What we Learned About Product Management in 2017

BY MARTIN ERIKSSON ON DECEMBER 18, 2017

As another year draws to a close, it seems appropriate to look back at some of the highlights of 2017, assess the progress we’ve made as a community, and examine how we’ve pushed the craft of product management forward.

We’ve certainly made great progress here at Mind the Product: our audience has grown with 50% growth in traffic, 45% growth in newsletter subscribers, and 38% growth in the number of ProductTanks around the world (we’re now in 138 cities!). We launched corporate product management training this year and have watched it grow faster than we could have hoped, and seen the number of our public workshops double. As good product managers, we’re learning just as much as we’re teaching.

All of that growth is thanks to you – thanks to the strength of our community and all the amazing lessons and insights you share with us. So here’s a look at what we learned in 2017 based on our most read posts of the year. As in 2016 they are an interesting mix of the practical and philosophical – and I think you’ll agree that the debate around our craft is moving forward.

Push for Change

Janice Fraser at Mind the Product San Francisco
Innovation is broken, at least in large organisations, where current management practices optimise against anything new ever being successful. Enterprises struggle to innovate and are stuffed with innovation labs, accelerators, incubators, digital transformation programs and the like, which attempt, often unsuccessfully, to fix this. In a talk full of practical advice at Mind the Product San Francisco, Janice Fraser looked at what we can do to tackle change and really drive growth in large organisations. Organisations need to learn how to value something small with potential as much as something big and successful, and Janice advocates pushing for organisational change so that the business can support entrepreneurship and venture-style investing.

The Things Nobody Tells You

Janna Bastow at #mtpcon
We can probably all agree that managing the people around us is the hardest part of a product manager’s job. There’s been very little by way of formal training in the role, particularly in those hard to learn soft skills. Also at this year’s San Francisco conference, my co-founder Janna Bastow shared some of the tricks and tactics she’s found useful to employ when dealing with people – using open questions, games, telling stories and more. She commented: “It’s not our job to be the best coder, copywriter, or closer. It IS our job to be the best communicator, and stories, in our roadmaps, our specs, and everyday work, are one of our best tools.”

What do you wish you’d been told before you started in product management? It seems plenty of you wanted some insight into the things that no one tells when you start out. In a ProductTank talk Shaun Russell looked at some of the more intangible things he’s learned since becoming a product manager. It’s important, he says, to remember to look after yourself, and this can be hard when you’re constantly embracing uncertainty and working on something that is never “done”. He also talked about how he has learned to manage stakeholders successfully through confronting issues head-on and through using external sources of validation.

Likewise Dave Wascha distilled his 20 years as a product manager into 12 essential lessons in a great talk at Mind the Product San Francisco – when to listen to customers, when not to, when to watch the competition, when not to…

Tools for the Job

Josh Elman at Mind the Product San Francisco
Product roadmaps are an evergreen challenge, and featured heavily as a topic on the Mind the Product blog this year. The one you read the most was Janna’s guide to selling a roadmap without timelines to your boss – how to move from a safe and predictable feature roadmap to an experiment-based lean product roadmap and convince your boss that this is not a leap into the unknown. On the contrary, says Janna, such a roadmap gives you “control over the future of your product like you’ve never had before”.

In this age of data-driven product management it’s telling that one of our most viewed posts was Josh Elman’s look at the metrics that matter, a talk he gave at this year’s San Francisco conference. The amount of data we deal with can be overwhelming, says Josh, so he reminded us that rather than get bogged down by this, we should remember to focus on whether people are actually using our product. Even this is one metric doesn’t have a straightforward answer so Josh took us through ways to understand a product’s core users and key metrics.

Another very popular post looking at tools for the job was Andy Wicks’ post on the 2×2 matrix and lean prioritisation. Andy took us through step by step how the matrix can be used to transform the way you prioritise your product backlog and help you to focus on features that add the most value to your customers compared to the effort required to deliver them.

Just Where do You Stand?

The debate over the remit of a product person has rumbled on for as long as I care to remember. It probably started with Ben Horowitz’ famous “good product manager, bad product manager” memo and the latest salvo was my own post “you are not the CEO of anything”. It proved one of our most popular reads this year.  I believe that too many product managers buy into the idea that they are CEO of the product, and it’s a mindset that can have disastrous results. I’m playing with semantics here, after all we don’t have the authority or all the answers, and we can always pass the buck. As product managers we need to encourage and coach our teams. We should remember that product management is a team sport.

Process isn’t Everything

Nate Walkingshaw at #mtpcon SF 2017
A few months ago Jonny Schneider unpicked the buzzwords behind Design Thinking and sought to explain how Design Thinking, Lean and Agile work together. He took us through the nuts and bolts of each of these mindsets, and then backed it all up with some lessons he’s learned through applying them. He also gave us some useful and easily actionable tips. Remember, says Jonny, that “instead of focusing on applying a process, teams ought to challenge how they think and try new things, embrace the things that work, and learn from the things that don’t. This right way will be different for each team in their own specific context. Success is about how teams develop new ability, learn by doing, and adapt to what is learned”.

Our top post of the year was Nate Walkingshaw’s commentary on Agile – it’s time to move on, he says: “…it’s time to take the things we have learned from Agile and move on. Like the technology we use to build the products we love ages and gets left behind, Agile has died while we were perfecting our standup.” We need to move away from a specific process and align around an outcome. Knowing your customer is everything.

Looking Forward

So that’s it. It’s immensely gratifying that increasing numbers of you turn to Mind the Product not just for guidance and insight, but to share your own lessons learned through guest posting, engaging in our Slack community, or attending and speaking at ProductTanks all over the world. We can only progress the craft of product management together, as a community of practice, as a tribe.

So thank you, and let’s come together and take our craft to new heights in 2018!

#mtpcon thank you

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 an Executive in Residence at leading private equity and venture capital fund EQT. He is also the author of best-seller Product Leadership, How Top Product Leaders Launch Great Products and Build Successful Teams (O'Reilly, 2017).

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