How To Be A Good Product Manager

Tips on product management and product marketing for product managers. By Jeff Lash

Adapt your product management practice

Posted on September 4, 2008 by Jeff Lash · 20 Comments

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If you want to be a bad product manager, dogmatically follow product management rules. Learn a product management framework and abide by it it no matter what. Product managers need to “stick to their guns” and never give in. Thought leaders, authors, and consultants are experts and you should follow their advice without question.

If you want to be a good product manager, adapt your practices to the organization and situation. Product management is not (yet) an advanced science. Instead of laws and rules, we have guidelines and experiences to guide us. While it is in the best interest of a product manager to identify and follow best practices whenever possible, these are not absolute rules. What works effectively in one organization may not work for another, and a good product manager needs to identify what will make him or her most effective and change tactics accordingly.

Marty Cagan argues that the “product management model” which may work best in a company depends on several factors, including the type of product, the product development process, the role of product management, the size of the organization, and the company culture. Beyond that, it is important to realize that these elements are interrelated as well. For example, the “best” product development process for an organization will depend on these other factors. What works well for a large, formal company with established product management may not work well for a small informal startup where product management is just getting started.

Many product managers — especially new ones — are looking for a strict guide to follow which will lead them to product management success. Unfortunately, we do not have one yet, and it seems unlikely that one will be established in the near future, given the multitude of variations that exist. Those who expect to be given a prescribed plan are often frustrated at the lack of direction and afraid they are failing in their product management duties.

As a product manager, you should not look for the perfect model, or feel guilty if you are not doing things the exact way that the experts / consultants / authors / bloggers (including this one) prescribe. Instead, focus on understanding the needs of the organization and the market, and put yourself in a position to make the most impact.

  • Maybe the type of requirements document that works “best” for your situation is different than what the training prescribed; what really matters is whether it will meet the needs of the engineers and the team.
  • Maybe your Win/Loss Analysis can not follow a traditional structure due to the nature of your customers and how they make purchase decisions; what really matters is whether you can collect the relevant data which will help improve your product and sales process.
  • Maybe you are not able to tackle all of the aspects of your chosen product management framework at once; what really matters is whether you are focusing on the areas which will have the biggest impact initially.

These should not necessarily be looked at as faults that need to be corrected. Instead, they could just be the nature of the situation and represent the best possible response.

Regardless of the situation, product managers should still focus on continuous improvement, possibly even developing a plan which addresses areas on which to focus. A good product manager will concentrate less on comparing himself or herself to other product managers, and more on what is best for the company, the product development team, the market and the customers.

How To Be A Good Product Manager features tips on product management and product marketing, written by Jeff Lash (@jefflash on Twitter), Service Director, Product Management at SiriusDecisions.

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20 responses so far ↓

  • John Mansour // Sep 5, 2008 at 10:02 am

    Couldn’t have said it better myself. In fact, this concept applies to many other areas outside product management. Most of us have been victims of a new executive team who wanted to make their new company just like the old one by applying the same formula, but differences in culture, markets, products and a host of other factors result in failure. All the successes I’ve seen in my career (at every level) come from applying sound fundamentals differently in different situations. Product management is no different.

  • Stewart Rogers // Sep 7, 2008 at 7:47 am

    There are many factors that go into building a process with people and technology being two of them. Applying the same process on a new situation implies that you have the same people and technology. Not possible. At the end of the day your business drivers will lead your process that is molded around your people and the technology that is in place or should be in place. The key word from Jeff is that you not only adapt a process to suit your situation but you select an adaptive process so that it can suit your ever changing situation.

  • Charl Asuit // Sep 8, 2008 at 4:21 am

    This is very timely for me, Jeff, as I will soon be starting on a role in product management. In fact, I have asked for some advice on where to begin. All the recommendations given were good but the general aspects of product management, I found, was written from the point of view of delivering a tangible product. The role that I will soon assume will focus on delivering software but not in the traditional sense. In this case, I realised that I need to adapt the practices and guidelines on what works best in my organisation.

  • Steve Johnson // Sep 9, 2008 at 1:53 pm

    As I like to say, the great thing about standards is that they give you something to deviate from.

    A framework serves as a starting point for an organization and since no organization is the same as any other, the practices of one organization may not fit perfectly in another.

