Do You Need to be a Product Manager to Apply Product Thinking?

Lately, I have been getting a few queries from recent graduates on how to seek a job for a product manager (PM) role. My two cents: don’t.

Trying to be a PM straight out of school is like attempting a competitive sport because you have read the rules and watched it unfold from the stadium seats. In that state, neither do we have enough muscle memory built in our minds to do most things right, nor enough battle scars to be remotely successful.

That begs another question. With so many flavors of the PM role out there in the market, what defines success? If I were to attempt to define an MVP (minimum viable product) of a PM role, then I would include these four aspects:

  1. Responsibility to define and execute a research-first, human-centric, and iterative approach
    This implies a relentless focus to use research and data in the context of the user’s mental model, stated and often, unstated needs. The focus needs to be applied by the PM in the form of a predictable process that graduates from insights to design and engineering, and is iterative. Mind you, iterative doesn’t necessarily mean agile. There are more ways than Scrum to be Agile. There are more ways than Agile to be iterative.
  2. Ability to influence stakeholders to shape the solution
    In some ways, Product Management is a misnomer, since, for the most part, you are managing the people who have a stake in the product, to be able to manage the product itself. Your ability to resolve conflicts, facilitate decisions and pitch ideas across a diverse set of groups is key. This includes sponsors who sign the checks, leaders who own the execution, user groups that define the needs, and the contributors whom you rely on to implement your vision.
  3. Accountability (often self-imposed) to do what’s right for the user
    The PM needs to have a “detached commitment” for creating a meaningful impact on the user’s life. The detachment is necessary so that when signals in the data indicate a change in direction, a PM should be able to pivot based on the latest insights in the interest of building the right experience for the user. Often, this implies shelving ideas that were previously thought to be impervious, including some of their own. That, however, shouldn’t dent the commitment for the pursuit to do what’s right for the user.
  4. Relentless drive to measure success against a business metric
    A PM recognizes the difference between execution-driven success and metrics-driven success. A metric such as story points delivered in a sprint can provide insights into the magnitude of the output delivered but cannot shine a light on the impact of the outcome. A PM should work with the business to establish a single actionable top-line metric that allows measuring the success of the solution.

If you are seeking to transition into a PM role, see if you can flex your impact in your current role to do one or more of the above. If you are not exclusively owning any one or more of these four topics, then you probably are not a product manager yet. And that’s not a bad thing. Rome was not built in a day and neither are successful product managers. On the flip side, if you do these four things well, you may be treated as a product manager, whether you have the title or not.

What’s in your top four must-haves for a PM that’s not on this list?

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