Sometimes you see a really good product manager and ask yourself what is it that makes them so damn good?

After scratching our heads – this is our list of 8 things.

It would be nice to have 10 so let us know what you would add…

1. Passion:

cares about the customer, the market, the competition and the success of their product. Enthuses others to do the same.

2. Great at networking:

plugged into lots of people to get insights, data points and to influence stakeholders.

3. Thinks big:

identifies the things that will make the biggest difference to the product and that are aligned with business strategy

4. Accountable:

sets appropriate expectations for the product and takes accountability for its success. Holds others to deliver on their accountabilities.

5. Able to focus:

recognizes that 80% of the value comes from 20% of what they do and is able to say ‘no’ diplomatically to requests with small impact.

6. Delivers:

makes a plan and delivers against it, grinding things out and doing what’s necessary to deliver on their promises.

7. Expert compromiser:

able to make trade-offs and prioritization calls to balance market needs against internal issues, strategic goals and tactical imperatives.

8. Good communicator:

makes a case for product plans and strategy that is simple, clear and irrefutable. Is credible in front of an audience.

Ian Lunn
Director, Product Focus

 

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Definitely down near #9, but… “Understand and can explain their basic product economics:” knows the broad revenue run rate, engineering spend, and what will tilt the ratio in the right direction.

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I got lots of feedback by email – included here with permission of the sender.

Hi Ian,

Good list, I have described the job as ‘plate spinning’ – the ability to know when to leave a plate spinning, but know when to give it some attention before it falls. Maybe the same as prioritising but at a much higher level than features.

Chris Bick
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Hi Ian

I will let you decide on the relative priorities but my additional two are :-

Vision – a clear vision of where their product is going over the next 5 years

Commercial Nouse – a good understanding of how the commercials work for both the supplier and the customer

Lance Spencer
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Hi Ian,

Love your journal. Good list, some thoughts:

• Empathy – The ability to put yourself in the mindset of the customer. Equally this applies to stake-holder management, as understanding the rationale/thought-process behind requests from stakeholders improves the ability to identify optimal requirements.

• Accountability* – I don’t think the superb product people need to take credit for success, they are more than happy to share that with the team. The best product people take the hit for the failures and let the team enjoy the praise for successes (the people who matter recognise a good product-person, they don’t need to shout about it)

• Data Driven – Is able to critically sift + assess analytics + data, both to define the appropriate KPIs and measurements, and also to interpret them correctly. Avoids bad data. “Garbage in, garbage out.”

• Gets Technology – I’m biased here, but I think the best product managers I’ve seen really care about technology and how to build things.

Also, spot on w.r.t. the 80/20 rule. I don’t like the network point either – the worst product people I’ve seen are strongest at ‘networking’ – seems to be a negative indicator to me.

Best, Ben

* I don’t like your definition 🙂

Benjamin Wigoder

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9. Knows the numbers – revenue, orders, net profit etc. Inside out. No excuses!

10. The expert! Acknowledged by everyone as the product expert.

Regards, Nigel Rowe
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Hi Ian

Two things I would add are the ability to plan a budget and the ability to scan the market.

The first is about cost analysis for development and production, set against potential sale numbers and pricing points.

The second is about watching the market to spot niches, popular items, life-cycle drivers and so on. These both feed the ability to communicate clearly and to sell ideas to stakeholders.

Kind regards, Nick Harrandell
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Hi Ian:

To me, # 9 would be “Can bring teams together”, as in, dealing with the different mindsets and personalities of the development community, the QA community, the engineering and the sales teams. Sometimes there are situations that mean that these groups are at loggerheads with each other and, if the Product Manager doesn’t mediate and resolve conflict, the product suffers.

#10 would be for me “Relentless”, as in, you have to be if you want to get your vision done. There are so many obstacles to prevent things from happening that you have to be relentless in your pursue of your vision because, otherwise, something or someone will derail your plans at one stage or another.

Cheers, Daniel Ramirez
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Hi Ian,

A good list, and I do enjoy your publication when it arrives too.

My next one on the list would be:

‘has to know everything!’

Slightly silly perhaps, but I do find that a good product manager is seen as being very good at everything, and is expected to know everything, at strategic and visionary level and at detailed levels all the time!

