Episode 5 of Good Product Management brought to you by Scott Colfer.
Previously on good product management: we uncovered principles for ‘product-thinking’ that can be used by anyone to improve the values of their products and services; found out how I learned the most important principle is being passionate about problems and flexible on solutions; then defined what it means to be a product manager.
Last episode we uncovered the skills needed to be a good product manager. This episode we’re looking at the behaviours. Here are five behaviours of good product managers.
No one knows what they’re doing. That’s particularly true of product managemers. There’s value in being honest about this and making a virtue of it.
Most product ideas are fundamentally flawed. They should stop or be completely reshaped. And that’s fine. Everything starts with a leap of faith. As long as we know we’re wrong, we can get things moving then build, test, learn, and improve.
Once things are moving, every decision is based on imperfect data and flawed insights. That’s ok. In fact, it’s the best anyone can do. Everything we do as a gamble, we know we might lose. But we play the game anyway, managing our bets so we can live to play another day.
Even the way we think becomes out of date as the profession develops so what was right one year is wrong the next. We love this. It means we get to learn, change, and improve all the time.
We’re often wrong about who our product is for. The problem it solves. How it should work. And who we need to get it in the hands of our users. The quicker we can find these gaps, the better. We’re valuable because we can find these gaps, bridge them, and fill them. Most people involved in a product specialise in a narrow and deep skillset. Like research, design, or engineering. We specialise in seeing the whole of a product, our skillset is broad and shallow. We look at how everything fits together and get niggled when something’s missing or doesn’t fit well.
Every once in a while we need to get our hands dirty and fill the gaps ourselves.
Product management is listening, thinking, and talking. We’re not the people building or running the product. We’re between the:
This means there’s lots of work behind the scenes to keep the product moving, often chalked up as ‘meetings’. There’s lots of work front of house telling different audiences about the product. ‘Show the thing’ is often more like ‘show the product manager’.
We strive to improve the craft of product management. It’s our responsibility to do the best we can. We make time to help other product managers. And we try to do this in a way that helps the welfare of our colleagues and communities.
Product managers don’t do anything :) Not in a tangible sense anyway. We’re not the doers or the builders in a product team, we’re the thinkers and strategists. This doesn’t mean that we don’t like doing or building. In fact, we’re often holding ourselves back. We’d love to jump into research, design, or coding. But know this would be toxic for the team. So we have stuff in real life, outside of work, where we scratch this itch. I know a lot of product managers who love their food and drink. There’s wine nerdiness. There’s restaurant nerdiness. Cooking nerdiness. Coffee nerdiness. Chat to us and you’ll uncover closest musicians, developers, entrepreneurs. We have a lot of hobbies. This helps us to hold-back from jumping into ‘hands-on’ work in the team, because that’s not where we’re most valuable.
We enjoy being wrong: There’s another aspect to this that I need to figure out how to say simply. Product management means different things to different people and within different organisations. I’ve never found definitive sources of truth (books or courses) that cover the whole thing. This means we need to act like magpies, seeking out shiny nuggets amongst the blogs, talks, conferences, books, vidoes, talks, and courses. Our model for product management is likely a Frakenstein’s monster of stolen parts that shifts and changes over time.
We find the gaps: ‘Filling the gaps’ is how one tech giant describes product management. The company describes itself as led by engineering and design. It sees product management as a generalist role that does the remaining work. This Irked me. I decided to reclaim this phrase. We are specialists. Our specialism is having a broad enough view to see the gaps, then figure out how to help our organisation understand them, bridge them, and fill them.
We’re behind the scenes and front of house: I have a specific example of this that springs to mind. I worked a double-shift at a friend of a friend’s restaurant and saw first hand how he ran it. We chatted during shifts. This was 8-10 years ago and ‘pop-ups’ were all the rage. He said that he never went to them because it’s easy to make decent food but providing a great dining experience takes time and effort. He’d never experienced this in a pop-up so stopped going to them. I saw the reality of this during my double-shift. The Head Chef and owner was aware that he wasn’t just chucking food out of a kitchen. Hee was helping his team to do their best work. But he was also providing the backdrop to reunions, deals, dates, birthdays, anniversaries. During service, he kept himself at the pass at all times. He managed the flow of orders to the cooking stations based on how each table’s meal was flowing and how underused/overused his staff were. He checked everything before it went out to tables, sending it back if it wasn’t perfect. He would briefly host and speak with tables who wanted it, and briefly support and coach staff who needed it. This is the clearest example of behind the scenes and front of house that I hold with me.
We’re craftspeople: I recently watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It’s a documentary about a sushi master in Japan. It contained the idea of ‘shokunin’, striving for mastery of one’s profession, viewing it as our social obligation to do our best for the wellbeing of our community. I didn’t want to take this word and use it ‘as is’ because I’m wary of appropriating another culture. Instead, I’ve been inspired by it. I’ve used the word ‘craftsperson’ and created a definition that fits my needs and experiences.
We have a life beyond work: I find it fascinating what product managers are into in real life. I reckon there’s a whole newsletter on this for someone with the time and interest.
I’ve previously used the word skill to mean the practical application of knowledge to do our job. I’m taking ‘behaviours’ to mean attitudes and approaches that enhance our skills. They describe how we act and interact with other people and organisations. Some of these behaviours may be innate to some people but they can all be learned. Behaviours are more general than skills and can be useful in many roles. Their breadth might help us to see potential in those not already in the profession. Much of the way we describe product management is technical and exclusive. My hunch is that using behaviours might help our profession be more open and inclusive.
Behaviours are important because sometimes skill isn’t enough. I might be great at product strategy in the abstract and create a ‘perfect’ roadmap that focuses on outcomes and avoids deadlines for outputs. But if it doesn’t help my team to understand what they’re doing then my strategy is flawed.
These are not the only behaviours of good product managers or even the most important. They are simply the five that stood out to me within the two hours I invested in drafting this newsletter. I don’t want to exclude people who don’t feel aligned with these, or block the introduction of newer or better ones. These are personal observations from the last ten years or so. I’m interested to know if you’d add any of your own?
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