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Over the last 10 years, I’ve moved from sales and business development roles to a product manager position at Google. Most recently, I helped co-found Scoop, where I serve as the Chief Product Officer and help guide our Design, Analytics, and Product Management teams toward creating a great product. I think my experience seeing product management from the outside in, as well as being in charge of product, has lent me valuable insights into how a good product manager operates.
If my experience has taught me anything, it’s that startups don’t need a product manager striving to be a visionary. Instead, they get maximum benefit from someone who focuses less on the glamour and invention and more on empowering teams to build the most impactful product possible.
Be a street sweeper
At its core, being a great product manager is about clearing the path for everyone else on the team to set them up for success. During my career, I’ve learned firsthand just how mundane many of those tasks really are.
On my team at Google, we scaled and rolled out our mobile product in more than 10 countries over 18 months. On its face, that sounds exciting: international travel, different languages, unique market dynamics, and more. In truth, my role as product manager required me to focus on tactical considerations, such as international finance law, translation services, and minute details, like how to account for languages whose characters were too large for a specific screen size. To successfully enter new markets, the team and I dealt not with traversing new geographies, but instead with crossing the rough terrain of various government entities and their approval processes. In doing so, it became clear to me just how vital those seemingly mundane activities really are to moving a project to its finish line. Without those conversations about font size or finance law, we never would have gotten the product off the ground.
When managers spend their time dreaming up the next great global product, they often aren’t addressing the more mundane – but critical – tasks in front of the team. Their refusal to sweep the street – or worse, their belief that they’re above that – can lead to ineffective processes that result in delayed product development and deployment.
Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize
I learned the importance of prioritizing at another stop on my career. My team was working on a product feature, and we knew there were a number of different capabilities with which we could experiment. Initially, we adopted a visionary approach: We wanted to include complicated, sophisticated capabilities in pursuit of what we felt would be a complete feature. Our initial goal was to bring a full vision to life by including all the bells and whistles we felt we had at our disposal.
But we quickly realized that we needed more of a street sweeper mentality: We had to clear the road of the complicated capabilities of the full vision and instead prioritize building the simplest version of the feature.
If we had taken a visionary approach, we never would have been happy with the product concept, and we likely never would have launched the feature. We would have prioritized the idea of the product feature rather than the minimum viable product (MVP) needed for launch. Visionary product managers will always be drawn towards the revolutionary and idyllic products or features rather than the evolutionary. Instead, they must be comfortable asking what the most important features are, prioritizing the necessary and often less-flashy capabilities required, and accepting that may mean a more iterative rollout or slimmer product as a result.
Embrace what you don’t know
People exaggerate both their strengths and weaknesses, a human dissonance that occurs often. A product manager will typically come from either a technical or non-technical background, further polarizing any dissonance that already exists. I remember working with a product manager on a fairly technical product. They had a technical background and often would try to advance development by writing code instead of sweeping the street for their team. This ended up slowing the development process quite a bit, because the manager using their time to code rather than facilitate was a poor use of resources. Furthermore, this type of behavior can suggest an air of knowing better than the rest of the team, which only propagates the poor allocation of resources in the first place.
A visionary product manager might feel they have all the answers due to their specific background. Yet, in practice, how well a manager fills their knowledge gaps matters much more. Great product managers must surround themselves with, and embrace the knowledge of, people who have expertise in subject matter areas like designing, building, marketing, and distributing products. If product managers don’t embrace what they don’t know, they’ll end up making decisions beyond their area of expertise — or worse, leaning too heavily on what they’re familiar with.
Build mutually respectful relationships
I received an important piece of advice from my mentor at Google: PMs should [almost] always let everyone else take the credit while they take the blame. Letting others take credit is important not just because it makes everyone feel good. It’s important because when a product manager expends energy trying to show visionary greatness, that display can damage the morale and motivation of their team. Visionary product managers who don’t sweep streets will instead get in the way of their team’s efforts. Managers who spend time trying to dream up an idyllic product vision will slow down the development process and perhaps most importantly, silence other voices in the room. This behavior is difficult to overcome, as it shows a team that the process is less about building the right product and more about catering to the whims of a product leader and their ego.
Instead, product managers must give their teammates respect, show their appreciation, and make it clear how much their success is tied to the success of their team. And let’s be clear: In my experience, it is the team that actually deserves the credit. I wasn’t the one writing the code, making the designs, or creating the marketing materials. Once the team understands they have the support of the product manager, they will return that trust and support.
Startups don’t need a visionary product manager
Visionary product managers will often aim to influence the development cycle in ways that end up being detrimental to the process. Startups don’t need a visionary product manager. They need someone who appreciates their role as street sweeper, prioritizes well, embraces what they don’t know, and invests in relationships.
For product managers, building great functional products is about iterating and supporting a smooth development process. For leadership teams hiring a product manager, these are the types of questions they should ask of candidates: What does your candidate think their job will be? Do they see themselves as someone who sits in the back room, closes their eyes, and thinks of the next big thing? Or do they see themselves as a facilitator? Their answer will be telling, because the right approach will go a long way toward engendering sustained success for your company.
Jon Sadow is cofounder and chief product officer at Scoop.
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