Product Management 101: How to Lead a Treasure Hunt

From what I have seen working with companies, there are 2 core reasons that a company isn’t growing:

  1. They don’t know what to do
  2. They don’t know how to do it effectively

When I started consulting, I assumed that number #1 was more of a problem but I am now realizing that it's much more of a split between #1 and #2.

In that spirit, this week we are going to focus on how to drive results effectively, which is traditionally the realm of Product Managers.

If you feel like you have a great vision, and you have enough resources to achieve it, but you aren’t making progress, then you need a stronger product management function.

Most of my time in the tech world was spent as a product manager, first at Codecademy and then at Uber.

I am not the world’s most skilled PM, but I have enough experience now to see where things are working and not working.

The Job of Product Managers

Product Management, somewhat frustratingly, has slightly different interpretations across the industry. This makes it both a hard skill set to understand and a hard skill set to learn.

At some companies, PMs take fully developed ideas from leadership and just make sure they get implemented, which is more of an operational skillset.

At other companies, leadership sets targets and the PMs develop the plans, and projects and oversee the implementation. This is the style of product management that I am referring to in this post.

For now, let's simplify the PM role down to whoever is in charge of deciding what the engineers are working on and when.

This could be a founder at an early-stage company, an engineering manager at a more technical product, or a traditional product person.

If you are the one who’s steering what gets worked on and when then this article is about what you should be doing.

PMs have 3 core jobs, all of which have to happen in some form:

  1. Articulating where we’re going
  2. Picking the path
  3. Driving the work effectively

All of these areas have various industry terms (OKRs, roadmaps, operational metrics), however, to understand how to use any of these frameworks, you need to first understand how the whole picture comes together.

To remove the industry jargon and (hopefully) make this easier to understand, we’re going to use an analogy.

We’re Going on a Treasure Hunt

Imagine that you are setting off on a long journey to find a treasure. You’ve recruited a team (engineers, designers, data scientists, stakeholders, etc) and loaded them into a boat.

This boat is powered by oars and the team has to work together and row towards your destination.

Product Managers are terrible at rowing, so you’re responsible for navigating.

This puts you in a position of authority, but you’re not fully in charge, just very influential.

You don’t get to fully pick the destination, but you are a critical part of if we get there effectively.

1. Where Are We Going & Why?

We’re hunting the mythical treasure “Bringing Generative AI to Cloud-Based Data Compliance Platforms for Gen Z” or whatever it is your company does.

Other people are also hunting for this treasure, so we have to get there first.

Someone, maybe you, started your company with a destination in mind. People believed in that destination enough to go on that journey with you.

We’re now on the road and you need to both keep everyone motivated and make sure that they know why they’re rowing so hard. While you are technically the one steering the boat, your team's effort is the thing that makes you go.

Because this will be a long journey you need to continuously make sure that:

  1. You are confident in the direction that you’re steering everyone
  2. Your team knows where they are going and why they are working hard.

You can make all of the fancy presentations that you want, hold great brainstorming sessions, and lead team outings, but those things are only valuable if they motivate the team to work hard on the right problems. All of that only produces value if engineers ship the “right” thing.

The steering only matters if people are rowing hard, and the rowing hard only matters if you are moving in the right direction

To jump back into industry terms:

  • Whenever you kick off a quarter/half you need to be explaining to the team where we are going and how the upcoming work will get you there
  • You need to have confidence that the projects that you are picking will move you along this path
  • Leadership needs to understand that your vision matches where want you to go
  • When new people join the team, they need to understand where you are going and why

2. Are We On The Right Course?

Once your team understands where we are going and why we are going there, the next big question is “How do we get there”?

Just because you have a destination in mind, doesn’t mean that your job is done. You need to chart a course that will get you there.

We can’t just assume that the treasure is to the west, start sailing west and just blindly continue in that direction. You need to be good at navigating and dealing with reality.

Certain routes will be blocked, you’ll hit obstacles, you’ll get off course and need to correct.

To do these things well, you’ll need:

  • A map of the path to your goal
  • The ability to track progress on that map and correct course

To switch back to industry terms these are:

  • Metrics & Targets — ideally metrics that are deliberately chosen to show you that are making progress against your goals.
  • Measurement — the ability to see if the work you are doing is actually moving you closer to these goals.

You need to both be setting waypoints along the way and measuring your progress against them.

This will also help everyone in the boat also needs to understand how the journey is going so they can feel motivated to push on.

3. How Quickly Can We Get There?

Remember, you are in a race. You want to beat all of the other boats to the treasure.

Getting there first isn’t just about speed, it's also about navigating accurately.

Rowing hard is only helpful if you’re moving in the right direction. If you are off course, it might make things worse.

The people rowing boats can pick up the pace, but they can’t sprint forever, so you should make sure they do it at the right time.

You are going to hit obstacles on this path, should you go around them? Should you stop and deal with them? Why?

When you ask most product leaders what they want from their teams, is “velocity”, meaning that their teams are shipping faster.

That said, there are really two key components of velocity.

  • Accuracy: Are we picking the right projects? Did the projects that we shipped produce the results that we thought they would?
  • Speed: How quickly we can move from concept to a live feature on the product.

To switch back to industry terms, you want to make sure that

  • You have done enough due diligence on your major projects to maximize the chances of success.
  • Your projects are the right choice for right now to drive you to your goals.
  • You are controlling the scope of work appropriately so that you’re not “over” or “under” cooking your features.
  • Engineers have input early into the process to help shape requirements.
  • You are leaving time to clear technical debt as you go, which unlocks new opportunities.
  • You are sequencing your work to maximize the impact and unlock future work.
  • Leadership understands your choices so that they can help unblock you and add resources.

So What Do You Do With This Information?

Regardless of the size of your company, you need to make sure you are doing something in each of these buckets.

If you break down all of the things that have to happen in a product team, we need to:

  1. Pick a thing to focus on
  2. Look at all the ways that you can solve that
  3. Pick a solution & ship it
  4. Measure the results
  5. Decide what to do next based on that info

Each of these steps has a litany of frameworks and tactics that people recommend.

More important than how you do these things is that you understand why each of them happens.

If you are a tiny start-up, all of this can happen within a few days. You can see an opportunity, make a change, check your metrics in a few days, and then react to what you see.

For a company the size of Uber, this could be a 3–6 month process to move through all the steps.

It's much more important that you are doing all of them in some form before you add complexity to any of these steps.

The most common thing that I see in early-stage companies is that they are skipping steps, specifically 4 and 5.

Without understanding how your work is moving towards your goals, you’ll just keep rowing forever and never find the treasure.

Good luck out there.

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