Product Management is one of the most critical roles in the industry today, even more so within the technology industry. Quite ironically also, it is one of the most misunderstood roles. The industry is ripe with misconceptions and myths about the role. Carlos Gonzalez De Villaumbrosia, the Founder and CEO of Product School, has written about debunking three of the top Product Management myths in this Forbes article.
As the article so aptly summarizes, there are a number of additional myths about product management. This two-part series will address 10 more of the popular myths about product management, and provide a sense of reality about them. In this part, we’ll look at the first 5 of these popular myths.
Myth #1: A great product manager conceptualizes, productizes and delivers one “next big product/feature” after the other
Corollary: The more big things you launch, the better for your product and yourself
If there is one clarity that I wish you could take away from this article, it would be this. You often hear that a product managers’ job is to deliver new products and features continuously. Often, companies also gear their reward/performance structures for product managers towards launching new products and features. However, and especially in a B2B business, this could not be further from the truth. Typically, enterprise customers (and consumers too), have an adoption cycle. It takes them a lot of investment to try out a new feature or product. On the other hand, once they’ve adopted a new product, they need to be able to have confidence in the vendor’s ability to support them through issues. Hence, the view that a product manager can propose, define, and deliver a feature, then figuratively “throw it across the wall” to the user, and instantly move on to the next feature/product is fundamentally flawed.
A key responsibility of the product manager is not only to ensure that a feature launches, but also to ensure that users can derive true value from it over a sustained period of time. If a product manager moved on to a new initiative and reprioritized all investments (including staffing) to it instantly, it would mean that the user does not have anyone to rely upon in their journey. This is an instant recipe for failure. In extreme cases, it can also have an adverse impact on the morale of your engineering team, since they are constantly shuttling between projects, without realizing the true value of their work to the user’s life.
On the contrary, great product managers will:
- Spend a lot of time and effort on product discovery.
- Establish beyond a shadow of doubt that the project ties into the larger product and company vision, that there is a product-market fit, and that it is the most important problem to solve right now.
- Only embark on a new project if they are absolutely certain that it will solve the customer problem, and that they can invest sufficient resources towards the project for a sustained period of time.
Note the subtle distinction here between product features and prototypes. You of course need rapid prototyping for product discovery. However, the message here is about being much more conservative and doing a lot of due diligence before delivering product features.
Myth #2: A product manager is a non-stop, 24/7 visionary
Corollary: The way to increase your influence is to write new vision and strategy docs
In Jeff Bezos’ words – “Be stubborn on vision, but flexible on the details”. Product and company visions last long, typically over 2-5 years, sometimes even longer. Strategy can change more often than that, but still sustains over a few quarters and most often for a year. A vision or strategy that changes often is often an indicator of a lack of direction. This can have a grave impact on the team, product, and organizational health.
Once a vision and a strategy has been defined, communicated, and reviewed, a product managers’ focus should largely be on how to move the needle for the user in the right direction, inch by inch and in line with the vision and strategy. It often boils down to making small, incremental improvements to the lives of users with every release/version. Great product managers understand this reality and iterate on a product over a sustained period. In doing so, they often have to reset expectations with management, team, and customers alike, keeping them focused on the established direction. This is where one of the top skills of product managers — the ability to respectfully say “no” — comes very handy.
Myth #3: A product manager is the source of all the ideas
Another popular myth is that all product ideas are conceived in the minds of product managers. On the contrary, ideas come from a variety of sources — customer requests, stakeholder proposals, management directives, engineering innovation, feedback from user experience researchers — apart from product managers themselves. A product managers job is not to come up with all the ideas, but to have a clear knowledge of the “why” – the reasoning behind the idea, the justification for it, and its importance relative to other ideas, and its timing. In other words, the product roadmap. Ideas are important, but without the “why”, they are incomplete, and the real value that product managers provide is that they bring the “why” to the figurative table of the product team. Hence it is critical for product managers to focus on the “why”, before moving on to the “what” and finally to the “how”. For more on this topic, I highly recommend Simon Sinek’s book Start With Why. Additionally, read this blog post about focusing on product ideas that matter.
Myth #4 Good product managers build exactly the solution customers ask them to build
Corollary: The customer is always right, so product managers should always say “yes” to customers.
At the outset, this might seem like the natural thing to do for good product managers — develop a lasting relationship with customers, understand their interests and problems keenly, and then build solutions that they propose. However, the important distinction to make is that in the critical relationship between a product manager and customers, customers provide the problems. It is the responsibility of the product manager to translate the problems into solutions that make sense within the context of the existing product/company, its business and its vision. The product managers job is crucial here, because many times, they might have to say “no” to a solution, because it may not make sense within the product’s vision, or not be important to solve for the product at the point in time, or may not be generally applicable to other customers.
Effective communication and a high level of customer empathy are key here, and a great product manager will often also offer advice to customers about alternatives to explore if the solution does not make sense for their own product. One of the most important lessons for a product manager in our industry is “Fall in love with the problem, not the solution”.
Myth #5: A product manager should be able to perform multiple roles all by themselves
Since a product manager is the focal point and leader of a cross-functional team, they are often expected to perform all these roles to a reasonable degree. For example, especially at startups, but even at larger companies, if a particular job function on a product team is not staffed, a product manager may be expected to pitch in and perform that role. However, this is a dangerous expectation at multiple levels. A product managers job is to influence a cross-functional team with a clear strategy and justification, and bring them together towards a common goal.
A great product manager empowers their team to contribute to this common goal to the best of their ability. If the product manager themselves steps into a role and tries to perform it, it could not only lead to substandard output, but it could have even worse consequences like:
- Introduce a feeling of micro-management and a lack of autonomy among the product team members
- Lead to low morale and potential attrition.
I hope these first 5 myths helped shed some light on the realities of Product Management. Read part 2 of this series, which will round it out with 5 more myths.