What almost everyone misunderstands about product managers

“Great PMs live in the future and work backward.”
“Great PMs live in the future and work backward.”
Image: REUTERS/Gabrielle Lurie
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After more than a decade working in product across Google, Foursquare, and Slack, I still often struggle to define the role of “product manager” (PM) succinctly. Explaining what makes a PM great is even harder.

PMs have diverse backgrounds, murky responsibilities, and role definitions that vary widely across companies. They typically sit at the intersection of development (design and engineering) and go-to-market-focused departments (sales and marketing). They research opportunities, guide strategy, and help take features from idea to launch.

It can be easy to romanticize the PM role from afar. I’ve seen many people transition from another role to a job as a PM, only to feel disenchanted with the reality. Whether you want to become a PM, are a PM looking to grow, or work with PMs as peers, there are a number of dangerous myths about the role worth dispelling. Here are the ones I hear most often:

“PMs are mini CEOs”

This is admittedly a catchy tagline. But CEOs have direct management responsibilities, decision-making authority, business-level objective ownership, and often founder-level credibility for the original vision.

In reality, PMs have none of these. It’s a pernicious trap, because the PMs who act as if they are mini CEOs for a feature are the most likely candidates for a team organ rejection. Teammates want product leaders, not dictators.

“PMs are the decision-makers”

Many people who convert from another role into product management see it as step toward “making the calls.” It’s a common pattern, especially for disempowered engineers on dysfunctional product development teams.

PMs are responsible for the pace and quality of decision-making. That does not, however, mean they should make even a small fraction of decisions themselves. They should be the ultimate facilitators: pulling the best ideas from their teams, coordinating with cross-functional partners, and getting executive context.

PMs should lay out well-researched tradeoffs, set timetables, and structure great discussions.

Only in rare situations should they actually “make the call.” 

“PMs are the idea generators”

More than any other product development role, PMs are judged nearly exclusively on the output of their teams. Unlike engineers or designers, they produce few independent artifacts.

As a result, some PMs wind up viewing new ideas as their work product. They churn out ten times more concepts than their team could ever build.

This has a two-fold downside: their teams’ execution suffers without sufficient PM attention, and it stifles the potential creativity of non-product teammates.

PMs do need to immerse themselves in context and research that can help their teams come up with great product ideas. Every hour in the field with customers is an hour well spent. In an ideal world, creative brainstorming is a constant team exercise that the PM just happens to drive.

“PMs have to be great at company politics”

Unfortunately, at the largest companies this one is a bit true. But at companies that have a few thousand employees or less, politics only happens when shared alignment breaks down.

Great PMs are an antidote to startup politics. They keep disparate groups bought into a shared vision of where the company and its product need to head.

This requires developing deep domain knowledge, communicating well, and setting an inspirational strategy.

“PMs need technical degrees”

While a technical foundation is certainly useful for PMs, like every hiring heuristic applied unconditionally as a filter, it produces far too many false negatives.

PMs do need a deep curiosity about the underlying tech of their projects. They need to have some humility about the details, and the ability to develop strong partnerships with engineering. But they don’t need to be technical themselves.

What makes a PM great, then?

Great PMs live in the future and work backward, focus on customer and business impact, and amplify their teams. They drive high-quality decisions, optimize for learning, and execute impeccably. They have product design taste, data fluency, and technical acumen.

They didn’t study “product management” in college, because that major didn’t exist. They come from a wide diversity of backgrounds and relish wearing many hats. Though it’s nearly impossible to succinctly define what makes a PM great, it’s not difficult to spot a great PM—you will see a team they join make a leap.

Noah Weiss is the head of Slack’s search, learning, and intelligence group.