What do Product Managers do? If you google the subject, you’ll find a plethora of information describing product management at various companies (some good ones from @juliezhuo here and here). The consensus is that there is no consensus, product management is different at every company. I learned being a PM at Manifold that product management boils down to three important skills:
- Making ‘good’ decisions
- Ruthless prioritization
- Accomplishing everything through others
Let’s dig in.
Making ‘good’ decisions
As product managers, we don’t contribute design or code, but we do contribute by ensuring the product gets out the door.
One way product managers ensure the product gets out the door is by making decisions. Sometimes product development stalls as we waffle on decisions, being afraid to make the wrong one. While PMs don’t need to make every decision, we are responsible for ensuring a decision gets made. These decisions can come directly from the product managers, engineers, designers, stakeholders, etc.
Often times making a decision is easy, but making a ‘good’ decision is hard. Decisions can range from small things, like what copy should be on a button, to big things like the V0 of a product or what feature should be prioritized. While you can never be 100% sure you’re making the right call, you can increase your chances by keeping these questions in mind.
What is the goal? What are your assumptions? What are the constraints?
Here’s the secret to making good decisions: make a bunch of low-risk wrong ones until you find your way to the right one. Making ‘good’ decisions comes down to making incremental small ones with a single goal in mind, continually testing and course correcting until you reach the set goal. The cycle of shipping, testing, learning what worked and didn’t work, will yield increasingly more favorable results each time you go around because you’re making more informed decisions with each cycle. With the learnings from your enlightened trial and error, you’ll increase your chances of making ‘good’ decisions.
An important factor that influences ‘good’ decision making is making them quickly. It often takes more time to analyze whether one option is better than another than to try both. You want to fail fast, fail cheap, and learn from those failures until you reach the goal.
When you define the goal, check your assumptions, and consider the constraints, you’re set up to make good (and quick) decisions.
Before learning ruthless prioritization as a skill, I believed great products were great from the start. It makes sense, we only hear about a product after it has become successful, only seeing the highlight reel, and asking questions like ‘how did you become an overnight success?’.
The truth is that no one ever became a success overnight. Products and companies fail many times before becoming successful. Through trial and error, people end up creating a great product.
I’ve learned that there is an art to enlightened trial and error. A controlled way of trying out different solutions before landing on the right one. To ensure we can ship a product to test and iterate, product managers have to keep scope reasonable. This is where practicing ruthless prioritization is pertinent.
While it might be tempting to build a polished product that solves every use case on the first go, it’s not a good idea. It’s nearly impossible to build the perfect product on your first release and building the perfect product often results in a product that’s never released.
No great product was built in a vacuum because product managers need to talk to their customers. How can you test with your customers if your scope is so large that the product never gets shipped? The answer comes back to ruthless prioritization. Keep your scope small by ruthlessly prioritizing to get that product out of the door. Test your MLP (minimum lovable product) with customers, ask questions, get empathetic, and iterate your way to a product your users will love. Make those cheap mistakes ASAP and learn from them, this will ultimately improve your product.
Lastly, polish comes with many iterations.* *You won’t achieve polished if you never even get the first version out the door.
Accomplishing everything through others
Remember when I said product managers don’t contribute code or design? The biggest lesson I’ve learned as a product manager is the skill of accomplishing everything through others. That means coordinating syncs, being in meetings, unblocking wherever needed, and being responsible for the outcome of the product even if you had no hand in building it.
Product managers rely on the rest of the team to ship product. That puts us in the unique position that has no authority over other teams yet need to mobilize teams to deliver work. Product managers need to find ways to influence people (various teams) without having authority over anyone. Note the word influence. Influence is the ability to affect ideas and actions while authority is the power** **to give orders and make decisions. Having the ability to influence is a crucial skill in product management.
It’s the product manager’s job to create alignment and garner buy in from leadership, design, and engineering. With alignment and buy in, influencing various teams becomes much more manageable (heh pun intended). Ultimately, we play a support role on the team to ensure we all win.
While this isn’t a comprehensive list of skills that product managers should follow, making ‘good’ decisions, ruthless prioritization, and learning to accomplish everything through others are the basic guidelines for product management. Check back in the next post to read Manifold specific examples.