Over the years, I have had the good fortune of working with and hiring some world-class product managers. It’s a rare breed – made rarer as there isn’t a fixed mould in which one can mass-produce PMs. Individuals from disparate backgrounds, stumble into the role and over time with the help of the right circumstances (job, team, product) and guidance (co-workers, mentors) they evolve into product managers.
Like all good things in life, it involves a large doze of self-delusion, enveloped in a strong enamel of confidence. One has to talk oneself into being a product manager. It’s an oft-spoken lie that takes on a life of its own and becomes the truth.
“I am a product manager?
I am a product manager …
I am a product manager.
I am a product manager!”
And yet, there are some strong signals in a whole lot of noise – markers that differentiate good product managers from the rest. While my experience is limited to technology-driven consumer internet products – good PMs across a wide spectrum of industries and products exhibit the following traits:
(1) They believe in first-principles thinking
Traditional businesses are being disrupted the world over. Forget traditional – even modern-day, well-established startups are feeling the ‘incumbent’s curse’ and being displaced by their younger and faster counterparts. Lean teams are creating products that are 10X better. Good product managers are acutely aware that incremental improvements and enhancements (while hugely important) to existing products will never lead to a product that is 10X better. The true challenge in creating a market-disrupting product is the ability to go from Zero to One. Everything after that is gravy.
Given a problem, most product managers are able to answer the following two questions:
- How are we going to solve this problem?
- What is required to solve this problem?
Only good product managers are able to answer:
- Why do we need to solve this problem?
First-principles thinking requires a mind unencumbered by past lessons, experiences and biases. As Feynman once said – “I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than have answers that can’t be questioned.”
All product managers develop heuristics over time. These thumb-rules are essential survival tools. But good PMs know when to put these tools aside.
(2) They are true experimenters
Continuing down the scientific vein from the previous point – a good PM has broken down and deeply understood the three steps of the Lean Startup Methodology – Build. Measure. Learn. [Startup people are divided over the methodology and the minimum viable product (MVP) approach. However, the scientific temperament that the approach instils is praiseworthy and necessary.]
Every experiment has three crucial steps:
- Setting up the experiment
- Measuring the results
- Using the results to improve the experiment
Setting up the experiment involves a clear understanding of the purpose and the desired result of the experiment. This is where most PMs falter. Products/ features are built without a sense of expected results or what constitutes success or failure.
Measuring involves clear instrumentation and a firm grip of what needs to be measured and how. The actual act of data collection is equally critical.
Finally, comparing the actual results to the expected results and drawing inferences based on this comparison is what leads to learning. This learning goes towards improving the product/ feature as well as future products/ features.
A good PM is a master of all the three steps.
(3) They can work with people
This one sounds rather obvious, but isn’t. The success of a product and its product manager depends on a cross-functional team (engineers, designers, QA, marketing, sales, ops) coming together and working in sync. Getting people to work in tandem is the hardest (and most rewarding) part of being a PM. It requires the PM to be a soft-skills ninja.
Businesses (especially startups) are not democracies. But the ability to convince people and build trust (in your decisions/ choices) is imperative.
- Be empathetic (not sympathetic) – works for product development and people
- Be committed to every individual’s professional growth
- Learn to manage egos (especially your own)
- Admit your mistakes/ failures
- Your success is because of the team – let them know it
Most importantly – don’t have a chip on your shoulder because of your past accomplishments. Back in the day – your code had the beauty of poetry – it made grown men cry and women swoon. Your interface design used to bring all the boys to the yard. Those days are gone. You are a PM now – the product is your lord and master. Have a healthy appreciation for what others do – and don’t interfere in their work.
It’s all right if they think a chipmunk could do your job better. That’s just your lot in life now.
(4) They like bringing order to chaos
Good PMs like process. They like checklists. And they like striking out line items from the aforementioned checklists. They are obsessive-compulsive – or end up becoming over time. Their sanity is important to them – given that even a small product/ feature has a lot of moving parts – a perfect concoction for chaos.
But good PMs inherently know the value of an ever-evolving process. Every product and every team is a different beast. It needs to be tamed in its own unique way. First-principles thinking also needs to be applied to managing projects.
But a few handy rules of thumb should always be a part of a good PM’s repertoire:
- Daily scrums are good (and a good scrum never crosses the 10 minutes mark)
- Have a weekly/ fortnightly/ monthly sprint planning meeting based on your product timelines
- Never have one single big deliverable – multiple milestones, each with their own mini-deliverables, are crucial
- Obsessively use and test each mini-deliverable
- Do your homework before any meeting – your job is to make every meeting productive
- Take notes or have someone take notes during meetings – share these notes with everyone
- Most meetings give diminishing to negative returns after 45 minutes – stick to shorter meetings
- Use Jira/ Trello/ whiteboards – but every member of your team should know their deliverables at a granular level
One could argue that there are a lot of other qualities that a product manager can and should have. But in my mind, the four listed above are the ones that differentiate a good PM from your run-of-the-mill PM.
Good product managers are seldom universally liked, but they are definitely (sometimes begrudgingly) respected.