The Three Jobs of Product Management
No matter how hard and long you work, there are only 24 hours in a day. If you don’t want to have a psychotic break, you probably work 8–12 hours a day allowing for some sleep and rest. Time is finite for everyone.
This means you have to make active choices about where you spend your time. If you are a product manager, you always have more work than you can do. This is your natural state. The only question is which work will you spend your precious hours on.
Product managers have three key jobs.
- Business Owner. A product manager might be in charge of a tiny business, like a feature on a website, but that business still has to do its job, be it revenue, acquisition, conversion or retention. This means the PM must track competition, discover best practices, understand buyers and users, handle partners, develop and/or manage an acquisition strategy and much much more.
- Vision Holder. Every product has a job to do so the business can thrive. If teams forget the job of the product, products get… odd. The PM doesn’t have to create a vision. It can come from the general manager or the team itself. But the PM has to insure the team knows what they are trying to accomplish and why. This also manifest in evangelizing outward to other teams in the company, to ensure cooperation and support.
Vision holding is the most neglected job of a PM, yet it is the one that makes teams and product succeed. (OKRs can help!)
- Team Coordinator. A job similar to a project manager, you have to make sure everyone knows what’s going on, what’s expected, what the schedule is (if you have one) who is blocking who, etc etc etc.
To be honest, I’m pretty sure Product Managers have more jobs than this (likedoing missing employee’s jobs) , but for now…
Stage 1: Storming
Product Managers, like all humans, tend to do the work that has the most screaming associated with it. So in a new team, or a dysfunctional one, the bulk of the screaming (and whining, and questioning, and requesting, and grousing) comes from the team. The next most frequent comes from the next level up — the General Manager or the CEO. So when a PM “chooses” where to spend her time, it tends to be on team coordination and then business needs.
A PM working with a weak team spends all her time in reaction mode.
After running around all day making sure everyone knows what they are doing, and has what they need, and WHY they are doing it, the product manager stays up late trying to fit in as much work on the business as she can manage.
But as teams mature, this gets better.
Stage 2: Norming
We get less of a need for team coordination, because the teams know who is responsible for what. And we begin to see some institutional memory and shared values emerge just from working together over time. The team knows the product, and knows what it’s job is, and knows how to make it better. You can accelerate teams getting to Stage 2 by collaboratively setting OKRs, creating a team mission statement and actively creating norms based on shared values (essay to come on this.)
Sometimes Stage 2 never happens. Some teams are so dysfunctional they hang out in Stage 1 forever. I’m really sorry for you Product Managers with Stage 1 teams. I’m sure you’re tired.
The product manager still has to bring the vision for her product out to other teams in the company, so they understand why they should cooperate with the PM’s team. Sometimes “vision holding” is more “justifying our existence.”
In some companies communicating the vision and status of a product means doing a lot of roadshows. A PM may live in Powerpoint, making decks to bring understanding of her team’s product to other groups, to take to private meetings with GMs and to pitch their value upward to protect their team’s work and acquire budget. Sometimes a PM has great aircover from her boss, and evangelizing is more casual. She still has a lot of lunches and coffee with fellow PMs to do a little horse trading. It all takes time.
A good PM has to commit time to outreach. If the team can hold the vision, the PM has more time to make the connections that help the product survive internal pressures.
Stage 3: Performing
You arrive at Stage 3 by adopting efficient work methodologies.
An aside: perhaps your team has done this already, before sharing a vision. Many teams leap into agile (or other high-performing approaches) before they decide to design their goals and values. In that scenario, Stage 2 might be fixing team coordination, and Stage 3 might be creating shared vision.
But since the most common scenario I’ve seen is, “time creates shared values, and later teams decide collectively they’d like to become more efficient,” I ordered it this way. It’s how I’d try to guide the team, if I had a new team. Your milage may vary.
Good methodologies like scrum can reduce the overhead of coordination and return yet more time to the PM. She can then really focus on growing the product’s business, and making the company more successful. It also gives the team more autonomy, which makes them happier and more productive.
Simple tools like Stand Up meetings promote mutual accountability and facilitate communication. Post-mortems accelerate learning. Kanban makes progress visible. It’s critical to find good working tools, try them, and adopt those that work. You don’t have to follow Agile slavishly to get the value from their core practices.
A Fourth Job?
I named the three stages after Bruce W. Tuckman’s famous Development Sequence in Small Groups. I’m stunned how many teams are willing to stay in a state of storming. Very few people enjoy open conflict, and early stage teams will experience it as a natural consequence of figuring out how to work together. A Product Manager who solves the problems as a go between both enables Stage 1 to endure and squanders her time.
Part of your job as a PM is tell people to talk to each other. Part of your job is to call a meeting to say, “This isn’t working. What else can we try?” Until you stop being a bandaid, you can never be a vitamin. Until you can stop looking inward, you can never look outward toward customers and competition.
Before you can do your three jobs, you have a (hopefully) temp job of guiding the team toward performing. It’s hard. A Product Manager often has influence without authority. She can’t fire anyone, or even get them off her team.
But she can stop being a crutch. She can guide the team to better work behaviors. She can ask the team to choose who they want to be, how they want to work, and how they hold eachother accountable.
Choose How Your Time is Used, Don’t Let It Be Chosen for You
A Product Manager will always lead holding the vision and will always coordinate the teams, but she is always more effective is she doesn’t have to do it alone. And the time she gets back to work on the product’s business success means everyone succeeds.
A team is more than a bunch of people with different skills put together. A great Product Manager will commit up front to the hard work of creating that shared vision, values and work style so she has time to make her business thrive.
A poor one runs around all day like a chicken with her head cut off.
Who do you want to be?