Expect More From Product Managers

I talk to a lot of startups, and I've noticed a really troubling trend at some of them. A huge percentage of Product Managers at startups suck.

Not you, obviously. I mean, you're a product manager at a startup, and you're the exception. Good for you. I mean all the other ones.

I mean the Product Managers who are failing to do the following obvious things:

Understand their Users

I was visiting a company, and I asked about what sort of ongoing user research they were doing. It turned out that they had an intern for a few weeks who was doing a giant research study to try to understand how people viewed the product. The Product Managers would occasionally attend a session, but basically they seemed uninvolved in the research. They knew nothing about the planning. They didn't monitor to see how things were going.

The research involved talking to a lot of people who had heard about the product but who had never used it before to see why they weren't using it. The Product Managers' main job with regard to research seemed to be to read a report produced by the intern at the end of the few weeks.

Meanwhile, nobody was doing targeted usability research on whether people were confused by the product. Nobody was doing any sort of inquiry into how big customers were using the product. Nobody was calling people who had stopped using the product to find out why. Nobody was following up with new users to understand their initial experiences.

Unsurprisingly, none of the PMs in charge of deciding what to build next had any real idea about usability problems, what separated their biggest customers from everybody else, or why people tried the service once and never returned. And that meant that they weren't very good at figuring out how to build their product, so when they did add a feature, it very rarely improved any of their key metrics.

The single most important thing you can do as a Product Manager is understand your users. This is the foundation for making every single decision about your product that you will ever have to make. If you don't know who your customers are and what motivates them, you can't consistently deliver features that will make them happy. It really is that simple.

Know Exactly How their Product Works

I was talking to a different startup about their onboarding flow, and I asked the product manager to explain how it currently worked for certain types of users under specific circumstances. The product manager said he'd have to check with the designer to get all the details.

The designer, of course, knew exactly how the product worked, since she was the one who had designed it. She also knew all about the user needs and the issues with the current flow and what she wanted to try next. All of this led me to wonder why on earth she wasn't the one in charge of the product.

When I attended meetings with both of them, the product manager constantly had to refer to the designer when talking aout what things they had tried, what had worked, and what users were currently seeing. Whenever an engineer asked a question about how something was supposed to be built, the PM would simply pass the question along to the designer and then relay the answer back to the engineers.

As far as I could tell, the PM was nothing more than a buffer between the engineers and the designer. Once the designer started working directly with the engineers, the PM had almost nothing to do except track the project schedule.

If you don't know everything about how your product works and why it works that way, how are you supposed to make good decisions about it? The role of a product manager isn't to be a passive conduit for information. A great PM needs to understand the product well enough to make important decisions about how to change it.

Validate Assumptions Before Building

I'm not going to tell a specific story about this one, because I've seen it happen absolutely everywhere.

Essentially, Product Managers seem to fall in love with ideas. Maybe they get the ideas from meetings or from their bosses or the ideas appear to them in a flash of light one morning in the shower. But regardless of how it happens, today's idea is always the Big Idea that is going to change everything.

Once they've got the idea, of course, they jump straight to the question of how to get it built. Typically, they get the feature on the schedule, break it down, get a designer in to mock it up, and get the engineers working on it. At no time before all this happens do they stop and ask the question, "How can I tell if this idea is any good before I spend a lot of time and money on it?"

No matter how good your instincts are, you don't really know that adding this new feature is going to be an enormous hit with your users. Sometimes you're right, and the feature is a game changer, but just as often, an unvalidated feature has a negative ROI.

Good product managers do as much work as possible ahead of time to figure out if they're spending their resources on the right stuff. Maybe they devise a small experiment to test whether people will use the feature. Maybe they do a very small version of the feature first. Maybe they do a concierge version of the feature. Hell, maybe they even sell the feature before they build it.

Whatever their strategy, good product managers validate their features before they build them, and that's why their ideas are so much more likely to improve the bottom line of the company. They don't necessarily have better ideas. They just kill the bad ones before spending too much time on them.

Prioritize Changes Based on Business and Customer Needs

Everything can't be a top priority. That's not how priority works. But you'd never know that to talk to some product managers. I can't tell you how often I've seen product managers try to build everything at once, because they simply couldn't make the decision about what was most important to either the business or to users.

Unfortunately, this tends to cause problems as engineering gets spread too thin and the team gets confused about what they should be working on.

Without clear prioritization, nothing really gets done well or quickly. Everybody ends up working on different projects, and all the projects move much more slowly than they would if everybody worked together.

A good product manager can make priorities clear without micromanaging. She makes the decision about what to work on based on things like expected ROI and the outcome of early validation tests. She balances features that are great for the business with features that are great for the users, and she always tries to find features that are good for everybody. She looks at things like long term vs short term pay off and makes sure that features are delivering value to all the different types of customers - new users, power users, business users, etc.

She clearly says that the entire team's goal is to improve a particular key metric and then makes sure that the team understands what that means. She then prioritizes which features should be delivered first while monitoring the metrics, and she keeps the team motivated to follow up by making progress toward the goal very clear.

Keep Engineers from Getting Jerked Around

How many of you have been working on something when a product manager has suddenly told you to stop working on that and work on something entirely different? How often does that have to happen before you become completely unmotivated? Not very often, right?

Of course, sometimes things change. Bugs are found that need to be dealt with. Business people make new deals. Company priorities get shifted around. Organizations get shuffled.

A good product manager protects her team from as much of this as she possibly can. She does this by pushing back on pressure from above to change priorities midstream. She does this by making sure that what her team is working on is important enough that she has a good reason to keep them on it, even if her boss suddenly wants something new and shiny. Sometimes she does it by making sure that there is somebody who can triage high priority bugs in order to keep the whole team from getting pulled off their work in the event of an emergency.

A good product manager manages up as much as she manages down.

Do Jobs that Aren't Technically Product Management

Just because the word manager is in the title doesn't mean you're off the hook for actually building things yourself. This is especially true at startups, where there are very few people trying to do a whole lot of work.

When I was working as a product manager, I frequently wrote copy, answered customer support questions, touched up images, built prototypes, consulted with the CEO on strategy, ran scrums, responded to people on Twitter, and made user research calls. Oh, and about hundred other jobs that had nothing to do with management.

I did those things because they had to be done, and there was nobody else to do them, but I also did them because the act of doing them made me a better product manager. By answering customer support questions, I learned how users felt about the product and where they got confused. By touching up images, I learned how much time it took to do the job so that I could gauge how efficient other people were when they were doing it. By monitoring Twitter, I learned who was talking about my product and what they were saying. These things were all critical to doing my job well, plus it meant that we didn't have to hire a bunch of specialists to do these things.

If you're not doing things outside of your normal job description, take a good hard look at whether you're really doing the most important parts of the job. I'll give you a hint, if what you're doing involves hours of meetings every week, there are more important things you could be doing.

This Sounds Hard

This sounds hard because it IS hard. Product Management should be hard. You're in charge of creating something. You have to make important decision affecting a huge number of people all the time. If you think it's all just going to meetings and making schedules for other people to stick to, you're doing it wrong.

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