The Tutorial Phase
Learning the foundations of product management
To kick off my blog’s launch, this month, I am going to share my perspective of a high-level overview of what product management is, as well as challenges I face in my role as the only Product Manager(-in-training) at a B2B startup and my observations of the attributes that shapes how product management looks, feels, and sounds like within an organization to date.
Do any topics or ideas resonate with you? If you enjoy this post, consider sharing it.
Author’s Note: Throughout the rest of this post, product team is used to refer to an organization’s Product Management team or department as a shorthand.
🤔 What is product management?
In 2011, Martin Eriksson defined product management as the intersection between user experience, technology, and the business. You may even recognize this Venn diagram! Honestly, I prefer replacing “technology” with “engineering,” as technology may limit your thinking to software products.
© Martin Eriksson, 2011
In 2021, Ken Norton reflected on the artistic and the scientific perspectives involved in product management.
There are dozens, if not hundreds or even thousands, of different ways to describe what product management is. Hence, I’ve distilled it down to this essence:
Product management boils down to:
Continuously finding the next most relevant question to validate or solve, and
Cultivating a psychologically safe environment where everyone and their perspectives are respected, curiosity is encouraged, and diverse points of view are involved holistically throughout the product development lifecycle.
Let’s unpack the first point:
Continuously finding:in our rapidly changing world, new products are introduced into the market. Products and companies that can’t adapt to user and market needs in a timely fashion get abandoned.
The next most important question:there are so many questions that need to be considered throughout the product development lifecycle. I like how Marty Cagan has categorized questions into four (4) major buckets of risks to a product:
Value: whether customers will buy it or users will choose to use it
Usability: whether users can figure out how to use it
Feasibility: whether engineers can build what we need with the time, skills, and technology we have
Business viability: whether this solution also works for the various aspects of our business
However, time and resources are always limited. Thus, a product team must focus their efforts on figuring out which question is the most relevant to address next.
Sometimes, the relevance of the question depends the most on urgency. At another time, the relevance of the question depends the most on importance. It could even depend on both!
Validate or test:in this context, validate means you have a rough idea of what the problem is from your perspective but haven’t yet checked if this problem exists solely in your own head, nor have you set boundaries to frame the specific issue to tackle a reasonable scope—as opposed to trying to tackle the entire issue in one fell swoop. On the other hand, test means you have framed the specific problem and need to check if your approach or solution actually addresses the problem.
And as for the second point:
Psychological safetyis a shared belief that a team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking, as defined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmonson.
Individualshave mutual respect for each other, both as fellow humans and for their unique lens of perceiving the world.
Curiosityand the sustenance of a beginner’s mindset is what enables us to challenge the status quo and surface underlying assumptions in our thinking.
❓ How is product management different than project management?
From my experience, project management is an integral function within organizations, especially in product development, either formally as defined roles or a set of competencies that a product team possesses and practices.
There are many similarities in key competencies between both functions:
Communication across business functions and at various levels of an organization, which includes influencing and managing individuals and teams without necessarily having authoritative power over them;
Building relationships and establishing trust with working teams, inclusive of stakeholders;
Accountability to make sure the required work gets done, even if you’re not necessarily the person responsible for completing the work; and
Managing and staying on top of multiple moving parts to ensure the right piece of the puzzle is completed at the right time. After all, the devil is in the details!
However, product management is different than project management in that:
You as the Product Manager are the linchpin in figuring out what work gets completed and why, which entails doing market and user research;
A Project Manager is typically given a set initiative, goal, or objective that they’re responsible for leading to completion.
Your focus behind an initiative is on the why and, to some extent, the what; and
Project management focuses on the details of what’s being delivered by when and by whom.
You’re driving decision-making throughout the product development lifecycle.
Project management focuses on following through with the decisions made and action items decided upon.
⛰️Common challenges in startups
Here are some firsthand challenges I have experienced working as product person number one at her 25-person B2B supply chain startup.
Author’s Note: I recently came across this write-up about why one may want to be the second 0-1 or founding Product Manager at a startup.
Feelings of isolation
Almost all my coworkers have at least one other teammate who is in the same position that they’re in, which lets them have a mutual channel through which they can occasionally air out frustration.
