PMs should be assessed along the following dimensions. This assessment not only tells us if they’re good, it also provides leveling guidance. PMs at different stages of their career will excel at different things.
TL;DR: More junior PMs can be successful by following process and honing their analytical skills, while senior PMs need to become both expert technologists and creative, free thinkers.
We value autonomy and empowerment. With empowerment comes responsibility. An essential dimension of PM advancement is the independence they exhibit in their role. Associate Product Managers and Product Managers are expected to operate with some independence, but with regular supervision and check-ins with their manager. As PMs advance to Senior Product Manager and beyond, they are expected to operate in the role independent from such supervision. This doesn’t mean that PM’s shouldn’t leverage their manager as a coach to help them through various product problems and challenges that they face — it is their manager’s responsibility to help them advance their capabilities to the next level at all stages of growth. To operate independently means that manager oversight is no longer required for them to successfully execute a given product initiative.
Independence is earned through accumulating and successfully executing against a variety of product initiatives across all stages of a product’s lifecycle, including early product planning, customer research and validation, roadmap planning, product development sprints, user testing, product launches, metrics analysis, and post-launch iterations. The key to advancement along this dimension is both exhibiting that one has had such experiences across the product lifecycle and, as they have encountered new situations they have been able to tackle various challenges successfully with minimal supervision.
Scope, Execution & Analysis
Product scope covers both the overall amount of product functionality that PMs drive, as well as the complexity of the product offerings for which they are responsible. For example, a relatively new product manager may be responsible for feature enhancements to an existing feature in the product. Whereas a more seasoned product manager is responsible for an entire product Squad, including new product offerings that haven’t been brought to market.
Scope increases in this way: Contributor -> Squad Leader -> Product Group Leader -> Product Area Leader. The complexity of product increases from incremental improvements to existing functionality to ownership of more complex offerings as well as innovation in new product categories.
Product execution is about how PMs orchestrate work. This includes Sprint Planning, communication of product status, sprint retros and communications, among other things.
It is critical for every PM to become proficient in statistics and analysis. This is vital for running variant tests, creating dashboards to track a product’s success criteria, building dashboards in Looker, etc. In addition, PMs should be capable of creating highly objective and scientifically oriented
Product management is largely a leadership role. Initially, this involves exhibiting mastery of the core dimensions of product leadership within their team: strong written and verbal communication, an ability to articulate and evangelize a product area’s vision and strategy, and an ability to work cross-functionally to achieve shared objectives.
As PMs grow, their scope of leadership influence expands beyond their team (the specific designers, engineers, etc. that are implementing features) to broader sets of people within the organization. This includes cross-team and cross-disciplinary leadership, executive leadership, and customer leadership. The best product experiences span beyond an individual product manager’s ownership, therefore making it vitally important that they drive alignment with other product managers through strong cross-team product leadership.
Similarly, one’s product scope generally speaks to only part of the user journey, so it is important to develop strong cross-disciplinary leadership across marketing, customer experience, business development and more. Executive leadership, or the ability to manage up to the executive team, becomes critical to building support and investment in new product categories as well as accelerating investment in existing product areas. And finally, customer leadership involves the ability to directly engage, understand and learn from our users.
Innovation is often misunderstood as a rare, innate gift to create and execute original ideas. This is seldom, if ever, the case. In truth, innovation has little to do with new ideas. Most often it is the application and extension of existing technologies to solve a new or existing business problem or user need. These problems/needs generally take one of two forms: unmet needs are those that users understand and can easily express; unrealized (or latent) needs are those that users don’t know they need until they experience the solution.
Meeting unmet needs is achieved by improving upon that which has already been created — iterating incremental improvements based on quantitative and qualitative user signals. In this sense the solutions that are applied to unmet user needs are best described as user-inspired. Innovation in this area is evolutionary. An example would be improving search ranking through the application of machine learning.
Identifying and addressing unrealized user needs is more challenging. Since a product or feature does not yet exist, there is no user data to validate our ideas or generate new ones. These are needs that users aren’t aware they have, but when realized have the potential to profoundly change their behavior. They can become part of the fabric of people’s everyday lives — so much so that they can barely comprehend life before it. These are best described as revolutionary innovations.
PMs need to look outside of their own product and industry segment and consider the problem through the lens of various technologies and business models. They need to identify the unique assets of our company and consider how those differentiators could be leveraged in new ways, while disregarding established industry practices. Existing domain knowledge may stifle creativity and limit the realm of what’s possible. Ideally we are capable of building domain expertise without becoming creatively constrained by status quo thinking.
Solutions that address unrealized user needs are often technology-inspired (as opposed to user-inspired). The source of innovation is the enabling technology itself. A technology, whether existing (like a phone sensor) or newly developed, like a recommendation engine, is the creative conduit to an innovative solution.
Technology-inspired solutions often lead to improvements of the core technology itself. Since it hasn’t been applied to this specific problem, improvements or changes are required in order to best address the problem. A further byproduct of technology-inspired product thinking is that it often leads to the identification of more unrealized user needs. Now that we are equipped with a new tool we thoroughly understand, we can more easily identify additional problems to which this tool can be applied.
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