Part of what I, and my consulting group, do is support organizations moving to a more product-centric culture. To support the coaching groups at a couple of my clients I put this together to help their product coaches better evaluate an support product managers’ improvement. At the request of some recent class attendees, I’m putting this online. If you’re a product manager or owner, you could use this to self evaluate and identify areas where you could improve.
I’ve got 7 areas I think about when talking to a product manager. I realize now that underneath all of these is the assumption that they understand what product management is, that it’s not project management, and that the value of any product comes from real world outcome and impact.
Here are the 7 areas:
- Strong industry and subject matter expertise
- Collaborative team leadership
- Leading up and outside the team
- Focus on vision, strategy, and target outcomes
- Exposing risks and testing hypotheses
- Planning and prioritizing
- Measuring and responding to actual outcomes
If all that’s obvious to you, you can skip this. If you could benefit from a bit more explanation, read on.
What’s a tech product manager?
A product manager is the leader of a cross-functional tech product team. The role comes with a number of challenges. Here are just a few.
You’re a leader, not a manager
Likely no one in the cross-functional team reports to you. You can’t legitimately tell anyone what they should do. You’ll lead by motivating and inspiring them. You’ll lead by building trust. You’ll build trust faster by trusting your team.
To get things done it’ll take the cooperation and support of your team. And, it’ll likely take the cooperation and support of other teams. It’s no wonder that one of the rock stars of product management, former Google product manager Ken Norton, titled his blog “Bring the Donuts.” If you’re doing your job right, you’ll be bringing lots of donuts.
You don’t know enough to make good decisions alone
To build a successful product you must balance business concerns, user experience concerns, and technical concerns. Ideally you have experts in all of those areas on your team. You’ll need them to make good decisions. If they’re not on your team, you’ll need to find and leverage them wherever they are inside or even outside your organization.
Failure is guaranteed
It’s not a secret that most tech products fail to grow enough to actually sustain their organizations. It also shouldn’t be a surprise that most of the features and capabilities we put into tech products go unused. You’ll fail a lot. Get used to that. But, it doesn’t take much success to be addicted to that feeling. And, it only takes a few successful decisions to build a product that customers love and that will sustain a company for many years to come.
“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”— Harry S Truman
There’s an old truth in product management that, if things go well, it’s your team that deserves credit. But, if things go poorly, it’s your fault. Get used to taking a lot of responsibility for failure, and sharing lots of responsibility for success.
Evaluating product managers
There are a huge number of qualities that matter. And, it doesn’t take strength in all qualities to be successful. Some of the strongest product managers know their weaknesses and surround themselves with team members that both supplement their weaknesses and complement their strengths.
The following list are the 7 general areas of strength I try to evaluate. In fact, when talking with a product person I try to score each of these areas from 1-5. Then, if I’m giving advice I’ll start with the weakest area and give one or two pieces of advice. It never helps to overwhelm someone with feedback.
1. Strong industry and subject matter expertise
Build a deep understanding of the market your product is sold into and used in. Understand:
- Who chooses your product and why?
- What is their value proposition?
- What alternatives do customers have? Keep in mind alternatives could be competitive products, home grown solutions, or manual processes and workarounds. If customers don’t choose your product, what do they do instead to meet their needs?
- What emergent technology could affect solutions in your market?
- What regulatory changes might affect your market?
- Are there social or economic changes that would affect your market?
Frequent contact with customers & users
- Do you talk with or observe users at least once a week?
- Do you have a pool of customers & users you could quickly draw on to learn from and test ideas
Expertise in you product
- Can you install, configure, and demonstrate your product?
- Can you use the product as if you were a user?
- Can you quickly point out the strengths and weaknesses in your product?
Does your team and your leadership see you as a subject matter expert?
- On your product?
- For your market?
2. Collaborative team leadership
Collaboration & facilitation
- Are you comfortable planning and leading collaborative workshops with your team both live and virtual?
- Do you have a variety of models you can use to represent what you understand about your product? (such as story maps, journey maps, personas, or UI sketches)
- Are others in your team comfortable facilitating and working with models you’ve created?