Best regards, Paul Bergin
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Adaptable – changing market and business needs require a product manager to think fast on their feet and adapt quickly to realize the most value.

Systems Thinker – different than big picture, the product manager has a strategic perspective on change management with system level thinking. Can balance the needs of the customer with system capabilities for good decisions that scale expectations.

Curiosity – willing to dig deep to understand how things work and learn new things.

Creativity – solve problems in an innovative way

Brave – strong will to see things through when faced with adversity

Story teller – great presentation skills with ability to connect with different audiences with varying levels of knowledge.

Meg Aronson

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Something which many Brand Managers are aware of but fail to act on “Know your competition” So often, PM’s are busy looking at their own asset, they fail to appreciate what their competitors are doing and plan accordingly.

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“In-depth technical competence”: Understands the detailed design and working of the product, and so is able to plan features that need to come in the future versions, and also explain to the market exactly how the product works

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Probably something about understanding. I find that a deep knowledge of how your product works, how it benefits people and how it’s built/made is vitally important.

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A common phrase used in PM jobs ads lately is “Product Evangelist”, which I guess means living and breathing your product. Always seen to be promoting the product, and being the absolute centre of knowledge for it.
I would also consider replacing Expert Compromiser with Expert Influencer, which suggests a more determined approach to keeping your product roadmap on track

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knowing that a product manager’s first customer is his/her SALES team! (my opinion 🙂

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I would suggest:
Empathy – with customers, customer needs, developers and operational colleagues who deliver, service or sell your product

Realism – in terms of budget, forecasts, people’s ability to commit and to recognise that most companies have multiple projects at “#1 Priority” at anyone time.

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Negotiation skills are so important. Maybe covered by #7 but more than compromising you have to win the confidence of management, sales and development so you can strike a hard bargain with each of them – there is room for prioritisation too as a key but different attribute. I think Rich is being modest – being commercial should be near the top of the list – that’s why they employ us.

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Review – Take every opportunity to review your product plans and functionality with customers internal and external. It may not always be what you wanted to hear, but you get more time to fine tune.

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I think either 1 or 2 need to be combined. You need to care and track what the user wants. Data driven decision making always wins.

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I’d add knowledge of the domain (for B2B) or needs of target customers for retail. This underpins many of the points above and is always assumed but sometimes overlooked.

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I would add “Causality” to the list. A great PM understands cause & effect across their product/organisation/market. They have an outstanding conceptual model of their product from pretty much every stakeholder’s perspective.

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In my experience the difference between product managers who make it, and those who wash out is empathy with the customer/user.

This comes from being a user (but rarely), or working closely with the sales process/post sales support to truly understand the value proposition in the eyes of a customer.

People who have only worked in engineering or marketing often lack this component, and it is really hard to pick it up on the fly. You need to have spent time in the trenches.

Great post though!

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Two suggestions from me, Ian:

Relentlessness. A great product manager is the cheerleader, bully, navigator and ducker and diver for their product(s). This is especially true in organisations with multiple focuses, such shared product development, sales channels, marketing and so on, where loss of focus is very easy.

Clear-sightedness/dispassionateness: if you look honestly at your market, sales, costs, competition and so on, and realise that your product isn’t going to work out, then – even if you’ve spent years sweating blood to get it to market – you need to change tack, perhaps even end-of-life the product.

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I would say ‘Knowleadgable’ must be on the list and I mean this in the broadest sense, a good product manager needs to have a reasonably good undertsanding of the technologies used to develop the product, the limitations of those technologies and the future of those technologies. There is no point pushing for the impossible, but you also need to know the difference between your development team claiming something isn’t possible (because its hard) and really being imposssible. There is an element of trust there to, but the knowledge is a massive benefit.

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9. Knows their customer – understands how their product will benefit the customer (even if the customer is not currently aware of the need)

10. Knows marketing – a Great product stays sat on the shelf if no one knows it is available. Everyone can market with a massive budget – but how do you make things happen with very little budget?

11 Vision – This is not required by all product managers (as some are brilliant executors and get-it-done people) but the very best product manager (or product planners) can look beyond what we have today and think of what is possible.