🧰 How to address this: find a peer mentor, coach, or community of like-minded folks. Make time for connecting 1-1 with folks, both non-product and product, internal and external to your organization.
Feeling obligated to constantly prove the value of product management to other individuals or teams in the organization
My startup has next to no practical experience of working with a product team. At times, I feel compelled to explain or even defend my team’s perspective, ask, or position.
🧰 How to address this: focus on your target audience’s needs or goals and how working with the product team will enable them to achieve their goals.
Almost constant time and resource constraints
My Development team isn’t fully staffed. Half of them are wrapping up a project on a non-mainline product.
🧰 How to address this: keep communications with your stakeholders or leadership team transparent and ongoing. Keep them in the loop. If a date needs to get pushed out, let them know sooner rather than later so Sales or Professional Services can keep customers in the loop.
When push comes to shove, if a customer is given the choice between quality and time, they will almost always prefer a quality product that arrives a bit later than originally projected over a bug-filled product that arrives “on time.”
Balancing short-term survival considerations and long-term sustainability considerations
Making money in a sustainable way is hard, largely due to the temptation to put the bottom line above all else in a capitalistic society.
Particularly in a B2B context, it can also be very tempting to bend over backwards for your biggest customers for the monthly recurring revenue they bring in with their subscription. However, at the end of the day, running a business is a marathon, not a sprint.
🧰 How to address this: come up with a product vision and product strategy with your leadership team. Work with them and teams around your organization to learn how to use them as guidance in day-to-day decision-making, planning, and execution of tasks.
Some of my favourite reads about product strategy include:
Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why it Matters by Richard P. Rumelt
7 Powers: The Foundations of Business Strategy by Hamilton W. Helmer
A Twitter thread on the topic by Shreyas Doshi
(B2B) Balancing the push and pull with Sales, Account Management, and Professional Services
You can expect at least one of these departments to say something along these lines at some point, “This large prospect needs this functionality before they’ll sign!” They might also be a bit antsy or hesitant about letting you talk with customers or prospects out of the fear of losing a renewal or signing a new contract.
🧰 How to address this: keep a close pulse on these teammates or their leader. Build trust with them and help them see the common ground that actually exists between both parties—delighting customers, impressing prospects, continuously improving the product and its messaging, and bringing in revenue for the company.
Everyone has an opinion about what product management is
…It doesn’t mean they’re all right, though, nor does it mean their perception of what product management should be is what our customers and our company need.
🧰 How to address this: keep an open mind and stay curious. Ask them to elaborate on their feedback until you reach specific points of feedback.
Do your best to take what your coworkers say about what you’re doing, what you’re not doing, and how you’re doing your job lightly. We’re all entitled to have an opinion. Feedback is a gift; however, just because it’s a gift doesn’t mean you have to accept it and act on it.
🗒️ Factors that shape product management in organizations
Here are some common variables that I’ve either experienced firsthand or have heard from secondary sources that impact what product management does and how they do it in organizations.
Leadership’s understanding of product management (or lack thereof)
Organizational culture and structure
Maturity of product management team and other teams
Business-to-business (B2B) vs. Business-to-consumer (B2C)
💭 Leadership’s understanding of product management…
…or lack thereof.
This is a particularly influential variable in organizations that do not have an experienced product leader, such as a Chief Product Officer (CPO), Head of Product (HoP), or some functional equivalent.
🏛️ Organizational culture and structure
Culture and structure are heavily intertwined.
Organizational culture is how an organization makes decisions when leaders aren’t there to facilitate the decision-making process (Horowitz, 2019).
Culture influences how business functions and teams are set up. These structures then influence culture.
Going back to Eriksson’s Venn diagram of product management, as an example, it’s not the ideal long-term strategy to have Product Managers report into the company’s CTO, even though that can be a norm for early-stage start-ups. Product management’s ability to maintain that balance between all perspectives of the user, customer, market, and company is integral.
👣 Organizational size
In early-stage start-ups, it can be quite common for the founder or one of the co-founders to wear the Product Manager hat, even though that isn’t their official job title.
