A Good Product Manager plays a critical role in a successful product. A successful product is the highest impact contribution that anyone can make in the firm.
Being a good product manager is so complex that most product managers at most companies fail to be good.
Product management is a highly leveraged position. So, a bad product manager leads to many other harmful consequences.
This generally includes the wrong product being built. It has a significant impact on revenue, morale, and reputation.
This applies to both the product manager and their company.
There are several straightforward principles that product managers can follow. This will dramatically increase their chance of success.
But very few product managers follow these principles. Part of the problem is that these principles often are not articulated clearly.
Product management is a demanding role. Individuals should make sure they are up to the challenge.
This article will provide a complete viewpoint on what makes up a good product manager.
What Makes a Good Product Manager
A good product manager acts as the CEO of the product.
CEOs drive the vision and are ultimately responsible for their firm’s success. The same is true with a good product manager concerning their product.
Good product managers have a realistic vision of their product’s success. They ensure that this vision becomes a reality – whatever it takes.
The entire product team views good product managers as the leader of the product.
Company goals & capabilities
Good product managers understand company goals and set product strategies in that context. They understand the limitations and capabilities of their firm.
Good PMs know if their company wants to maximize per deal revenues through a high-end direct salesforce to a few hundred customers.
They find out if the firm wants to maximize customers with an easy-to-use product through a diverse reseller channel.
A good product manager also knows approximately how much and what kind of marketing resources will be required.
Good product managers do not always know the answer to these questions. But they know enough to ask when they do not.
Good product managers listen to customers. But they probe deeper into the underlying problems to get at the customer’s compelling value proposition.
You might ask for a louder stereo for a noisy car. But a quieter car is a much better option.
A good product manager gets at that difference. Good product managers also know what customers can & will pay for (sometimes slightly different from what they want).
Good product managers do quantitative research.
All good product managers are confident that if they build a specific product, customers will buy it.
Good product managers understand that there is no option to screw it up. So, they go the extra mile to get this right.
Good product managers understand the capabilities of the competition. They know where the competitors can go quickly and cannot go at all.
Good product managers know they must be better or different, or they are dead. “Different” can mean things such as integration or distribution.
Find Out What You Do Know and Not Know
A good product manager is acutely aware of what they know and why they know it, as well as what they do not know. They understand the difference between opinions and facts. A good product manager knows that their job is to fill in these gaps in knowledge, not defend or obfuscate them.
A good product manager does not ruin their credibility by overstating their knowledge.
Think Ahead and Monitor Your Assumptions
All these factors need to be considered both presently and over the product lifetime. It is usually 1 – 2 years from now.
Good product managers also know their critical assumptions and monitor them from time to time to make sure they still hold.
For example, suppose a server product’s success assumed dominant client market share.
In that case, the product plan should be re-evaluated as soon as that assumption is threatened.
Good product managers will actively confirm their understanding with their team.
Good product managers write down product requirements
They define clearly what the product should do. Good product managers do not forget to specify critical information.
Good product managers prefer clarity. They are willing to explain the obvious to make sure it is understood.
Good product managers also specify the whole product. This includes release criteria, platforms, etc., not only the new features.
Good product managers also sense and tackle thorny issues – in writing – early in the development process.
A good product definition is based on research and information. It is a logical, transparent thought process that the entire team buys into.
Good Product Managers Effectively Manage & Lead Technical Teams
Good product managers know that engineers are scientists by nature. They value data much more than opinion.
Also, engineering and other PD (QA, Doc, etc.) should be involved in that process.
They define a clear product vision as part of innovation management. This empowers engineering to fill in the intricate details to specify or anticipate.
Good product managers also explain why engineering should build a product a particular way.
They will not ask for a two-ton collection of certain parts. They will not hope it comes out as a Porsche.
A good test of a product manager is for someone outside the product team to ask five different engineering, QA, and doc people.
They should ask what their product is supposed to do and why and get the same answer.
Their engineering teams respect good product managers. In difficult decisions, In difficult decisions, engineering teams involve good product managers.
Good product managers gather information from engineering informally and verbally. But They give direction in writing to engineering.
Written communication to engineering is superior. It provides consistency across an entire product team. It is more lasting and raises accountability.
Good product managers regularly attend product team meetings. They make sure they are around when engineering is making tradeoffs.
Good product managers give importance to the Product Requirements Document (PRD).
The PRD is the most critical document the product manager maintains. It should be the definitive source of direction from marketing to engineering.
Good product managers keep PRDs up-to-date. This is done on a weekly or daily basis.
Good product managers view the entire PRD process as an ongoing process. Engineering has new questions, market conditions change, etc.
A good product manager communicates PRD changes to the entire product team.
Good product managers do not rest until they are sure that the product vision is consistent. This has to be ensured across product management, engineering, QA, tech pubs, and support and is reflected in the PRD. They do not rest because they know that no great product ever emerged from a broad set of conflicting visions.
Good product managers have explicit goals.
Good product managers are committed to success. They define success as achieving explicit goals that are written down.
Good product managers have written goals for their product and their objectives.
Good product managers know the advantages of their products.
All good product managers know how their product will be different. This comprises a vital part of the overall product vision from day one and is reflected in most things the product manager does.
Good product managers have these advantages written down.
The salesforce loves good product managers.
A good product manager will be known by at least half the salesforce.
They know that salespeople choose products to sell and, at a higher level, companies to work for. So, selling a particular product manager’s product is optional.
Good product managers know that if the sales force does not like their product, they will fail. Good product managers know how to win over the sales force.
Focused on making them money
Good product managers focus on and understand that salespeople are under much pressure. They have to make their quota this quarter, and that is about it.
