After you learn about the multiple hats a Product Manager needs to wear, you might think the role and the skillset are too broad. And that’s true. But it doesn’t mean you can’t do it.
When in doubt, always default to the principles of Product Management: maximize impact to the mission and accomplish everything through others. That’s easy to remember.
Product Managers can improve their skill set by cutting through the noise and focusing on what’s important.
The frameworks and tools in this section will help you master your problem-solving and decision-making skills and become more effective. You don’t need to know all the details about a subject to make an informed decision. It’s all about how you frame the situation at hand.
On this section
- First Principles of Product Management
- Mental Models for Product Managers
- Emotional Intelligence for Product Managers
First Principles of Product Management
You may have read how people like Elon Musk prefer to think from first principles rather than by analogy like most of us. First Principles are foundational assumptions that cannot be deduced from any other assumption. They are the group of self-evident propositions on which solid (and sometimes new) conclusions rest.
You could think about first principles like ingredients in a recipe. The goal is to become a chef with your thinking. By arguing from first principles, you can come up with novel solutions to hard problems.
What are we sure is true? And then reason up from there. — Elon Musk
Brandon Chu does a great job defining Product Management first principles:
- Maximize impact to the mission
- Accomplish everything through others
These principles describe two completely different skills. One defined by logic and reasoning and the other, defined by empathy and creativity.
Maximize impact to the mission
Product Managers are not responsible for designing, coding, or shipping the product per se. Their job is to look ahead and define the right path to achieve the company’s goal. This is often called Product Strategy and the best ones maximize the impact on the company’s mission.
This is why is so important for Product Managers to understand in depth the goal of the company. You can do this by asking the right questions to leadership, and understand the underlying truths of the company’s mission.
The other inputs Product Managers can’t forget are the environment and the company’s constraints. The environment signals might be changes in competitive, political, and socioeconomic landscapes. The company’s constraints might be the experience and skill of the team (people), the ability to hire, build, and distribute the product (costs) and time.
Product Managers that know the goal, understand the environment, and respect the constraints, have all they need to build a great Product Strategy.
Accomplish everything through others
This principle may sound contradictory. After all, Product Managers should have all these skills to get things done and achieve the goal. But this mindset does not make you a great Product Manager. If anything, it makes you a good employee.
When things go south, a Product Manager should be the first volunteer to help removing what’s blocking the team. However, that is not the job at its core. Accomplish everything through others means that Product Managers should act as coaches in a sports team.
- Coaches don’t play: They enable and align the team to maximize their collective performance
- The players are celebrated, not the coach: When the team does amazing work, they deserve the spotlight.
- Coaches let captains lead: When a captain emerges do whatever you can to capitalize on it
- Coaches make sure the team is in peak performance: They are responsible for the process that enables them to do their best work
Mental Models for Product Managers
A Mental Model is a concept that helps you better explain how something works. Depending on the context, it might take different forms. Mental models simplify complex things by cutting through the noise.
Charlie Munger, the chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, reflected on a speech:
What is elementary, worldly wisdom? Well, the first rule is that you can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ’em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form.
You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience — both vicarious and direct — on this latticework of models. You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life. You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head. — Charlie Munger
For instance, almost anything in the world can be described as a system. A system is a set of components working together as a whole. You can optimize a system by focusing on the core components and how they work together.
Product Managers can leverage mental models to make better decisions without needing to know every detail. Arguing from First Principles is a good example of this.
Mental models are frameworks for thinking and you should think of them as tools in a toolbox.
Here is a list of relevant mental models to the key aspects of Product Management.
Urgent vs. Important: The Eisenhower Decision Matrix
As we know, prioritizing is a critical skill for Product Managers. And this mental model is a good starting point, although there are more sophisticated ways to do it. The goal is to clearly define what urgent and important mean. Then use the matrix to determine to which quadrant a task belongs.
What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important - Dwight Eisenhower
The four classes, in order, are:
- Urgent and Important: Tasks you should do immediately.
