Who needs a product manager, anyway?

Liz Blink

Liz Blink

Unsavable product nerd. Likes to get shit done. Secretly a philosopher at heart.

The product management profession has been around for about 90 years and yet the question: when will I need a product manager? is still a tough one to answer. One of the reasons I think that it’s hard to answer is that there is so much glorious variation that can be applied to core product management capabilities. Working through those many different puzzle pieces to make coherent sense out of it all is understandably challenging. 

90 years on and we now have a known set of key attributes, mindsets and capabilities we expect to see in product managers – who can be so crucial to the success of an organisation and its product. Examples like Dropbox, Canva or ZipCo highlight the value that product management thinking brings to ensure you thrive and become a very successful company. So how do you spot when you’re ready to incorporate those skills into your team? 

Do some of these ring a bell?

  • You’re missing insights that you need to stay relevant 
  • Your roadmap is all over the place and no one knows what’s happening next or why 
  • You’ve been consistently shipping features but none of the metrics are moving
  • Customers aren’t buying at the rate they should, or they’re churning so fast all that spend on Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is freaking you out

What does it look like when it works?

A very simple view of what a product person helps an organisation to do is manage the trade-offs and mitigate the risks of missing the mark on:

  • Desirability – your product should help customers change their behaviour, and do it in a usable way
  • Feasibility – is the product even possible to build, and
  • Viability – is this product the foundation of a sustainable business? 

 

 

If you haven’t got a product person yet, you presumably have folk in your company – perhaps yourself – that has a strength in one or more of these areas. The problem is when you don’t have someone thinking about all three areas you can end up with decisions biased too strongly in one area, leaving yourself vulnerable in another. 

Examples of bias creeping in AKA, common pitfalls: 

  • The passionate founder or entrepreneur has to absolutely believe in themselves and what needs to be done. It’s how they get start-ups off the ground. However, that single-minded focus can drag a team away from ensuring that the product really is solving customer needs.
  • Your excitement about all the great feedback you’re hearing from all your customer interviews pulls you too far into wanting to build everything they suggest, without knowing how you’ll make money from that solution.  
  • You’ve gotten so enthralled by the amazing new technology of AI and you’ve built a complete solution without ever showing it to a customer and now you’ve shipped it and not a single customer wants it. 

These (and many more) pitfalls occur when you don’t have a strong product function in your organisation – and they are big reasons to consider hiring a product manager. You need a person in the company who can see all of these intricate trade-offs and work through how best to mitigate them. By having someone who can take the lead to avoid these catastrophes you’ll shift from wasting time and money to changing customers’ lives, with a profitable product and a business that’s growing in a scalable and flexible way. 

“Define the product & coordinate actions across the org to enable its success” 

Shreyas Doshi.

 

Specific traits that will help you find the right product manager


It takes a lot to be a great product manager. It takes many years (if not decades) to learn the tools, apply knowledge learned along the way and move to mastery. Describing what to look for in a product person and which areas to favour will depend on what you need in your organisation and what gaps you need to fill. 

Huge call-out to Intercom for taking a public stab at what the skillsets need to be for a product person and grouping them up to help make sense of the many lists on the interwebs and the myriad of matrices that organisations have. Below, I’ve outlined 5 pillars that will help you analyse your own product needs below. 

  1. Insight Driven

Your product person needs to be deeply knowledgeable about the customer and not guide work through their own opinions and preferences. They need to understand the customer end to end and be an unfailing advocate for their needs. They’ll pair this with product metrics and other data inputs to carve out a unique position for your product. Depending on the size of your organisation, this person can rely on others (e.g. the founder) who are deeply knowledgeable about these areas until they come up to speed but, if you want the product team to move quickly on their own, this knowledge will need to sit with your product person. 

You’re looking for someone who learns quickly and has the critical thinking skills to know when to rely on others advice vs when they need to know it for themselves.

