9 tips on how to be a successful Product Manager

Imagine you had this brilliant idea, you have spent months making it a reality. You finally release it and market it boldly and widely. You celebrate the release. But there is just one problem: users don’t seem to use it. Your product can be technically impressive, it can be loved by reviewers, but if it is not something people want or need, it will not succeed.

At Spartez we know this rule well and we always focus on customer problem first to make sure we are building products customers love. Inspired by Marty Cagan, the leader of Silicon Valley Product Group, we have created 9 key principles, that we believe every Product Manager should work by.

1. Be a Product Leader, not a Product Maker

Regardless if you build products in a start-up world or in a big company, you should be driven by passion and have a clear vision. The will to earn money, however strong, does not qualify. Obviously, financial success is important, but it should not be your or your product team’s only focus. If you do it right, the money will come, if not, it won’t, no matter how much you desire it.

More often than not, money is the consequence and not the goal. As Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon’s says: “Be stubborn on vision and flexible on details.” With a clear vision for your product, you should be eager to try out different things. This is what we do at Spartez. And we do it with the passion that fuels the success of our products. Great products are built by product leaders and not just “product makers”.

2. As a Product Manager, know what you don't know

One of the biggest lessons we have learned as product leaders is the realization of how little we know and how wrong we can be about many things. The best examples are business plans and ROI analyses. When you build a business case for your product, what you usually have is some rough guesses about how much money you hope to make and very little clue on how much it’s going to cost. If you have ever worked in an agile team you know that "how long is it going to take?" is the silliest question you can ask.

This is why before making a decision, based on limited knowledge, every successful Product Manager needs to learn two extremely important things. First, answer the question: is your product something that your customers need? Is this something worth working on? This process is called customer discovery. Then comes the second, much harder question: can we do it? This is how product discovery begins. You need to understand customer needs and your own capacity as a team.

3. Know what the users of your product don’t know

Every Product Team should build products with customers in mind. But we shouldn’t ask our customers specifically for their preferred solutions. Why? Because users don’t know what is possible. At Spartez, it is our job to know what’s possible in the fast-moving world of technology. This is not to say we don’t talk to our customers. It’s just the opposite! It’s the way we talk to them.

We never just blindly follow customer requirements. We discover their problem and talk to them to check if our ideas actually work. As product leaders, we realize that most ideas will never work. Sometimes our ideas do not address the problem, sometimes they are too expensive. This is why we always look for the cheapest and fastest ways to validate ideas with our users. In the product discovery process, we look for Minimal Viable Product (MVP). Our job is to separate good ideas from bad ideas and get good ideas rolling as fast as possible with the minimal required cost.

4. Build a dedicated, cross-functional Product Team

A Product is not a Project. Projects are about scope, budget and schedule while products are about the vision and market success. A product cannot be successful without a dedicated team. The Product Team is like an engine for the car. Product Teams at Spartez are cross-functional and empowered to solve complex problems. We also keep our teams small, so that they can move fast. Product Teams are collaborative and they share both vision and passion. There is no "over the fence" attitude in the team - all team members, not just the Product Manager, work together to find the best solution. The team should also be durable. This is why we always scope teams around the domain or user and not a project. Product Teams are like a startup inside the company.

5. Make design an integral part of the product discovery process

A common misconception is that design should be thought of somewhere towards the end of the product development process. However, every successful Product Manager knows that product design should be looked at as a holistic experience. And this is how we think of design at Spartez. Design is not just a coat of paint. It’s also so much more than just usability. Within Spartez, Designers are included in product thinking from day one, together with Product Managers and Engineers.

Regardless of how complex an engineering solution might be, it’s often even harder to figure out the right user experience. This is why design has to be an integral part of every product discovery process from the very early stages. This is the mindset of every Product Team at Spartez.

6. Give your Product Team a clear goal

Simply dumping a roadmap on a cross-functional and vision-driven Product Team will only kill their passion. At Spartez every Product Team has a goal, a KPI to achieve, a hill to climb. It’s their task to figure out the best way to get to the top. The success of the Product Team is not measured by what they did, but by what they have achieved. Outcomes over outputs.

7. Have a clear product vision, but be ready for change

Product discovery is a challenging process. But you should never give up too early. Remember to be stubborn on vision, but flexible on the details. However, a Product Manager needs to distinguish vision from illusion. Sometimes, you have to realize your vision will never be fulfilled. This is the moment to pivot. Maybe it's time to focus on a different market or user or suggest a business model change? Don’t be afraid to do it as long as you know this will bring value to customers.

8. Build a culture where Product Managers, Designers and Engineers collaborate

At Spartez we value our product culture. But don't get confused! It's not about Product Managers telling Product Teams: “These are things you must do”. It’s also not about the Designers handling over wireframes to the Engineering Team. It's about true collaboration: Product, Design, Engineering side-by-side. Remember, engineers are the biggest source of innovation. If you’re only using your developers to code, you’re harnessing only half of their potential.

9. Test and validate product hypotheses to fail fast and learn fast

Product culture is not about processes. Product culture is about continuous testing and validating product hypotheses, so that if your CEO approaches you and tells you to follow his or her idea, you can reply with data rather than just your opinion as a Product Manager. Product culture should be about failing fast, learning fast and validating ideas quickly at low cost.

Conclusion

As a Product Manager, you need to get in front of your customers and build relationships to understand their challenges. Work on a genuine and deep understanding of the market context in which you operate, as well as all the dimensions of your business. All this takes more than a handful of conversations. Remember to include your team in this process. Building a successful product is a team effort. You need to always be learning as a team.

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