I’ve had several conversations recently about the nature of product management and the role of product managers. One thing that kept coming to mind was an old post by Martin Eriksson, which defines the product manager as the person who sits at the intersection of UX, Tech, and Business.
Eriksson says that the role of the product manager is to:
- assess and articulate the needs of the user,
- understand business goals and constraints, and
- communicate requirements and prioritization to the tech team.
That’s a good starting point, but I wanted to add a few things to that description that have come out of my conversations with product managers and the people who work with them.
UX is not UI
It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: user experience is not about the interface. It’s about the complete end-to-end experience of engaging with your company and your product. This is the part where the product manager observes the user and designs experiments to gain more insight, so that they can be the voice of and proxy for the user in internal discussions. Lean startup principles and customer development are two ways of thinking about how to collect those data and insights about what drives your customers. The product manager has to collect that qualitative and quantitative data and make sense of it in the form of a product strategy.
The product manager holds the overall vision for the product. That person must be able to guide the fine-tuning of the details without losing sight of the bigger picture of what the company is trying to build. Usually, this involves maintaining a product roadmap for internal communication.1 The goal is to help guide the team in the process of creating a high-quality product that achieves that vision without diluting that value. One of the most difficult parts of the product management role is saying no to good ideas. A lot of good ideas don’t add up to a great product. If you’re having trouble with ideas in isolation, try making it a strategic decision by choosing among choices instead of making a series of binary decisions.
All Together Now
The product manager also has an important role in coordinating between the development, design, marketing, and sales teams, as well as accounting and business development. Each of these groups speaks a different language – with different jargon and different salient variables and goals. The product manager is the ultimate cross-cultural communicator, speaking each language and translating among them. Building consensus and coordinating efforts across functions is critical to executing a strategic plan, and the product manager is responsible not only for coming up with the strategy, but also for seeing it through.
On teams that use Agile, the product manager sometimes serves as the Product Owner, in the role as proxy for the customer or end user. While insights from the true product owner – the user – are key to setting strategy, the product manager is the one inside the building and available to give clear decisions about murky ideas. Those decisions aren’t necessarily always right, but they help the team avoid analysis paralysis.
One note here: the Scrum Master in Agile is the person who owns the Agile process. The product manager cannot effectively serve as the Scrum Master, because those roles have different priorities that often naturally involve some productive conflict, and that should remain a separate role.
As the person who can most clearly articulate the problem you’re trying to solve for your customer, your product manager can be a great evangelist for your company. The fact that she has interactions with and an understanding of almost every part of the business is an added benefit. If you have a product manager who is a good public speaker, take advantage of it and put her out there. You will probably see extra benefits from giving her more time “out of the building.”
Product Manager Job Description
This got me thinking: if I was writing a job description for an exceptional product manager, what would I include? The following is my take on the skills needed to excel in this role. Feel free to commandeer this for your own purposes.
Experience with lean startup and customer development. Understand the customer, and not just by asking them what they want.
Ability to influence without authority. Much of the product management role requires coordinating among people who don’t report directly to them. Diplomacy and negotiation is a requirement, not a nice-to-have.
Previous P&L Responsibility – The product manager must understand business to the degree that he can understand the constraints, risks, and tradeoffs, and make educated bets with imperfect information.
Analytics and data – Qualitative data are great, but even more useful when they are not used in a vacuum.
Coaching technical teams – It’s critical that the product manager has some sense of what is easy and what is difficult for developers. Also required: being able to communicate what you want to the team and predict challenges the team might confront.
Technical Background – When you can speak your developer’s language (if not write it), everything goes smoother because you can skip steps by understanding technical limitations and complexities.
1. The internal caveat here is key. If you publish the roadmap, customers will see it as a promise instead of a flexible plan.
Last night I had the privilege of moderating a panel discussion with four other lean startup practitioners at the Ballston BID Launchpad in Arlington, VA. The event was organized by Lean Startup Machine, and the five of us will all be mentoring at the upcoming Lean Startup Machine DC on September 20-22.
