I’m reading about… Product Managers

At WordPress.com VIP we're looking into more formal Product Management, to help ensure that all our teams are aligned behind a consistent vision and a clear set of priorities. As such, I've been reading around about the Product Manager role to understand best practices from other organisations and from leaders in the field.

As one of the founding parents of modern software Product Management,  I found Marty Cagan a good place to start:

I want [Product Managers] to understand they need to worry about all aspects of the business, but I also believe strongly in the importance of humility for a product manager, and I need to make sure they’re not thinking the title gives them anything beyond a shot at earning the respect of their team.

– Marty Cagan, My Favorite PM Interview Question

Are you just administering the backlog, or are you actually tackling and solving difficult problems for your customers and your business?

Marty Cagan, Product Manager vs. Product Owner Revisited

There's a phrase which originated with Ben Horowitz's post Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager, "the CEO of the product". It's a phrase I initially railed against in my reading, particularly in context of our Automattic culture which values independent, self-motivated, and extremely capable individuals. In my initial thinking I was leaning more towards a collaborative model, but the Marty Cagan posts above (and some key chats with others in my team) have turned me around, and now I see the value of the responsibility and strong links between the measure of the product manager and the success of the product.

Horowitz points out that his Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager article was written many years ago, but even with that perspective it's worth a read:

Good product managers know the market, the product, the product line and the competition extremely well and operate from a strong basis of knowledge and confidence. A good product manager is the CEO of the product. A good product manager takes full responsibility and measures themselves in terms of the success of the product.

Ben Horowitz, Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager 

Rarely do any delivery functions report to the Product Manager, meaning Product Managers are dependent on others to deliver the product they are measured on. A fact which is emphasised in this line from one of Marty's quotes above: "I need to make sure [Product Managers are not] thinking the title gives them anything beyond a shot at earning the respect of their team". This tension is felt keenly in some of the articles I've read, in particular:

…you are not the CEO of anything…

This may seem like mere semantics but the distinction is important. Too many product managers I meet buy into this trope of CEO-of-the-product and believe their role is to act like an authoritarian CEO, often with disastrous results. These product managers tend to believe they have all the answers, that they produce the best solutions and designs, and that their teams should just do what they’re told. They’re mini-CEOs after all!

…Truly successful product leaders instead embrace their lack of authority and lead their teams and the wider company through communication, vision, and influence. They focus on collaborating across the company, bringing together the best people to move the product forward, and setting those teams free to execute on their product vision.

Martin Eriksson, Product Managers – You Are Not the CEO of Anything

Having re-read the Eriksson and the Cagan posts, both seem to me to be arguing for very similar positions: leadership without authority, and closely linking the success of the product to the measure of the Product Manager. The reference to CEO is a positive assignment of responsibility, not a licence to a command and control style of leadership.

More on Product Management as I find it; as my honoured colleague John Maeda says, "I'm learning".

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