Five guiding principles for new product managers

  • August 30, 2022
Businesswoman discussing with colleagues

As more companies shift to a product-centric focus, you may be one of the many project managers transitioning to a product manager role. There’s no question project managers can fill the role, but the transfer of skills isn’t 1:1. As a new product manager, you may find yourself scrambling to shift your focus to a new and unique set of priorities.

What’s so different about the product manager’s mindset? Product managers must obsess over their product and find ways to understand user behavior using analytics and direct user interaction. They must place a premium on optimizing the development team’s workflow and release capabilities — which fosters an environment of feature experimentation.

These five guiding principles can speed, and hopefully ease, your transition into this new role:

  • The product is your baby
  • Customers are your best data source
  • Prioritize continuous value delivery
  • Find strategic and tactical balance
  • Develop shared understanding.

1. The product is your baby

The project manager and product manager roles completely diverge in the outcomes each expects to realize. Project managers seek outcomes that shape the ideal execution of a project. Even when you align schedules, adhere to budgets and meet the launch timeframe set by management, these waterfall metrics can still result in a bad product. While the project manager focuses on the outcomes to deliver the product on time and on budget, it’s often not enough to make sure the product solves problems for the customer.

Product managers must realign to a new set of outcomes. The product is your baby now, and to foster and grow it, you need to obsess over your customer. Understand their demographics and areas where they work. Find out what they like and don’t like about your product. If your customer is experiencing a problem your product doesn’t solve, figure out if/how your product can provide a solution. One insightful exercise that can bring customer problems into focus is listening to support calls. Understanding the failure points of your product is essential for improvement. Another way to gain product insight (and build rapport with the sales team) is to listen to sales calls, which will quickly highlight the value proposition your customers gravitate toward. It’s also important you learn to use the product as much as possible and directly experience what its challenges are. By taking a forward-looking approach, you’ll be better equipped to determine the new problems your product can solve and, consequently, the new customers you can target.

2. Customers are your best data source

Users generate interactions with your product every single day. It’s essential that product managers capture the telemetry, analytics and usage metrics from users’ behavior. Building these monitoring capabilities is as important as any user-facing product feature. Just as an engineering team determines the most prudent way to deliver a new feature, that same team should understand what metrics are valuable to track and devise a way to implement those metrics.

Guaranteeing baseline usage tracking of a new feature is a good place to start because it provides a view into user adoption. Some key parameters to identify include:

  • What percentage of users from the overall user base are using the feature? It’s important to define in the user story the actions for each feature that are core to understanding engagement.
  • Frequency of feature usage
  • What customer segments use the feature most often?
  • Daily active user/monthly active user count
  • Typical session duration for a user segment
  • The number of user actions per session for a given feature

Pairing quantitative data with direct user feedback can serve as a powerful tool to understand the value delivered to customers. Building customer response/comment mechanisms directly in your application helps you more easily gather this feedback.

Product-focused organizations can implement a Voice of the Customer program — a structured approach to interviewing customers to examine a hypothesis about your product. By targeting a broad customer segment to interview, a Voice of the Customer program can provide additional context beyond the metrics generated from the product.

3. Prioritize continuous value delivery

Delivering software within an Agile framework allows for a constant flow of value delivery to customers based on your team’s development and release cadence. Each story within your backlog must serve as an independent slice of value delivered to your target customers. Your team should be able to build out that story and have it releasable at the end of your development cadence (typically two weeks, but this can vary based on company environment).

It’s important to optimize your development environment for this kind of workflow by prioritizing investment in DevOps and implementing automated test and code promotion capabilities. Ideally, a developer should be able to run automated tests and push a button to promote to a higher environment.

Once this type of capability is achieved, the true purpose of continuous value can be realized: experimentation. Continuous value means you can run clearly defined experiments to determine feature viability among your user base. Releasing features to a small segment of your user base (as low as 1%) can limit the risk of a new feature not working. It can also provide valuable insight when introduced in conjunction with usage monitoring.

