What is Product Management?
The role of product management in technology firms is a critically important one that is often misunderstood.
I’ve done product management at Microsoft, LinkedIn, and various startups, though my product management experience during my years at Microsoft (where it’s called program management) were the most formative and I continue to leverage those lessons to this day, especially when advising new product managers on how to think about their role and where they should be focusing their time.
Product management boils down to owning the vision, design, and execution of your product.
While the amount of time spent in each of these areas will vary by the company as well as by your seniority in the organization, the vast majority of your work will always fall into one of these areas. And while the scope of your product can also vary from a small feature to the entire product strategy for a company, the core discipline remains the same.
Let’s take each of these areas in turn and talk about what exactly it takes to excel at them.
Owning the vision for a product involves clearly formulating and then evangelizing the audience you are targeting, the distinct problem you are solving, and your unique solution by which you will win the market.
To formulate a compelling vision for a product you need to have a deep understanding of the target audience, the existing solutions and competitors in the market, and a compelling thesis for why your solution provides a 10x improvement over the existing alternatives.
An important lesson that I learned early on is that formulating such a vision is only half the battle. The equally important aspect of your role is evangelizing that vision to your team. Before you can convince your team of your vision, you need to start by building strong conviction within yourself that your vision will win in the marketplace. Without that it will be impossible to convince your team. Once you have that, it becomes important to craft your vision into a compelling narrative that your team can get behind. And then you need to focus on delivering this message continuously to your team so they never lose sight of it.
Your strategy can change over time and it may require updating your vision. But it’s important to stay and reinforce the course until new information becomes compelling enough to suggest otherwise. Constant flip flopping can be detrimental to team morale and your ability to inspire them to achieve a shared objective.
Owning the design for a product involves determining the right feature set to achieve your 10x improvement over existing solutions, working with designers to ensure the user experience appropriately delivers on the vision and principles by which your product will differentiate, and authoring detailed specifications that guide developers to efficiently implement the finalized design.
In many ways the hardest part of design is the prioritization exercise that requires determining exactly what is above the line for the next release. This requires an equal amount of art and science to come up with a compelling feature set and user experience. What I most often advise is to err on the side of fewer features for the benefit of getting the product out sooner to optimize for learning. And fewer features also enables you to spend the time to appropriately optimize the experience for the remaining features.
When working with designers, the most important contribution that you can provide is a deep understanding of the user’s goals, sensibilities, and psychology, plus existing behaviors and tendencies that the user has already exhibited via an understanding of the existing product metrics. This enables you to ensure the experience is appropriately calibrated for the exact user you are going after.
Owning the execution for a product involves doing whatever it takes to ensure your product ships. This involves core project management responsibilities of breaking down the roadmap into concrete tasks, tracking the progress of these tasks, and triaging bugs and feature suggestions as they come up.
But most importantly, it also involves being resourceful in solving any blockers that come up for your team. This could be filling in the gaps on your team when needed, including design work, copy reviews, or even simple engineering tasks. Or it could be ensuring open product, design, and technical decisions get resolved in an efficient manner. Or it could be responding in real time to industry changes, competitors, or customer complaints.
It’s equally important for you to constantly think of ways to improve the execution cadence of the team. This often involves process changes to how the project is managed, how decisions are made, and the environment in which the team gets it’s work done. Optimizations in the execution cadence of the team often are the most fruitful way to ensure a greater impact for your overall product and as the product manager you are best positioned to optimize it.
So while the daily responsibilities of a product manager are often diverse, the role boils down to owning the vision, design, and execution of your product.
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