15 best books for product managers in 2021

15 best books for product managers in 2021

Whether it’s webinars, podcasts, or virtual conferences, the modern product manager is blessed with a plethora of digital learning platforms. But when it comes to diving deep into a subject, absorbing new ideas, and returning time and again, nothing beats a good book. 

There are countless product-related books out there, and it can be tough to know where to start. So to help you cut through the noise and focus on what’s really worth reading, I asked Scott Baldwin, our very own Product Excellence Consultant and walking encyclopedia of product, for his top tips. Here’s what he had to say.

1. Inspired: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love

Author: Marty Cagan

Read Productboard's review of Inspired
The first one I’d put on the list is Inspired by Marty Cagan. There are a few reasons why. First, because it’s hugely inspiring to our team, and particularly to Hubert as a founder. It’s the must-read book here for all our staff. In fact, we give a copy to every new starter, no matter which department they are joining. 

It does such a great job explaining what a product manager does, where and how they can deliver value, and who they collaborate with to achieve that outcome. If you’ve ever asked what good product management should look like, Inspired will describe it to you. I find that I come back to it continuously.

books for product managers | inspired by marty cagan

2. Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts

Author: Annie Duke

The author of this book, Annie Duke, is a World Series Poker player with a background in cognitive psychology. She’s also the founder of a nonprofit organization called The Alliance for Decision Education, which helps people improve their decision-making and critical thinking. 

While it’s not specifically tailored towards product managers, this book is just so good at helping you understand how to make decisions, particularly when you don’t have all the details and information in front of you. It has many practical applications, not just in the craft of product, but in how you work every day and make those critical choices. 

I see so many companies struggling to make decisions. And if that’s something you want to work on as a product manager, Thinking in Bets is a great place to start. So many product managers struggle with prioritization, or they battle with self-doubt or imposter syndrome. Ultimately, overcoming these issues comes down to our ability to make decisions effectively and this book can help with that.

3. Product Management in Practice: A Real-World Guide to the Key Connective Role of the 21st Century

Author: Matt LeMay

In some ways, this book is the counter to Marty Cagan’s Inspired in that it focuses more on practice than theory. It’s a skinny little book that’s written in a digestible way. You could probably get through it in an afternoon if you wanted to. But it’s packed with useful, practical ideas, and tips. 

With some books, you end up wondering, so what do I do now? But with Product Management in Practice, you walk away with a bunch of ideas that you apply straight away. I would particularly recommend this book to aspiring product managers or those just starting out in their careers.

4. Practical Empathy: For Collaboration and Creativity in Your Work

Author: Indi Young

This is probably one of the most under-read books in the product field. It’s really about that collaborative and creative exchange between you and other people. Here’s the description on the back cover: 

“Conventional product development focuses on the solution. Empathy is a mindset that focuses on people, helping you to understand their thinking patterns and perspectives. Practical Empathy will show you how to gather and compare these patterns to make better decisions, improve your strategy, and collaborate successfully.” 

So it’s just this whole issue of how we work with other people. Again, I think it connects back to the idea of gathering deep user insights, understanding user needs, and the theory behind all that. It also touches on the inter-team collaboration required to build a successful product.

best books for product managers

5. Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights

Author: Steve Portigal

Frankly, I see this book as the go-to bible if you want to understand how to collect data, do product discovery, and have effective conversations with users. It’s very practical, with plenty of useful tips you can take away and use. There’s plenty of theory, but that’s balanced with examples of how to apply it. Steve spoke at the 2019 Mind the Product conference on how to do great user research when you aren’t a researcher, and I would recommend watching that as well. 

The art of interviewing is central to good discovery in product management. It’s not just about gathering data but uncovering those powerful insights that can change the way you think about your product. This book can help you excel in that.

6. Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products

Author: Nir Eyal

Hooked is no doubt a favorite of many product managers, not to mention designers, marketers, and startup founders. As the title suggests, it’s a must-read book for anyone wanting to understand what makes users tick and how to build products that keep them coming back. 

The great thing about Hooked is that author Nir Eyal gives you a clear structure via the Hook Model. He shows you exactly how to apply his ideas in your own work. In that way, it’s a very actionable book. It’s also very scalable. You could apply this in a small, early-stage startup or in a growing company that might be looking at a mature product, or even replacing a product that’s in decline.

nir eyal habit-forming products

7. Show and Tell: How Everyone Can Make Extraordinary Presentations

Author: Dan Roam

This book is all about how to communicate ideas, concepts, and stories to other people via presentations. At the end of the day, product managers have to be good storytellers. We have to sell our ideas to other people. We have to communicate our plans, where we’re heading, and why we’re heading there.

“At the end of the day, product managers have to be good storytellers. We have to sell our ideas to other people. We have to communicate our plans, where we're heading, and why we're heading there. ”

Scott Baldwin
Product Excellence Consultant at Productboard

I think the structure in Show and Tell can be super helpful when thinking through how you are going to design a presentation and put it all together. Again, this is a very practical book, much like a handbook that you can use day in, day out. The ideas here don’t just span product they span pretty much your entire working career. 

Show and Tell is an excellent accompaniment to another Dan Roam book, The Back of the Napkin, which is all about using pictures to think visually, solve ideas, and communicate concepts. I would recommend reading both.

8. The Team that Managed Itself: A story of Leadership

Author: Christina Wodtke

Told in a novel format, this book is all about what a truly empowered and autonomous team looks like, how that team operates, and what makes them work together effectively. It’s intended to help leaders build and lead high-performing teams, covering how to hire the right people, create team norms and psychological safety, and share a commitment to goals, progress, and outcomes.  

