Product Rockstars have Head, Hands, and Heart

BY FRED ESERE ON AUGUST 12, 2016

Every time you look behind a truly great product, you find people. The individuals who have created paradigm shifting, legacy leaving products are distinguished not merely by what they’ve done, but also by who they are.

A "product" rockstar uses their head, hands and heart

Take a famous example. Thomas Edison pioneered the lightbulb, one of the greatest products of all time. He wasn’t the first to create one, but the other products around at the same time were impractical for large-scale commercial use. Edison tried and failed 1,000 times – in product speak, he went through 1,000 iterations – before he got to the product he was seeking. He had the ability to stick with a problem for a long time until he achieved his aim. Edison ought to be distinguished, not simply by his genius, but also by his determination. For him the perceived impossibility of his goal was not a deterrent.

My case is a simple one: that when it comes to thinking about product managers, we often celebrate “what they do”, and neglect the importance and necessity of being the right kind of person, or “who they are”.

I am convinced that this neglect is a major contributor to the dismal state of many products today. In his helpful book “InspiredMarty Cagan discusses 12 character traits of a great PM: I’ve boiled them down to the three most important and essential traits that I believe have the greatest impact on the success or failure of a product. They are Head, Hands and Heart.

Head

There’s no substitute for intellectual curiosity, the ability to reason and explore. As Cagan says: “Product management is about insights and judgment, both of which require a sharp mind.” Every product is a story, composed of all the decisions that went into creating it. To make the best decisions you must be well informed, and also able to deduce and reason. Cagan rightly points out that “these minds can be hidden anywhere — engineering, sales, customer services, the exec team or your board of directors. It’s your job to find them.” The best product managers have the mind of a scientist.

Hands

A big part of Product Management is just plain getting-your-hands-dirty hard work. You can care about customers and products, but you can’t understand the best way to serve them if you have not done the hard work of understanding who they are, what motivates them and what they’re using your product for. You can’t create something 10 times better than the competition if you stop at the first roadblock, or if you are content with creating something average. Refining and rewiring every aspect of a product until it gets to the take-a-customers-breath-away level of quality takes a lot of heart, but also a huge amount of hard work.

Without this hard work, you shouldn’t expect to hear users say things like “I love it so much, I want to pay just to give them money” or “Driving a Tesla is a take your breath away moment”. You want your users to sense instinctively that your product is superior. As Cagan says: “If you have to actually ask or tell the product manager to come in to work during a critical point or otherwise point out to them that their presence is needed in the office, you have the wrong person for the job.”

Heart

If you remember only one thing, remember that a great product manager has a lot of heart. Cagan calls it “product passion”. When a team has a product manager who is passionate and genuinely loves products, it is infectious.

Cagan says these people “just love products — they live, eat, and breathe them….[they] have a love and respect for good products, no matter where they come from, and they live to create them.” When product rockstars are engaged in working on a product, they feel that this is the thing uniquely fitted to their talents.

A good illustration of product passion is a recent article by Paul Pedrazzi on test-driving a Tesla. He said: “It’s been a long time since I’ve been floored by a product — knocked back on my heels by every aspect of the experience. Driving a Tesla is a take your breath away moment.”

Ignore This, and you shall be Extinct

Getting the “who” of product management right is crucial to the success of your product and organisation. Getting it wrong will lead to almost certain failure. Most organisations miss the mark and it’s no surprise that very few organisations produce excellent results for an extended period of time — and far too many deteriorate into complete extinction.

The problem I see is that few businesses are able to apply the level of rigour and conviction needed to see the effects that putting the right people in place can produce. As author on leadership Jim Collins puts it: “It’s easy to talk about paying attention to people decisions, but how many executives have the discipline of David Maxwell, who held off on developing a strategy until he got the right people in place, while the company was losing $1 million every single business day with $56 billion of loans underwater? When Maxwell became CEO of Fannie Mae, during its darkest days, the board desperately wanted to know how he was going to rescue the company. Despite immense pressure to act, to do something dramatic, to seize the wheel and start driving, Maxwell focused first on getting the right people on the Fannie Mae management team.” Maxwell, unsurprisingly, achieved remarkable results once he got the right people in the right seats, but he had to be pretty daring.

Another reason why these ideas will not move from theory to practice is that most organisations are designed from the top down, to focus on the “what they do” of great product management, and surprisingly optimised to miss the infinitely more important “who they are” as a result. It’s also worth noting that, fanatically focusing on getting people with the right raw materials and developing them rigorously is a strategic weapon for the best organisations. Facebook for example has a “Rotational Product Management Programme” and Google has the “Associate Product Management Programme”. These programmes are designed to find people with the most “head”, “hand” and “heart” and train them rigorously in the “what they do” aspects of product management. They have produced some of the best employees and products for these organisations.

The vast majority of companies never become great, precisely because the vast majority become quite good — and that’s their main problem.” Whatever you do, don’t assign the importance of finding, developing and empowering the right people to a “low” on your priority list, otherwise your products – and who knows even eventually your organisation – will end up obsolete.

 

Fred Esere

About FRED ESERE

Fred is a Product Manager at the BBC. He's also worked in product and technology management roles in Autotrader UK and at the London 2012 Olympic Games. He loves to learn new things and is deeply passionate about doing the best he can to make the world a better place. This article represents Fred's personal views.

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