(2022-04-23) Cohen The Great Product Manager Aka The Impossible Product Manager

Jason Cohen: The "Great" Product Manager, a.k.a. the Impossible Product Manager. According to the Internet, being a Product Manager is impossible. Can you ever measure up? No. But don’t worry, there’s a better answer.

What makes a Product Manager great? The prolific Shreyas Doshi gives us the list of requirements in a tweet-storm:... These recitals always include a little “out,” an opportunity for the writer to wriggle out of responsibility for commanding the impossible. Something like, “The final rule is: You can break any rule, if you know what you’re doing.” In this case, the 31st tweet: Naturally, very few PMs are Great.

So you could be super-human at two dozen different things. Now what? I’ve used the following framework for Product Management at WP Engine to answer this question, so that as a whole team we in fact constitute the mythical omnibus “Great PM,” but we achieve it with a set of great—but plausible—real human beings.

The role and scope of “Product Manager” varies between companies, but the role centers on deciding what to build.

Looking backward, there are inputs to the decision—the long-term vision and strategy, and an intimate and evolving understanding of the customer

Looking forward there’s the execution of building and delivering to customers, the complexity of engineering execution together with coordinated efforts by marketing, sales, customer service, and external partners to deliver the entire experience to customers;

You could argue that this particular break-down is arbitrary, however in my experience this categorization is especially actionable for hiring, careers, and designing the PM organization, and is compatible with other ways of decomposing the role.

Product thinkers categorize PM roles in myriad combinations.

You’ll find the four areas below align with any of these break-downs; while all paths arrive at the same destination, I find this one particularly useful in working with real-world people.

The four roles of Product Management

Strategist: Determining the few, key personas to focus on. Distilling noisy data into clear identifications of internal strengths, external challenges, and market opportunities. Positioning the product to maximize value and perceived value, and thus price and willingness-to-pay. Selecting the right high-level metrics to drive the right long-term results

Customer Whisperer: Not order-taking the features they know how to name, but rooting out the things they worry about so much they would pay to decrease the worry, or figuring out the result they need to get to earn a promotion or achieve their ultimate goal, as opposed to just “features.”

Scrum Product Owner: An unfortunately ambiguous phrase for the uninitiated

Orchestrator: Delivering the “Whole Product,” as Geoffrey Moore defines it

The conclusion is not that “a Great PM must be the master of all this.” In fact, exactly the opposite.
A “Great PM” is
excellent in one area,
good in at least one other,
and doesn’t have time for more than two.

I don’t believe in magical unicorns who are excellent in all four areas

Perhaps there are, but the probability that you’ll find one, or hire one, or build a whole organization of them, is near-nil

While one person cannot be all things to all people, across the entire product team, you do need excellence in all four areas. Thus the manager of a Product organization isn’t simply a “manager,” but rather an “organization designer,” choreographing this outcome through intentional hiring.

Communications and collaboration is often done by a Program Manager—a role where if you think it’s not useful, it might be because you haven’t worked with someone who is great. (A-Player)

As the organization designer, your job is to “assemble excellence” in all areas. Even incremental improvements here can be impactful, because so often organizations have excellence nowhere.

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