“What exactly does a Product Manager do?”
This is a familiar question to those in the product space. This question can even come from within an organisation where product managers are employed. Answering this question can be difficult, not only because of the day-to-day variety within the role. But also because of the variation between different product management roles, which may exist even within one organisation.
This article explores models of product management and their help in explaining the profession. A new model is proposed, the Spirit Bubble Model, which includes an additional element compared to previous models. This proposed model aims to aid explaining product management within an organisation, and offers a modifiable template to more easily explain specific roles.
Product Managers as Persuaders
The Association of International Product and Marketing Managers defines Product Management as “the process of conceiving, planning, developing, testing, launching, delivering and withdrawing products in the market” (2013). Whilst in Ben Horowitz’s article Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager, a good product manager is described as the CEO of the product. However, this does not adequately reflect the reality of product management for many. Paula Gray’s 2010 article, Business Anthropology and the culture of Product Manager, highlights that the greatest reported product management challenge was the “lack of power or authority”. A point supported by Martin Eriksson in his 2017 article, Product Managers – You Are Not the CEO of Anything. Gray elegantly observed that a key behaviour in product management is “operating as a skillfully persuasive force in order to move a product through its entire life cycle”. This is converse to a CEO who can operate with ultimate authority and power.
Product Management as a Venn Diagram
Martin Eriksson’s model of product management (2001) puts it more simply, “product management is the intersection between business, technology and user experience”.
Eriksson’s Venn diagram has provided a useful tool for explaining a complex profession at a time when simplicity is needed. It also provides a foundation on which we can build, in order to bring greater alignment to the profession across different industries.
Building on the Product Management Venn Diagram
In 2014, Dan Schmidt published his article The Product Management Triangle looking at the role of product management specific to software development. Like Eriksson, Schmidt placed product management at the centre of three elements: The Business, Users, and Developers. He then used the intersections in the triangle to explain different elements of product management within software development, in the context of a ‘product network’.
The Fourth Element of Product Management
Using the three elements to explain the role of product management still misses some of the nuances of the product management role. This is because there are market forces which can act separately to the user, and to the organisation in which the product manager works.
Think of the plastic water bottle. It solves a user problem of needing easy access to clean, portable water. It is made from cheap lightweight material and is low cost. In many ways, it is the perfect solution. However, David Attenborough and others have recently highlighted the consequence of plastic pollution on our oceans. In response to these key opinion leaders, social trends are changing. It is very likely governmental policy will follow. Pepsi sees this market shift, and are now testing their Aquafina water product in cans. Analysing such market trends allow us to anticipate future user buying behaviour.
Another important market influence is competitor actions. Rarely do users choose between buying your product or buying nothing. Most often, they choose between your product or another. Some of the most disruptive new companies bring new business models to the market, e.g. Uber, Amazon, Concur. It is only when these new, previously unimagined, possibilities are offered that customer desires, and expectations change. By understanding the market and not just the user, product managers can anticipate or even influence changes in user requirements.
Many of the points made regarding market influences, such as regulation changes, do fit into the business element of Eriksson’s and Schmidt’s models. However, as most now agree, product managers are not the CEO of the product. Therefore product managers do also need to consider internal organisation forces such as corporate mission, goals, strategy, key performance indicators (KPIs) and resource limitations. By separating the market elements such as key opinion leaders (KOLs), competitors, and market trends from the business element in the model, these aspects can more openly be discussed and explored.
Spirit Bubble Model of Product Management
When asked to explain product management, I generally say that “a product manager’s job is to find and maintain the sweet spot between user experience, market forces, business goals, and technological possibilities. It is much like trying to hold a spirit bubble in the centre spot, whilst riding a roller coaster!”. Although this analogy is rather overdramatic, it does stress a product manager’s need to constantly adjust to changing external forces and lends itself well to visualisation.
Defining Roles with the Spirit Bubble Model
In 2019, Anand Mudaliar used a modification of Eriksson’s Venn diagram to show his product management journey in his article What Does Your Product Journey Look Like?. Mudaliar rightly argues that “no one starts in the middle”. Like Eriksson’s Venn diagram, the spirit bubble model can be used to plot a PMs product journey over time or to explain the focus of different roles within product management. For example:
The forces acting on the spirit bubble also help us give examples of the kinds of tools product managers use to complete their job, thus providing further clarity.
Exploring Cross Functional Leadership with the Spirit Bubble Model
Of course, as Schmidt addresses nicely in his model, a key part of product management is the cross-functional leadership provided to the wider team. Brandon Chu in his article The First Principles of Product Management, a likens Product Managers to sport team coaches and argues that product managers need strong self-awareness to recognise when to lead, partner or support their team. This involves empathy, respect and understanding the role of other business functions, as well as an ability to adjust mindsets and communication styles to suit the situation. It is the Product Manager’s role to set the strategy with the team to best meet corporate goals. To motivate, inspire and bring together.
The Spirit Bubble Model can help the product manager evaluate relationships, communication, shared tasks, as well as strengths and gaps in the overall team’s skillset by representing each function in the quadrant to most often operate.
As Einstein is quoted as saying, “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. Models are useful tools in explaining product management to ourselves and others and testing our ability to ‘explain it simply’. And in that quest, the debate will not end here. Nor should it.
© Kim Chaney CPM, 2019.
With thanks to Sarah McCarvill, Seif Abdelghany, Therese Padilla and Paula Gray for their very helpful feedback.
Chu, B. (2018 ) The First Principles of Product Management, blackboxofpm.com
Eriksson, E. (2017) Product Managers – You Are Not the CEO of Anything, mindtheproduct.com
Eriksson, E. (2011) What, Exactly, is Product Management?, mindtheproduct.com
Gray, P. (2010) Business Anthropology and the Culture of Product Manager, s3.amazonaws.com
Horowitz, B. (2012) Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager, a16z.com
Mudaliar, A. (2019) What Does Your Product Journey Look Like? uxdesign.cc
Schmidt, D (2014). The Product Management Triangle, productlogic.org