“What do you do?”
I failed to properly answer this when I first became a product manager. A polite introduction became an incoherent rambling of endless bullet points. Family dinners led to constant correction and re-explanation. I’ll even admit that I started using short descriptions with exciting buzzwords to elevate and somewhat mispresent my own career. I wanted to burst whenever the topic was brought up. Yet I always felt frustrated by how I defined my role. But then I found my muse, my sounding board, my reason to self-reflect: my son, Aiden.
Aiden’s always been very curious and straightforward, so when I explained what I do for a living, he gave me the best, most raw feedback possible: “I don’t get it.” No sugarcoating or nodding along; just a blunt, honest response. Knowing that I shouldn’t attempt to overexplain to a ten-year-old, I decided to spend some time figuring out how to better explain my role to a child. It was harder than it sounds. But along the way, I discovered the simplicity of what I did. Time to try again with my breath held and fingers crossed.
Me: “I find a bunch of problems, make a list of the most important problems, then get those problems solved.”
Aiden: “That makes sense,” he said, returning to playing Fornite with his new kitty avatar.
Let it be known that I wasn’t defeated by a small child.
All joking aside, I felt something click at that moment. This was only a high-level description, yet it perfectly summed up what I did in a neat little package. And while this would be a great way to describe what I do to other children, new social connections, and my mother (please stop saying I do “techy things with computers”), I knew I needed to dive deeper into how I tackled these problems in my day-to-day.
As a product manager, you’re always running a marathon. The work is never-ending. If you don’t pace yourself, you’ll eventually burn out. Throughout the course of this marathon, you will end up wearing many different hats, forcing you to context switch based on the particular stage of a product problem you’re solving. You’ll need incredible endurance to take on all these roles, which can be broken down into the following: strategist, therapist, analyst, manager, interviewer, negotiator, and advocate — better known as your product S.T.A.M.I.N.A. Not only do these roles provide a solid foundation for what you’re doing at any given point, but they are also listed in the order that you will attempt to solve a new problem. Let’s get into the basics of each.
It’s no surprise that the best product managers are also great strategists. Thinking through problems and determining the best course of action is something every product manager must d0. Yet whenever we think about product strategy, we tend to only focus on features and roadmaps. While these are important, challenge yourself first. Before it’s time to figure out what problems to solve in your product, take a step back and figure out what problems should be solved within your organization to meet your company goals and objectives.
What does this mean? First, let’s consider the three most common stages of the customer lifecycle: acquisition, adoption, and retention. Regardless of your contribution to the current company strategy, you should take a look at each objective and identify which area requires the most improvement. Here are a few basic examples:
- Acquisition: increase customer base by X%, shift focus toward the enterprise customers
- Adoption: decrease time to complete onboarding, reduce training time
- Retention: reduce net churn, increase customer conference attendance
Now that you have further assessed the overall strategy, you can begin to identify the right problems to solve. Even if you weren’t involved in creating the company strategy, you are now armed with the north star of information to guide you toward the next steps to ensure your organization succeeds.
Now that you know what problems your company wants to solve, it’s time to put on your therapist hat. Now you need to align those problems to what your product needs next. It’s time to listen to those who want nothing more than to help, even if it comes in the form of venting frustrations. This role is different from that of the Interviewer (see later) as this is a broader conversation around general issues. Luckily for you, your patients are within easy reach: employees and customers.
Personally, I always recommend starting with company employees. I know this might cause some of you to wince as you think about an employee’s personal biases. But think about it — who better to ask about potential challenges?
A lot of the time, you may find that a missing feature is what has caused your company to lose deals or even existing customers. In this instance, your job is to listen and not offer solutions. Keep asking why so that you can move past the solution and instead find the root of the problem. You’d be surprised how often you might find that the issue is more flexible and abstract. Regardless of what comes from these conversations, you’ll find that your colleagues will not only appreciate the respect and attention you provided them, but you will have also gained their buy-in towards the determined outcome.