Teague Hopkins – Founder of THG, Lean Startup Coach. THG helps teams at corporations, nonprofits, universities, and government agencies innovate more efficiently and effectively.
Frank DiMeo – VP, Technical Staff at In-Q-Tel. In-Q-Tel is a not-for-profit venture capital firm that invests in high-tech companies to help the CIA and other intelligence firms equipped with the latest in information technology in support of United States intelligence capability.
Frank Taylor – CEO of Restin, Head of Partnerships at Fosterly. Restin provides robotic massage chairs for rent and lease to the engagement marketing industry and for various applications in the corporate wellness & hospitality space. Fosterly is a platform to organize and share entrepreneurial knowledge.
Bruce Mancinelli – Executive Director, Incspire. Incspire is a business incubator education program that supports emerging businesses and startups through the pairing of mentor teams to each incubated company in the program.
Laura Kennedy – Head of Corporate Development, Living Social. Living social is a deal-of-the-day company that features discounted gift certificates usable at local or national companies. Based in Washington, D.C.
- What was your first introduction to Lean Startup?
- An introduction to the components of Lean Startup Methodology.
- How have you implemented the lean startup methodology at your company?
- What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned from running an experiment?
- We’ve all heard about skunkworks. The goal is to insulate innovation teams from the culture and oversight of the larger organization. To be successful, do companies need to separate those doing innovation from those running operations?
- What will we learn at Lean Startup Machine?
- What are some tips for getting the most out of Lean Startup Machine?
Last October, I had the privilege to go back to Wesleyan University as a speaker. I gave a one-hour talk on how lean startup principles can be applied to nonprofits and social ventures. My talk was part of the inaugural speaker series of the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship.
Wesleyan has recently made the video publicly available, so I wanted to share it with anyone who is interested in the intersection between nonprofits and lean.
Thanks again to the PCSE for hosting me. It’s always nice to be asked to speak at my alma mater, and I look forward to coming back in the future.
In a lean startup, we like to say that it is better to pick the customer you want to serve and figure out what problems they have than to come up with a solution and then figure out who needs it. Entrepreneurs following this advice often ask me how they should decide which customer to choose and whether they should worry about targeting something too narrow. Specificity is good. Picking a small segment (e.g., parents of grade school aged children in the Washington, DC area) so that you can get enough penetration to start seeing network effects is usually better than biting off a segment that is too large for you to have any real impact (e.g., parents). With regard to what segment to choose, there are a few different approaches:
- market sizing,
- customer development, and
I’m going to lay them out from most to least traditional, ending with my favorite method.
This is your traditional business school approach. Find some research on the sizes of various markets, maybe take a look at which ones already have similar offerings floating around, and pick whichever market has the best combination of size and untapped potential. As a baseline, this is not a bad way to go, but I prefer focusing on either customer development or passion as a way to pick your market.
Form a hypothesis about which market has the biggest problem doing whatever you’re good at doing. For instance, if you’re offering an online service to help customer find places to buy widgets, ask yourself who has trouble finding information about local stores, catalogs, and places to shop. Then, before building anything, go talk to some customers in that segment and ask them about how they currently find the information that you hope to offer, and whether that method satisfies them. Don’t tell them about your solution; just see if they actually have a problem with their current solution. If they don’t, you’re going to have a hard time getting them to use your option. If your first hunch about a market doesn’t pan out, try a few more and see which one yields the most frustrated customers. Start with that market, because it will be easier to attract your early adopters if they are actively looking for a solution.
See also: The Ideal Profile of an Early Adopter
The third school of thought, and the one I most often favor, is a variant of following your passion. Let’s take as a given that, barring lottery-like success, you will be working hard on this startup for 5-10 years before you see real returns. If that’s the case, who do you want to spend that time with? Which customer segment is the one you want to spend 5-10 years talking to, learning about, and empathizing with? When you pick a customer whom you like, you’re much more likely to stick with the startup long enough to find the right formula. If, for example, you hate sculptors but love musicians, you probably already know who you want your customers to be.
This post was adapted from an answer I wrote to a user’s question on Quora.