Leveraging experience and expertise of other team members
- Do you work closely with a core team to help make decisions? (such as tech leadership or UX leadership)
- Can you identify and work with subject matter experts outside your team to fill in knowledge gaps in your team?
Building shared understanding inside the team
- Does your team understand your product, its customers and users?
- Does your team understand your vision for the product?
- Does your team understand your current strategic focus?
- Can you leverage storytelling to communicate with and build empathy inside your team?
Involving other team members in decision making
- Do you routinely involve your team in making decisions?
- Do you socialize decisions made in small groups with the whole team?
Involving team members in discovery work
- Do your team members routinely talk to customers & users?
- Do you leverage team members in designing solutions and building prototypes?
- Do you routinely share what you’ve learned in discovery with the whole team?
- Do you trust your team members?
- Do your team members trust you?
3. Leading up and outside the team
Identifying and communicating routinely with other stakeholders
- Do you know what stakeholders you must connect with routinely?
- Do you proactively reach out to stakeholders to share both challenges and successes?
- For stakeholders that are customers, do you maintain a “doctor’s posture” focusing more on their needs and outcomes and less on delivering what they ask for?
Good at translating customer and user outcomes to business impact
- Can you connect customer and user challenges to challenges in your business?
- Can you connect changes in customer and user behavior to business benefit?
- Can you use stories and storytelling to build customer and user understanding and empathy with stakeholders?
Identifying and communicating with other dependent teams
- Do you know the teams your team depends on to build, release, and support your product?
- Do you communicate routinely with those other teams, especially when working on something where their contribution is necessary?
- Do you invite members of other teams into your team to support them in discovery work and decision making?
- Do you trust your stakeholders?
- Do your stakeholders trust you?
4. Focusing on vision, strategy, and target outcomes
Can you simply state a purpose or mission for your product?
Can you position your product relative to alternatives?
Can you tell a long term vision story?
Can you communicate a stepwise strategy for moving your product forward?
- Can you create measurable objectives and key results for each strategic move?
Do you understand where your product is in its growth and maturity cycle and how that affects your current product strategy?
5. Exposing risks and testing hypotheses
Are you fast at reframing a feature idea as a hypothesis?
Are you fast at identifying risks and uncertainty in hypotheses?
- Can you effectively communicate that risk to your team? To stakeholders?
Are you fast at identifying ways to test beliefs and build certainty?
Do you collaborate closely with your team, especially your core team, to test hypotheses?
Can you effectively communicate what you’ve learned from each test?
- To your team?
- To stakeholders?
Do you have a pool of customers and users that you can leverage as early adopters to use and give feedback on new functionality?
6. Planning and prioritizing
Can you identify and communicate objectives that you use to prioritize ideas?
- Impact-centric business objectives and key results?
- Outcome-centric product objectives?
- Can you break down features and capabilities into a series of smaller releases where each release results in a successful outcome and impact?
- Can you identify small releases to learn targeted at a small subset of early adopters to test your ideas before scaling them to a general release?
- Can you effectively work with your team to decompose and prioritize the details of a release?
- Can you work with your team to refine the details of what they’re building to help them more accurately estimate work?
- Can you step back and allow your team to take responsibility for planning what to build when so that they can optimize for speed, predictability, and quality?
- Do you have separate time budgets for strategic work, technical improvement, and tactical response for emergent customer needs?
7. Measuring and responding to actual outcomes
Can you identify product metrics that allow you to measure if customers and users are getting value from your product?
Can you connect product metrics to business impact metrics?
Do you have a small number of product metrics, 2-4, that allow you to monitor product health?
For each feature you release into the product, do you have metrics that let you measure specific feature adoption and routine use?
Do you routinely share and discuss metrics with your team?
Do you actively make changes to features release to improve their outcome?
Do you connect metrics, objective data, to subjective observations that come from talking to and directly observing customers?
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my good fried Petra Wille’s great book Strong Product People. She takes a bit if a different twist on evaluation than me. I find her book really useful for leaders of product managers.
If you’d like to learn more about my flavor of agile product management, please consider taking a class.
Thanks for reading!