The humble product manager

When the design community wants to argue about something they fall back on the age-old question, “Should designers learn to code?” In the same way, for as long as the role has existed, the product management community has debated whether or not PMs should be referred to as “the CEO of the product.”

Neither debate will ever be settled — this is just something we do. But Marty Cagan does have a solid addition to this never-ending argument in his post CEO of the Product Revisited. His main point is this:

Now, the strong product manager does not need to be an expert in all of these many aspects of the business, any more than the CEO needs to be.

The key is that, like the CEO, the product manager needs to have a solid understanding of the many aspects of the business, and assimilate all of this information to make informed decisions.

But it is his focus on humility that I want to spend a moment of reflection on:

So going forward I’m going to continue to emphasize the importance of humility and earning the team’s trust, but I will also start emphasizing and embracing the positive aspects of the similarities of the PM role to the CEO.

A call for humility in product management is not something I see very often. This is strange to me, because I find this to be an extraordinarily humbling profession. There is so much to learn and do that I am not sure how anyone can think of themselves as an “expert” in the product role.

At one extreme, PMs need to be confident about the decisions they make. They need to keep learning and growing, and hone their craft constantly. Solid theory and excellent technique need to become so ingrained that they simply become second nature, cornerstones of everything they do.

But equally important — and this is why humility is so important — they need to be open to the possibility that some of their decisions might be wrong. They should hang on to a measure of self-doubt every time they present a new solution to the team or the world. Admitting that someone else’s ideas are better than your own, and making changes based on good critique do wonders to improve products — and build trust within the team.

In the design context John Lilly phrases this in a way that should become a mantra for all product managers: “Design like you’re right; listen like you’re wrong.”