What great product managers do and don’t do

A while ago, an old friend asked me, “What do great product managers do?” More importantly, he asked, “What don’t they do?” That’s a huge question. In fact, we could talk hours about this…

Product managers have such a wide array of responsibilities. And unfortunately, in many companies, product managers are given the wrong tasks.

The role of a product manager differs based on the size of the company. I will focus on product managers in companies with dedicated product teams.

In early stage startups, the product manager is most often the CEO, or the product focused founder. In my case, I was the product manager in Firmafon with the title VP Product. Today, my co-founder, Harry Vangberg, is running Product.

What product managers do

A great product manager is the CEO of their product. That might sound a little corny, but I believe that it’s accurate. In my view, this means that product managers:

Take holistic ownership

A product managertakes ownership of selling the product to the very first customers and all the way to sunsetting the product when that’s needed. They know the unit economics and the product’s impact on the company better than anyone else. They know the customers better than the Sales and Marketing departments, and they know the health of the product better than their team. They know all there is to know about the product’s competitors and its future.

The product is their little company within the company. They act like they own it.

Build a strong team

The product manager does not hire team members directly, but they are responsible for the team functioning as a cohesive unit. To this end, they host events like: retrospectives, team breakfasts, team meetings, 1:1s with both team members and their real managers, and even social team events outside of work. As I have already stated, they function as the product “CEO”. Culture and team spirit are always of paramount importance to the CEO.

Set and track goals

Product managers are responsible for setting Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) and getting buy-in from their stakeholders. When setting OKRs, they must make sure that the OKRs align with the company’s yearly goals and objectives and with the product vision that they have been communicating with the company. It’s also important that the OKRs are defined in a way that inspires the team, so they are excited about their work.

When the OKRs are defined, the product manager tracks progress with daily and weekly reports and pass the information on to important stakeholders. One of the hardest jobs for the product manager is to look at their OKRs and realize that they are not achieving their goals. They must be willing to act on that information. It requires courage to stand in front of your boss, the company’s CEO, and other important stakeholders and say, “I am not achieving our team’s goals.” The product manager will always get the blame.

Facilitate discovery

Together with the team’s UX/Designer the product manager facilitate and push the team on discovery. They are responsible for running tests, interviewing customers, sending out surveys, conducting research, arranging field trips and assessing the results.

Making decisions

When they have spoken to stakeholders, done discovery, built a strong team, and completed 100 other pertinent tasks, there is still one more thing that I expect from a strong product manager. They must be willing to make difficult decisions and be comfortable with them. I expect that they will base their decisions on data, but they must also trust their gut. They must be responsible for their own decisions.That’s what it means to be CEO of their product.

If the decision is one that can only be made by more senior executives, then product managers must provide the information immediately. This way, swift action can be taken for the good of the company,

Managing time

While they are required to do just about everything, they are also required to show up on time for work each day. So, time management and saying “No” is one of the most important tasks of a product manager. They simply don’t have time to meet their goals, if they can’t manage their own time.

What product managers don’t do

Describing what product managers do is easy because their jobs are so comprehensive. Let’s take a look at what they shouldn’t do:

Product managers don’t often come up with great ideas

Many people think that the product manager is the brilliant person on the team that comes up with great product ideas that will change the world. This is simply not true. In my experience, it’s often the developers that come up with great solutions. They have the technical knowledge to apply to the problems they are exposed to during the discovery process. While the product manager facilitates the discovery process that creates the possibility for developing great solutions, they are not expected to invent these solutions.

Spec’ing out solutions and throwing them over the wall

In many companies, product managers sit in an ivory tower and write specs. These specs are then sent to the development team to implement (who are often on the other side of the globe). Product managers should never work this way. If you find yourself in an ivory tower filled with product managers writing useless specs, run as fast as you can and never look back.

Agile coach

The product manager is not the agile coach on the team although they should know the basic agile approach. I actually am not a huge fan of agile methodologies. I am more into lightweight Kanban in combination with an agile approach to the other elements of product managent and delivery. If you find yourself talking about agile concepts again and again, do a bit of soul-searching. My guess is that you have bigger problems on your team than you are afraid to admit.

I could continue down this rabbit hole for some time. The question of a product managers role can only be answered by looking at the entire product process. Some reading suggestions: Ben Horowitz’s and David Weiden’s, Good Product Manager, Bad Product Manager and Marty Cagan’s, Inspired: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love.

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