Valuable Systems

The blog of Cantlin Ashrowan

What do product managers do

26 March 2021

Product management is, above all, the art of building common understanding of what is important. That common understanding is the context in which people and teams reason about how to spend their time.

“What is important” is much more than just metrics. It includes the organisation’s thesis for where it will play and how it will win. It includes the definition of what “winning” means. And it describes the steps that will be taken – the plan followed – to realise the change the company wants to make to the world.

Product managers negotiate goals for their team with leadership and prioritise the opportunities the team take into product discovery. More broadly, they coordinate activity across the organisation to ensure the success of the product.

Product Management—in 1 tweet.

Role:
Define the product & coordinate actions across the org to enable its success

Success:
User adoption
Business impact

Skills:
Common sense
Immense empathy
Influential communication

Traits:
Low ego
Deep care
High agency

Simple, but not easy.

— Shreyas Doshi (@shreyas) April 25, 2020

We now live in a world where, by and large, organisations have come to a position which says that better things happen when people work out what to do themselves, instead of being told.

Illustration of a command-and-control hierarchy

But this creates a coordination problem: if everyone is self-directed, how do we ensure everyone’s work is complimentary? The answer: by ensuring they have a common understanding of what is important. The people tasked with building, maintaining and embedding that understanding are product managers.

This is often not the reality of product management. There are lots of failure modes. For example, PMs often take decisions for their team, using their internal model of what is important. But their real job is to facilitate a shared mental model powerful enough to replace their role as a decision maker.

One person knowing what to do is brittle. A shared model for what to do is resilient and scalable. And it encourages the joyful human experience of making something together.

Sharing an understanding of what is important doesn’t completely solve the coordination problem. It helps a lot, because given shared goals people tend to self organise to meet them. But we also have a lot of evidence about the best way to organise.

These operating models are more important than they get credit for. Product management itself is only a slice of one particular operating model. Even so, few organisiations have systematised their documentation and teaching. “Product operations,” as some people are calling it, may well be the next frontier.

Valuable Systems is the blog of me, Cantlin Ashrowan, a product leader based in London. You can email me at cantlin@gmail.com, or follow me on Twitter here.