Product Management is a Team Sport

BY MARTIN ERIKSSON ON APRIL 27, 2015

Product Management Tactics ChalkboardIn my post what is a product manager, I define that person as the intersection of UX, business and technology. Many have misunderstood that to mean product managers are superior to those teams. Other product management definitions often fall back on the “product manager is the CEO of their product” trope. Both of these views fundamentally misunderstand the role and – worse – set any product manager following them up for failure.

A better analogy would be to see the product manager as the conductor of an orchestra – or the quarterback in a game of football. Like the conductor or quarterback, the product manager is an individual who only succeeds by bringing the whole team along with them, and by working together towards a common goal.

Leader, not manager

In almost every organisation product managers have no direct authority over engineers, designers, marketers or any other members of the product team. This oversight of organisational theory may seem like a bad thing on the face of it, but I disagree. It forces product managers to exercise true leadership, and not to manage by authority alone.

The product manager’s job, therefore, is not to manage people, nor to direct them, but to lead them by clearly articulating the common goal. They should provide the context the team is working in – from the problems and pain points customers have, to the competitive environment the company is operating in.

Rich Mironov has a great post for product managers on leadership in the absence of authority.

Focus on the problem

I’ve said this before, but it’s imperative that product managers focus on the problem, not the solution. By focusing on the problem you’re trying to solve, you get much closer to the customers’ true needs and can bring a wealth of information back to the team to design a solution with.

Stop, collaborate and listen

True leadership recognises that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Being dictatorial and enforcing your own product ideas is never going to be as productive or successful as bringing together the whole team, from design and engineering to sales and marketing. The product manager’s job is to bring the user problems to the team, and then facilitate the conversations and help connect the dots as the whole team designs the solutions to them.

Engineers are creative problem solvers too

It’s so incredibly valuable to involve the whole team and their diverse mindsets and experience when designing solutions, that it would simply be foolish not to. Every job in a tech company is an inherently creative role, whether it’s obvious (designers) or not (engineers). Some of the best product solutions I’ve worked on have come from engineers who have such a good understanding of the problem space (thanks to me, can I pat myself on the back now?) and an inherent grasp of the opportunity space afforded by the technology stack, that finding quick, elegant solutions to customer needs becomes second nature.

Everyone owns the product

The bottom line is that everyone in the company owns the product, and its success or failure lie in the hands of everyone who touches it. A product manager’s job is to lead the team to tackle the product challenges together, to get the best out of everyone on the team when building the product, and to provide a gentle hand to keep it all consistent and going in the right direction.

Do you agree? How do you exercise leadership day-to-day? Let us know in the comments.

Martin Eriksson

About MARTIN ERIKSSON

Martin Eriksson has 20 years experience building world-class online products in both corporate and start-up environments for global brands such as Monster, Financial Times, Huddle, and Covestor. He is the Founder of ProductTank, the Co-Founder and Curator of Mind the Product and currently a Product Manager at large, advising and mentoring startups while writing Product Leadership, How Top Product Leaders Launch Great Products and Build Successful Teams (O'Reilly, 2017).

  • Ashley Hathaway

    I completely agree with this. I’m not a fan of the “CEO of the product” line either. To me a PM is the coach on the sideline calling the plays to the players to let them do their best work (in this way a defensive specialist coach might be a technical PM). I view my role as a PM is about providing the right info to teams, removing roadblocks, checking in on the way, and doing the dirty work so they can do what they love!

  • Harry McIntyre

    Hi Martin! Hear you are back in the UK? We should catch up if so!

    I actually re-read your post this morning, (would you believe) as I wanted to be able to clarify the kind of support developers can hope for from product.

    The team is having some trouble with getting time with the PMs (who are loosely defined as a mix of Product Manager, Project Manager and Product Owner – yeesh!).

    What are your thoughts on the differences between Product Manager and Product Owner (if any)? Should the PM have PO deputies if they are busy with strategic stuff?

  • Michael Morris

    Great post! Everyone in the business is in product management if your business creates, sells and supports products. A key question for me is, who is the right team for success? What are the elements of the cross functional team, the different parts of the orchestra, to get the best result and how should this “product team” operate?

  • David Hardwick

    Great post. A great way to get this collaboration is to provide stories in the format where the benefit/challenge is all that the team is provided and the team is enaged to come up with solutions.

    Here’s an example story that only has the benefit but leaves the solution up to the team:

    “In order to , I want ”

    With the product manager providing the business context and a story in this format that provides a clear benefit that they want the team achieve for the user, now the team can:

    #1) understand what benefit needs to be provided and why
    #2) come up with multiple solutions, and
    #3) feel very high ownership and motivation when implementing the selected solution

    Rock on,
    Hardwick

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