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Close to #8 but I’d say pragmatism: the ability to look at the vision balanced against the capabilities and rationally quantify what is possible, when, and importantly, why.

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I’d also add “Accessible” – having all that product knowledge is worth sharing, especially with those that come looking for it.
In a similar vein to ‘Accountable’, I would also add “Ownership” – if it sits with your product, you need to take end-to-end ownership, otherwise the execution, delivery or implementation may fall short of expectation.

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I’d probably put “Good Communicator” at #1 on the list, it’s such a fundamental part of the role. I’d also add “A Sense of Humour” in there. Because sometimes you really need one.

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I would also say that he has a clear understanding of the product, at least at a holistic level. It probably depends on the type of product, but I see that the PdM is often regarded as the source from which the truth comes, even if not his own words.

Having this knowledge, even possibly at a technical level, also makes the discussion with customers about their real needs simpler, and the assessment of competing products easier – maybe specific to high-tech, but I doubt it.

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Know your customer in his real life.
I found very fruitful opportunities to spend time with sales meeting customers. It helps better understand needs of customer and job of sales person. In my previous job all marketing members had to spend 1 week in shops serving customers. Own personal experiences how negotiations & deals are made is important for my product management role.

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I think you have most items covered but I would say….a good product manager must be able to clearly articulate the value a product brings to an organisation e.g. Revenue, ROI, Strategic fit, position in Value chain etc…..and never under-estimate governance. In all organisations, the governance to get things moving is always different. A good Product Manager will fully understand the steps they have to take to deliver.

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Ability to think in multiple timeframes long, medium and short term. To have a view of the product line’s long term vision/ambitions and take the multiple small steps to get there.

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A good list. I would move good communicator to the top of the list, or possibly #2 after passion. I think being a good communicator supports many of the others on your list.

I agree with Rich that business sense is key (and too often lacking).

I always look for an analytical approach to things. Your passion for your customers won’t carry you very far if you aren’t able to determine the common problems underlying many seemingly unrelated requests. You hint at that in #5.

I love that you didn’t include technical ability (as I think it is far less important than many hiring managers — and especially engineers — seem to feel), but it can be helpful so I would put it on the list (but near the bottom).

The thing that’s really missing for me from this list, though, is vision and leadership. A superb PM must be able to articulate a vision for how life will be better (for customers and for the company) when they have achieved their product goals, and lead a cross-functional team to make that vision reality.

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How about a #10

Insightful: Able to see the big picture from a disparate mix of internal analytics, market reports and customer feedback. From this, to build requirements on underlying need.

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A few other thoughts …

Open Minded; embraces the ideas, hopes and aspirations of others – recognising that he / she may not always have ALL the answers.

Experimental; willing to take an educated risk, mindful of the upsides as well as possible downsides AND, what you’re likely to learn from it.

Bounce-back-ability; not everything you do will come off – if it doesn’t, dust yourself off, get back in the saddle and keep at it HOWEVER don’t make the same mistake(s) again. Learn from it.

Fail faster, succeed sooner.

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9. An expert facilitator. Using a variety of communication methods, is able to lead people through complex topics and ensure a thorough understanding and elicit relevant and actionable feedback.

10. Resilient, tenacious and persuasive. People say no, people won’t cooperate, you have no direct line authority. Yet you are able to get your way and make things happen in complex, political and resource constrained environments. People actively seek you out to work with.

11. Jack of all trades, master of many. You can easily move from a Sales meeting talking about pricing objections, to Marketing discussion of value propositions, to Engineering discussing the relative merits of open source NoSQL databases to legal contract negotiations discussing liability and risk exposure to professional services and why the product configuration is needed that way, all in the space of an hour.

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Ian,

A good topic. Your list is good, but I think it is stuck in the present. The real challenge for the excellent product manager is not just to ‘manage’ the existing product, but to spot the replacement product and deliver it before others do. This only comes from truly understanding your customers needs, and finding the product that they need and don’t know how to ask for. Often this puts your existing product out of business, so it feels like a dangerous thing to do, but if you don’t, someone else will.

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Talks Customers Language: If you don’t go out there and talk to your customer, your products can be good but never be loved. Only with the understanding for the real needs out there, you can create products that matters (to the customer).