🌱 Maturity of product management team and other teams 🌳
A product management team that’s at a lower maturity stage, such as a newly formed team with limited experience doing product management work, may have a tendency to focus on product delivery, which entails what Development or Engineering will be building. They may also have a tendency to assume certainty when uncertainty is actually relatively high.
Other teams with little or even no experience in working with product management teams also introduce challenges, such as:
Withholding product-related information from product management. This may be happening intentionally or unintentionally; however, this is detrimental because product management could very well by drawing insights or inspiration from this information.
Constantly asking of project progress updates. This may cause undue pressure on the product team to default to focusing their time and energy on delivery. Constant interruptions throughout the day also prevents them from being able to do work that requires deep focus, a high degree of empathy, or both, such as creative work, due to context-switching.
🌲 The forest and the trees of product management 🌲
Generally speaking, other folks around an organization rely on the product team to complete their day-to-day work.
Assuming the product team has clarity on the company’s strategic direction as a whole, which may take the form of a company mission and company vision, —and resulting quarterly or annual goals—the product team is responsible for aligning product vision and product strategy to the company’s strategic direction then communicating the product vision and strategy in ways that resonate with each department and team member who is a part of bringing them to life.
Author’s Note: If there are multiple product lines or product portfolios within a company, it’s best that each has their own vision and strategy.
An important muscle for Product Managers to build and continuously strengthen, especially if they want to be good—or even great—Product Managers is to communicate at different levels of abstraction for different types of audiences.
Personally, I really like Melissa Perri’s three (3) major levels of work:
Tactical work for a product manager focuses on the shorter-term actions of building features and getting them out the door. It includes the daily activities of breaking down and scoping out work with the developers and designers, in addition to crunching the data to determine what to do next.
Strategic work is about positioning the product and the company to win in the market and achieve goals. It looks at the future state of the product and the company and what it will take to get there.
Operational work is about tying the strategy back to the tactical work. Here is where product managers create a roadmap that connects the current state of the product to the future state and that aligns the teams around the work.
—Melissa Perri, Escaping the Build Trap (2021)
For example, if you’re communicating a product strategy to your Engineering team, you want to keep them focused on the big picture, —the context around what makes your differentiated value proposition important, valuable, and timely—as opposed to diving into the details of a single feature.
As another example, if you’re discussing how to go about validating the success of one feature, you want to take Engineering’s attention to which quantitative measurements can or cannot be measured with existing toolsets, walk through major what-if scenarios (What does an increase in metric X mean? What about a decrease in metric Y?) You may also want to talk with Customer Success as to what quantitative feedback to be on the lookout for, such as support tickets reported about the specific feature.
💡 Remember that everyone within a cross-functional team will have different levels of comfort with “moving between” different layers of abstraction. As a Product Manager, when you’re facilitating conversations with your team, be clear and explicit as to which level you’re steering the conversation and why.
Product management dos and don’ts 🎭
To round out this first post, here are two lists I try to live by in my day-to-day work life.
✅ To-do list
Ask questions from a place of genuine curiosity.
Invest time in your professional and personal relationships.
Create a psychologically safe environment that encourages diversity, creativity, and critical thinking.
Let others shine in their roles.
Share and ask for feedback openly and frequently. Receive any feedback with grace.
Find informal and formal mentors, both internal and external to your organization.
Seek to learn new things each and every day.
❎ Don’t-do list
Seek to control others
Try this instead: make others feel heard. If you have information that points strongly in one way, persuade others to this stance.
Seek to “win” conversations, discussions, debates, and decisions.
Try this instead: recognize you don’t need to be the smartest person in the room. Listen first. Invite other folks to chime in with their perspectives and insights. Facilitate the conversation such that everyone sees an issue in the same light and come to the best possible decision.
Try to do everything yourself.
Try this instead: recognize specialized expertise or even potential in others. Learn which tasks to delegate and to whom and how to lead folks with varying levels of comfort with ambiguity—some folks require more structured instruction than others, who may prefer having an open-ended goal or objective to figure out and work towards.
For more anecdotes about my adventures in product management and product development, follow me on Twitter: @tiffanyyhchang
Share your biggest takeaway in the comments below. 👇And if you have questions, leave them in the comments below, too!
💜 Special thanks to my alpha readers for their time, feedback, and insights before publishing this first post—check them out and give them some love!
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