- Important, but not Urgent: Tasks you should schedule to do later.
- Urgent, but not Important: Tasks you should delegate to someone else.
- Neither Urgent nor Important: Tasks that you should cut.
When to use it:
A common mistake of new Product Managers is to get caught on urgent but unimportant tasks. When you are dealing with multiple stakeholders requests, this model can help you focus where matters. Learn to say no, delegate as needed and cut unnecessary tasks.
Return of Investment
Return of investment (ROI) is the resulting ratio between what you gain (impact) and what you invest (resources). The higher the ROI of an investment, the higher the impact in comparison to its investment.
The resources available to a product team could be time, money, and people’s skills. This is what you invest to produce an impact on your customers. And is the basis for all kinds of prioritization frameworks.
When to use it:
As mentioned, one of the first principles of Product Management is to maximize the impact on the mission. Your goal is to always pursue the opportunity with the highest ROI for your customers.
Local vs. Global Optimum
A local optimization is an optimal solution (maximal or minimal) within a set of neighbor solution candidates. When it comes to optimization, seeking the global optimum leads to higher returns. A global optimization is an optimal solution among all possible solutions.
Systems are always part of a larger system. This model states that the higher the level of the system to optimize, the greater the Return of Investment or ROI. Trying to optimize a local system eventually leads to Diminishing Returns.
When to use it:
As a Product Manager, think if the optimization work on a specific part of the system is leading to diminishing returns. A good example is when companies focus too much on acquiring customers when focusing on monetization or retention might lead to a higher ROI.
Time Value of Shipping
This model states that a product that is shipped earlier is more valuable to customers than a product shipped at a later time.
The reason is simple, the sooner you get the product out, the sooner your customers get value and the shorter the feedback loop. Which ultimately helps to improve your product earlier and increase value.
When to use it:
When deciding what to build next, always consider how fast the product can be shipped. It could be a level of effort or dependencies with other teams. As a Product Manager, avoid the trap of the biggest and more impactful product only.
The Inversion Principle
This mental model visualizes how failure looks like. This way, Product Managers can better understand what needs to be avoided.
The steps to use the Inversion Principle are very simple:
- Define the goal: What are you trying to achieve?
- Invert it: What would guarantee to fail at achieving the goal?
- Fix it: How would you prevent that from happening?
When to use it:
When starting a new project or pursuing a goal, you should fast forward months ahead and assume a complete failure. What went wrong? Then work backward and write the story down of how it happened. You might find non-obvious reasons.
As described earlier, one of the first principles of Product Management is to accomplish everything through others. The ability to build strong relationships then is critical for Product Managers starting a new role. Unfortunately, this is everything but easy.
The best Product Managers are not only good at recognizing and managing their own emotions, but they also do so in others. When tough times come (and they will) understanding other people’s feelings can make the difference between succeeding and failing. This is what leadership looks like. But in order to lead, you need to master your own emotions first.
For leaders, the first task in management has nothing to do with leading others; step one poses the challenge of knowing and managing oneself - Daniel Goleman
Product Managers are leaders without authority. They don’t manage people. Which adds complexity to the role. These are the basic set of skills you need to conquer:
- Self-awareness: To understand and have visibility of our moods and emotions. We can’t manage what we don’t know is there.
- Self-management: To find the best way to manage our emotions and understand what motivates us. It all depends on the situation.
- Interpersonal Skills: To understand how to interact with others and build healthy relationships. This is how you interface with everyone involved in the product.
- Empathy: To understand what others are going through and treating them with compassion. This benefits your interaction with your customers and your team.
Although the list is short, it’s challenging enough. These are not the typical things you learn in school.
Emotional Intelligence allows Product Managers to guide thinking and behavior. As a result, you can improve execution, empower your team, and ultimately, deliver successful products.
This is a first draft and a just a glance of mental models for Product Managers. Take the time to learn from the resources below. We keep them up to date!
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