It’s been decades since Ben Horowitz (of a16z fame) penned the instant classic: Good PM / Bad PM.
Although there are certainly parts of the blog post that are out-of-date today, much of the spirit of the post holds up. In fact, I often still recommend it when I put together lists of top blog posts for new Product Managers.
However, there is one thing that always bothered me with Horowitz’s post: Good should not be the target. Your aspiration as a Product Manager should not be “Good”. “Good” Product Managers and “Good” Companies don’t change the world.
Aim for Great.
It’s easy to talk about anti-patterns and Bad Product Managers, but it can often be more difficult to tease out the little and big things that Great Product Managers do that separate them from “Good” ones.
Good PM / Great PM
There are many different characteristics and behaviors that separate Good PMs and Great PMs. This is only a small sample of some of the key ways I’ve seen Great PMs differentiate themselves.
A Good Product Manager teaches others when they have to or mentors their direct report(s). They’re a good teacher and help others level up at a moderate pace.
A Great Product Manager is always teaching and always mentoring. They know that in order to be great, they need to level up everyone around them to great. They invest serious time and thought into mentoring their teams and are never satisfied with the state of knowledge on their teams. There is always more to learn, always a higher level to reach towards.
A Good Product Manager may have experimented with side hustles in the past or thinks they may be additive to the Product Management role.
A Great Product Manager knows that successful side hustles are incredibly important as they provide diverse experiences that can improve your ability as a PM. These hustles also demonstrate passion, an entrepreneurial drive, and the ability to thrive in different industries, work structures, and with diverse groups of people. They also are the One Thing They Look For in Every PM Candidate.
Ability to Adapt to Change
A Good Product Manager adapts when change hits them. They adjust their processes, their rituals, their goals to meet the new environment.
A Great Product Manager sees change coming and gets ahead of it. They are a change agent and drive changes to goals, rituals, and more before the market forces them to. Great Product Managers are responsible for change, not simply managers of the consequences of change.
A Good Product Manager uses their downtime to catch up in areas they’ve fallen behind or to plan for the next sprint or prioritization meeting.
A Great Product Manager leans into the rarity of PM downtime and uses this time to catapult forward. They dive into User Testing, analyze their progress towards KPIs, they research market changes, they even learn from other teams! In fact, Great PMs do so much with their downtime, I devoted a whole post to it:
Building a Personal Brand
A Good Product Manager lets their performance in their current role speak for itself. They grind, they work, and they produce quality outcomes with their team.
A Great Product Manager takes a deliberate role in building their personal PM brand. They invest in their brand both inside and outside of their day job. They present at meetups and conferences. They write on Medium (and maybe even a book or two). They volunteer as a mentor and help others. They track their progress.
Identifying and Understanding the Problem
A Good Product Manager tries to understand the opportunity in both new product ideas and improving existing products periodically.
A Great Product Manager is constantly evaluating the biggest opportunities available and also understands how those ideas do or don’t fit into the current company climate, developer skill-sets, and his or her own interests and passions.
Ideating to Solve the Problem
A Good Product Manager works to understand the potential solution set from brainstorm sessions and then selects the idea most likely to succeed based on quantitative and qualitative criteria.
A Great Product Manager is always collecting information. He/She takes all inputs of data from competitors, customers, teammates, the market, and aggregates this information into a strong position on how this problem should be solved. They welcome input from others, but in the end they make the decision themselves, and don’t rely on consensus opinion or majority vote.
Selling Your Solution
A Good Product Manager starts from a problem-focus and builds towards a plan for a potential solution to that problem. They share what they will measure to validate their hypotheses.
A Great Product Manager commands their audience. He/She starts with a problem and makes it so palpable that it’s all you can think about. They make you starved for a solution and then over-deliver on that desire with an answer so clear that you can’t believe you didn’t think of yourself. They clearly share the next steps on how they will build their team, how they will recognize success, and what the “new-world” looks like with their product in it.
Build the Right Team the First Time
A Good Product Manager is an active participant in their team structure, hiring decisions, skill-sets, and personalities.
