Research and Development
18 Jan 2023
Head of Product Management
If you’re a product manager you’ve probably heard this one before “Oh, you’re a PM, that’s great but… what do you do exactly?”
From an outsider's perspective, (good) product managers always seem busy.
They seem to:
Be knowledgeable about what the product can and cannot do,
They know what their team is working on,
They spend a lot of time speaking with both clients and colleagues,
They facilitate meetings,
They create documentation,
Most of all, they’re (generally) considered to be bright individuals.
But this is the problem with lists of tasks, none of these things sound like a “proper” job — and are traits common to lots of jobs in tech! Listing out things without explaining the ‘why’ risks making PMs look like unproductive busybodies. What we need to look at is: what makes the PM role unique?
Despite this apparent problem of definition, companies cannot seem to get enough PMs.
Wherever you look you’ll find job openings in product — and experienced product managers with a good track record are highly valued (and paid).
In every company, there are skeptics about the value that a good product manager can bring, but there are three (almost guaranteed predictions) when you spot a skeptic:
They’ve never had the luck of working with a great product manager,
They’ve never had the bad luck of working with a very bad one,
Or they’ve never tried to do the job themselves.
Teams with great PMs operate at such a higher level compared to regular teams that, even without a detailed understanding of what the hell these PMs are actually doing, anyone who has witnessed their work can appreciate their value.
Establishing that (good) product management is critical for a team is not answering the question of “what does a product manager actually do?”
However, if we think of a role as being defined by its outcomes, pointing out the impact of a good product manager does get us closer to the answer.
As a first attempt at a definition, you can think of a product manager’s job as:
Doing whatever is necessary to enable their team to create as much value for the end user and for their business, as fast as possible, and with the minimum risk and effort.
Unfortunately, answering the question of HOW to do that is even harder than working out the why.
And the ‘how’ question is key to the whole confusion around the role.
In order to make their team perform, a PM needs to fulfill so many different jobs without formally having the title, that it can get confusing fast.
A PM is not (only) a PO, but needs to make sure tickets are specified and prioritized.
A PM is not a scrum master but might have to facilitate scrum ceremonies.
A PM is not a researcher but needs to understand their users’ needs and wants, run tests and draw conclusions out of them.
A PM is not a project manager but needs to make sure stakeholders know when things will be done and the team is delivering.
A PM is not a designer but needs to understand what works and what doesn’t work, UX-wise.
A PM isn't a customer success manager but needs to understand user needs and put themselves in their shoes.
A PM isn’t an investor but needs to understand how the product generates revenue, how it scales, and its costs.
A PM isn’t a CEO but needs to understand how different departments interact with one another and how to leverage strengths and weaknesses.
If you search for “what does a PM do” in google images you won’t have to scroll long before running into something that looks like this:
As far as simplifications go, this is not the worst place to start. It shows very clearly that a PM needs to have many different skills — and understand well how they intersect with one another. It calls those skills “business, tech and UX” (again, not the worst choice) but when it shows the PM being right at the center it oversimplifies a bit.
A more accurate representation of the day of a PM usually looks more like this:
A great PM that brings the maximum possible value to the business and users needs to operate within the intersection of business, tech and UX comfortably. That’s the space where most of their work will happen, but also has to be comfortable getting deeper into each of those aspects, and switching between them multiple times a day.
If you’re a PM and you are starting to get cold sweats thinking of having to become an “expert” in all of these fields, don’t need to panic just yet. It’s impractical to try to find someone who is an expert in UX, tech and business all at the same time, and some PMs can become extraordinary at their job without being experts in even one of the three.
Companies discovered long ago that it’s easier to get experts in different fields to work together than to find a single person that covers all the bases, and that is how product team started to operate in what is dubbed today as a product trio: A PM, a Product Designer, and a tech lead working closely together as a team.
This can guarantee that a team will have all the expert knowledge in each of those fields, and the PM doesn’t need to cover all at the same time (phew!). Still, a good product manager, even within a product trio, should still have a fair understanding of Tech and UX — and be the de facto expert in the business side of things within their trio.
Unfortunately, even that isn’t the whole story: there’s a final ingredient, the secret sauce without which no team can really perform — and the most important skill a PM needs to have.
Whether they know it or not, every business in the world is running an endless race: against the competition, against losing market share, against becoming obsolete, against the next economic downturn… in essence, a race against going out of business.
Maybe a competitor is preparing to launch their new killer feature at this very moment, or your biggest client has decided that they’re no longer doing business with you, or Google has decided to pour billions into your industry and put you out of business...
There is a hidden countdown ticking off the seconds until the next existential threat to every business…
A product trio can provide expert knowledge on multiple fields, but even the most talented product trio in the world doesn’t know when that timer will reach zero.
This is where the final skill of a PM shines: a first-class PM reminds themselves every morning that the clock is ticking, knows that time is a limited resource, and finds a way of making the most out of it.
In the highly intuitive world of product management (research, discovery, scope, definition, cost, value…) they know how to find exactly the sweet point between “too little” and “too much”.
They “feel” the point when doing more user interviews will no longer yield any new insights, or what features they can safely remove from a product launch without compromising its success. They know when their team needs to rush to launch and create a bit more tech debt, and when it’s the time to slow down and repay it. They know when a bug should delay a release and when it should not.
This knowledge comes from a deep understanding of business, tech, UX, and of users, but also from years of experience and mistakes: One has to do “too little” and “too much” many times before being able to recognize it, and while frameworks and best practices might help to avoid the most egregious mistakes, only first-hand experience provides the “feel” for it.
And with this final ingredient, we can answer our original question:
A PMs job is to ensure that their team brings the maximum value (with the minimum cost) to the business and their end users, by having a deep understanding of both, and by adding a sense of urgency, and a bias for action.
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