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What Good Product Managers Need to Succeed

My colleagues Aaron Sachs and Anupam Kundu recently posted an article with the provocative title, “Is it Time to Fire Your Product Manager?” You should read it if you are curious about the pressures of being in Product Management or how Product Managers should be evaluated.

I agree with what Aaron and Anupam are saying here. It’s extremely hard to succeed without a good Product Manager. A bad Product Manager can be fatal to an otherwise talented team. But I have often found that the root cause of underperforming teams lives farther up the food chain.

So I put together this list of things leaders need to do to create an environment where good Product Managers can thrive.

1. Give them problems to solve, not features to build

Nothing kills morale and innovation like a giving a team a list of features to deliver. It robs the team of the ability to think creatively. The team is left to blindly follow the mandate, reverse engineering why these features are important, and what problems they solve along the way. This causes churn as the team is endlessly trying to get on the same page with each other and leadership.

Teams that are given problems to solve and who are empowered to discover solutions are more likely to innovate. The different disciplines within the team will approach solutions from different angles. When these perspectives come together they often allow the team to explore non-intuitive paths to a solution.

And the team will be happier. They’ll care more because it is their solution, they created it and they own it.

2. Give them a clear, actionable mission and vision

I like how Paul Adams from Intercom describes mission and vision:

Mission: Why do we exist other than to make money?

Vision: What do we believe about the future? How will it help us reach our mission?

A good mission should be a provocative and specific statement about what the team values. It should be clear and actionable, not a list of obvious platitudes that could apply to any company. It should make it easier for product managers to make decisions about what to do and what not to do.

An example of a good mission is the Agile Manifesto which says, among other things, “We value individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” It is not saying that processes and tools have no value, it is just saying that when faced when evaluating new ways of developing software, Agile teams should individuals and interactions more. It’s specific and actionable.

3. Give them  a clear way to measure success

When there is no clear, commonly understood way to measure success, everyone will fill in their own fuzzy measurements and change them when it’s convenient. You not only risk misalignment, but you are forced to constantly shift tactics to serve constantly shifting success metrics. And you never get anything done.

Clear success metrics provide accountability. To a Product Owner, accountability is a gift. It allows you to focus on the important things and say no the the unimportant.

Good success metrics should measure when the team actually adds value, not just creates more stuff. Vanity metrics like Story Points, pageviews and time on site should be avoided. After all, you can make something harder to do and add pageviews and time spent on site. Concentrate success metrics on things that indicate real value has been achieved, like revenue or other types of conversions.

4. Give them the ability to release software easily and often

I don’t want to beat up on the developers here. But if your technology leadership is not embracing things like Continuous Delivery and automated testing, chances are that regularly launching new stuff is a slow and painful process.

It is really, really hard to be an effective Product Manager if you are can’t regularly get high-quality, low defect code into production with a minimum of fuss.

5. Remove tight controls and heavy process

Leaders often don’t understand that successful products are built by fostering a learning mindset through experimentation. They might see some early failures and put tight controls into place to “ensure against failure”. Unfortunately this usually leads to bureaucratic process where each new feature requires a spec document, review meetings and other gate checks at each step. Now everyone wants to put their stamp on the idea and the product team can’t move fast to test new ideas. That has a funny way of “ensuring against success”.

I think David Bland put it best:

6. Give them direct access to users

You are not your users. Your users have different needs, pains, and lives. They use your product in different contexts. You need to discover all of this and more. The best way to do this is to talk to them.

Your users are also precious. You don’t want to pester or annoy them. You want to partner with them. I have found that people are almost always willing to talk to you about their problems or your product as long as you are respectful of them and their time (especially if you pay them).

Good leaders will actively promote, or even mandate, that product managers habitually talk to users. The balance between gathering information and protecting users must be negotiated, especially in heavily regulated markets. But there is usually a way to get in front of users, it just might take some creativity.

Good Product Managers are expert influencers. If you are a Product Owner and are not being supported in these ways, use your influence to change your organization. It won’t be easy, but I promise you it will be worth it.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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