I think there’s nothing better than talking to product people – they are my kind of people. The reason I say this is because product people put their hands up to serve right in the center of organisations where the competing pressures of business, technology, and the customer intersect. That is why I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working for the last few months for Mind the Product to help coordinate ProductTank, Mind the Product’s informal meetups, held over 180 cities globally, where people come together regularly to learn about product management. Marc Abraham has bravely coordinated all of these meetups single-handed for some years, but I now look after Asia-Pacific, alongside Stephen Culligan (Americas), and Keji Adedeji (EMEA).
As Marty Cagan remarks on this pressure in his book Inspired: “The product manager position is not a 9‐to‐5 job. … I don’t think I’m doing you any favors by misleading you. The level of time and effort required by the product manager role is extremely tough to sustain if you’re not personally passionate about your products and your role.”
What Makes a Product Person?
What DNA makes us put up our hands to be in the middle of all that pressure? When we come together at ProductTank events to learn about our craft, we often “nerd out” over processes, frameworks, methodologies, and machinations – anything that gives an edge to how we do product. There’s nothing wrong with that, but lately I’ve found myself thinking more about “who” we are as product people than “what” we do. My mantra is that good teams build good products. You can have a good team and tell them to switch methodologies and the next day they’ll still be a good team building good product. In fact I think the purpose of most methodologies is to emulate and act like the effective teams that created them until your team becomes an effective team, then it doesn’t matter.
I’ve spoken with many product people around the world, and spent the last two years deeply considering the “who”. It’s made me want to boil my thoughts down into a simple-to-understand paradigm.
As product people, the first thing we intuitively do is reach into peoples’ worlds and identify their biggest problems. We have to sense and understand their pain. Good product people do this by passively and actively observing – then overlaying with their own experience. I think it takes a person with avid curiosity to continually undertake this process of synthesis. There’s so much information or knowledge around us. Just imagine a library full of books representing knowledge – it’s only when we make the effort to pay attention, read and comprehend them, that knowledge becomes understanding. We can understand something but unless we apply that understanding in some way it does no good. When we apply understanding it becomes wisdom. I’ve always defined wisdom as applied truth – or truth in action. As the saying goes – the truth will set you free. So people who take on this intensive process of synthesis to sift out and understand problems – intuitively want to forge products that people gravitate towards because the products give them some form of freedom in their lives.
This process of synthesis we call empathy. We all know that is what is needed to begin the job of product. But if it stopped there, we’d just be counsellors, sitting with people, understanding their pain, and journeying with them.
We harness an opposing force that provides balance – it’s our ability, while reaching into the present to understand problems, to also reach into the future and feel what could be. As product people – we often don’t know the exact shape a solution will take, but we have to believe that there is one and we’ll keep striving until we find it – which is an essential sense of optimism.
What would someone be like who just dwells on the optimism side of the spectrum? Perhaps they would be all about the limitless possibilities that technology provides without having the empathy to temper this with helpful commercial application. They would be a futurist or theorist. Product people sit squarely in the middle of these two forces and extend the benefit of their standpoint to the organisation around them. Similar to those self-balancing motorcycles being prototyped now – this spectrum I believe keeps us balanced and sane between the world of limitless possibilities and the constraints of reality.
Move Forward With Conviction
As product people, we could see what we see but do nothing about it. But now having balance, how do we actively navigate through our world? We have to move forward – so we do that with conviction.
I like the word conviction because it suggests some truth or evidence. A lot of people get passionate about a lot of things but it doesn’t make them right – after all, “wisdom is proved right by its children”. Having gone through this intensive process of synthesis to understand problems, product people can articulate the basis upon which they navigate uncertainty.
Conviction is the factor that provides the impetus to move. Good product people just get stuff done and provide a sense of urgency in the organisation.
The future that we sense is and must be there – we talk about this with conviction. We explain the problems with conviction so they’re truly understood. We journey with the team with conviction so that this future can be collectively shaped through the collaboration we facilitate.
All Tempered by Humility
But is conviction all we need? I believe good product people balance this with humility.
Humility tempers the pace, negotiating the realm between ideas and reality; having the conviction to commit to what can be, the humility to recognise what can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference between the two. I’ve sometimes in the past described the activity of product as being a “custodian” which does give it that dose of humility. A product friend of mine, Aidan Clarke, calls it “shepherd”, which also has a wholesome connotation.
The product people I’ve observed to be mature (and I’m not talking about age or years of experience), I think have this balance figured out. I’ve met leaders who demonstrate conviction but lack the humility to hold back and pressure-test assumptions. Mature product people know when they don’t know. They also have to take the team on the journey. In my consulting I’ve counselled a product person here or there who has said: “One day I want to be able to look back and point to what I’ve done!” I understand that feeling, but you might never get there until you can point back to what “we’ve” done.
I’ve met product people who have too much humility. They know the answers and have an obligation to share them, to voice customer needs. They need more conviction to speak up – the organisation around them is depending on them to bring calm and the confidence that they’re working on the right things.
Brisbane has some great product people that stand out to me. People like Jason Turnbull, former Head of Product at Halfbrick, Anthony Lee at Australian Broadcasting Company, Niamh Tobin at Genie Solutions (a market-leading medical platform), Liam Casey at Flaik (a platform used by ski schools), and Jen Elkow at Skedulo (a Brisbane-based scheduling platform that just got $30 million in Series B).
So what makes them and other product people I’ve been speaking to in the region stand out to me? If I were to condense it all down to one word or one value that I see consistently rise above the rest – it’s respect. Respect for all camps in the Martin Eriksson’s famous Venn diagram: respect for and ability to support business leadership, respect for and ability to empathise with engineering, respect for and desire to solve for customers.
I want to create great products, because I know that feeling I get when I use a product and know someone thought about me, someone understood me, someone empathised with my pain enough to design something to solve for it. That product only came about because of people who have deep respect for their colleagues and customers.
I live in a region of the world where product management is not yet as well understood as it should be. When people ask what I do, I tell them at the heart of the top largest companies in the world (all of which are primarily digital) Google, Microsoft, Facebook, etc – is this role, it’s called product manager, and it makes ALL the difference. My personal mission is in the next 10 years to see a company in the global top five (by market cap) come out of little old “g-day mate” Australia (maybe New Zealand can have a go too). Here’s something I know though… If we keep collectively spreading this approach, this balanced and respectful way of thinking – it will happen. And more and more companies will know the joy of creating products people love.