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Be a Great Product Leader

People who know me professionally know that I’m passionate about Product Management.  I truly believe that, done properly, a strong product leader acts as a force multiplier that can help a cross-functional team of great technologies and designers do their best work.

Unfortunately, the job description of a product manager tends to either be overly vague (you are responsible for the product) or overly specific (you write product specifications).  Neither, as it turns out, is it effective in helping people become great product managers.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out a way to communicate the value of a product manager in a way that both transparently tells cross-functional partners what they should expect (or demand) from their product leaders, and also communicates to new product managers what the actual expectations of their job are.  Over the years, I reduced that communication to just three sets of responsibilities: Strategy, Prioritization & Execution.

Responsibility #1: Product Strategy

They teach entire courses on strategy at top tier business schools.  I doubt, however, that you’ll hear Product Strategy discussed in this way in any of them.

Quite simply, it’s the product manager’s job to articulate two simple things:

  • What game are we playing?
  • How do we keep score?

Do these two things right, and all of a sudden a collection of brilliant individual contributors with talents in engineering, operations, quality, design and marketing will start running in the same direction.  Without it, no amount of prioritization or execution management will save you.  Building great software requires a variety of talents, and key innovative ideas can come from anywhere.  Clearly describing the game your playing and the metrics you use to judge success allows the team, independent of the product manager, to sort through different ideas and decide which ones are worth acting on.

Clearly defining what game you are playing includes your vision for the product, the value you provide your customer, and your differentiated advantage over competitors.  More importantly, however, is that it clearly articulates the way that your team is going to win in the market.  Assuming you pick your metrics appropriately, everyone on the team should have a clear idea of what winning means.

You should be able to ask any product manager who has been on the job for two weeks these questions, and get not just a crisp, but a compelling answer to these two questions.

The result: aligned effort, better motivation, innovative ideas, and products that move the needle.

Responsibility #2: Prioritization

Once the team knows what game they are playing and how to keep score, it tends to make prioritization much easier.  This is the second set of responsibilities for a product manager – ensuring that their initial work on their strategy and metrics is carried through to the phasing of projects / features to work on.

At any company with great talent, there will be a surplus of good ideas.  This actually doesn’t get better with scale, because as you add more people to a company they tend to bring even more ideas about what is and isn’t possible.  As a result, brutal prioritization is a fact of life.

The question isn’t what is the best list of ideas you can come up with for the business – the question is what are the next three things the team is going to execute on and nail.

Phasing is a crucial part of any entrepreneurial endeavor – most products and companies fail not for lack of great ideas, but based on mistaking which ones are critical to execute on first, and which can wait until later.

Personally, I don’t believe linear prioritization is effective in the long term.  I’ve written a separate post on product prioritization called The Three Buckets that explains the process that I advocate.

You should be able to ask any product manager who has been on the job for two weeks for a prioritized list of the projects their team is working on, with a clear rationale for prioritization that the entire team understands and supports.

Responsibility #3: Execution

Product managers, in practice, actually do hundreds of different things.

In the end, product managers ship, and that means that product managers cover whatever gaps in the process that need to be covered.  Sometimes they author content.  Sometimes they cover holes in design.  Sometimes they are QA.  Sometimes they do PR.  Anything that needs to be done to make the product successful they do, within the limits of human capability.

However, there are parts of execution that are massively important to the team, and without them, execution becomes extremely inefficient:

  • Product specification – the necessary level of detail to ensure clarity about what the team is building.
  • Edge case decisions – very often, unexpected and complicated edge cases come up.  Typically, the product manager is on the line to quickly triage those decisions for potentially ramifications to other parts of the product.
  • Project management – there are always expectations for time / benefit trade-offs with any feature.  A lot of these calls end up being forced during a production cycle, and the product manager has to be a couple steps ahead of potential issues to ensure that the final product strikes the right balance of time to market and success in the market.
  • Analytics – in the end, the team largely depends on the product manager to have run the numbers, and have the detail on what pieces of the feature are critical to hitting the goals for the feature.  They also expect the product manager to have a deep understanding of the performance of existing features (and competitor features), if any.

Make Things Happen

In the end, great product managers make things happen.  Reliably, and without fail, you can always tell when you’ve added a great product manager to a team versus a mediocre one, because very quickly things start happening.  Bug fixes and feature fixes start shipping.  Crisp analysis of the data appears.  Projects are re-prioritized.  And within short order, the key numbers start moving up and to the right.

Be a great product leader.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

24 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    Great post. The Product Mgr role has clearly evolved these past few years. And the title has always sounded too generic for me as well. It is time for a new title to emerge that better communicates the “value of a Product Mgr,” and the impact to their cross-functional partners. Just like “Data Scientist” was coined by DJ Patil, differentiating the data analyst with the needs for holistic, strategic specialists that identify, leverage and align data with great purpose and scale, there are certain Product Mgr roles that need differentiation for their leadership components. “Product Scientist, Strategy Guy?” doesn’t quite sound right, but maybe you are the guy to coin a new-age title that also helps change companies and harness your principles easier. Maybe just “Product Leader” works which embed’s the leadership piece. Will keep my thinking cap on for you :)

    December 16, 2011
  2. Awesome post, Adam. As a design lead trying to learn the finer points of product management, this is exactly the type of guidance I’ve been seeking. Thanks! -Frank

    December 16, 2011
  3. Mark Weiner #

    Excellent post Adam. Strong points to leverage/remember, even if we’ve been here before…

    December 16, 2011
  4. I loved the way you described product strategy. Being a product manager, I cannot agree more with the three points you brought up. I would also add sales in the Execution responsibility. Even though PMs are not responsible for sales they are the force behind product positioning and supplying ammunition to sales team. I have seen PM as a strong role in companies who hold PMs responsible for P&L and empower them to play a key part in sales.

    December 16, 2011
  5. Ananda Chakravarty #

    Excellent thoughts. Just one issue with project management as a key factor, I believe the better term is priority management, although project mgt sometimes falls under a PM’s purview. The PM decides what needs to be paid attention to as opposed to the project mgt term that can be misleading. Yes, the PM is so embedded into the product that a great PM does show impact rapidly! Great points!

    September 8, 2012
  6. Compliments to analytical simplification focus on processes, and “cross fit” to other trades as well.

    October 4, 2012
  7. Thanks for the deep and mature insight. I really got what you say as a rape up to all my experience in very ideal & easy way.

    Waiting for more valuable insights Adam Nash

    Sincerely, Ahmed Moustafa from Middle East Healthcare Industry

    September 3, 2013

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