Product Management, What Is It (and What Isn’t)

After eight years working as a Product Manager, all I can say is that this career choice has been one of the best decisions I’ve taken in my professional life. And I do think I’m not alone here. It sounds very much like a lot of people is or want to become one nowadays.

Though my degree in Computer Science would have anticipated that I ended up working on something closer to DevOps or Consultancy, the truth is that I did never enjoy working as a software developer. And, let’s face it, I was never a good one. In addition to that, I feel I have always been looking to work in something that provided me with a holistic view, as opposed to becoming a specialist in one field.

Throughout these years, I’ve had the opportunity to hold Product Management roles across a wide range of industry sectors. Consumer Goods, News Media, E-commerce and currently Travel. This has given me the opportunity to work with some of the smartest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. Thanks to that, I’ve learnt to be a positive, practical and proactive individual, with the capacity to understand customer problems and to fail, often and cheaply.

What are the functions of a Product Manager?

In my own experience, I’ve seen Product Management responsibilities vary from one organisation to another. These differences related to each company’s size, industry and culture. That said, Product Management is a lot more about “managing a universe, as opposed to being a star“. There are always things to do. Hence, PM functions can also be totally mislead at times. Being able to understand what is and what is not Product Management will play a critical role in using your time and skills effectively to build successful digital products.

What Product Management is

  • Understand problems and enable/come up with creative solutions to tackle them
  • Perform product scoping and identify Time vs Business Value trade-offs
  • Facilitate cross-functional work
  • Hold overhaul product vision and provide with guidance
  • Motivate, engage and coach team members

What Product Management is not

  • Being a HiPPo
  • Being the one and only idea generator
  • Being a copy writer, designer or developer
  • Being accountable for Quality and Assurance
  • Being responsible for release dates (see “Road mapping without release dates“)

Product Management is to manage a problem, not its solution

As Nils David points out, Product Management is very much about performing the following three tasks:

  1. Find a market problem (and validate it)
  2. Come up with a solution to the problem (better than its alternatives)
  3. Take it to market

Firstly, one starts understanding a customer problem. Thought this may sound quite evident, I think it’s not. How many friends do you have, coming up to you with the ultimate app idea to solve a problem they think requires a technological solution. I could give some names here. My first question always is: have you actually asked these potential customers if they agree to have that problem?  And then, have you ask them whether they would pay someone to get it solved?

The reason to ask these simple questions is to validate your hypothesis. You may come up with the most beautiful, slickest and revolutionary technology but if customers don’t want to use it or buy it, if your product comes at the wrong time, that’s on you. And you’re gonna go bankrupt sooner or later.

Use of features for internal-use products

Source: 64% of features are rarely or never used

There’s no perfect solution to the problem

In truth, though you may have understood and validated a problem and seized the market opportunity, you won’t be able to come up with a perfect solution to it. Reason being that there’s no perfect solution in the first place.

But hey, the good news is that there’s plenty of ways to build a framework to enable you to learn and to fail, often and cheaply. By focussing on building MVP’s (Minimum Viable Product), or as I like to call them, MVE’s, you’ll place the problem at the centre. Then, by iterating in the Build, Measure and Learn cycle, optimal solutions will arise by themselves.

As a Product Manager, you should not only focus on building new products or services, but also on enabling an A/B test framework that lets you measure and learn from your mistakes. You also depend on customer feedback to make product decisions, so you should consider yourself accountable for bringing that feedback in.

If you never establish a testing/customer feedback culture in your company, all you’ll have will be biased opinions and assumptions, and the HiPPO‘s (highest paid person’s opinion) will always win.

Wrapping it up

As a Product Manager, you should be able to identify and understand a problem, come up with a solution and enable a process to build it. The faster you’re at learning whilst you do that, the better the solution you’ll build. As a consequence, the more you’ll sell.

The rest you’re doing as a Product Manager is just keeping you away from focussing on the above tasks. Thus, you should stop doing it as soon as you can.

Best of luck to you and to your successful products.

“When we create stuff, we do it because we listen to the customer, get their inputs and also throw in what we’d like to see, too. We cook up new products. You never really know if people will love them as much as you do.”
– Steve Jobs

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