    Agile practices that make sense for custom development often don’t make sense for vendors of products. Applying product thinking to services usually fits but not 100%. A sales method for utilities doesn’t seem to work for enterprise software.

    You need to find what applies to your business and adapt them to your special circumstances.

    Some resources to help you find the best practices for your business:
    Tuned In by Stull, Myers, and Scott. ISBN: 047026036X
    Inspired by Marty Cagan. ISBN: 0981690408

    I also invite you to read my free ebook called “The Strategic Role of Product Management”, found online at http://www.pragmaticmarketing.com/srpm

    All are available also for the Amazon Kindle.

  • David Locke // Sep 11, 2008 at 1:49 pm

    If you are looking for something to read, start with the oldest McGrath book you can obtain.

  • Dr. Jim Anderson // Sep 11, 2008 at 8:42 pm

    As always, a very good post Jeff. The challenge with Product Management is that many of us come to it from a technical background and so we LIKE rules that can be followed because they are supposed to product a predictable outcome.

    What’s a product manager to do? Here’s one simple suggestion: treat Product Management like cooking. In cooking, the ingredients are always just a little bit different and the prep technique is always just a bit unique. This means that a good cook has to keep tasting and seasoning, tasting and seasoning until it tastes just right. Hmm, maybe we should all start wearing big white hats…?

    - Dr. Jim Anderson
    Blue Elephant ConsultingThe Accidental PM Blog

  • nick coster // Sep 12, 2008 at 2:27 am

    Thanks Jeff!! Here I am in the middle of running a product management training class, walking my participants through the brainmates Product Management Methodology. At the break I suggest to the group some great alternative resources to look at.

    “Have a look at goodproductmanager.com”, I say. And what is the headline that I am greeted with?! “If you want to be a bad product manager, dogmatically follow product management rules.” Great! Thanks Jeff!

    This actually served well to describe that there are a wide range of opinions out there and that going to a formal course was a great first step to learning more. Beyond the course however there is actually a broad community of PM’s that can continue to provide valuable advice and ideas.

    “Cheers” from the Australian product management community.
    –nick coster

  • Jeff Lash // Sep 12, 2008 at 8:52 am

    Good thinking on your feet, Nick! You obviously picked up on the main point of the post; it’s great to learn a product management framework (or several), and common successful ways of performing certain product management tasks — though when the rubber meets the road, as they say, you need to adapt your practices accordingly.

    And, more importantly, my point was that you shouldn’t feel bad about bending the “rules.” I’ve heard from many product managers who are worried that they’re not doing things the “right” way all the time, yet they are still successful. I’ve often done things that might make product management purists cringe, though they were almost always the best way to do something given the situation.

  • David Locke // Sep 18, 2008 at 1:01 am

    The writer or artist or creators breaks the rules, but knows them cold. They break the rules on purpose. They break the rules deliberately.

    Not following the methodology is different from not knowing the methodology. Know it cold. Then, bend it. Then, break it. But, know it first.

    When you break it, be prepared to say why.

  • Ani B // Sep 22, 2008 at 7:47 am

    Hi Jeff,

    Great post. I cannot begin to tell you how insightful this blog is for a first time Product Manager such as myself. I have been in this role for a year now, and I have been researching and doing a fair share of reading on best cases of product management – I figured it would be a better way to learn than to follow set rules.

    I do have a couple of questions though:

    1. If it works for the product and it works for the business, should it matter what framework I follow? (I do not currently follow one).

    2. The learning for me as a first time product manager has been steep, very steep. I keep notes, and maintain a log of the things I have learned, of the mistakes I have made. Is there a better way to do this?

    Once again, thanks for all the insight into Product Management and helping out people like me who tend to get overwhelmed at times.

    Ani

  • Steve Johnson // Sep 22, 2008 at 8:59 am

    I think the point of the first post was to adapt your methods to your situation, rather than blindly following a method. For instance, many tech marketers struggle to adapt the B2C methods taught in college to the reality of B2B marketing.

    The learning curve need not be steep. There are training sessions and product management coaches available (including from my firm, Pragmatic Marketing at http://www.pragmaticmarketing.com). Don’t go it alone.

