytics, and the teams doing the work need to have regular exposure to that data. Without those insights, teams have no criteria against which to view the impact of their past product decisions, and how to get products iterating in the direction of success. But teams need to bring that data together with their critical thinking and collective wisdom to harness it and unleash it’s real power to calibrate consistent iteration towards meaningful product results.
On the Way to Entrepreneurial, Product-Driven, Empowered Teams
Complex, meaningful product outcomes won’t come from a team of order-taking factory workers with a foreman (the scrum master) and a boss (the Product Owner).
They’ll only come from a passionate group committed to their mission and the overall success of their product. Bringing the five evolved product management mindsets to bear, a team of leaders has the potential to view their day-to-day collaboration as an opportunity to bring more of their whole selves to work every day to co-create with the rest of the team.
How can we…
- Always be resourceful and take ownership of finding a way to achieve our goals?
- Keep the customer front and center of every decision-making process we have?
- Increase shared understanding to consistently collaborate better?
- Loop continuous learning into the team and organizational cadences?
- Be strategic and leverage data to enable better decision-making?
All of these approaches fall under one broader category: Product Management.
Ultimately, it comes down to hiring, building, nurturing, and coaching people into leaders, using these mindsets across the entire team in the service of solving hard and meaningful problems.
And that’s not a team I would want to compete against.
To learn more about these mindsets and the product thought leaders who freely share them, follow the writing, podcast appearances, and teachings of Teresa Torres, Melissa Perri, Hope Gurion, Jeff Patton, Jeff Gothelf, Marty Cagan, Christian Idiodi, John Cutler, Rich Mironov, and Shreyas Doshi.
Wanted to thank my friend Andy McNally for contributing the whimsical and insightful Illustrations included in this post. A Sketch Note journalist and illustrator who regularly covers the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference for Cult of Mac, he’s recently moved to full-time freelance design and illustration. Check out his site and his Threadless shop.