So you want to be a product manager …
Product management can actually represent a fairly broad range of professional and corporate roles.
In its most simplified form, the term product manager refers to individuals within an organization who are responsible for the creation of products for that organization.
In just about every instance, the product manager leads a team of employees and oversees a product from the ideation stage all the way up to launch, as well as handling feedback and the consequences of a product’s release.
If you’re considering seeking out a position as a product manager or you suspect that it might be a good option given your skill base and personality type, read on to learn more about what exactly product managers do and what kinds of challenges and opportunities tend to arise.
The path to product management w/ Maxime leroy
While some feel the pull toward a product management role, there are a significant number of product managers who come at the role from vastly different directions.
In fact, depending on industry and management style, it may be a wise strategic move to appoint a product manager who holds expertise in very different subject areas.
To get some straight answers on the realities of product management in a contemporary business setting, Current Artisan reached out to Maxime Leroy, co-founder and CEO of the startup Enquire, designer, and a longstanding product manager who now serves as product director.
Leroy has worked with Meetup Experiences, as well as a number of other high-profile startups, helping to capitalize on the emerging experience economy.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Leroy’s career is his path to becoming a product manager.
Having started out as a designer and CEO, Leroy had a front-row seat to observe how companies function, especially young startups.
“After co-founding and leading the startup Enquire, an anonymous Q and A app for your neighborhood, I quickly learned about product management. Initially, a startup has extremely limited resources so it is critical that everyone on the team is working on the right things at the right times. If people are waiting on your instructions, then you’re not doing your job. This is why I dedicated most of my time learning about setting and sharing objectives and key results.”
It wasn’t until Leroy joined up with Meetup that he realized just how useful these lessons could be when applied to the field of product management.
These principles of communication and roadmapping are essential to product creation and team efforts in general.
The biggest mistake in product management
“The most common and costly mistake product managers can make is to misunderstand their role. Product managers should focus on the “why” and the “what” of any feature. If you know why you need to build a feature, who you are building it for, and why it is important for the business, you will have more confidence when making decisions. Also, if you share the importance of that “why” with your team, you will now have allies to help you come up with smart ways to optimize the feature.”
This boils down to a deficiency in leadership skills. What makes this mistake especially sinister is that it can occur completely by accident.
As Leroy noted, managers can sometimes become fixated on deadlines, which creates a sense of anxiety that can lead to bad judgment.
As such, every single member of the team needs to have a thorough understanding of why certain choices have been made, the purpose of every feature, and the potential impact of the product.
The ups and downs of product roadmaps
Planning and research are essential steps on the way to tackling any project. Understanding what you’re up against, especially with regards to schedules and deadlines, helps to prevent many different types of challenges.
Depending on the project, this stage could last for months or even years, as is the case with video game consoles and smartphones.
Every successful product manager uses a product roadmap to navigate the tumultuous waters of development.
This is important to understand before creating any roadmaps of your own: every roadmap is a living thing. It changes and reforms over time.
In fact, if your roadmap doesn’t evolve, it won’t be effective. Even deadlines can be shifted. There may even be times when the decision to delay a product’s release can make or break a project.
Leroy is a pioneering leader when it comes to roadmap design.
This system places a great deal of importance on communication, motivation, and prioritizing specific initiatives to achieve the best possible outcome.
As a way of explaining the disparate factors that can influence the outcome of a project, Leroy posed a hypothetical scenario.
“Let’s say your design partner has some intuition about the insights he would uncover through design research and he believes, with 70% confidence, that they’ll be done within a month of research. They are then 50% confident they can design the experience itself in another month after that. Now your engineering partner is being asked to provide an estimate for how long it would take to build it. Let’s say they give a timeline of one month, with 30% confidence in their estimate.
If you’re new to product management, treat this as an exercise and try to estimate how likely it is that your team will be able to meet their deadlines. What problems would you expect to encounter?
When you’ve arrived at your answer, read on to hear how Leroy would assess this situation.
“Collectively, your team has 10% confidence in its ability to deliver this project within a quarter. Now add interdependencies with other teams and you understand why it is of the utmost importance to constantly update your roadmap, and therefore your confidence level, as you make progress.”
Update your roadmap often and make sure that everyone receives the latest updates. This fluid information flow leads into our final major lesson for newcomers to product management.
Communication and human connections
We’ve already touched on just how important it is to communicate with everyone, from your own team members to company leadership, who are anxiously awaiting the project’s completion.
Leroy wanted to add an important piece of information to this principle, namely that meeting regularly with team members gives you the chance to get to know each person and their individual strengths and quirks. This small human connection can also feed into motivation.
It’s important to remember that, as a leader, your actions don’t just impact the project, but company culture as well. You can set standards and priorities, even through example.
“No matter the size of your team, people need to trust that they are getting the right information and that they have access to you in order to be motivated to do their best work. Most of the time, this will require dedicated one-on-ones with the people you work with. By hearing them and creating an ongoing conversation, you will create a culture of initiatives where most of your partners don’t wait on specific instructions, leaving you with more time to talk with everyone. It’s a virtuous circle.”
Seeing your coworkers as people, not just professionals, allows for a more open and efficient workflow, one that anticipates and prevents as many problems as possible.