Once you’ve gathered a little insight internally, it’s time to set your sights on those who actually use your products. Rather than dive into the merits of always listening to your customers, I’d like to offer two pieces of advice. First, customer feedback is inspirational, but also biased. Each customer you talk to is focused on themselves and their team, not necessarily your entire customer base. While this doesn’t mean you should discount their ideas, always know that the customer is relaying their problems. Second, remember that while you’re in the role of a product therapist, customers are your patients. Your goal is to guide them toward discovering their own fundamental issues, not tell them what they’re feeling.
The therapist role is one of the most important in your toolkit. It requires a lot of practice, patience, and curiosity. As a product manager, you will constantly be playing the role of a product therapist. Sometimes, your questions or approach may differ, yet the mindset should always be the same: listen, don’t fix.
Now that we have better defined the broad strokes, it’s time to put on the analyst hat and find the patterns. What are the themes? Are there any gaps? What needs more attention? Research is pivotal to not only help discover what you should build but how you should build it. In a perfect world, you will have three main sources of analysis: consistent feedback (either from your recent “therapy” sessions or a living wishlist), usage and behavioral analytics, and competitive intel. From these sources, answers will begin to emerge.
Many new product managers come in bright-eyed and excited to do something new and exciting. However, the analyst role will reveal that, aside from true innovation, most problems you will uncover have already been solved. Whether they’ve been solved well or not is somewhat irrelevant. Remember that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. By putting on this hat, you’ll quickly realize what has worked, what has failed, and what problems are still out there.
The analyst role is one of the hardest, though. Personal bias is a tough obstacle to overcome. As information comes together, it’s easy to fall into the trap of pointing out the correct solution and digging your heels in. I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen others become tunnel-visioned while wearing the analyst hat, to the point where the only answers they are finding are the ones that agree with their theories and ideas. Here’s some advice that is easy to say and difficult to master: during your research, always maintain an objective, unbiased perspective. You’ll have time to voice your opinion, but this stage is not meant to serve as your soapbox moment.
It’s in the title, but what does it mean to actually be a manager for your product? In essence, it’s all about organization, presentation, and strategic possibilities.
Wrangling together the themes from all feedback sources into something cohesive and understandable is no easy task. As a manager, your job is to make sure you have the data organized and easily available so that you can present your findings.
The next step is where we begin to see the line blur between objective and subjective: the presentation. Giving all the facts to the leaders, designers, and developers within your organization can be a challenge. However, they need to understand the evidence for your product decisions. Developing a solution will come later. First, you need to be thoughtful as you explain the different possible paths.
Ideally, the collection of information should yield a handful of strategic possibilities, with at least one being a contender for your roadmap. Remember, the goal is to solve the most important problems that add value to your product and the organization. You must be realistic in your approach and know that the goal is to make the majority of your customers happy. If you manage this part of the process well, you’ll have the right buy-in and a clear direction.
Once you have some direction, it’s time to put on the interviewer hat. Where this differs from the therapist is that the interviewer is more focused, challenging, and critical. The goal here isn’t to listen to problems and discover themes. Instead, it’s to determine if you’re on the right track. This is the time you get to inspire creativity with those you involve, showcasing your desire to solve what’s been troubling them.
The first step in any interview is to validate that the solution(s) you’ve come up with is going to solve the problem. You may be tempted to ask someone point-blank if your idea is the perfect solution. But the best approach is always to have that person lead you to the answer. This can be tricky, as many will attempt to architect the solution for you. However, you have some useful tools at your disposal: defined questions and design prototypes.
Both questions and prototypes should be in your toolkit for any interview. They will allow you to stay on track and get the best feedback possible. And while this interview role flirts with the subjective and biased nature of the proposed solutions, it’s incredibly important to maintain objectivity and an unbiased stance. Never, ever try to convince the customer that this will work for them during your time wearing the interviewer hat. Instead, encourage them to be critical with simple questions like:
- What’s your gut reaction to this?