  • Product Management Reader: 24Sept08 | The Productologist: Exploring the Depths of Product Management // Sep 24, 2008 at 7:22 am

    [...] Adapt your Product Management Practice [How to be a Good Product Manager] [...]

  • Scott // Sep 30, 2008 at 11:04 am

    I’m interviewing with the V.P and Director of Product Development/Management. I’m experiences in taking a product from concept to a sale ready product. I love it, this is the job for me. In fact the product managed was my own a patent, trademark, and copyrights to. I have a passion for PM and the interview is a “technical” interview. I agree with everything in the blog and the links. I will graduate with my MBA in 1 1/2 weeks and I guess I want to know, what it is I’m expected to say? I have the knowledge and experience and “confidence” to do it. Just not sure what may be expected. I know what I would expect.

  • Scott // Sep 30, 2008 at 12:16 pm

    Sorry, I guess I didn’t post a comment, but a question. I understand if you have to ignore or remove it. I do value the information and site availability. Just want to be excellent at PM. – Thanks

  • David Locke // Sep 30, 2008 at 9:28 pm

    Scott, there is no one answer. You will have to understand the company you are interviewing at to find the fit that they expect.

    If the job is local, you might meet a product manager from the company at a PDMA meeting or such before the interview.

    That person might not be able to tell you what the expectation is, because they may not be meeting their bosses expectation.

  • Linda Noack // Oct 6, 2008 at 5:02 pm

    Thanks, David, for such an insightful and encouraging blog about Product Management. I have been a project manager for a few years and just recently, the dev team has expressed interest in working with a Product manager as well. I will be filling that role until the need for having two people to fill both roles.

    Anyway, I love your comment that “not following the methodology is different from not knowing the methodology. Know it cold. Then, bend it. Then, break it. But, know it first.” And equally, I love the analogy of Product Management and cooking that Dr. Anderson makes. I like to think that anytime you work with people, that different ingredients are necessary for pulling off different projects successfully and so it seems to work with the Product development aspect as well.

  • Peter // Dec 2, 2008 at 9:01 pm

    About to start a new role as product manager in a medium sized hardware business and I am a little concerned at taking on this newly created position as the the organisition overall lacks planning and focus – still very keen to give it a shot though as I think it will be a very rewarding and exciting position to be in . Nothing like a challenge to get you out of bed in the morning!. Any ideas on the best way to learn the fundamentals of the role?

  • Steve Johnson // Dec 2, 2008 at 9:46 pm

    Your job is to make sure that your product team is working on the right things and that your sales team is equipped with the tools to sell it. A lot of it is common sense. Think how you can use market information to lead your product team and how you can make your sales process repeatable.

    I wrote about the role in my free ebook, The Strategic Role of Product Management. Download it from http://www.pragmaticmarketing.com/srpm

    You’ll also find a free webinar there that can help you get your management team to understand your role.

    Another (free) article that might help is “Start with the Ending” at http://www.pragmaticmarketing.com/publications/topics/06/0607sj

    Of the many product management books available, my favorites are “The Art of Product Management” by Rich Mironov (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1439216061) and “Inspired” by Marty Cagan. (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0981690408)

    Of course, it’s great to get a running start by taking a class with my company, Pragmatic Marketing. Go to http://www.pragmaticmarketing.com/seminars and read about our Practical Product Management seminar.

  • Alan Arnfeld // Jan 24, 2012 at 5:00 pm

    Although this post may be 4 years old, it has never been more relevant. I was recently considering my own career, over 20 years of product management and usability service provision. In every organisation the method has to be adapted to the maturity of the organisation and the people one is working with, along with budget and goals.

    From a UK perspective, I would like to share some of my experiences travelling through 5 different organisations.

    http://bestpracticebank.com/2011/02/developing-a-user-experience-usability-practice/

    To be successful product managers we must remain true to the vision of the market balanced with the organisational goals, BUT we have to be ready to keep re-inventing and reviewing our methods.

    best, alan

  • Harshita // Aug 3, 2012 at 2:32 am

    Well said..but we need to get started…although many of us are MBAs, we would love to gain common inputs in terms of analyzing a product..the usual competition, Target segment,value proposition,pricing etc are quite common ones though

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