Role of a Product Manager

Ensure that the right things gets done in the right sequence

A product manager helps a company to achieve its goals by helping customers get their jobs done in an unique and delightful way, and getting customers to pay in some form (money, attention, information).

Let me elaborate on the key responsibilities encapsulated in the above definition.

Getting jobs done: A parent purchases your app to keep her six year old daughter entertained over a three hour train ride. The parent did not purchase the app because it uses the latest technology or she liked how your app is designed/looks. A product manager must understand what “jobs” or outcomes a prospective customer is trying to accomplish. This can also be seen from the lens of solving problems. But I prefer the “jobs approach” as it provides a richer understanding of the context in which a product/feature will be used, why someone is using it, what outcomes they are hoping to achieve, and what they need to stop using to begin using your product. A product manager must ensure that the team builds something compelling enough for customers to switch away from an existing solution that they are currently using. This framework is especially helpful in understanding your real competitors or alternatives that the prospective customer has to get a job done.

Lens of solving problems -“real problems”: A product manager must ensure she focuses the team’s effort on solving real problems that will help the company achieve its goals. “Problems” that are ignored are usually not worth working on. The pain killer vs vitamin framework is a useful for assessing the intensity of the pain/problem. Des Traynor’s perspective on “Making things people want”

  • Making things people want involves understanding a long standing human or business need and then using technology to:
  • take out steps
  • make it possible for more people
  • make it possible in more situations

Flawless execution cannot save a company/product/feature that chooses to focus on jobs/problems that nobody cares about.

Unique: Prospective customers will have an array of options to get their jobs done. The product manager must pick a customer segment and a dimension (like Amazon’s delivery of ordered items within 30 minutes) that is aligned with the most important outcomes/jobs that the customer wishes to accomplish. This decision is critical in ensuring prospective customers consider your product when they want to hire a product in a specific situation.

Trying to be everything for everyone or “unique” for the sake of uniqueness is usually a recipe for disaster. Choosing a dimension that is important the customer and has very little competition helps build a defensible business.

Delightful: While thorough and thoughtful attention to detail helps, Kathy Sierra’s talk on Minimum Badass User provides sage advice. Focus on improving the user’s life and/or skills. What “badass” powers does the user get by using your product?

“People don’t use your app because they like the app or they like you, they are using it because they like themselves, and they tell their friends because they like their friends!” – Kathy Sierra

Establishing reference customers is critical for scaling any business, and you will have reference-able customers only if you have delighted them while getting their jobs done, using your product.

Pay: In a business context, the product must generate enough revenues to grow and sustain the business over the long term. The product manager must be adept at picking a business model that captures enough value for the business to thrive and remain viable.

Another critical responsibility of a product manager is validating that the solution (product) that is built is actually helping the customer get their jobs done and delighting them in the process. Some product management frameworks mandate that the product manager must focus only the “problem space”. I strongly disagree with this specific recommendation. Validation of the solution/product that has been built is as important as specifying what to build. I am not advocating the product manager specifies how to build. Does that mean the product manager does not validate other critical decisions like validating intensity of a problem? No. I am specifically calling out this aspect as a product manager plays a crucial role in deciding whether to ship a product/feature based on this validation.

Summary: Prioritizing which jobs/problems to work on, which customer segments to target, which dimensions to compete and excel on, how to access customers, how to capture value, determining what will delight users, how to scale the business, and validating what is built are key responsibilities of a product manager.

Two other perspectives on the role of product management that I like are one by Marty Cagan

Discovering a product/feature that is valuable, usable, and feasible

and the other by Satya Patel

“Product management isn’t a role or a function, it’s a set of skills. Those skills help remove obstacles and grease the wheels so that the functional experts can do their jobs best. Product management also balances the needs of users, the business and the team and makes the difficult tradeoffs needed to keep pressing ahead. In that way, Product Managers are very similar to CEOs. Very few would argue that a company doesn’t need a CEO. Product managers are simply CEOs of their products. No organization should be without someone who has ‘product management skills’ and works to make everyone else’s lives easier.”

Note: Every interaction that a prospective customer or customer has with a company is viewed as the “product”. It is not just the physical product or the service that is provided. Examples: looking for information about the product on the website, reading the user manual to understand different options/modes supported by a specific feature, response to an email query that was sent to the support address.

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