Six Secrets of Great Product Managers

I’ve often wondered if the inventors of the product management role had an odd sense of humor – how many jobs have virtually no staff and no resources of their own yet are accountable for some of the most important assets their companies own?

Early in my career, I interviewed for a product management role with a Fortune 100 company. They said the job was simple. All I had to do was predict the number of interactive CD’s that would be sold through channels to within 10%. As long as I got this right, I could keep my job. This is when I realized one of the ugly truths about product managers – they are like the “red shirts” on the old Star Trek series – the nameless, faceless guys that beam down to new planets with Kirk and Spock and inevitably get killed within the first few minutes.

Through the years, I’ve discovered six characteristics that are embodied by the most impressive product managers I’ve worked with. These folks are the opposite of the “red shirts” and they raise the bar for everyone.

Think and act like a student – Listen, learn, watch, ask, get up from your desk and go talk to people. Read books and blogs that are peripheral to your core product to expand your thinking. The famous Toyota Production System defines this with, Genchi Genbutsu, or “go and see for yourself”. You get the idea.

It’s more about what you take out than what you put in – the respected Harvard Business School professor and Intel board member, David Yoffie, once told me that great strategy is not about what you decide to do but about what you decide not to do. I constantly press our teams to find the “90/10” areas of our product where we can deliver 90 percent of the value for 10 percent of the work. Feature breadth is no longer the definition of great products. Simplicity is the new black.

Be passionate – (actually, this should say, “be bat-crap, crazy passionate”) – if you don’t really, really love your product, how can you expect anyone else to love it? You’ll have to take some risks and you’ll definitely suffer occasional scrapes and bruises. But every great product I can think of evolved in the crucible of well fought battles between intelligent and passionate product leaders. One of the ugly truths about game-changing ideas is that they are rarely obvious and never popular (at least not at first).

Be flexible – Agile is the new hot idea in the world of software development but the concept applies to a much broader range of products. Another ugly truth about game-changing ideas is that they often stink. Product managers need to be nimble and quick – constantly testing new ideas, throwing out the bad ones and doubling down on the good ones. Traditional, long-cycle, waterfall product development just doesn’t work like it used to and the modern world moves too quickly to plan the entire road map before you leave the garage.

Create moral authority –  The engineers, documentation teams, and customer marketing rarely report to product managers directly. Without large, direct teams, product managers often feel powerless to drive their vision and processes within their organizations. The good news is that great product managers gain authority through something more important and more fundamental than their location on the org chart – they develop their moral authority. Whether they talk to more customers than anyone else, or they are the most well-read experts on their market or they have a long history of delivering successful outcomes, great product managers work hard and earn their way into having a point of view that can easily become the most respected voice in the company.

Think different – This phrase was made famous by the greatest product manager of all time, the man who removed the off-switch from MP3 players, Steve Jobs. Think Different captures the deepest secrets of great products – incremental improvements will rarely result in amazing products. Product managers need to move beyond their “left-brain” roots and engage the creativity and novel thinking from their “right brain”.

Product managers are the single greatest hope the world has for creating amazing, extraordinary, over-the-top, mind blowing, game-changing products – the kind of products that change everything about who we are and the lives we lead. Over the next decade, the greatest product managers among us have the opportunity to truly raise the game for all of us and redefine the role from the “red shirts” of today to tomorrow’s architects of customer experience.

I originally presented the “six secrets” as part of a keynote speech I delivered at TAG’s Product Management Awards event in February 2013.

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