Valuable Systems

The blog of Cantlin Ashrowan

What do product managers do

392 words from 26 March 2021

In poetry, there’s a format called the ars poetica – a poem about poetry. It’s sort of required writing for poets.

An image of a poem

Product management has its own kind of required writing: the blog post about product management. We all have to write one some day. Here’s mine.

Cartoon showing people coming to shared understanding

Product management is 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 company’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.

Illustration of a command-and-control hierarchy

We now live in a world where, by and large, organisations do not give orders. They’ve come, mostly, to a philosophical position which says that better things happen when people work out what to do themselves, instead of being told.

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.