In 2012, Ben Horowitz updated his popular blog post “Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager” with this warning: “This document was written 15 years ago and is probably not relevant for today’s product managers.” Yet it is still a good profile of good product management practices.
In my first job in product management, I asked the team how I could provide the best support for the product. And was delighted by their response:
“What’s happening in the business?”
They wanted to know about our customers and their problems, about recent wins and losses, about upcoming events and marketing campaigns, and about new competitive pressures. They wanted me to focus on the business of the product so they could focus on the capabilities of the product. They wanted me to be the expert in problems and rely on them to be experts in solutions.
What they didn’t want was product managers (or salespeople or execs) telling them what to build and how to build it.
In my 25 years of coaching product teams, I’ve learned that great product managers are problem-finders, not problem-solvers. And the best product managers are curious.
Great product managers are curious
Great product managers are curious about the market and its problems. They explore how those markets solve their problems today. They learn who buys the product and who uses it. And how the product can—or should—solve customer problems.
Curious about the market
A great product manager is curious about the product and the market it serves. They understand the company’s capabilities as well as the competitors’ capabilities. And are thinking about next year and beyond. Where are we now? Where can we take the product next year and the year after?
Curious about the product
While product managers don’t have to be technical, they do have to understand how the product solves customer problems. They are curious about its architecture and its design. Great product managers know they don’t have all the answers, so they encourage market validation of designs and implementations as well as packaging, pricing, and promotions.
Curious about the data
Product managers don’t have to be data scientists, but they do need to understand the data. What are the numbers for month-over-month product growth? How many customers access the product daily? Is this number growing or shrinking? Why? How many people open product-related emails? Is that a good number? What could be done to increase engagement?
Curious about the process
The great product manager actively participates in process retrospectives. What’s working and what isn’t? What friction exists in the current process? What context is necessary in the planning process so product teams can use their experience and insights?
Curious about customers
Most of all, great product managers (and great product marketing managers) build deep expertise in personas and their problems.
How? By spending quality time with customers.
The best customer engagement is about learning, not selling. That means face-to-face with people who buy and use their products. Sure, you can pick up a little during sales calls, but the best customer engagement does not have a sales or support objective.
Sales teams will share some of the friction they encounter when selling, and that’s important to know. Support and services teams will share friction customers encounter when using the product; that’s also important. As with the “telephone game,” getting insights directly from customers reduces the noise and editorial filters.
Great product managers are curious
Build time into each day to learn. Review your processes. Seek out new datasets and examine the data for insights. Explore the competition. Try to add a competition field to your sales system, so you’re notified when new competitors are flagged.
And make a pledge to speak to one customer each week. Don’t try to sell them anything. Don’t try to teach them anything. The best customer interaction is when they are talking more than you are.
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world." — John le Carré
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