I am a product manager…I don’t do any real work.

“I am a product manager. I do a bunch of things…just not any real work.” I’ve tried that line a few times at cocktail parties when the question “so…what do you do?” invariably comes up. On the good days, that usually gets a faint laugh from everyone. The statement is meant to be facetious, but there is an element of truth to it. In fact, that’s exactly what my mother thinks to this day. In her mind, unless my job title has the word engineer, lawyer, doctor, or sales in it, it’s not a real job. She keeps a spare bedroom in her house. I’m convinced it’s because she believes it’s only a matter of time before my company figures out I’m actually useless and show me the door.

While I don’t think I will be out of a job soon, there is a certain amount of truth to that. The way product managers add value is very nebulous. In my daily work, I tell people what to build, but I don’t actually build anything. I do a lot of selling to stakeholders, but I don’t actually sell any products or bring in any money for the company. I tell people how to do a bunch of things, except they are 10x better than me at doing it. So why should a product manager exist at at?

In my view, a product manager is the equivalent of an amplifier in a sound system. By itself, it’s completely useless, but given the right components around it, the amplifier is the difference between a home theatre system and a sound system that is able to fill a 2,000 people concert hall. If I have to distill down the role of product manager into a tweet, it would be to:

10x the productivity of the people I works with

The philosophy has significant implication in the way I approach work on a daily basis. Below are 3 rules that I follow to ensure that I get the results I desire.

1. Value credibility and trust above all else

Earth shattering news…people are more engaged when they trust that the person leading the team know what he is doing. When I have no direct authority over any of the people I work with, my credibility is the only thing I can bank on. (cash works too, but bribing your team is not a cost effective solution long term :p). The thing with credibility is that it takes forever to build, so I have to take every opportunity to build that trust with the people around me. I know at some point, I will need to cash that in because one of my projects will go horribly wrong and i’m going to look like a complete idiot.

2. Don’t block other people who know better from doing their job.

A big part of product management is project management. In other words, I have to make sure that people know what to do and have the appropriate tools/resources to accomplish those tasks. The most exciting part about product is that I get to work on all aspect of the product, from ideation to development to launch and support. However, because of this, it’s very easy to inject myself into everything. In theory, that’s a good thing because as the product owner, it’s important for me to know all aspects of the product. I used to do that quite a bit, until I realized that during the process, I became the limiting factor for my team and is preventing them from getting real work done. Yes, I felt like I was in more control, but it was to the detriment of the team.

3. Focus on the why

Besides making sure that people have the tools and resources to do the work given to them, the other big piece of the puzzle to make sure the team is pulling the right levers and maximizing their impact. In order to do that, I tend to focus a significant portion of my time articulating the “why” behind every piece of work that we do. Why is this a problem? Why is this the right problem to solve? Why is this solution better than the alternative? etc.

My ability to articulate those questions have a direct correlation/causal relationship with the success of the project. Moreover, when delegating work to others, I am putting faith in them that they will make the right decisions. I believe that given sufficient information, everyone can make intelligent decisions. I also believe people inherently want to be useful. Articulating the reason behind the work demonstrates that I value my team’s limited time and that I wouldn’t be asking them to do this if it’s not something that’s important.

That’s it! The above are my everyday principles that I use to produce results (though I’m still discovering new tricks every day). Hope it was at least a little bit helpful.

One thought on “I am a product manager…I don’t do any real work.

  1. What qualities do developers value in product managers?

    This is a PM’s perspective of what a developer value in PM. 1) Transparency on why the work is important instead of just what needs to be done I think in general, developers want to work on interesting and important problems for a company. There is of…

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