If you want to become a successful investor, argues Charlie Munger, you should first familiarize yourself with psychology, or advertising, or the history of war. Better yet, study all of them. Want to launch a business? Munger might suggest you first immerse yourself in the study of physics or even philosophy (before diving into specific books for product managers).
So, is Charlie Munger just some nutcase who doesn’t understand how things work? Far from it. He’s one of the most successful investors in history: vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, the investment giant run by Warren Buffett.
Munger’s basic lesson about successful investing, or becoming a superstar in any endeavor, is to understand that many seemingly disparate areas of life are interrelated, and to continually educate yourself in new subjects even if they seem far afield from your profession or business.
Because we believe Munger’s philosophy can make for a more well-rounded and stronger product manager, we are taking his approach to offer you this list of must-read books for product managers. Our thinking is that, while you can easily find a zillion product management books, you might benefit from reading ideas from different (although related) points of view.
We won’t take this approach quite as far as Munger would. You will not find any books here on cooking or city planning, for example. Most of these books will stay relatively close to the fields of business and innovation.
But we also think you should step out of the narrow product management box from time to time and focus on tangential disciplines — presentation, research, productivity, etc. — because insights from these areas will make you a stronger product manager.
“Check out these 10 must-read books for product managers.”
So here they are: 10 must-read books for product managers.
What’s great about Chris Anderson’s Free is that the former WIRED editor-in-chief forces us to take a long, objective look at how we are pricing our products. The book asks us to confront whether, in an era when more and more products and services are becoming free, we can afford to stick to the old paradigm of gating our offerings and making them available only to paying customers.
Free also offers one of the earliest explorations of the freemium model — whereby a company would make much of its offerings available for free on the gamble that 1) it could lure in users and then charge them for additional functionality, and 2) even if only, say, 5% of all users ended up becoming paying customers, the product could still turn a profit.
We’ve offered some suggestions on this blog about making smart decisions when pricing your products, but the book Free presents you with some pretty radical thinking about how to charge for your offerings, and how giving a lot of them away can at times be the most lucrative strategy of all.
2. Do the Work!
Do the Work! by Steven Pressfield is a fun little book, a fast read at under 100 pages, and it is loaded with great advice for staying on track through any creative undertaking — including driving a new product to a successful market release.
But perhaps the most important aspect of the book for our purposes is its section discussing research. Specifically, Pressfield warns that as valuable as research is, it can also turn into a way of stalling — what the book describes as “The Resistance.”
This is a great gut check for product managers. It forces you to ask yourself if you are stuck in research mode, waiting for more data, because you’re actually afraid to move ahead with your product development in earnest — building the roadmap, presenting it to stakeholders, committing to timelines, getting your engineering team going, etc.
We have offered product managers plenty of advice on this blog about how to more strategically set your priorities and how to boost your productivity. And while Do the Work! offers some fantastic strategies for these as well, we believe the book’s real value will be in helping you identify The Resistance in all of its sneaky, slithery disguises, and helping you conquer it so you can keep moving forward on your product’s path.
Here is a more traditional product management book, focusing on how businesses can develop products that make that rare and difficult leap from cool novelties for a small group of early adopters… to full-blown mass-market successes.
We include Crossing the Chasm here partly because its principles have stood the test of time. Because it was originally published more than a quarter-century ago, you won’t have to worry about any of its examples or data not holding up because they are skewed in favor of some temporary trend.
This is simply a great explanation of how a successful product will make its way through a standard bell curve — from early adopters, to the early majority, to the late majority and finally to the laggards — and how to structure your products to follow this successful path.
Yep, we know this is a list of books for product managers and we know we’ve included a book about presentations. And with good reason.
As a product manager, you will no doubt have to present your plans — particularly your product roadmap — to several different audiences. And no matter how brilliant your product’s strategic vision, how well you’ve thought through the details of the execution, you will have a difficult time earning the buy-in and enthusiasm of these audiences if you present it in a flat, boring or convoluted way.
Presentation Zen offers dozens of great ideas for making your insights and arguments resonate as you present them.
Trust us: You’ll find gems in this book.
We stated in our Do the Work! recommendation that getting stuck in research and data-analysis mode can be a genuine pitfall for product managers. But we also pointed out that research can be invaluable for compiling both the real-world knowledge you’ll need for your own strategic thinking about your product, and the ammunition you’ll need to convince stakeholders and others that your thinking is on point.
For this reason, we recommend Analytics at Work: Smarter Decisions, Better Results, by Thomas Davenport and Jeanne Harris. This book offers great insights into how to collect the right data, what tools to use for analyzing it properly, and how to learn from the most successful and data-driven companies before setting your own analytics objectives.
One word of caution: Analytics at Work explores metrics-driven learning as it relates to the whole company — in terms of how it applies to expanding, hiring, marketing, etc. — and not merely how to gather and analyze user data on your product. But remember: We’re taking the Charlie Munger approach here, and we believe you can find great insight for product research in learning how the best companies use data in their hiring and advertising decisions.
Here’s a fun and at times hilarious exploration of the many public failures of individuals, institutions and businesses.
We include it here because we think reading it might remove some of the debilitating fear you have about the possibility your product might fail. It might. In fact, statistically speaking it probably will. But as you’ll read throughout the great little book, many massively successful corporations have failed, and they bounced right back.
Enjoy this one. It’s a fun read.
Okay, here is the list’s one true product management book: The Art of Product Management.
Like Crossing the Chasm, we feel comfortable including this one because it has stood the test of time. Even though the book was published way back in technology’s Paleolithic era of 2008, its principles and insights still stand up today.
The book offers valuable lessons for product managers about developing an effective product roadmap, adequately equipping your support teams (which few businesses do, even today), properly implementing agile, etc.
Although this is one of the best books for product managers in the technology industry specifically, we believe its principles are broad enough to offer value to a PM in any field.
Here’s another valuable little title that, like Do the Work!, came out of the Seth-Godin-produced Domino Project. This short book addresses a single topic, meetings, and offers some new insights about it.
Author Al Pittampalli offers a fresh take on office meetings and introduces some very high-threshold criteria that a manager should have to meet before being able to call a meeting at all.
There are some great ideas here for product managers, in terms of finding other ways to communicate updates or other important information without having to assemble a large group of people in a room (or a Google Hangout session) for an extended period of time.
Read this before you call your next meeting.
Here is another pure product management title, written by one of the most successful product managers in modern times.
Marty Cagan, a longtime product executive for companies like eBay and HP, walks the reader through his hard-won insights about how to identify when you’ve got the right product and when you don’t, how to work with technical teams to get your products built the right way, and the basics of how to be a great product manager.
And guess what? Even after you’ve read all of these books (and a bunch of other must-reads), helped build products with a loyal following, and grown your company into a thriving enterprise, you’re still not out of the woods.
That’s because, as author and Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen explains in The Innovator’s Dilemma, new technologies and processes and approaches are hitting the market all the time — and some entrenched leaders lose to scrappy upstarts because they fail to adapt to these new realities.
Or, just as frustrating, other successful companies employ a culture of remaining nimble and adapting to new technologies to stay competitive — but often make the mistake of adapting the wrong new technologies and losing because of that misstep.
This is one of our must-read books for product managers because it forces you to acknowledge that your product is never finished, your business (no matter how successful) can never slow down and rest on its laurels — and that true product management is really a process of innovating, continually learning, and continually adapting.
Any other great books for product managers we forgot? Please share them in the comments section.