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What the dickens does a Product Manager do?

Key takeaways

  • Regardless of where you work, Product Managers have one thing in common: finding, creating and delivering products that are of value to a market and create value to the business
  • The Product community is still debunking a misunderstood article from nearly 20 years ago: a Product Manager, might on occasion, be a bit like a CEO, but they are not mini-CEO's
  • Product Management is not the same at every company
  • Data-empowered is what to aim for, not data-driven
  • In reality, Product Managers do more than "just create products".

What the dickens does a Product Manager do?

Originally published at InfoQ: 15 July 2021
7 min read

What does a Product Manager actually do? A perennial question, an ongoing discussion, often ending in debate. 

Back in 2016, one of my favourite Product Managers Omaya Robinson and I compiled a list of misconceptions around our discipline; the craft and role of the Product Manager (PM). Fast forward to 2021, I was curious to see whether any of the original beliefs were still relevant or, to what extent our industry had changed. So – I did some research. 

I spoke with 20 senior product folk across the Australian product management community and posted the question to a couple of product Slack communities. Hardly an exhaustive sample but here’s what I found. 

Regardless of where you work, Product Managers have one thing in common: finding, creating and delivery products that are of value to a market and create value to the business.

The Product Manager is the mini-CEO

Seems like we’re still debunking the misunderstanding from an insightful piece from Ben Horowitz, nearly 20 years ago. Even Horowitz himself has reneged on this, so let’s call it out right now: Product Managers might, on occasion, be a bit like a CEO, but they are NOT mini CEO’s.

The biggest difference is authority. 

Most PM’s have little authority. Instead they need exceptional influencing capabilities, the ability to listen, gather evidence, and to present compelling narratives and data. 

Martin Eriksson shares his thoughts and Marty Cagan also revisits his views on the topic.

Product Managers are the same at every company

[repeated from 2016]
Nope, no, nein, and non.

The role of Product Manager is fluid. Each company, often each product within a company, needs something different from its PM. Several factors can affect how PM’s do their job:

  1. The size of the company. In a startup or SME, you might be the one and only PM responsible for the entire product management lifecycle, spending significant time with stakeholders, in discussions, listening, co-ordinating. Or perhaps you’re in larger established businesses, say Atlassian, Spotify or <insert a telco or financial services company in your country>, you’re likely to have a more defined role and within a structure that includes PO’s, PM’s, Senior PM’s, Group or Directors of Product, or CPO’s. 
  2. The industry. Some industries, like high tech, insurance, telecommunications or biotech may have unique requirements covering areas such as regulation and compliance or other markets where important issues like ethics and privacy impact on choices and decisions.
  3. The business model. PM’s might hang closely with the marketing folk inside a B2C or may bond with engineering, particularly in a B2B. In sales-led companies, you’re sure to work closely with sales. In product-led companies you may relish being in a dedicated cross-functional product team where Product even makes it to the c-suite. 
  4. The company culture. Some companies are more team-led and collaborative, perhaps even self-organising, where the Team is empowered to pursue the company’s customer and business goals. Others may be more traditional, with goals and schedules set elsewhere making the PM role less about discovery and more about delivery. 
  5. The product lifecycle: A PM’s role will be different depending on where the product or service is in its lifecycle. If it’s an early stage idea you may do more validation, prototyping, testing, learning and discovery. If the product is established in the market, the focus may be on increasing average revenue per user, or on retention. Maybe you’ll need to kill off a product or manage its inevitable demise as it heads towards End of Life (EOL). 
  6. The type of product. Again, a PM’s role may differ depending on what the product or service is, whether it’s a single product, part of a suite or portfolio, whether it’s a platform play.
  7. The roles around you. As product management matures, new roles appear. With the introduction of service design and UX, we saw the PM’s role morph and mature. Today discrete roles around Product Ops and Product Growth are seeing the PM’s role morph again. Watch this space.

A few PM principles won’t change across these variables: thinking about customer and business needs; focusing on identifying and solving the right problems; constantly prioritising myriad of great ideas and figuring out how to best say no. All through listening, collaborating and communicating.

The PM should be data driven

Obsession with being “data-driven” drives many PM's and all of us should love data. Quant data and qual data. But importantly, experienced PM’s should never forget: the value of intuition and wisdom from experience. 

Whilst some data-driven insights are a gift, I remain unconvinced that the robots will make great PM’s. In reality, choices and decisions will always be part art, part science. If you’re going to get into the “data” conversation, use it to focus people, teams and the conversation towards being “data empowered” rather than “data driven”. 

Good product decisions come from treating inputs equally

There are inputs everywhere: feedback from customers, the team, leadership teams; quant data will tell us something and qual data will give us another insight. But are they all equal? Is the “customer always right?” Noooooooo, not necessarily. Using customers as an example: co-designing solutions can be dangerous but they are good at helping you discover problems, so get them involved here. 

Good decisions come from proper weighting and attention to the inputs: the data, customer feedback, the market, your experience built from your track record, the team’s competence and so on.

Product Managers only do product

Again, it depends on what company, which product, what market. I’ve been a PM carrying almost everything from articulating and validating the initial idea through to writing FAQs and call scripts for the Customer Service Team. I’ve sometimes looked more like an Executive Producer, focused on the vision and strategy, galvanising multiple teams, suppliers and partners and engaging with a multitude of stakeholders.

Perhaps you’re a Product Manager as well as a Product Marketer with your emphasis on positioning, pricing and Go-To-Market. Equally you may be a PM with just one slice of the product, perhaps you own a channel or part of the user experience; in this latter case, yes you may work on just the product. But it’s sure to be different every time you move to a new organisation. 

Product Managers are responsible for delivery and milestones

Hopefully no, but in many cases, you’re seen as a Project or Delivery Manager and end up spending more time than you’d like rallying teams that are working within time, scope and budget constraints. 

As organisations mature, we see separation and respect for the Product Manager role and PM's can focus more on creating value, understanding users, driving towards business outcomes.. 

Product Managers need to be deep in tech

This one turned up about six years ago and in my experience comes partly from a Silicon Valley obsession that every PM should have a deep understanding of tech. This awful misconception saw many female PM’s disappear because so few of us grow up as engineers or have Comp Sci degrees. Like Marty Cagan, I'm a strong advocate for a multi-disciplinary background; indeed some of the best PM’s I've ever worked with don't come from tech but from across a broad range of disciplines; design, business and liberal arts to name a few. 

However, almost everything we do these days involves tech, so if that’s not a sweet spot, you will need to build your competence over time. You need to be able to hold your own in conversations with a range of stakeholders including engineers, but your job is to ensure all stakeholders, whether they’re tech, ops, marketing, sales, finance etc, are clear about the business and customer outcomes, the value you’re working towards. 

My view? PM’s are t-shaped. We add value by applying solid product thinking across the disciplines we engage with.

We’re nearing the end :) Not 10, not 5 but 7 insights I’ve shared

Like all good PM's, I want to hear from others. What do you think? What do you agree or disagree with? Would you add something? 

Thanks to my product community, you know who you are, and a particular shout out to Ben Reid, @Digital Creators, for always helping and for never holding back from an alternative thought or proposition. You rock, man. 

Lastly, whether you’re at the beginning, middle or heading towards your golden years as a PM, here’s an assessment tool that might help in your quest. We’ve outlined four combined areas that make for a great Product Manager. It’s free to use and free to download. (We won’t even ask for your email address!)

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