A few years ago, I stumbled upon a blog post that really got my attention. Roughly, it suggested that product managers, by and large, don’t really do anything. Anything? I’m sorry, what? As a career product leader, I happen to be more than a little opinionated about the importance of this particular role. As far as I was concerned, these were fighting words. So I read on.
What I quickly realized was that, as much as this blogger was troublingly misinformed, his perspective also revealed a broader, more important truth:
there’s often a profound misunderstanding about the role, the purpose and the importance of product management. Why? Because product management often has a broad and amorphous mandate, making the goal of codifying a standard set of deliverables, much less KPIs, tricky to say the least.
But there’s another layer to the story here. In my experience, trying to measure the value of product management on the basis of its first-order deliverables and outputs is missing the point. I see the value of product management, not as the sum of its direct output, but as a multiple of its influence on the broader organization.
As I said, I’m a career product leader, and now I’m the the CEO of a company that’s all about empowering product managers to extend their influence beyond their traditional span of control. This idea reminds me of the principles articulated by the late Andy Grove in his seminal book High Output Management. Here, Grove, the famed former CEO of Intel, argues that any manager’s output is equivalent to the output of his or her organization plus the output of neighboring organizations subject to his or her influence.
While Grove wasn’t talking specifically about product, he may as well have been. His premise is a perfectly elegant summary of how to calculate the value of product management. Understanding the value of PM is about understanding its impact on neighboring organizations.
What are these neighboring organizations? First and foremost, engineering, followed perhaps by customer success, marketing, and sales. This means that, based on Grove’s High Output premise, as a product manager, you should measure yourself on, not just your own KPIs, but the collective KPIs of these adjacent organizations.
To do this, you have to become what Grove calls a “know-how manager”: here, your job is to bring your know-how into all the organizations that you come into contact with, in effect, acting as a force multiplier for their output. That means you have to deeply understand their specific challenges and goals. Making sure that you have a broad and diverse knowledge base allows you to connect the dots for others, thereby increasing your overall performance and output.
According to Grove’s formula, a manager’s output equals the sum of an activity times the leverage of the activity. This means that, it’s not just how much of something you do, but how much doing it impacts the broader organization. Based on this principle, you should prioritize what you do, not based on what you think your role should be, but based on how much leverage it creates for your organization.
Of course, there’s a balance here. Work still needs to get done. I’m hardly suggesting that product managers ought to sit back and let their value to accrue simply as a function of influence. But what I am suggesting is becoming highly intentional and discriminating in how you spend your time, prioritizing activities that are highest leverage and delegating the ones that aren’t, where high leverage roughly equates to an activity that’s far reaching and/or long lasting.
For example, getting your requirements right is a hugely leveraged activity: it’s both far reaching and long lasting. Requirement defects wastes valuable engineering resources, risks customer churn, and introduces inordinate change costs once these poorly designed features are released to customers. On the other hand, is authoring a user story the best use of your time? Maybe. But does this story require synthesis of a great deal of knowledge that only you have? If the answer is no, this may not be the best use of your time. Often, we end up doing these things as a function of habit, inertia, convention, or the believe that something falls in your “territory.” None of these are good reasons to continue doing something.
The reality is that virtually every company is strapped for good engineers. That’s why, as a product manager, one of the most valuable roles you can play is easing stress on the engineering team. This starts by provide critical details to avoid requirement defects; don’t assume, just because the requirement is familiar to you, it will read the same to the uninitiated.
Don’t rely on the fact that your engineering team is whip smart to somehow excuse incomplete or sloppy work. Also, collect analytics, customer stories, and use cases to make sure you’re prioritizing the features that actually get used. Don’t try to build everything. Instead, look for opportunities for the ecosystem to innovate by focusing on APIs over features. An interesting side-effect of doing this is the best market validation you can ever hope for: customers and partners who put skin in the game, valuing the importance of a feature with their own engineering investment.
Of course, as a product manager, your impact isn’t limited to engineering. Find ways to impact other functions across the organization. Identify product-related issues that may be standing in the way of trial conversions and, by extension, new customer acquisition. Figure out which features are driving customer delight and frustration and optimize investments accordingly. Help marketing improve messaging and targeting based on what you hear and see from your unique perch in conversation with customers.
These are all high leverage activities that many product managers may ignore because they don’t think of them as part of their job.
Management, and particularly product management, is all about three activities: collecting information, sharing information, and making decisions. Somehow it’s decision making that often feels highest impact, but the high output product manager understands that it’s the sharing of information that’s often most impactful to your business.
About the Author
Todd Olson is the CEO and co-founder of Pendo, a product experience platform that brings together product analytics and user feedback, in-app user messages and guidance to help product managers build products customers love. Before Pendo, Todd served as President and CTO of 6th Sense and later as VP of Products at Rally Software Development.