The mini-CEO and the skills they need to succeed
Defining product management
To put it simply, product management is about solving real problems for real people. Notice that the ‘real’ is emphasised, because time and time again entrepreneurs go on a journey to solve a problem that is not real, for people who are also not real.
But how are people and problems not real?
What’s an unreal problem?
The problem is usually imagined by the entrepreneur: maybe they directly experience it, but maybe they experience it alone. Or, there could be a lack of context (For example, if the problem they’re trying to solve is part of something bigger that their solution is not yet tackling).
This happens all the time, especially in startup land. It’s a large contributor to that 90 percent failure statistic that is drummed into entrepreneurs right from the start.
What’s an unreal person?
For example, when the CEO of a startup is also the startup’s first customer, their problem is their problem alone. And it’s initially up to them to discover if this problem is faced by others. The CEO can’t solve this problem without help and that’s where the mini-CEO comes in: the product manager.
No product manager is the same and no pathway to the role is the same. Product managers come from all walks of life, starting out their career in marketing, engineering and even hospitality…who would have thought?
So, why does product management attract people with different traits and skill sets?
The product manager is also known as the mini-CEO and that’s because, like the CEO, they need to be multidisciplinary and sit within the centre of all activity. They’re like the glue that sticks products to customers and customers to products.
The skills to succeed
One of the best pieces of advice a product manager can learn is: ideas are fragile. Ideas can whither right after they sprout, and it takes a special kind of person with a particular set of skills to nurture and grow them from idea to product.
Allen Jiang, product manager at Qantas Assure, talks about the skills not commonly associated with product managers—but skills that are crucially necessary. These skills are soft skills, and are undeniably the most important skills to have when managing a team and performing as the mini-CEO.
“One of the key drivers of a good product manager is being able to [take an idea] all the way from conception into being built,” says Allen. “If you think about that as an important part of the process then you think about everything that’s needed to enable that.”
What enables the ideation process? Allen believes it’s good communication.
“It’s being able to convey that idea and “sell that vision” to get people to see what that idea is and how it will work.”
Allen explains that there are many different ways to solve a problem and a product manager needs to think outside the box and continually questioning what’s working and what’s not.
“Creativity goes so far as to question: ‘What is the right problem to solve?’”
“There are certain problems you’re trying to solve and build for the end user and there are creative ways to do that. It doesn’t mean you have to do it the way you originally thought. You need to find a different, smarter solution for doing things, and all those things can be creative.”
Allen explains that if you’re not being transparent with your team, you’re not being productive.
“[At Qantas Assure] We’re a very cohesive unit because we’re always very open and honest about things. When things go wrong, people own it. It’s never the case of trying to hide something; it’s about making people responsible.”
Allen admits that some of his best ideas have come from random conversations he’s had with people around the office, and those people have had nothing to do with the product.
“I’ll go to a member of a different team and we’ll just chit-chat by the kitchen. We’ll just talk about random things and then instantly you get an idea for how you can improve your product.”
5. Risk Taking
An entrepreneurial trait that overlaps into the product manager is risk taking. Even in the day-to-day, Allen says product managers are taking risks.
“The primary factor is, as a product manager, you don’t have a lot of information to work with. For a startup, you have very little customers, and you have very little data. It just so happens that in those times, when you have little data, you need your product to evolve.”
“The risk you take is that every day you’re unsure if you’re making the right decisions. Of course you do things to try to increase your probability of success, such as user testing and research, but at the end of the day, you can never be 100 percent sure of your product.”