Product Management

What makes a great product manager?

Scott White
January 17, 2019

Some background on product development

Understanding what a product manager does is a lot easier when you place it in the broader context of product development.

At its core, product development is hypothesis testing. I believe something about the world, and I’m going to build something that either validates or invalidates this belief.

In its earliest days, it’s the company’s job to confirm or deny this hypothesis as quickly as possible. To test its hypothesis quickly, the company has two degrees of freedom: its target user, and its product offering.

Let’s think about an example: In its early days, what was the underlying hypothesis of Uber?

  • Getting from point A to point B sucks. I will pay more if you can get me from point A to point B quickly and conveniently.

Pretty simple right? Well the simpler the value hypothesis, the bigger the opportunity.

So how did Uber go about confirming this hypothesis? They selected a user that would help them confirm or deny it as quickly as possible, and tailored their offering to that user. So who did they choose? The very wealthy professional. This was the perfect user to test the hypothesis for two reasons:

  1. A wealthy professional places a high value on his/her time. If you want to test the hypothesis that you’ll pay more for saving time, then you want to test with someone who places a large dollar value on time.
  2. Wealthy people are less price-sensitive. If a wealthy person won’t pay more for something that saves them time (which we know already has a high value), then someone with a lot less money DEFINITELY won’t pay a lot more to save time.

Putting it all together, product development is pretty straightforward:

  1. Develop a hypothesis based on a critical problem or need.
  2. Select a target user that faces that problem or need.
  3. Build a product that solves that problem or need.
  4. Sell that product to that user. If they buy it, you’ve validated your hypothesis, and now you just have to grow.

So what does a product person do?

Put shortly, the product manager defines and communicates the vision for a product, articulates the core hypotheses that need to be tested to achieve that vision, and does whatever it takes to help the team test those hypotheses.

1. Understand

The first step for any product manager when they join a company is to learn about their market, their customer, and their business.

  • Who is our customer? What do they care about? What critical problems do they have?
  • What are the metrics that govern our product or business? Are they getting better, worse? How can we tell someone is addicted to our product? Where are the biggest opportunities? Where are we falling short?
  • What are the strategic objectives of the company right now? Are we in a land-grab? Are we trying to become profitable? How does my product fit in to these overall strategic objectives?

The product manager has to be the unambiguous expert for most of these questions, and probably the only non-executive at the company that needs to know the answers to all of them.

2. Define the vision

Once the product manager has a good grasp of the user, their needs, and the business, she needs to define and communicate the vision for her product to the team. If we could time-travel to the future, what does our product look like? In Uber’s case, a “real-time transportation layer for the economy” is an incredibly different vision than the “world’s best taxi service”. Without the former, we don’t get Uber Eats, Uber Freight, etc.

Defining this vision up front will act as the north star for any product you build down the line.

3. Outline the hypotheses that get you to the vision

Once the vision is well-understood, the product manager needs to develop concrete plans to achieve that vision, while continuously ensuring the product and the company stay on the right path.

Develop and manage the roadmap

Achieving a long-term vision is about validating a million smaller hypotheses. For Uber to become the transportation layer for the economy drivers need stable and predictable pay, merchants need to be willing to sell their products on their marketplace, and price-sensitive consumers need a product offering that gets them from point A to point B affordably. It’s the product team’s job at Uber to enumerate hypotheses, identify which ones represent the largest opportunity, and define the minimum viable product that sufficiently tests the hypothesis.

Contribute to the learning of the organization

More than anything, hypothesis testing is about learning. An experiment can be a massive failure, but if you set it up correctly, you’ll always learn something. It’s the PM’s job to always make sure that the company is going in the right direction based on the learnings they acquire while testing various hypotheses. Company strategies often change based on the unexpected learnings generated while testing hypotheses. A great example of this is Fortnite, which struck gold when its player vs. player mode “Battle Royale” became far more popular than the original game itself, and ultimately became the primary focus of Epic Games.

