A theory of product management

There are two aspects to product management: the product, and the management. An effective PM combines the mindset and skills needed to excel at each.

Long red hair streams behind a person leaping and bounding forward, supported by a phone which is also their staircase.
Long red hair streams behind a person leaping and bounding forward, supported by a phone which is also their staircase.

To make a great product, the chief demand is empathy, followed closely by curiosity. Empathy — and its cousin compassion — let you understand the needs and expectations of the people who use and rely on the things you build. Curiosity lets you discover those needs, learn about the tools available to you to meet them, and find the creativity to craft your product innovatively. But without empathy, you are never building for the people you hope to serve. The more you practice empathy, the closer you can come to understanding the needs people have, and how and whether the things you build can really meet those needs.

Management is the interplay of people and plans. As a PM, you often need to lead without authority. To inspire the people you work with, you need to understand them, and speak to their goals while allaying their fears. This comes down to empathy and curiosity. Connect with your colleagues as people first. Understand what they need, and meet them where they are with genuine support. Care for your team, and inspire with compassion.

When designing a product and planning its implementation, understand first and foremost that you are connecting two groups of people. There are the people you work with, your comrades in creation. Support and engage your colleagues: bring them challenges they can solve, and shield them from distractions and disruption. Ensure that they know their own part in the plan, and are happy to play it.

Advocate for the people your product serves. Learn about the communities who make use of your work, and understand the risks and challenges facing those who may experience the most difficulty or danger. Protect and support them — as a partner, not as a benefactor.

You are surrounded by technical experts and building to optimize a sea of numbers. Remember that those experts are people first, and those numbers are about people too. It’s your job to advocate for these people as people. Bring every ounce of your empathy, compassion, and curiosity to bear in building things that serve people, and caring for the other people who help you build them. You’re a person too, so don’t forget to take care of yourself.

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