Things I wish I knew when I started working as a Product Manager
My name is Julia and I work as a Product Manager at Moonpig - a tech unicorn that’s on a mission to become the ultimate gifting companion by creating better, more personal, connections between people that care about each other.
I often get asked what I wish I knew when I first started on my journey as a Product Manager.
Every Product Manager has a different story as to how they got into the role as there isn’t one defined way to do so. When I first got a job as Product Manager I hadn’t worked in tech before, let alone heard of the role before! I was very lucky to have got the job, but I felt like I had been thrown into the deep end. I had to get up to speed very quickly - not just because I was working in a start-up where everyone did a bit of everything, but also as I was expected to hit the ground running.
Despite having started from scratch, looking back, I don’t think there are things that I necessarily wish someone had warned me about. Which isn’t very helpful for the purposes of this post, I know! Let me explain… To me, Product Management is an empirical job - you learn by doing. Perhaps that is why there are so many different flavours of Product Management, but it’s also what excites me as the possibilities are endless!
For people wanting to get into Product Management, here are six lessons I’ve learnt along the way that have defined how I work:
1. Learn some frameworks, but don’t be prescriptive
It’s a running joke that Product Managers love a framework. Which is true! However, they aren’t the be-all and end-all. Frameworks provide us with ways of looking at things differently and organising our thoughts, but they should be the start of a conversation. They are especially important when you are starting out in your career as you consolidate what you see in practice, but the important thing is that you aren’t prescriptive with your use of frameworks. Learn what framework, tools, or key theories can help progress you forward at any stage of the product development lifecycle (e.g Cynefin, Lean canvas, Opportunity Solution Tree, HEART - check some more out here), but then break the rules and create your own!
2. Lead with context, not control
The very well-known mantra of Netflix, “lead with context, not control”, couldn’t be more representative of the role of a Product Manager. We are not CEOs or project managers, although you hear this a lot. It is the job of the Product Manager to provide context, join the dots - especially as we sit in the intersection of different parts of a business. You have to do this through inspiring and empowering your team, not by trying to control it. This is something that you need to actively exercise, as I believe that trying to control a situation is easier than leading with context as you need to put much more effort into it. However, in the end, your team and product will be much more successful as a result of your context.
3. Make just-in-time decisions
You may have heard of the Just-In-Time in the context of the Toyota Production System, a manufacturing philosophy that aims to eliminate waste and create the most efficient ecosystem possible. This way of thinking can also be applied to how we work in product, and often manifests itself in discussions debating “Agile vs Waterfall” ways of working. For me, it means deferring decision-making until the last responsible moment, as it’ll be at that moment that you will be in the best place to make the most informed decision as your knowledge about a given thing will be higher than ever. Let’s say your team is going to kick-off a new project. In a complex environment such as product development where there could be multiple ways to answer the same question, you can’t answer everything upfront. As your project progresses, so will your understanding of the context; you’ll be better equipped to make decisions as the time progresses. For this reason, don’t feel like you need to have all the answers upfront. Instead, make a note of them and answer them just-in-time. This can be unnerving, but Product Managers must learn how to be comfortable with ambiguity, and making swift (but informed) decisions.
4. Don’t create extra work for yourself, focus on the biggest impact
As Product Managers, our minds are always buzzing with ideas and things to do. This can quickly make things overwhelming. Limit your work in progress and focus on what will bring the biggest impact for you, your team, or your product. Focus on the one thing that matters, and forget all the thankless tasks, or the extra work you think you need to do but no one has asked for - I can thank my therapist for this lesson! Once you’ve determined what will create the most impact, another thing that helped me overcome the feeling of being overwhelmed was thinking about the distinction between “good”, “good enough” and “best”. Strive for “good enough” as it’ll be easier to get started and make progress. If you aim for the best and only stop when you think you’ve achieved perfection, the end will seem unattainable. The one page/ one hour pledge has helped me with this: “I will spend no more than one page and one hour working on any deliverable before sharing it with my colleagues”. Get feedback early and often, and you’re “good enough” will naturally become the “best”.
5. Keep it simple
My personal mantra is “Keep it Simple”. This has not only served me well in my personal life, but mostly in my day-to-day as a Product Manager. There’s not much to say here other than resist the temptation to overcomplicate things. Don’t be afraid to always question yourself and others around you whether you are keeping things simple, even if you’re halfway through something. This isn’t a simple habit to develop (pardon the pun), but it’ll pay off in the long-term.
6. Be positive!
This was perhaps the hardest thing for me to learn, as I didn’t want to come off as insincere: sometimes you don’t feel positive, and that’s ok! However, leadership and evangelism are key skills of a Product Manager. It is important that we embrace things with a positive mindset so that we can motivate and inspire our team; we must lead by example. There are different ways you can bring positivity in what you do: storytelling (take people on a journey, starting with an inspiring vision - use this when crafting your product strategy for example); team socials (to energise and bring your team together); and fail parties (a little celebration of a recent failure with your peers so you can learn to see the positive even in adverse conditions). Remember why you’re here in the first place and let your passion for Product shine through in what you do.
These reflections are a result of hindsight, and for that reason I don’t think I would’ve done anything differently when I first started my journey as a Product Manager. You’ve just got to trust your instincts!
Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking whether awesome Product Managers share characteristics in common, regardless of how they got into the role - maybe this could help aspiring Product Managers better prepare for what’s to come. This is something to address in another post, so for now I’d say that it’s important for aspiring Product Managers to always be curious, think creatively, and be determined. And of course, enjoy the journey and have fun!