4. Execute

Like sharks, product development teams need to move forward to stay alive. To sustain positive momentum, product managers need to make sure that their teams know what they need to do, and that they are excited to do it. Great PMs do this in a few ways:

Remove ambiguity

Product managers are responsible for defining the “what” and the “why”, not the “how”. They do this by:

  • Articulating product and design principles that guide design and engineering implementation. Engineers and designers should be able to use these concepts to figure out the “how”.
  • Making decisions. A good product manager can decompose a hard problem, enumerate the options for solving it, and write a compelling argument for their recommendation, taking into account a variety of factors (user value, speed of implementation, business risk, etc.). The best product managers make the solution seem obvious.
  • Setting measurable goals. Business impact is a crucial ingredient in any new product, or improvement to an existing product. It’s important that product managers are able to “call their shot” by articulating the business impact of any initiative before work has started, both as a way to prioritize the highest-impact projects, but also to maximize the chances of learning after the product is launched. Why did it beat expectations, or why did it fall short?

Absorb stress

You’re the layer between the customer and the team. You’re also the layer between management and the team. When there’s a really bad customer ticket, it’s going to your inbox. When the CEO is furious at 11:30pm, you’re the one receiving the phone call. As the PM, you eat stress so the rest of the team can focus on designing and building products that will delight your customer.

Make other people successful

  • Unblock the team at all costs. Comparative advantage is very real, and you need to make sure that your team spends their time doing what they are best at, whether it’s engineering, design, or legal. It’s your job to make sure they’re not waiting for you (or worse, doing your job) so they can get their best work done.
  • Fill in the gaps. The product manager is the one person with a little bit of context about absolutely everything. They need to make sure that the design is constrained enough to be shipped on time, that the copy passes legal requirements, the events are instrumented correctly so metrics can be tracked, and it all needs to happen by Tuesday because the iOS app has to be submitted to the app store.
  • Build a body of knowledge that others can rely on, whether it’s FAQs, white-papers, or product specs. This body of knowledge should be clear and usable by partners at the company, whether it’s someone in comms. talking to the press, or a salesperson trying to close a deal.
  • Do the scutwork. Need FAQs written for launch? You need to write them. User research too busy to schedule customer interviews? You pull the list and send out the emails. You’re responsible for delivering the product – no excuses.

What qualities make a great product person?

Communication

The product manager needs to influence the team, without having authority over them. As such, trust is the greatest asset of any product manager. If they don’t have the trust of the team, no one will listen to them. Great product managers can:

  • Articulate a vision for a product that gets the team excited.
  • Frame hard decisions through first-principles, so disagreements don’t become personal.
  • Write easily-digestible product requirements.

Ability to think big and small

Product development is like paving a road to some desirable destination. You need to make sure you’re going in the right direction, but you also need to lay the bricks.

  • A great PM must be able to find and describe massive opportunities, and create a roadmap to achieve them.
  • A great PM must also be able to fill in missing FAQs on product release day, or track down last minute punctuation edits in the product.

Writing ability

  • A great PM can structure an argument that a lawyer, engineer, designer, sales person, and senior executive can all understand and agree on.
  • A great PM can influence customer behavior through clear and concise copy.

Data literacy

Product managers need to use data to formulate hypotheses, monitor and identify patterns in user behavior, and prioritize the largest opportunities for the roadmap.

  • Great PMs know how to measure business impact and user value.
  • Great PMs don’t need the data scientist to answer all of their questions. They’re willing to roll up their sleeves and write their own SQL.

Design intuition

Product managers need to be able to anticipate how your customer will interact with your product, and whether they’ll want to come back again and again. Good PM’s can:

  • Give informed direction to designers that elevates the discussion, and doesn’t alienate the design team.
  • Whip up quick wireframes if needed.

Who are some people you should follow?

"The best product minds I know have a small army of logicians, designers, engineers & enlightened humans consulting them patiently along the windy road of failure & discovery. It truly takes a village."

-- Brian Norgard

As we've already discussed, a hunger for learning is a shared trait among great product managers. Below are a few folks who share insights that any product person will find valuable.

Julie Zhuo (@joulee).

  • Strategy, product design, management.

Brian Norgard (@BrianNorgard)

  • Product design, interaction principles

Andrew Chen (@andrewchen)

  • The dynamics of product growth, trends in tech.

Ian McAllister (@ianmcall)

  • Communication, leadership.

Rose Yao (@dozenrose)

  • Startups, communication, product tips.

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