- What do you hate about this?
- Is this actually helpful?
Use strong language like “hate” and “gut reaction” to get those visceral responses. Then watch for facial cues, body language, or any hesitation in a response to hone in further. Constructive criticism is vital to success. And while they may be figuratively kicking and screaming as you drag it out of them, both parties will feel better after gaining that deeper level of understanding. Remember that, as an interviewer, your goal is to try to make things better for others, not make yourself feel good.
Out of all these roles listed here, the negotiator will probably be one of the most challenging. In fact, negotiating is where many product managers fail. With so much data and information at your fingertips, you’re now tasked with prioritizing what’s most important. Then, you’ll need to negotiate with the business, your development team, and even yourself on time commitment, resource needs, and next steps. The hardest part about being in the negotiator seat? You’ll be handling all three debates in parallel, so you’ll be juggling flexibility with conviction. So, how should you handle so much happening at once?
If you’ve spent even a single day in product, you’ve probably heard one universal question: “When will this be done?” It’s one of many questions that those within the organization will ask, and preparation will only be a luxury when you’re asked to sacrifice quality, speed, and/or time to make this work for the business. Negotiating with the business is a necessary skillset, as setting improper expectations is the easiest way you can fail in your product career. Always be realistic and firm in the goals you’ve set around timeframes and success metrics. However, reiterate that these are always tentative and subject to change.
While working with the business and leadership team, you’ll also collaborate with developers to determine the effort of work involved. This seems simple on paper. But I can tell you from experience that if your development team isn’t challenging your thinking, then you won’t deliver the best possible solution. Developers are some of the most creative minds you’ll ever know. And the best developers will voice their opinions and criticisms. It can be overwhelmingly intimidating, but I can’t stress the value of these conversations enough. Some aspects of the solution may be scrapped. However, you might end up with an even better solution than you originally thought. Embrace these discussions and let the smarter creatives have some control.
When it comes to negotiating with yourself, you should continuously be asking the same question: “Can this wait?” Your goal is to solve the problems. As much you may love the solutions you’ve proposed, it’s important to also challenge yourself on whether something must be done immediately. This concept, known as “scope crushing,” is what separates good product managers from great ones. It’s the ability to be both empathic and rational that defines how you, your product, and possibly your entire company succeed.
After wearing so many different hats, sometimes it’s important to just take a step back and be happy with the results. This brings us to our advocate role. Get excited! Shout from the rooftops! Let people know what’s happening next! Being a product advocate means showing off your energy, passion, and desire to make things better for others. You’ve worked hard to deliver this new value, so take a moment to share your excitement. Colleagues and customers alike are about to be thrilled by what you’ve put together, and you need to make sure they know it.
In what can sometimes be described as a thankless career, being an advocate for what you’ve done is easily the most rewarding part of it all. While this role may be fleeting and sporadic, take the time to inspire delight and belief in your company mission. People see you as a leader — don’t be afraid to shine with your enthusiasm.
A tough but rewarding job
Choosing the acronym STAMINA was intentional. Looking back, product managers can wear even more hats than what’s listed above, but this is a solid foundation. While the spectrum ranges from rational to emotional, the ability to context switch each and every day requires a rare personality that is willing to develop an unbelievably complex skillset. The job can be undeniably exhausting and even demoralizing at times. But with the right mindset and unshakeable resolve, the best product managers will stand out and lead others to happiness and success.
About the Author
As the director of product at inMotionNow, Josh rides the line of organized chaos, finding that the greatest professional satisfaction is the result of reining everything in and effectively creating beautiful new processes, products, standards, and expectations. Through his diverse background in sales, customer success, and now product development, he has gleaned insights into the needs of the many and what it takes to grow not just a product portfolio, but a business. When he's not in the weeds of features and fires, his ten-year-old son is telling him what to do with his day-to-day life.