Product Managers Don’t Do Anything

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It was quite a sobering moment when the fact dawned on me. We were doing our fiscal year strategic planning and going through each department discussing priorities. Seem’s simple enough. But what happened next stopped me in my tracks.

Mik, our CEO, said, “OK – let’s work on the metrics we’ll use to measure your department. Nicole, why don’t you go first?”

Dead silence. How can I measure what my team does? And, you know the old quote, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it or improve it. I was not feeling fabulous at that moment.”

But why couldn’t I come up with metrics for my team? I can assure you that every product team member is quite busy. But it turns out, when you take a step back and look from the outside in, while we are quite busy, we don’t actually do anything.

We don’t write code. So you can’t measure us on things like quality of delivery. I would argue that it’s even difficult to measure us on delivery of features because we don’t actually build the features. Yes, we design and shape features, but how can I be on the hook for something I don’t build?

Okay, fine, let’s try from the other side. Can we be measured on revenue? There are definitely a lot of product groups that are measured on revenue (or something similar). But that seems like a pretty distant measure. Why do I say that? Well, product people don’t sell. Sales people sell.  So we don’t do that either.

At this point, it was getting depressing. We don’t build the product. We don’t sell the product. That leaves little else, or so it would appear. Should I just pack it up now and put the last 20 years behind me and move on? Tell my team. Go get a real job where you actually do something?

Then in my deep despair (Yes, I love The Princess Bride), it dawned on me that I had it all wrong.

I came to this conclusion because I’ve been obsessed with the TV show Madam Secretary. Watching, I noticed that the Secretary of State spends most of her time cajoling, negotiating, listening, convincing, begging, cutting deals, building trust — the list goes on. She basically takes up her position in the middle of the countries of the world and works to get them to “play nicely together. Her do is to do anything in her power to get others to do. And that is essentially what product managers do. Nothing. But that’s ok. It is a completely legitimate role (as proven by the need for a Secretary of State ;)) to dedicate yourself to work on getting (or helping) other people (with the right skill sets or power) to do.

Own it. Be proud of it. But don’t ever forget that your success is 100% dependent on getting others to do.

Then one more thing dawned on me (while watching Madam Secretary) — The Secretary of State isn’t executing what I would call blind diplomacy. She isn’t trying to get others to do with no purpose. She is trying to ensure that we are meeting the vision of democracy as our forefathers laid out. The key phrase being meeting the vision. None of the doing matters, regardless of who is doing the doing, if there is no vision behind it. Once I realized that I knew that I had finally figured out my interpretation of what product managers really do. So here it is:

Create a vision. Shape the vision. Be true to the vision you set. Be flexible but stalwart in attaining the vision.

Good luck.

Here are some tips:

  • Seek out informal communication don’t rely on formal meetings and sessions.
  • Value the informal communication almost more than the formal communication.
  • Own the fact that you don’t do.  You shape. And cajole.  Take pride in that.
  • Every time you think you’ve communicated enough, remember that you are most likely wrong on that point.
  • Trust your gut, but also
  • Question yourself, your colleagues and your company.

Maybe I should have understood or figured this out ages ago. But, I didn’t. Looking back, I think subconsciously I never felt that what I really spend my time doing (cajoling, listening, negotiating, etc.) counted as doing. I felt oddly dissatisfied–that I wasn’t contributing enough. Now that I realize that getting others to do is doing, I feel a sense of contentment and calm.

Maybe you can’t truly measure what product managers do. Maybe it just isn’t possible. But I’m ok with that. I am content in knowing that there is value in getting others to do.