Seven Product Management Principles

How to improve your product management and leadership practices

Product management is a relatively new discipline that keeps evolving rapidly. Every week, there are new articles about product development best practices that industry leaders are following. This deluge of information can make it difficult to understand what practices to follow and how to look for improvement opportunities in one’s own work and team.

  1. Understand the Problem
  2. Focus Relentlessly
  3. Empower the Team
  4. Embrace Uncertainty
  5. Balance Inputs, Outputs, Outcomes, and Learning
  6. Iterate, Iterate, Iterate

1. Start With Why

The first principle, “Start With Why”, is the title of a TED Talk by Simon Sinek (and an eponymous book). Starting with “why” means that before getting into the details of “what” should be done and “how” it should be done, the discussion should revolve around the “why”: What is the higher-order purpose of our work? What are we trying to achieve? What is our vision for the future?

2. Understand the Problem

The second product management principle is to truly, deeply understand the problem you are solving. At first glance, this principle sounds obvious, even trivial. How would you solve a problem you don’t understand?

The Process of Design Squiggle by Damien Newman, thedesignsquiggle.com, licensed under CC BY-ND 3.0 US.

3. Focus Relentlessly

When you have started with the “why” and truly understood the problem that you are trying to solve, it is time to focus relentlessly. Focusing relentlessly means doing fewer things than you think you should be doing, but taking them to perfection.

4. Empower the Team

The forth product management principle is to empower the team to solve the customer problems (in ways that serve the business) through cross-functional collaboration between all the disciplines involved in product development (at least product management, design, and engineering). Empowered teams are different from feature teams or delivery teams in that they are given goals for problems to solve, not feature projects to deliver.

5. Embrace Uncertainty

Empowering the product team is particularly important because it allows following the fifth principle to embrace uncertainty. Product development is a fundamentally risky endeavor. That risk doesn’t just lie in how well the ideas you have can be executed. It is far more fundamental than that: regardless of your initial confidence in product ideas, most of them won’t deliver the hypothesized value (to the customer, to the business) you hoped for. Moreover, you won’t be able to identify the bad ideas until you have invested substantial effort in exploring them. That is the uncertainty axiom of product management.

6. Balance Inputs, Outputs, Outcomes, and Learning

Following from the previous one, the next important principle is to balance inputs, outputs, outcomes, and learning. Traditional management of software development processes is often myopically focused on outputs: how many new features are we shipping? However, from the uncertainty axiom of product development, it follows that it is by no means guaranteed that shipping more and more features is at all beneficial to the customer (or the business). Modern approaches have therefore realized that focusing on outcomes (for customers and for the business) is important. Even a singular focus on outcomes, however, has its challenges. Instead, you need to also consider inputs (the quality of information you use to make product decisions and the decision process) as well as learning (how you feed information from the outcomes you have achieved back into the product development process).

7. Iterate, Iterate, Iterate

The last product management principle is to iterate, iterate, iterate. This principle includes not only iterative delivery of software through Scrum or other agile software delivery practices, but the entire process of discovering, delivering, and improving the product.

Experienced product leader, previously at 8fit, Yammer, BCG. Currently working on something new.