Where can product managers add value, specifically to better serve their team, which in turn makes for a more aligned and functional product team?
The product manager’s role is ambiguous at the best of times, although as Martin Eriksson alluded to in his write-up A Decade in Product – a Retrospective, the definition of the craft has become infinitely clearer since its inception. But there’s still a long way to go and plenty of room for improvement. The product managers I speak with still suffer from imposter syndrome, are still stressed with workloads, and often claim it can be a lonely place with little to no guidance or support. This is not good for our health and ultimately not great for the team either.
A universal aspect of Product Management that people don’t expect is just how lonely it feels to be a PM.
You could be working with a team of 100 people, be in 10 meetings a day, and yet often feel super-lonely because no one else shares your struggles or truly understands them.
— Shreyas Doshi (@shreyas) June 10, 2020
On top of that, there is still a lot of crossover in what is expected of the product manager, in terms of working closely with UX and technical delivery functions. Often we question the value we bring to our teams; are we helping here or are we just stepping on toes? So what are the areas where product managers can add value to better serve their team?
Product Manager Should not be the Sole Decision Maker
Quite often, the perception of a product manager’s job does not meet the reality of what the role entails. Did you become a product manager so you could call all the shots? Think again. A collaborative team approach is one that yields a highly aligned and functional product team.
Having been through various shapes and sizes of product teams over the course of 13 years or so, the best one I’ve seen is where decisions are made by a product triage function. This function is similar to the 3 Amigos model but instead typically consists of the product manager, the technical lead (or delivery lead) and the product designer. What we see is that each area brings their relevant expertise to the table when key decisions are having to be made.
How each member of the triage can bring expertise to the table will vary depending on the skill sets of the individual members and composition of the overall team. A typical example might include:
- Product manager: works across all areas, aligning product and business performance, and business requirements
- Product designer/researcher: works across the design/UX vertical, aligning customer needs through research and mockups
- Engineering/delivery lead: works across the technical vertical, aligning tech, testing, estimations and minimising tech debt
The role definitions can be flexible according to team setup. For example, when I was working at Pizza Hut, our triage was the product manager, the engineering lead ,and the delivery lead, as the piece of work did not require a lot of design work (it was back-end heavy). Do what works for you.
The triage won’t be required to be involved in every single decision point that the team needs to make, because ultimately that would be a poor use of time. Rather the triage is used to align items on the key decisions at the appropriate times. Typically this would be surrounding roadmap decisions, and aligning the prioritisation of these items together using the relevant insight (quantitative / qualitative inputs) to ensure the highest value items are worked on.
This is not to say that every team member outside the triage can’t have a say in what goes on. Rather, the triage members align and voice their respective areas within the team, and often across verticals in other product teams as well. A triage helps to focus decision points and cut through the noise that surrounds larger team structures.
Typically these formal or informal conversations will be facilitated by the product managers, but I have seen this done by the engineering or delivery lead before too. Whatever works for the team. Assuming the roles are not remote, then I have seen it work particularly effectively when the triage sits close to each other (among the product team), and encourages constant communication and collaboration over the decisions being made.
The triage can help each other out in order to influence a wider audience. When conducting showcases or having key check-ins with the CEO or key stakeholders for example, it is really effective when it is not just the product manager present. We’ve all been there – single product manager trying to fight a battle among sales, marketing and the CEO, it can be a lonely space. Having back-up from your key personnel in the team brings the collective together (safety in numbers) and helps you fight the cause more effectively.
Focus Less on Delivery (yes, Really!)
One of the biggest issues voiced by the product community is that product managers are too time-poor – we must spread our time across too many things at once. This ultimately causes stress and bottlenecks for the team. As product managers, we strongly advocate for a focused team with a focused product roadmap, however we can’t seem to get ourselves focused on how we are to bring value to the team.
The fault is not solely that of the product manager, however. I’ve seen so many key hiring decisions that require product managers effectively to be product and delivery functions wrapped up into one, and sometimes even UX as well. People around the business often have the same expectation of what product management should be. As product managers we need to focus on understanding how we can add value more effectively to the team we serve.
In my experience it works well where product managers are less focused on the day-to-day execution of the solution, and leave this to the delivery or engineering lead who are experts in the field. Product managers can then use their time better to engage more with customer research, delving in the detail of the performance data, or thinking more strategically about the product direction.
Engineering or delivery leads also have a better understanding (in my experience anyway) of testing processes, team velocity, and estimations, as an example, so we should let the experts cover these areas. Delivery leads, such as scrum masters, project managers or even the engineering lead, can help in forecasting timelines if this is required.
This doesn’t mean that product managers can dust their hands clean and say that it is not their responsibility any more – far from it. We still need to be closely engaged with delivery, especially if the product triage is to work effectively. We still need to attend stand-ups and other ceremonies to keep in check with the team and where they can bring value.
A one-time head of product at Just Eat once told me that product managers need to spend at least 20% of their time focused on customer-related activity, ideally in front of customers, or analysing data/insight from research methods. This equates to a minimum of one day a week to be focused on what matters the most, understanding our customers. I’ve seen this work well when the product designer or UX function leads the way in researching customer needs and creating mock-ups for testing, and the product manager helps in observing / making notes, or facilitating user sessions where needed. So both UX and product have a very good understanding on what needs addressing on the customer front. Simultaneously, good product managers can delve into the analysis of the funnel or other product performance parameters (with help from the analytics team where applicable), to add another dimension to understanding customer behaviour.
In other words, product managers need to focus more on product discovery (with the help of UX), the definition of what needs to be done and the overall strategy (with the help of the business), and focus less on the actual delivery of the work required (with the help of tech). This will help product managers better focus on the things that can bring value to the team, and ensure that the right people are working in their respective fields of expertise.
Help With Things Your Team Doesn’t Have Time for (AKA be the Enabler)
Once the product triage has been established, and the role and responsibilities within that structure have been clearly identified (i.e. around discovery, definition and delivery), then the product manager can do a number of more general things to assist the team. Team members are normally super busy while focused on their own specific area of work, so it really helps when product managers can step up to the plate, remove barriers, and facilitate change for the good.
A tweet from John Cutler really hit this home for me when he posted that product managers should act more like the oil, rather than the glue, within the team. Product managers shouldn’t necessarily be the ones keeping the team together, rather the ones who enable it to move more effectively.
OH: “Product management isn’t the glue. It is the oil”
— John Cutler (@johncutlefish) January 16, 2020
Here are a few ideas:
- Add weight to pushing back on requirements when required: product managers can help out in cutting through the noise of incoming work before it even reaches the team by standing strong with stakeholders, and justifying actions using expert knowledge on customer needs and the data.
- Facilitate the fluidity of the team: the purpose of a team and ultimately what that team is working on should be entirely fluid according to the requirements within the business. Product managers are great collaborators and so it makes perfect sense for them to coordinate and facilitate when those changes arise, and when the team needs to change direction.
- Getting hands dirty during crunch time: we have all experienced that dreaded deadline looming vibe! Forget about that presentation you have been polishing up on, and get helping the team directly. Do some testing across devices or help out to ensure the copy is on point. Do whatever it takes.
I would love to hear some feedback on how you, as a product manager, add value to your team that is not described in your job description. Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.