 

2. Strategic

Without the ability to see the big picture for the product, and create a compelling picture for the team that fills in the view past the founder’s vision, the founder would have to be in every conversation and discussion about what’s next. This is another area where a product person is invaluable. This person needs to be able to excite the team, tell the founder’s story every day, and pull that together on a roadmap that points everyone in the same direction. 

Once you have a team beyond just a few individuals, you can no longer be sure that everyone knows what is going on, and why, and what needs to come next. At this point,you’ll likely have more work than you do, and prioritisation becomes crucial. 

So you need someone who knows when to be belligerent and stick to the plan to ensure the strategic work gets done, but also knows when to be flexible because the house really is on fire. 

 

3. Drives Outcomes

It can be easy to track outputs – but you are building a product to change behaviour and the world! You need a product person who does the hard work to define the problem and finds ways to move towards tackling it. It’s about small steps and action, rather than endless conversations and inaction. Ensuring everyone understands the metrics you are chasing and the outcome you wish to achieve is vital. This is a tricky time in your organisation where the things that were working in the past aren’t anymore, customers aren’t throwing themselves at you, or they aren’t using the product regularly and folk want to keep “doing” the same things they did in the past. A product manager can delve into the hard parts of guiding human behaviour change and align the team on their new path.

You need someone who keeps asking ‘why’ until it drives you insane, but when the lightbulb comes on you’ll immediately forget you were ever stuck. 


4. Capable of execution

Inherently, effecting the right action will add value, but some key attributes a strong product person should bring is to ensure lessons are learnt every time features ship. They know what assumptions are sitting behind each feature, and they are watching closely to see if the hypothesis proves true. They ensure you’re moving fast but without breaking the experience for the customer in a harmful way – this is about awareness of detail without perfectionism. 

You need someone at this point who doesn’t sweat the reversible stuff and keeps the team moving forward but knows when to pause and make considered decisions at key product milestones. You want someone brave but not careless. 


5. A true leader

Product folk succeed with others – so you want someone who loves to collaborate.  They inspire others and are pedantic about communicating effectively so everyone gets it. Yet they are the first to own a problem and think about the situation beyond just their remit to strike that careful balance between martyrdom and deep care. The emotional intelligence needed to be able to break down cause without blame is a highly sought after attribute. Founders need these skills in their teams as they move away from working in the business, to focus on the business.

You’re looking for a person with the humility to own up to the mistake and already be hard at work at fixing it. 

There is no hierarchy to the attributes. If you’ve got great strategic thinking already due to a clear founder vision and direction then you might be seeking someone who is great at the execution and getting stuff done. If, on the other hand, you’ve had a run of great execution and you’re shipping work but it isn’t moving the needle on the outcomes you need it to and then you might be after an outcomes-driven thinker to help ensure your doers are all pulling in the same direction. Or, if there doesn’t seem to be clarity on where to go and what to do next then you might need a thinker who can focus on product strategy. Strong leadership behaviours are important to remember to ensure everyone is contributing and great work happens as a result.

Conclusion 

Ultimately if you’re looking for the unicorn version of this role you are seeking someone who has all of these skills in their bank and knows when to tune them up or down in response to the organisation needs. That’s ok, just be aware it takes years to get to this point, and there better be some failure stories in their CV – otherwise, it’s all been luck thus far and not individual aptitude. 

Need help honing in on the traits your team needs? 

Come talk to us – we’re passionate advocates for this function being part of your team
🙂

 

Please don’t stop reading here! Check out other amazing practitioners & thought leaders who ensure expectations are set high for folk with this title and their organisations such as Marty Cagan, Teresa Torres, more from Intercom via their podcasts and if you like a good Twitter stream Shreyas Doshi will keep you on your toes.

Liked this post? Share it on…

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn

Related posts

People
Kath Cashion

My first month at Cogent

Hello, I’m Kath – the latest member of Cogent’s product team. Starting a new job in the middle of Melbourne’s COVID-19 lockdown was a fairly weird experience, but before I even started I knew the company values and they really resonated with me.

Read More