The gap between good and great product managers is wide. But it can be bridged by focusing on the right responsibilities.
Good product managers focus on typical product management responsibilities — they perform product discovery, have a system to prioritize features, and build clear roadmaps. Many PMs have successful careers by excelling in these three areas. But leaping from good to great requires product managers to build on those responsibilities by embracing collaboration and elevating the product above their own interests.
If you’re ready to make the jump between being a good and great product manager, read on!
1. Finding clarity
Any product manager’s first responsibility is to set a clear vision and strategy for their team and the company as a whole. That shouldn’t be news to anyone reading this.
Great product managers “level up” that responsibility by being laser-focused on a single goal. If they aren’t built around one objective, products can become jumbled, bloated, diffused, or useless — and that will kill any product.
In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins finds that product managers who set a “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” (BHAG) with a simple strategy are 11 times more likely to propel their organizations to hit or exceed “greatness criteria.”
Product management expert Roman Pichler recommends that you find clarity by first understanding the difference between product visions and product strategies. The two work hand-in-hand, but they are different.
One of the easiest ways to delineate between these two is to use Pichler’s Vision Board.
The board quite simply allows you to keep your vision in sight while focusing on the more immediate strategy. It’s a simple tool but works well to help PMs embrace clarity as their top responsibility.
2. Promoting collaboration
Another key responsibility great product managers embrace is collaboration — cultivating an ethos of sharing, mutual respect, and enthusiasm for continuous learning.
According to Debra Mashek, professor of psychology at Harvey Mudd College, the whole point of collaboration is to join forces. Debra is essentially saying that the better a team works together to solve a shared problem, the more likely they’ll learn from one another and improve collectively.
Above all, real collaboration means sharing the 4 Rs — Risks, Responsibilities, Resources, and Rewards — of the group’s workload. So put your ego aside. Bring others into the process. Make collaboration a daily practice.
In each Squad, every member has responsibilities that relate to the group’s long-term mission. Individuals decide what to build and how to build it based on the Squad’s overall mission, product strategy, and short-term goals.
Such freedom, when paired with modest, collaborative groups, allows for easy and more frequent product releases at Spotify.
3. Gaining buy-in
A great leader takes the blame and shares all the credit. Doing so fosters trust and respect and helps you build support from team members.
To gain buy-in, first assemble a team of effective, disciplined people on your product team. Ideally, they should get along well and motivate one another organically.
Jack Krawczyk realized the value of this camaraderie when he joined Pandora as VP of Product Management. He observed that most people joined a team within Pandora for its particular strategy. As a result, Krawczyk saw that team members became unmotivated when strategic changes were made. He found that if people made a commitment to the group, each member would motivate each other and better adapt to strategic pivots.
How Hubspot gains buy-in
When HubSpot added more seats and workspaces, their SVP Christopher O’Donnell realized that daily and weekly scrums were stunting engineers’ autonomy and preventing designers from doing actual work. Sprints had turned into transactions. And while agile development insulated the team from distractions, it also effectively cut product off from the rest of the company.
The solution? Breaking up with scrum and creating “HubSpot Science Fair,” a monthly, company-wide demo that showcases recently built products. O’Donnell says the Science Fair gives PMs the ability to present new ideas, products, or features. It’s where they can gain initial buy-in or confirmation that they’re on the right path.
After running for more than 10 years, Science Fair gives all at HubSpot “a raw glimpse into how product is moving the needle on our overall mission.” It builds legitimacy and helps to gain trust across the team.
4. Making tough decisions
Reflecting on why he had achieved literary greatness, George Orwell said that his superpower was the ability to face “unpleasant facts.” The best product managers possess this power too. They have the ability to embrace customer research, even when it runs counter to their beliefs. Their responsibility is to face difficult realities and make decisions based on facts, not fantasy.
To make decisions at all, you first need authority. Dr. Robert Cialdini, clinical psychologist and author of Influence, cites authority as a “principle of persuasion.” A leader who is open and transparent, one who never covers up uncomfortable truths and decisions, will build trust and credibility. Leaders who also demonstrate consistent competence are even more likely to gain support for their decisions, especially if they asked for others’ input along the way.
Compare the two regional grocery store chains, Kroger and A&P. Each chain had regional market dominion. Yet only Kroger’s power to face unpleasant facts allowed them to make the right tough decisions.
Kroger’s market data analysis showed an increased demand for superstores, so they transitioned every store into a superstore. A&P’s market research also suggested transitioning to superstores, but they ignored the data to their detriment. The end result? From 1973 to 1998, Kroger generated 80 times the market returns of A&P.
Remodeling every store into a supermarket couldn’t have been easy or comfortable for Kroger, but the investment was well worth it. Likewise, it’s up to PMs to make difficult calls — even if they aren’t popular industry choices — if it means strengthening their product and helping the customer.
How the military makes tough decisions
There are plenty of parallels between the U.S. military and great product management, but our favorite is the decision-making process. In the U.S. military, once an officer reaches 70% certainty about a decision, they’ll act on it. By “satisficing” product decisions — choosing “good enough” over “nearly perfect” — the U.S. military can make thousands of tough decisions, fast.
Even if you don’t have a definitive answer to a question, if you can be 70% sure about your answer, you can confidently make your decision.
The most important product manager responsibility? A powerful example.
Whether you need to make a tough decision or gain buy-in, arguably the most important responsibility of every great product manager is to remember these four simple words: it’s not about me.
Good PMs lead by the example of their power. Great PMs lead by the power of their example. To keep folks on track, you must focus first on eliminating distractions and articulating a clear vision and strategy on a continual basis. For your team to collaborate well, you must model transparency, humility, and trust.