The Team that Managed Itself brings together a lot of ideas you’ll find elsewhere. Still, it’s a great reminder of the role a manager plays in a product team, offering a well-reasoned foundation that you can use a system of goals, a system of roles based on autonomy, and a network of norms based on psychological safety.

The author, Christina Wodtke, is a lecturer at Stanford and has tons of experience in Product and UX in the Valley area so it’s also worth checking out some of her other books.

The Productboard team at work

9. Radical Focus: Achieving Your Most Important Goals with OKRs

Author: Christina Wodtke 

Another book by Christina Wodtke, Radical Focus is a great reference on the craft of writing OKRs and utilizing them as an objective framework within your organization. It’s like a practical guidebook for OKRs how to execute them, what the cadence looks like, and the theory and practice behind it all. I was lucky to be one of the book’s early reviewers and got to share feedback on the drafts (thanks, Christina!).

Given that many product managers are tasked with determining product objectives, this book is certainly helpful in understanding what a good objective looks like versus a bad one. But more than that, it’s about how you bring this practice into your company, creating an objective-driven culture, and the rhythms you establish along the way. 

10. The Jobs To Be Done Playbook: Align Your Markets, Organization, and Strategy Around Customer Needs

Author: Jim Kalbach

This is a very relevant book, with many product managers interested in the Jobs To Be Done (JTBD) framework. Interestingly, JTBD has a couple of competing interpretations, largely because Clay Christensen, the brain behind the idea, never fully explained it before he left this world. To cut a long story short, it can be confusing for a product manager to navigate the mixed perspectives of what JTBD is and what it isn’t. 

This book does a great job at bringing it all together and gives you a path through the maze without getting lost in the battle. It makes the framework actionable and practical. For teams that are interested in adopting the theory, this book breaks it down into easy-to-understand terms and gives you the tools you need to put it into practice. It’s filled with tons of examples and references that will be helpful to any product manager trying to plot their path through innovation and build products that matter.

jobs-to-be-done anatomy

11. Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz

Author: Frank Barrett

I come from a music background (I played drums professionally before getting into tech and product management), so this next one might be a bit of a left-field choice. Yes to the Mess is all about leadership lessons from jazz, so it’s not exactly product-specific. That said, there are plenty of interesting parallels between jazz improvisation and a product manager’s ability to pivot, react, and adjust course. 

If you are a musician, you’ll know that when you’re playing with other people, it’s incredibly important to sense where they’re going, to respond to it and riff, and to be malleable yet stay the course. I think there are a lot of skills and parallels here with how organizations get shaped and how teams interact with each other. Read the blurb on the back cover, and you’ll see what I mean:

“How do you cope when faced with complexity and constant change at work? Here’s what the world’s best leaders and teams do: they improvise. They invent novel responses and take calculated risks without a scripted plan or a safety net that guarantees specific outcomes. They negotiate with each other as they proceed, and they don’t dwell on mistakes or stifle each other’s ideas. In short, they say ‘yes to the mess’…”

12. Product Roadmaps Relaunched: How to Set Direction While Embracing Uncertainty

Author: C. Todd Lombardo

Roadmaps are such a critical part of product management, but strangely, this is one of the only books out there on the subject. If you want to understand what a product roadmap is, what it should contain, what a good roadmap looks like, and some of the considerations when building one, this is essential reading. 

This book is just so practical. I come back to it time and again, and I find that I can utilize it for all kinds of things. I’ve had the pleasure of talking with Todd a couple of times this year, and he has so many great insights into the practice of using product roadmaps.

13. Build Better Products: A Modern Approach to Building Successful User-Centered Products

Author: Laura Klein

At Productboard, we talk about building excellent product — products that matter. Our goal as product managers is to build products that improve the lives of the people that use them and deliver value to both the user and the company. 

This book is a hands-on, step-by-step guide to making great products. It shows you how to incorporate strategy, empathy, design, and analytics into your development process and breaks it down into six areas you need to consider the goal, empathy (understanding user behaviors and needs), creation, validation, measurement, and iteration. It helps you truly understand what the user’s needs are and how to focus your energy on building the right product. It also teaches you how to listen better, how to generate better ideas, how to prioritize better, and how to identify assumptions. It’s just packed with great tips.

14. Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts

Author: Brene Brown

For people growing into product leadership roles, it can be a huge challenge knowing how to navigate unfamiliar territory. This book can really help give aspiring leaders the confidence they need to thrive. To quote the summary: 

“Leaders are people who hold themselves accountable for recognizing the potential in people and ideas, and developing that potential. This is a book for everyone who is ready to choose courage over comfort, make a difference and lead.”

As product managers, we often talk a lot about the techniques, frameworks, and practical approaches we use. Among all that good stuff, it’s easy to forget about the more human, people-focused side of the job. As you’re growing in your product career, you’ll need to master both sides. And while not specifically about product leadership, this book does a great job at giving you the tools you need to lead in the right way and helps you develop the courage to do bold work, have tough conversations, and show up with your whole heart.

Productboard product manager Geda.

15. Empowered: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Products

Author: Marty Cagan

Let’s finish this list the way we started it: With another Marty Cagan (soon-to-be) classic. Where Inspired shows you the theory behind making great products, Empowered is all about creating a team environment conducive to making great products. It explains how the real competitive advantage that top tech companies have is in how they enable their people to work together to solve hard problems and create extraordinary products. 

Empowered covers a lot of ground from Cagan’s SVPG blog, but it does a great job covering how to recruit and coach outstanding product team members, create an inspiring vision and insights-driven strategy, shift that strategy into action with objectives, redefine the relationship between product and the rest of the company and the transformative power this can all have.

If you are in a product leadership role, this book will break down exactly what you need to do to build a culture where creativity, innovation, and high performance are unleashed.

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