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What makes a great product manager?

What makes a great product manager?

I get asked this question a lot. Either because folks are hiring a product manager or because they want to get better at product management themselves.

Here are some of my thoughts on the skills and mindsets of a great PM…

The Problem — Solution card

I see product management as a union between problems and solutions. Think about it as a card. One side is a problem, the other is a solution. They are inseparable. Something like this:

Read the problem side and flip the card to find out HOW to solve it, read the solution side and make sure you understand WHY the solution matters in the first place. Now your job as a product manager is to fill out this card, or actually many cards, and then choose the ones you’ll play your game with.

Understand the problem

The problem side represents the understanding of people and their problems. A great PM is like a detective who can really identify users’ most pressing problems (or needs, or jobs-to-be-done, or pains… pick your favorite framework — it doesn’t matter). As @wr of Envoy beautifully pointed out, this is what designers are typically very good at. They excel at user research and thus have a leg up when transitioning to a product management role.

But there is one big difference between product management and pure design. Product managers must not only understand the problems of individual users–they also need to know how many such users are in the market. While designers can design the best product for a single user and win a red dot award, product managers need to be sure that the users they design for represent a market big enough to sustain a profitable business.

Thus, on the problem side, the critical skills of a PM are curiosity and empathy, but also ability to spot trends and patterns that help with broader market understanding and business viability. A PM needs to be a great listener — someone who digs really deep into motivations and emotions, and at the same time is comfortable with data and number crunching to figure out the size of markets and business opportunities.

Questions so far? Ask away!

Discover the solution

So far we’ve covered the problem side of the card. On the solution side, PMs need to understand the solution alternatives (existing solutions) available on the market now and how well the alternatives satisfy end users’ problems (needs). This helps PMs identify which opportunities to tackle.

Great PMs have a deep understanding of the problems they are after and available solution alternatives. Only then can they align designers and engineering colleagues to come up with the best solutions.

Great PMs aren’t necessarily the best designers and engineers themselves, but they do have deep appreciation and understanding of great design and have enough understanding of technology to understand feasibility constraints. Think of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (and later, Jony Ive). Steve was an exemplary product manager with deep understanding of the problems and needs of people. He had a deep sense of design and technology, but he wasn’t necessarily the one coming up with all the design and engineering ideas. It was Steve’s ability to see and feel a new product with the eyes and hands of its future users that made him an exceptional product manager. He was unprecedented in distinguishing mediocrity from greatness.

So there you have it. If it seems like PMs must be strange unicorns embodying a firm understanding of the market, problem space, design, and technology — then you’re right! It’s why the best product managers are truly a rare breed. In reality, you might have one team member who is more problem-focused and who needs to be complemented by a colleague on the solution side, or vice versa. And as your organization grows, specialization is more likely. That’s fine — just make sure folks in specialized roles remain aligned and be wary of divides forming between the specialists on the problem side and solution side.

This brings me to the last point I want to make, on the importance of communication and leadership skills.


What I described so far all takes place in the head of the product manager, who must come to understand problems as well as the feasible possibilities for solving them. And indeed, if you want to be a great PM, you must internalize a great number of inputs and arrive at these understandings, but you must also excel in communicating it all out. You can’t just be the “know it all” who tells others what to do. You need to expose problems, make sure that everyone understands them, that everyone has the full context. You must achieve full transparency around why the strategic focus in the quarter ahead is on revamping the onboarding and not shipping highly-requested functionality.

You are in charge of creating transparency around the problem side of the card, and by doing so you create an environment where everyone can contribute ideas and suggestions for better solutions.

The really great PMs are confident, but they also admit that they don’t have all the answers. Being honest and vulnerable, even at the risk of exposing weakness, is the foundation of building a great team based on trust. That is what makes not just a great product manager, but a real product leader.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


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