I have a confession – my wife doesn’t know what I do for a living.
I’ve never found a way of describing it to her in terms she understands.
It makes for awkward dinner parties. It was fine when my wife could just say ‘Oh, he works for British Airways (or Hilton or The Guardian),’ but nowadays, they say ‘Who?’ Then they say ‘Oh, what do they do then?’ And then comes the inevitable, ‘And what do you do there?’ – at which point we all give up and talk about Donald Trump.
Trying to describe product management is a bit like describing consultancy – what it does exactly changes depending on the context.
And product management is still evolving. Although you could argue it started in old school FMCG brand management, it has been passed through the prism of modern technology organisations, which took it in new directions. In many ways, its direction of evolution now, especially in how it is folding in design and business techniques, is being driven to overcome some of its recent heritage in technology.
This all makes it hard to pin down.
And that, I think, makes it hard for us to do simple things – especially engaging stakeholders and employing great people who could be brilliant at managing products.
So I’ve challenged myself to write a simple, pithy definition that I can use to make my life a little bit easier. My first attempt looks like this:
The humble pursuit of the best opportunities and solutions for products, to achieve the right outcomes for the business and its customers.
Allow me to break that down a little so that you can see where I’m coming from.
The jobs product management performs: Product management’s first job is to define what the outcome is with the business. The word outcome is important. It isn’t output. It doesn’t say ‘build this functionality’. It says to achieve the right outcome. What we build to achieve it is a variable, and a variable can change and can be tested.
This is the second job of product management: to decide what to build to achieve the outcome. And this is what I mean by ‘the pursuit of the best opportunities and solutions’.
Possibly the most basic definition of business is to find something of value and sell it profitably. Therefore, a product opportunity must relate to what our customers find valuable. And we find that value by studying our customers and their needs, and finding what they really need our help with – what they want to accomplish. Product management gathers evidence for opportunities, and we objectively assess which ones have the most potential to achieve our outcome.
Every opportunity has many potential solutions. And every solution has many potential designs. And this is the next job of product management: To work with the business, technology and user experience teams to imagine possible solutions, and to find ways of rapidly testing them – to gather evidence on which directions work, which to pursue through testing designs, and which to build. (If you want a fuller description of discovering opportunities, solutions and designs, I highly recommend the amazing Teresa Torres: https://www.producttalk.org/2016/08/opportunity-solution-tree/.)
And the final role of product management is to work with those same partner functions to iteratively build those solutions. We do that iteratively because the process of testing and learning continues as you build – we avoid the risk of business failure created by investing in one big build that we only learn doesn’t work once we’ve built it.
And this all surfaces as a product vision, expressed as part of your company vision, and a roadmap – the series of planned activities that we think will get us there. A flexible plan, but one which is clear at any point in time.
The importance of humility.
I chose the words ‘humble pursuit’ very carefully. I often find humility hard to find in many technology and product organisations. It’s important because product management doesn’t make decisions based on opinion – ours or anybody else’s. Whilst we accept good ideas and data from anywhere and in any form, and opinion forming is an important part of that process, ultimately we use data, evidence and critical thinking to make the right decisions for the business.
What about relentless?
I like the word pursuit because it hints at the dual aspect of product management, finding opportunities as well as solutions, and the different behaviours needed for each. The pursuit of opportunities talks to the importance of discovery and testing a range of directions, and therefore the need for curiosity and creativity. The pursuit of solutions talks to the need for a relentless drive to solve problems and to get stuff built.
The humble and relentless pursuit of the best opportunities and solutions for products, to achieve the right outcomes for the business and its customers.
Well, that’s it.
P.s. My wife’s a physiotherapist. She always wins at dinner parties.