A Brief History of Product Management: Starts With a Spark
Product management was originally seated in marketing but has evolved. It's still misunderstood but it's now getting the recognition it deserves with product people...
With broad, sometimes ambiguous responsibilities and high expectations, the product manager role is constantly evolving. Product managers are continuously learning new things and need to improve themselves (not just the products they manage) on a daily basis.
So, we asked real product managers to share their most valuable tips, tricks, and best kept secrets. Here, 7 experts weigh in on the product management lessons they wish they learned earlier in their careers.
When analyzing data, Chris Vasquez, Director of Product at AWeber, recommends balancing both quantitative and qualitative data to gain a holistic perspective.
“Early on, I would frequently find myself captivated by a single data point I found in FullStory or anecdote I heard from a customer,” Vasquez said. “Something that just had to be the key because of how obvious it was in that limited data.”
Fixating only on qualitative or quantitative inputs might lead to uninformed prioritization and compromise a product’s success. Instead, consider the big picture.
“I’ve found that using a variety of qualitative signals to understand the ‘what,’ and a variety of qualitative inputs to try to understand the ‘why’ leads to a much better hypothesis,” Vasquez said. “Ultimately, this results in better products for our email marketing customers.”
Keeping your product on track can be difficult when requests continue to pile up. You promise an extra feature to the success team. You add a new commitment to the roadmap. Suddenly, your team is scrambling to meet the original release date.
David Roch, Head of Product at Marketgoo, has fallen into the trap of working on too many features under the pressure of deadlines. To combat this, he suggests reducing scope-creep throughout the product development process.
“In our experience, we have not negotiated scope for several reasons,” Roch shared. “And have ended up delivering something that is not so great and took too much time to be done, frustrating the entire team.”
Rather than negotiating quality or sacrificing time, focusing on scope enables you to stick to your strategic priorities. Even if you deliver a product that does not live up to the initial scope, it can be improved during each sprint.
“It is entirely possible to provide value to stakeholders and stay on track with deliverables and deadlines – without scope-creep, stretching your resources, or over-committing your team,” Roch said.
Product people often excel when the manager empowers them to make independent decisions and solve complex problems. A lack of autonomy will stunt your team’s growth and cause individual performance to suffer. Milena Toporek, Head of Product at Savings United, recommends learning when to let go early on in your career.
“Giving away responsibility is tough,” Toporek said. “But when the product grows, and the company scales up, it is necessary to build a strong team around yourself and the product to achieve the goals and support the growth.”
Developing a skilled team where each member owns their specialized area is one of the best things that can happen to a product manager, Toporek suggests. When your team can efficiently adjust and react to challenges, adopting agile methods becomes second nature. But that doesn’t mean you should neglect your team.
“You don’t need to do everything, but everything is your responsibility,” Ori Bendet, Director of Product Management at TimeToKnow, said.
Product managers are natural team leaders, but it takes work to achieve organizational alignment. You need to establish trust with other departments, earn respect from stakeholders, and build credibility within your organization. Jonathan Reilly, Technical Product Manager at OneMain Financial, advises building your emotional intelligence.
A product can never be great if the product manager lacks a fundamental understanding of how the team operates, Reilly says.
“Knowing what makes your coworkers tick, how they respond to criticism, their demeanor under pressure, and even just what they are aspiring towards – makes all the difference in leading multiple teams,” Reilly said.
Cross-functional alignment is essential for creating innovative ideas and building successful products. According to Reilly, it requires not only seeing things through the eyes of your customer, but all of the stakeholders, design team, legal crew, and developers.
The product team develops a strategy that reflects the overarching goals of the organization. But the team can’t effectively execute that strategy while operating in a silo. Candis Grover, Product Specialist at Ready Rosie, suggests establishing a healthy communication channel with other departments.
Earlier in her career, Grover worked on a small content team that prioritized research, user feedback, and open communication. But when her team worked cross-functionally, they fell short.
“Unfortunately, when it came to turning this philosophy into product development, there was a disconnect.” Grover said. “We were attempting to dictate the how and those creating the product were left often wondering about the why.”
Investing in a more cohesive organizational process allowed all teams to more efficiently execute their goals, according to Grover.
“I was challenged to blur the lines of the content/tech divide and pull in other people from the customer-facing teams as well,” Grover said. “We were able to foster a shared understanding of the why and a healthier, more productive debate around the how.”
Don’t over-promise, just to under-deliver. It is important, especially when dealing with stakeholders and executives, to set realistic expectations of outcomes. Phil Petree, CEO of TapToReport, warns against getting caught in this trap.
“On an earnings call, the CEO of a publicly traded company told the industry analysts that he was going to combine their products into a ‘suite’ which would open into the Fortune 100 market,” Petree said. “I was hired as the Senior Product Manager to create that suite.”
As he began to tackle the project, he realized that they could not deliver on their initial promise. The deal was worth nearly 50% less than they had projected.
“Needless to say, I ended up with a target on my back. Lesson: Never take a job where you’re hired to do the impossible,” Petree said.
When communicating your strategy, prioritizing value over individual features will more closely align with business goals. Alison Andrews, Product Manager at AHRI, stresses the importance of connecting your decisions back to the product’s strategic value.
“Prior to product management, I had been in product ownership where I was constantly bombarded by cranky individuals demanding changes or new features,” Andrews said. “To please them and reduce my own stress levels, I was short-sighted and very reactive to emotions rather than considerate of product strategy and value.”
This mindset transformed the product team into a feature factory, according to Andrews. Her inability to demonstrate the value of each feature served as a bottleneck for receiving support from executive management. Eventually, she adjusted her approach.
“I engage my users in conversations with specific questions that help me define what that real value might be,” Andrews said. “I have found cases where I thought I knew the value in advance but, once engaging users in conversation, I learned something totally different or saw another opportunity that could be explored.”
Seeking to understand the pain point a feature solves to inform decision-making revealed her favorite product management lesson.
“Product management is as much about listening,” Andrews said. “Perhaps even more so, than it is directing.”
Whether you are just entering the field or are an industry expert, there will always be challenges. There is no perfect product, and no perfect product career. But to establish yourself as a great product manager, you must tackle each obstacle as an opportunity to learn, adapt, and grow.
What are the product management lessons you wish you learned earlier? Share in the comments below.