More on Product Management (Part 2)

Recently, I published a post that outlined 9 principles that make for great product management (On Product Management; May 23rd, 2017). I enjoyed writing the post as it was helpful for me to get my beliefs in a single place, and I was lucky to attract a great audience. My readers had some valuable thoughts, insightful questions, and astute clarifications via LinkedIn comments, Slack discussion, and direct emails.

In this post, I want to address some of those points of discussion, clarify a few things from my original post, and explore a few more principles that make for great Product Managers.

If you haven't read my original post, take a moment to read it and come back to this one. Finally, thank you to everyone that contributed thoughts, counterpoints, questions, and've helped me become a better writer, and a better Product Manager!

More on the Product Manager's role with vision & strategy

I started my last post out by saying that the role of a Product Manager is to shepherd through a vision...the vision of a Founder, a CEO, or a Chief Product Officer. I went on to talk about the PM's role as a leader, rallying the team around a vision and strategy, and developing products that serve multiple stakeholders. A couple of my readers pointed out that my message might have contradicted itself, and could be taken as a statement that vision and strategy aren't the role of the Product Manager.

This topic gets at a phrase that is commonly thrown around around Product Management, that being a PM is like being the CEO of a Product. I like this statement because it alludes to the type of work that a PM does, and the level of leadership they must demonstrate. I dislike this statement because it implies that the PM is ultimately in charge, that they can do what they want and have no equal in the organization.

While I absolutely believe that Product Managers should influence and contribute to company vision and strategy, and they should set a vision and strategy for their area of responsibility, the truth is that most of us work as part of a larger organization. Most of us have a boss, have a leader we work with. Many of us work at the companies we do because we were attracted to the mission and vision that their leadership put in place. If the Product Manager is setting company vision and strategy, rather than the C-suite, there's a problem. Similarly, if a Product Manager isn't helping the C-suite refine, build on, and advance the vision, there's also a problem.

More on user stories and project management

In my first post on effective product management, I made what turned out to be a controversial statement. I said that effective Product Managers aren't JIRA jockeys. This raised a lot of eyebrows and had many readers asking "but if not the PM, who?"

I firmly believe that the greatest value a PM delivers is not in JIRA, Pivotal Tracker, or any other project management tool. Thats not to say that a Product Manager shouldn't spend any time in these tools. These tools provide value to the team, and Product Managers should be involved in the workflow that takes an idea and turns it into reality.

Great Product Managers avoid being JIRA jockeys by doing two things: they communicate effectively early in the product development process, and they share the responsibility of management and oversight with other leaders.

Effective, clear, and complete communication upfront avoids the need for a micro-manager in JIRA. I do this through a Product Requirements Doc framework that aims to give my teams enough information about the problem and desired outcome that they can create development tickets with much more involvement from me.

Product Managers aren't the only leaders on a team. If the PM is the 'CEO of the Product' then the Engineering Manager is the CTO. Strong Product Designers have been present on every great product team I've worked on, and they should be looked to for leadership and direction. Finally, at larger organizations, Technical Product Managers can work alongside Product Managers to provide direction, validation, and management of the development process.

I believe that the amount of time spent in JIRA or similar tools is a view into a company's culture and the effectiveness of a PM. Product Management does not equal Project Management.

Effective Product Management orgs report through the CEO

Something I didn't touch on in my earlier post was the placement of Product Management in the org chart. There are a two common reporting structures for Product Management: Through the CEO or through the CTO. While both can work, I believe the best results come from Product Management organizations that report through the CEO.

This preference of mine stems from the idea that Product Management is about more than engineering. Engineering groups are singularly focused on technology, whether its the technology that customers interact with directly, or the backend and foundations that the product is built on. Conversely, Product Management is cross-functional by nature, working across pricing, customer support, sales, marketing, and more.

While the Office of the CTO can effectively lead Product Management, reporting through the CEO is a better fit. Like Product Management, a CEO's role spans the entire organization, influencing all aspects of delivering a product. Reporting through the CEO avoids potential conflicts of interest, where tough decisions must be made and priorities identified, and more easily allowing for a solution that might not be an engineering one.

Product Management is about more than code

In my last post, I may have ignored a principle which I feel is so important. The product is more than your software. The product is the entire experience that a customer or user has with your company. From how they first learn about your product, to how they are sold to, how they are on-boarded, how they use the product, how they are supported, and even how they are 'off-boarded", so to speak. Its all your product to the customer, they don't put walls between your marketing and your code, or between sales and support.

Effective product managers influence and lead all aspects of the product. They think of things like user documentation as part of the product. They know that interacting with customer support is part of the value being delivered. Sometimes the best way to move a product forward, to move the needle on sales or net promoter score, is to fine tune the non-software aspects of your product. If a Product Manager doesn't take responsibility for a cohesive product experience, its likely no one will and each customer touchpoint will remain silo'd.

Nike doesn't just sell shoes, they sell an identity. Blue Apron doesn't just sell meal kits, they sell time-savings and the joy of cooking. Software companies don't just sell access to code, they sell solutions to problems.

Am I living in a Product Management dreamland?

So am I crazy, or is my view on effective Product Management realistic? Truth is, its both. I have outlined a bit of a dreamland, a perfect world, but not a world that I've experienced at any single company or role I've held. That said, every philosophy that I've outlined is one that I've experienced personally or seen at other organizations. All of these philosophies are reasonable individually, and together they are a rare but special reality.

Some of these principles are ones that we can do on our own, as individuals seeking to be better at our jobs. Some of these principles require the mandate and support of our organizations and our bosses. If you desire more of a strategic and leadership role in your work as a PM, ask yourself two things. First ask if you are doing the things you can do with autonomy to be a more effective and efficient PM. Then, ask yourself if you are working for a company that wants and values leadership in a Product Manager.

This is part 2 of a 2 part series on effective Product Management. If you haven't read part 1, head on over to On Product Management for principles exhibited by great Product Managers.