A Great Product Manager spends a significant amount of time thinking about how to structure his/her team and has a deep understanding of what personalities, development skills, and shared values he/she needs to achieve success. A Great Product Manager also reacts quickly when they’ve made incorrect hiring decisions or see team-based issues appear.
Build vs. Buy
A Good Product Manager respects the significance of each build vs. buy decision, understanding the risks, costs, and rewards of each choice before identifying a path forward.
A Great Product Manager makes a significant number of build vs. buy decisions, weighing each criterion differently based on the part of the product that this decision affects. They also know the warning signs of Buyer or Builder fail and when to pivot, if necessary, to another option.
Good Product Manager tries to understand user behavior on an as-needed or time-permitting basis. They take the findings from these studies and work to implement them in their products.
A Great Product Manager always has their finger on the pulse of the user. User testing is not something to schedule or plan for, it’s a natural part of every phase of the development lifecycle and they feel naked without it. They don’t even need to consciously think about how a customer would perceive a new feature or UI design. They are the customer. They are the user.
Achieving Minimum Viable Product
A Good Product Manager has focused goals for each release stage and creatively reacts to position his/her product best for each release given available features and overall stability.
A Great Product Manager intimately understands their company from both a size and personality perspective. They know what level of polish is appropriate for each release stage and can find the right users to engage for feedback. Even with this knowledge, they’re always pushing to release earlier, to learn quicker, and to put their products in customer’s hands sooner.
Good Product Manager is consistently looking for interesting data to help inform his product development. He/She understands what information is significant and what is just for “vanity”.
A Great Product Manager has a rabid appetite for data, but also understands its limitations. He/She doesn’t rely on others often to pull data, as he/she learns more from the raw data than from someone else’s interpretation. He/She is naturally skeptical of other’s conclusions and has an insatiable curiosity to understand customer behaviors better. If there isn’t tracking, a Great Product Manager adds tracking immediately. A Great Product Manager is a great analyst.
Transforming Your MVP into a Full Product
A Good Product Manager evaluates the performance of their MVP, focuses on the features that matter, and determines what needs to be built before the product can be released to everyone.
A Great Product Manager obsesses over MVP performance. They find trends and behaviors hidden within the data and quickly determine what features are worth focusing on and which don’t matter. They focus their team and motivate them through this final stage of development in creative ways. Finally, they’re focused in this development stage on how their product can be marketed effectively.
Promoting Your Product Release
A Good Product Manager starts thinking about marketing early in the build process, incorporating the brainstorming he/she and others completed on the user problem into a solution that not only can be delivered to customers, but also explained and understood.
A Great Product Manager owns the marketing of their product. This does not mean they do all of the work to market their new product or feature, but rather, means that they are involved with all major marketing decisions, share the voice of the customer (or potential customer), and makes sure their product UX aligns with the target audience. A Great Product Manager also markets every product differently, incorporating his/her knowledge of product quality, customer expertise, and the product roadmap into account.
Defining and Sharing Success
A Good Product Manager sets aggressive goals and shares them with their team on a frequent basis to keep them focused. They understand the difference between short, mid, and long-term goals and know the right places to share and refer to each. When they share data, they do a pretty good job, but they don’t stand out.
A Great Product Manager sets the right goals at the right time to motivate their team and the entire organization. These goals cover all major parts of the development cycle and help the team focus and make decisions without constant reinforcement from the Product Manager. When a great Product Manager shares data with the organization, everyone remembers the key points and everyone is motivated to achieve more. They always direct the credit to their team.
Supporting Your Product
A Good Product Manager has a strong relationship with their support team because they know it’s the front-line of customer feedback.
A Great Product Manager listens closely to their support group. More importantly, they know how to rank customer issues by total impact (number of customers impacted), strategic priority, risk to other parts of the product/company, and ease of resolution. They know if something needs to be fixed now, fixed later, or fixed never, and they always are honest with their colleagues.
What Characteristics of Great Product Managers Did I Miss?
Let me know in the comments or on Twitter at @amitch5903!