Product management is likely to be the most cross-functional discipline of them all. Conceptually, we’re trying to align desirability ("What does the market need?"), feasibility ("What kind of solution can we realistically build?"), and viability ("How do we make this a profitable business?"). That part of the job alone necessitates broad knowledge across a variety of fields, as well as a reasonable amount of depth in each of them.
But that’s only one side of the coin.
Because once the work on our product gets operationalized—in the sense that developers start writing code, marketers begin crafting narratives, sales managers go out pitching, and so on—the challenge for us gets elevated to a whole different level. Our job at this point can start feeling like herding a bunch of cats: Suddenly, you’ve got a lot of smart, energetic, and well-intentioned people all over the company throwing in their contributions, often at a breakneck speed. But sadly, sometimes, those contributions aren’t exactly in line with one another.
Here’s where a picture that I plucked from one of my former CEOs comes in handy. When asked in which part of the company he saw the greatest potential for improvement, he didn’t bring up a single function. He didn’t say “We’ve got to get better at sales,” or “We have to hire better engineers.” Instead, he pointed out that each individual aspect of the value chain was working pretty solidly already. But, in his view, what was missing was that perfect alignment between them.
Our outbound messaging, for instance, wasn’t matching up with the narrative we were telling in the sales deck. The value propositions we offered weren’t 100% geared to the needs of the people we were targeting. The way we were pitching certain features wasn’t consistent with how and why those features were designed and built in the first place.
In my experience, companies that are not strictly managed in a hierarchical, top-down, command-and-control manner inevitably fall prey to those misalignments—and, in principle, that’s a not a bad thing. We want the sales folks to have enough autonomy to tinker with the storyline they’re telling so that it’ll get better over time. We want our engineers to iterate on creative solutions to customer problems. We want the operations teams to have plenty of leeway to improve their processes. But we also want all those individual contributions to be oriented towards on overarching goal, so that in the end, we’re achieving outstanding results.
And here’s where my understanding of the product manager as this “herder of cats” comes in: We’re not the ones pulling all the strings, telling each department exactly what to do. We’re not some sort of autocratic leader issuing orders to minions, whom we intentionally leave in the dark about the big picture. Quite the contrary: We’re fostering transparent collaboration between all those functions, picking up ideas and improvements along the way. We’re furthermore making sure that all those people with their diverse backgrounds and creative ideas talk directly to each other, at the right time, about the right things, without us turning into a central bottleneck.
Honestly, that can be a daunting, sisyphean task. Sometimes it feels frustrating, sometimes it seems impossible. But it’s also a great deal of fun, and a fundamental source of satisfaction and motivation to see things come to fruition which are not only larger than what one person or department could achieve, but also goes beyond the mere sum of the parts of all individual contributions.