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What Does a Product Manager Do?

December 15, 2018

7 minute read

What does a product manager do, and what are they accountable for? We’ve recently written quite a few posts about the fundamentals of product roadmapping and why dates do not belong on them. One question that keeps coming up in the comments is a variation of this:

“If product managers aren’t responsible for release dates, then what are we accountable for?”

That’s a good question, and one that reflects the fact that a lot of companies that hire product managers don’t really know how to measure your success. They’re focusing on all the wrong success criteria, like dates!

What does a product manager do, and what are they accountable for?

Our performance can’t really be tied to release dates, since that’s up to project managers to fix and deliver. We don’t have much to do with code quality either – that’s usually a joint effort between project management and dev teams. 

Long-time product manager Nils Davis suggests the job could easily be renamed “problem manager” because what we really do is identify and solve problems. We couldn’t agree more.

But that puts you in charge of one more thing: setting the way your team works together. As long as you’re leading the product, no one else can do this for you. The following might not be obvious, but here’s what you’re accountable for as a product manager:

1. A Product Manager Communicates your product plans internally

Since you decide on your product vision, you’re also the one who gets to communicate it to the rest of the company. (At least on a very high level.)

This includes briefing your teams on the details they need to do their job: What are we building? Why? How does it relate back to our product goals? What value are we offering? Who benefits? Who doesn’t benefit?

Many teams never get proper briefings, as if only a few chosen execs were deserving of this basic business context. This happens most egregiously to dev teams, who by now are used to having specs thrown at them from over a fence.

BENEFIT: When you brief your teams and work through the priorities you’ve chosen, it shows.

First of all, this transfers a good deal of power and responsibility to your teams, that can consider among themselves how they can support your desired product goals. It also empowers them to say “NOPE!” to projects that they don’t think will get you to the outcome you’re gunning for.

Taking the time out to communicate with your teams pays for itself almost immediately. What you lose in time, you’ll make up with better product decisions.

There are a couple ways to do this and some that take more time than others. Set your own cadence among these:

Team meetings

This takes up more of your time, but could be worth it if your teams need facetime or a pep talk (or both.)

Pile everyone into a room or Skype and take them through the journey that led to your product decisions. This is a good place to highlight customer feedback, anecdotes, internal ideas and other evidence that supports your case. Always make time for a Q&A so everyone has their chance to air their questions and concerns.

Company-wide monthly feature demos

As new features and releases ship, colleagues who don’t work closely with the product lose track of who’s working on what and why. For that reason alone, think about having teams do live demos once a week either live or via video. You only have to facilitate this, so this shouldn’t take much time or effort.

Share your internal roadmap

Your roadmap is a living, breathing master document of what you’re working on and what you expect your product to look like in the future. The most low-touch thing you can do to keep your team updated is by keeping your roadmap updated, and sharing it internally so everyone has it for reference.

2. A Product Manager brings in customer feedback

You depend on customer feedback to make product decisions, so you consider yourself accountable for bringing that feedback in.

You don’t have personally respond to customer feedback, but work with your customer-facing teams to make sure they’re doing something meaningful with it.

Here are three ways to cover your bases:

    1. Acknowledge it – Work with your support team to figure out a nice, human way to handle your feedback and still assert your plans.
    2. Tell them what happens next – Make sure your support and sales teams know how to pass that feedback on to you and the client understands that all feedback is being passed to the product managers, instead of being lost or forgotten.
    3. Communicate your priorities – You generally know your priorities right? Use your roadmap to tell your customers what’s coming up

Most companies don’t even acknowledge customer feedback! Even a simple email like this still puts you miles ahead of everyone else:

“Thanks for the feedback! That’s a good suggestion. I’ve added it to our own backlog, so I can keep you posted on whether this is something we’re able to build in. Let me know if you have any other suggestions of ways we could make ProdPad even better.”

Many product managers struggle to get their hands on customer feedback, but engaging customers helps you collect and mine insights that can keep your product moving in the right direction.

BENEFIT: This kind of engagement and transparency blows customers away. It makes them feel invested in you and best of all, it encourages more feedback.

3. Product Managers establish an A/B testing culture

The following observation from a former senior PM who learned to embrace testing comes straight from A/B Testing: The Most Powerful Way To Turn Clicks Into Customers:

“Where previously, people would argue over what headlines you use or what kind of picture, and you would spend hours drilling down on some stupid detail, now we don’t have those conversations anymore, since we’ll test all that stuff. We’ll figure out what is best.”

If you never establish a testing culture at your company, all you’ll ever have are opinions – and the HiPPO’s (highest paid person in the office) will always win.

Opinions are why teams end up spending hours debating button colors, or spend weeks developing a page that no one really agrees should exist in the first place. They’re baseless and dangerous to your product’s future.

[bctt tweet= “You’re the PM. Reject opinions. Accept data-backed hypotheses.” -@dreasaez”]

Everyone has the right to request changes, as long as they can set up a hypothesis that looks like this:

If we [do something] for [persona], they will [respond in a certain way].

If your team members can’t articulate the above, don’t entertain it. Rather than arguing over who may or may not be right (remember, you are not your market!), you can set up a quick test and see what the actual results are.

You’re accountable for bringing a successful product to market, not for accommodating egos.

BENEFIT: Teams with a strong testing culture make data-driven decisions, move fast, don’t suffer from dominating HiPPOs and are much better positioned to innovate.

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