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Able to stand in customer’s shoes:) – the product first of all is meant for customers, so I think PM should always keep it in mind through all the product lifecycle.

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Great list.
A couple of positive attributes to consider adding:
Knows the Customer : able to identify the capabilities and features that most benefit the end user’s workflow.
Creative Thinking : the creativity to define new functionality that really adds value by making customers’ lives simpler and their workflow more efficient.

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9. Listen – Listen to your customers, Internal and external ones. Deliver what they require, but do not forget which ones pay your wages.

10. Standards – Try and set out and maintain standard processes for ALL product releases, having specials and one off’s might look good but confuses your customers. progressivley change update your standards where needed.

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knows the difference between what a customer says they want, and what they really want, and can communicate both effectively

can identify the difference between a custom requirement and a repeatable sale; and can convert that into revenue

knows that a better mousetrap is very rarely a strategic success;

understands ‘the innovators dilemma’ -‘Their customers were pulling them along a trajectory of 22% capacity growth in a 14 inch platform that would ultimately prove fatal’. http://www.finextra.com/community/Fullblog.aspx?blogid=8323

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8 good points….but it also comes down to running the business. So understanding the numbers and financial aspects inside out is an important component. In addition(to a degree covered as part of the 8 points) also understand the role the product plays in a portfolio context within the organization (strategic contribution, relative importance and so on)

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Good to put this in a list. So ppl know what to aspire and what to expect :-). For me a big one is missing. For sure a top 5 one and perhaps even higher. ‘Team engagement’- The best PMs know what it takes to motivate their team to success. A truly shared goal and constant engagement is key here.

My thoughts,
Edgar

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Ian, a really great article thanks. I liked the analogy of keeping all the plates spinning, I would propose an additional metaphor to being able to ‘join the dots’, associating ideas and relationships. Perception and reasoned judgement are important traits to a good product manager who weighs up the merits of a proposition with the ability to prioritise and deliver. Keeping a vision in mind while straining to deliver on the overall business objective is a key quality to have, in my opinion.

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I would change ‘Great at networking’ to ‘Great at working with people’.
This can be:
working with R&D team members to grind down requirements and get the promises delivered
working with customers to understand their need (better then they might understand)
working with marketing to get that great pitch line, customer facing documentation or pricing out
working with higher management to support/add to your business case and vision

I agree with a previous remark that ‘networking’ is not a key element, or at least not covers it. Networking would match a Sales profile more then a product manager’s to my opinion.

Thanks for you updates and blog!

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9. Attention to detail – when launching or enhancing products, attention to detail really matters, small things make a big difference in terms of adoption and evangelism. Testing things personally at least once prior to launch is key to ensuring nothing is missed.

10. End to end ownership – products are not just things or services, they require a huge amount of cross functional support to be successful. Things like billing, support, sales processes are key to delighting customers end to end and a product manager who take end to end ownership will be more successful than any other.

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Hi Ian,
I would add: Perseverance. You could even say that many of the 8 characteristics listed support this, and are needed for this. Ultimately preserverance is the overarching characteristic you need to achieve results while dealing with the external and internal pushback so typical for the product management context.
Another point I suggest, and this was already mentioned by others : Eye for details. This is a complementary need to seeing the big picture/Think big. Details are important both for the external as well as for the internal activities. For example, to understand the real reason of a specifc market demand you need to drill down to find what the ask really is, or details are important to the extent to make good judgment of development impact internally. As the saying goes, the devil is in the details.Thinking big is a must, but to be able to execute, you also need the details down to a certain level.

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Hi Ian,

Given the proliferation of multi-disciplined teams in today’s agile world, one I would add is Collaborative Leadership. It’s wrapping up the great communicator and team player into a leadership role.
Great product managers have from time to time step up to the plate when the going gets tough, and lead from the front by example, coaching and mentoring key colleagues in other functions on getting the product vision and the techniques of how to align their activities to make the whole great.

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Perhaps another one to add is the ” ability to convince others”. Convincing customers of the product value, convincing the sales teams to sell the product, convincing the management team to invest in the product, convincing the engineers to go the extra mile, etc… One of the key aspects of the PM is to get all noses in the same direction for their product.

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