Product Leadership vs Product Management

This is a series of posts that is a synthesis of ideas from 4 sources – Marty Cagan’s workshop on Product Management, Product Leadership (the book), conversations I’ve had with experienced product managers and my own observations. I’d like to explore what building products is all about, the various folks and forces at play and tools and ideas that might help get the job done better.

Product Leadership and Product Management: Product leadership isn’t just about leading a team of product managers. Instead, every technology product manager has 2 aspects to their job – product management and product leadership. This is analogous to the management and leadership of a business. While often discussed in the same breath, they are very different. Leadership is about doing the right things or effectiveness while management is about doing things right or efficiency. Similarly –

  • Product leadership is the time spent on deciding which products to build to add value to customers. The challenges here revolve around “customer/user discovery” or finding “product-market fit.”
  • Product management is running the process of building products as efficiently as possible.  The challenge here is generally around optimizing funnels.

Folks in smaller organizations tend to spend most of the their time wrestling with product-market fit. Thus, smaller organizations requires product managers who are comfortable wearing the product leadership hat. In larger organizations, senior product leaders or product managers leading “venture bets” tend to spend more time wearing the leadership hat.

In summary, wearing the product leader hat involves spending time wrestling with questions around product-market fit while wearing the product manager hat involves spending time wrestling with optimizing funnels. 

Leading a product: A successful product is one that is valuable, usable and feasible.

When you are deciding whether to build a product, you work within these constraints by thinking of the market, the customer and the/your company. This process requires the product leader to go through a process of customer discovery (in lean start up parlance) to ensure she is building a product that has hope of finding product-market fit. Or, put differently, the product leader tries to find a customer to validate her hypothesis that her product solves a real need and is, thus, valuable. Once the value is ascertained, she can begin scoping a product that is usable and feasible.

This is best visualized when you think of the primary tool a product leader uses. For the product leader, a product strategy document is a great tool to align people around the vision. A good product strategy document includes the following –

  • Problem Statement/vision: Describe the problem we’re trying to solve and, in the process, paint the picture for what we’re trying to achieve.
  • Principles: Clear guardrails that help us make decisions.
  • Strategy/Hypothesis: Answer the questions – “where do we play?” and “how do we win?”
  • Vision Roadmap: Outline what we’ll need to build in the coming quarters/years to solve the problem.

Of course, visionary product leaders don’t just write a great product strategy document and leave it at that. But, building a compelling vision with clear product principles and a strategy are the first step. We’ll cover the rest in later posts.

Managing the product: Once you agree on what to build, you put on your product manager hat to lead the process of building the product. In doing so, you take responsibility to balance the perspectives of the business (value), design (usability) and engineering (feasibility).

The primary tool product managers use is a product roadmap in some form. Again, we’ll cover roadmaps in detail at a later time.

The 3 axes of value, usability and feasibility are very useful as you think of skills product managers tend to build. A model (that builds on this and that) I’ve found helpful is that of “explorer, scientist, driver.”

  • Explorer PMs lead with design thinking. They are very curious about users and the market and build instincts for what matters to users and what doesn’t.
  • Scientist PMs lead with analytical/engineering expertise. They know their funnels and dig deep into their data to find insights and product improvements.
  • Driver PMs lead with business acumen. They’re great at moving the organization to build products that their customers are ready to buy and understand what it takes to go-to-market with them.

This model brings forth a couple of interesting insights. First, I’ve noticed that great product folk tend to have 2 of these 3 traits and learn to build teams that balance their weaknesses.

Second, different types of products tend to require different expertise. For example, B2C products tend to require more of an emphasis on usability and feasibility while B2B products tend to place more of an emphasis on value and feasibility over usability. My hypothesis is that this means PMs who prefer the explorer hat work better on consumer products while PMs who prefer the driver hat work better on business products. This also points to what folks need to do to learn complementary skills. If you want to build your explorer/design skillset, work on consumer products. And, if you want to work on building out your business acument, work on a B2B product.

Finally, the ability to lead with analytical insight is increasingly becoming table stakes.

A question for reflection, then – how much time do you spend wearing the management and leadership hats in your jobs? Does the ratio feel right to you?