So, what do product managers do?

My last post on product management got a surprising burst of traffic. Rather than leave it as a confused look at product management, here’s some of the advice I’ve either received or given re: being a PM.

1) Product managers wear three hats
Congrats, as a product manager you get three jobs:
a) Project manager: keep the wheels on the bus, the trains running on time and over-communicating about status, documentation, strategy, vision, etc
b) Product manager: the actual feature and requirements spec’ing, working with your x-functional team to get things built and shipped
c) CEO: the buck stops with you no matter what the org chart says. When your product succeeds lavish praise on the team. If your product is struggling you don’t blame sales or marketing – you help them get on track.

Whether you’re a greenhorn PM or a senior jedi master, you always wear these hats. It’s just that your percentage of time allocated to each of the roles shifts away from A and towards C. Fresh out of school and you might be 35% project manager/60% product manager/5% CEO. It’s important that the CEO # is never 0% — even the newest PM hire should have something they approach this way. It builds accountability and a way of thinking that becomes essential to their development.

2) Seek a mandate, not necessarily consensus
In their leadership of flat x-functional teams some PMs seek consensus, thinking this is the best way to get a team moving in the same direction. I believe this is wrong. Collaboration, communication and inclusion are essential – you’ll die on the vine without your team. But it’s not consensus you should seek. It’s a mandate to lead in a particular direction. The backing to make the call.

You acquire your mandate power via upper mgmt supporting your strategic plan, from your x-functional team leads feeling included and empowered, and from your team members knowing that they can contribute and have ownership over their areas, but at the same time have a strong PM who will make the tough decisions.

3) Give PMs goals, not projects
Product managers turns goals into projects with the help of their teams and entrepreneurship. At YouTube we try to give our PMs broad ownership and then work with them to ensure the projects they initiate fulfill the needs and measurable goals of the area and the company.

4) Overwhelm them as a prioritization exercise
Too much to do. That’s the perpetual state of being a PM. But the benefit is you focus on the most meaningful actions and move from highest nail to highest nail. If you’re leading a group of PMs the tricky thing is to make sure you’re still positioning them for success. Gentle nudges, help in prioritizing, etc. But at the end of the day they need to develop this critical muscle where they learn to delegate and to pull resources towards them. The leveraged PM doesn’t say “i can’t get it done,” they prioritize and help identify the resources necessary for success.

5) “Not on my watch”
Be willing to stand up for what you believe, especially when you’re representing your users. Hard decisions make great products. Your job is not to carve the safe route. Your job is to increase the probability that you’ll be delighting millions of users in a sustainable fashion. Don’t let others design your product for you.

6) You are a caretaker of something bigger
Your job is to take a product (and company) from one defined phase to the next. Then you will pass it on for another phase. The leader for the next phase might be you again or it could be someone else. Either way you should be handing off something which is sustainable. If your product was a winner solely because you carried the weight of the world on your shoulders then you’re not doing your job. Build leverage, build an organization around you, find people who will be even better than you.

5 thoughts on “So, what do product managers do?

  1. Well written piece on great management style and philosophy.I sent it to a friend who retired from pharmaceutical industry a few years back. Products change but basic principles of successful executives do not.

  2. Great products are built by a team that is lead by a person with a vision. At Apple where my first boss was one of the early employees, they called them “product champions”. To distribute any one of the roles that Hunter describes invites mediocrity. See “auteur theory” to understand the same idea in film

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