The goal is to shorten the feedback loop from users. As feedback comes in, the product manager now has the insight to adjust the planned value present in the product backlog. If an MVP feature proves not to be valuable, the team can shift quickly to other priorities and abandon the remaining stories necessary to build out the feature fully.

Fostering this type of environment can lead to challenges in clearly defining product roadmaps for the business. It can be difficult to provide hard project delivery dates to leadership when you release features in increments and quickly prioritize using feedback. To adjust your style:

  • Keep the roadmap high level and let leaders and team members know priorities can shift. Keep the content to broad feature categories and make sure your time windows are generous when discussing potential releases. Make sure your team understands the full value of Agile metrics vs. Waterfall metrics, allowing for the flexibility necessary for continuous delivery.
  • Make sure objectives and key results (OKRs) are set to reflect the business value delivered. Avoid having metrics tied to an arbitrary number of releases or the number of story points delivered per sprint. Prioritize defining what business value means in your specific context (X% churn reduction, X% increase in transactions within the app, X% increase in time spent on the app as examples) and report this to leadership.
  • Provide updates to your stakeholders on a reliable and frequent cadence (at least monthly). Transparency in this regard will make sure stakeholders aren’t blindsided with updates to the features delivered/roadmap.

4. Find strategic and tactical balance

The responsibility of a product manager is taxing. Some people find it difficult to let go of the team’s day-to-day tasks and focus on the long-term strategic vision of the product. Others are too removed from the specifics and may not be aware of the core challenges their teams face. It’s essential to balance the strategic priorities at the core of the product manager role while still being grounded and engaged with the daily team effort.

According to a 2019 study that surveyed 2,500 product managers, 73% of the respondent’s time was spent on tactical issues related to daily business activities. The remaining 27% was spent on strategy. Yet, respondents reported preferring a 50/50 split between time spent on strategic vs tactical activities — with strategy gaining a larger share of this split with those higher in the leadership chain.

While it's important for a product manager to be connected to daily business activities, they must also make time for strategic activities — studying the market, determining the next evolution of an existing product or developing new product ideas. Maintaining a focus on your core responsibilities is key to successful product management. Engaging in work outside your professional skillset could lead to product issues. If you find yourself working outside of your primary responsibilities (UX as an example), try to offload that work to the correct person on the product team.

That said, product managers do need to understand the development team’s challenges, dynamics, story estimation approaches and QA processes. It’s easy to throw feature ideas at the team, but if capacity isn’t there or technical challenges are impeding the work, it becomes difficult to make sure the team can continuously deliver valuable functionality. If product management responsibilities are split between multiple people, implementing a regular cadence for team-wide discussions is critical to staying in sync. Another way product managers can align with the development team: attend product demos and ask for early versions of the product to do some exploratory testing. You may also add value by making sure the team has capacity to allocate toward technical debt and resolving/optimizing issues that affect existing product performance.

5. Develop shared understanding

Good products are built on an understanding of overall business objectives and value delivery to the end customers. Any team can build a new modal, integrate with a new API or make the overall experience less buggy. When your product team has the strategic context for the market it's serving, your work becomes more meaningful and directly connects to your company’s goals.

One strategy for developing a shared understanding requires communicating to the team the who, what and why of the product. By doing so, they’ll become empowered to make decisions that drive better product outcomes:

  • The who: Customer personas must be socialized and explained in detail. They’ll help the team better understand the individual context of the user stories, so they can make better choices to implement a feature that specifically serves the target user.
  • The what: The team must understand the core problems faced by the target user. What are the key product value propositions for them? How does the product materially make their lives easier? What does our product currently not do well? Openly addressing your product’s shortcomings helps the team prioritize the work better and properly sort the backlog by the value contained in each story.
  • The why: Make your team aware of the outcomes the business seeks to realize and how the product fits into the overall vision. It’s not valuable for teams to be given blanket mandates without context or explanation. By sharing what the business wants to achieve, you empower your teams to surface ideas that support the end goal.

These five principles not only provide valuable guideposts on your journey as a new product manager. They can also speed and simplify your transition to a mindset focused on product-specific outcomes that deliver business success and customer satisfaction.

— By Zachary Lindberg

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