They understand most salespeople only care about things in that context. So, they put things in that context without making the sales reps make many intellectual leaps.
“XYZ paid $1m for directory because of ABC feature.” They do not state “ABC allows referential integrity to be maintained across entries.”
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Knowledgeable of what happens in the field
Nothing turns off a salesperson more than a product manager who rambles on their product features. They seem to have no idea of the salesperson’s actual situation.
Good product managers know if the salesperson understands the product. If not, they train the salespersons with easy-to-understand basics.
They explain to customers why they should care more about the product. Good product managers speak from experience. “When I helped Bob close this deal…”
- Around – they have been out in the field, been to sales training, been to SE training, been to pitches, etc.
- A good presenter
Good product managers know and understand customers.
Good product managers know a handful of customers personally. All good PMs understand the exact dynamics of real customer situations.
They leverage this knowledge with engineering, other customers, the salesforce, press, analysts, etc.
Marketing & communication
Product management requires an understanding of a wide array of marketing functions.
Good product managers should work effectively with PR and press, and analysts.
They should understand how to execute a product launch, develop collateral, staff a tradeshow, train the salesforce, etc.
A core rule of good marketing is to have articulated advantages consistent across materials (ideally from the PRD to customers to sales, etc.).
Create leveragable collateral, FAQs, presentations, white papers. A product manager should ensure a core set of updated collateral exists.
Suppose your primary competitor is ABC. The most recent competitive positioning on abs is nine months old and refers to their product’s last release.
In that case, this is indicative of a bad product manager.
Also, good product managers take competition into account in developing their messages. However, they are not a slave to what the competition does.
Time Management and Sense of What is Important
Good product managers focus their time on two areas. One are tasks that are critical to their product success (e.g., export approval, mandatory licensing arrangements);
The other are tasks that have a high impact on their business (closing big deals, updating their PRD, etc.). They also leverage their time by completing FAQs, doing good training, etc.
A lot of product management is ad hoc. Good product managers have discipline and organization in their work.
Good product managers keep their projects up-to-date in Signposts.
All good product managers send their reports in on schedule.
Good product managers do not over-promise. Good product managers keep developers doing product development. They do not offer engineering resources for things that can and should be handled by sales or marketing.
Characteristics of a Bad Product Manager
Bad product managers treat themselves as marketing resources.
Bad product managers define their role narrowly. They think they are a marketing resource. They write datasheets arranges press releases, get customer feedback, etc.
Bad product managers get all of their time taken up. They take product team minutes. They are gophers for engineering.
Bad product managers have lots of excuses
Not enough funding, the engineering manager is an idiot, I am overworked, I do not get enough direction. Bad managers point out that they predicted their own failure.
The CEO of a product should not make such excuses.
Bad product managers miss the important factors.
All bad product managers build a good product for a market their company is not in. Bad product managers build a complex product.
Bad product managers ask users leading questions. So, they get biased answers.
Bad product managers go on their instinct. They “confirm” it with two unusual customers.
Bad product managers react only to their competitors’ moves and forget to develop their own product’s identity. They let it be just a hodgepodge of what the competition is not doing.
Bad product managers are not savvy or confident enough to distinguish between interest and commitment to buy.
Bad product managers blindly listen to the loudest customers. They then define a product that addresses yesterday’s needs of a handful of companies.
Bad product managers compare today’s competition to future products. They cite advantages customers do not care about.
Bad product managers try to defend their lack of knowledge.
All bad product managers have blinders on and do not notice when things change and notice only when their product fails.
Bad product managers misunderstand their role or do not communicate clearly with engineering.
Bad product managers specify the how, not the what.
They want light and ask for a candle. This is when their engineers could have built a light bulb.
Bad product managers have a terrible feeling about an aspect of the product but leave it murky.
Bad product managers worry about specifying every feature in detail. They think they know more about solving a problem or how the product should behave or be architected.
Bad PMs put off hard decisions until the end of the product cycle. All bad product managers write a PRD and assume that engineering will grasp it.
Bad product managers do not have time to update their PRD. All bad product managers update the PRD and do not tell anyone, do not tell enough people, or explain why.
They change engineering priorities based on the latest customer feedback or the latest hot sales situation.
This is done without going through the defined process. Bad PMs ignore engineering requests or calls.
Bad product managers do not have clear product goals or advantages
All bad product managers have mushy goals. Bad product managers hesitate when asked for the product advantages.
Bad product managers have inconsistent product positioning. Their advantages change from time to time.
Bad PMs do not have time for the salesforce or customers.
All bad product managers focus on their product and competitors and are unsure of what is going on in the field.
Bad product managers delegate working with sales. Salespeople dislike bad product managers. Bad product managers are boring presenters.
Bad product managers talk about how future products will be great. This is when the current products are weak.
Bad product managers do not care about individual customers.
No Time Management or Sense of What is Important
Bad product managers put out fires all day. Bad PMs complain that they spend all day answering questions for the sales force.
They are swamped yet do not create FAQs or other leveragable collateral.
Bad product managers forget to send in their status reports on time because they do not value discipline.
They over-promise. They offer engineering resources for things that can and should be handled by sales or marketing.
Excellent product managers show group product manager skills while they are product managers. These skills include:
- Be paranoid.
- Work well with executives.
- Leverage the entire organization.
- Use intensity to close critical issues.
You may not be the CEO of anything right now. But the funny thing is Product Leaders make for great CEOs. Some CEOs can do with acting more like Product Leaders.
Great CEOs are defined by leading without authority and moving mindsets. They set your team up for success.
So, keep working on those skills if you want that title. Who knows where you might end up!
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