The meaning of "value" for a Product Manager
Updated: Jan 28, 2021
Recently I had a great conversation with Iulia Jacobsson, Head of Product at Beekeeper, about product value.
Our conversation started with the question: What is a Product Manager responsible for?
The answer seemed quite obvious: A Product Manager is responsible for creating value to customers in a way that it supports the business. But talking further about it showed that it's not so easy to draw the line in the daily business. Where does our responsibility start and end?
Here's how we went further down different areas of value creation and what a Product Manager is responsible for.
Product Management is a very broad discipline. What your tasks look like depends on so many factors. The type of product, the organization structure, your seniority, hierarchies, the maturity of the product, etc. But the claim that your job is to make sure that we deliver value to the customer stays like a tattoo.
I love this article by Brandon Chu where he explains how Product Managers can exert the most leverage. He says, they do this "through vision and strategy - the rest is optimization".
While I believe that this is true in its fundamentals, there's a problem that comes up with this statement. Product Managers start to reject their responsibility of making sure that what gets built gets delivered.
Value in vision & strategy
Product vision and strategy describe the future state of the world when you've been successful with your product and how to get there. The product vision needs to fit to the company's overall vision. The product strategy needs to answer the questions who you're building the product for, what you're building, which market you're competing in, and how will you position the product and the company in that market in a way that it will be successful. And the reasons why.
The value that you're responsible for is on the one hand on the business side. You need to make sure that the product team is set up and informed in a way that it can achieve success and make product decisions. And you need to make sure that the product will contribute to the company's financial success.
On the other hand, you're responsible for creating value for your target audience with your product. The product idea didn't pop up out of nowhere, it came up because it's supposed to provide some sort of value for a specific group of people. So, with the vision and strategy that you lay out, it's your audience that will benefit from the positive changes that your product will create in their lives. Therefore, think well when you create them, and always keep the customer and their life in mind, and how your product is going to impact them when you're successful with it.
Value in discovery & research
Why do we put any effort into discovery and research? Because we want to build a product that creates value. The product should help its users to become a better version of themselves by either solving a problem, relieving a pain, serve a need, help them get a specific job done, achieve a specific goal, or simply make them feel good.
On the meta level, you need to know if your product idea will really create value for your audience. On the feature level, you need to know which features are the ones that really create a value for them. Therefore, it's your responsibility as a Product Manager to make sure you and your team only work on products or features that do create value. Guessing is an option only in very low risk features. Everything else needs a proper base of qualitative and quantitative data so that you can make an informed decision if you're going to continue with the product/feature, pivot or stop working on it completely.
Value in scoping & planning
Scoping is what you can do once you have information what you want to build. Reality is, most products and features are not getting validated first. The idea came from somewhere (desk research, trends, HiPPO/investors, customer feedback, stakeholder wish/need, etc.) Fine. Let's go with this. We still have an idea on our plate that we need to do something with.
As a Product Manager, you need to think of maximizing return on investment (ROI) when scoping and prioritizing. ROI most of the time refers to $. But it can refer to a different definition, too. For example, your goal might be to learn something from an experiment (yea, where's the line between discovery & scoping....). Then the return you want is maximum learning. The investment is effort to set up the experiment which not only includes engineering time but also designer time, analytics time, and maybe stakeholder agreement time.
So, the value in scoping and planning that you provide to your customers is that you make sure the same need/problem/pain (whatever you're aiming for) is maximum addressed. The value on the business side is that it's addressed with the minimum of costs. Therefore, your responsibility is to make sure that the product development team is working on the right product/feature at the right time (aka prioritization), and to a scope that it creates max. value for your audience with min. investment.
Wrap up before final value piece
Most Product Managers agree that these three fields are their responsibilities when building products. Many Product Managers love dwelling in the thought that they are only high level managers who plan and don't have to take care of the rest. In some companies, this thought is supported by systems that split their product people into Product Managers and Product Owners and use their Product Owners in a way like Project Managers.
But.... BUT... delivering value doesn't end here!
What is planning and preparing value worth if the result doesn't get to the target audience aka the customer? Your customers don't care how well you've planned the product or feature, they don't care how well you've sticked to a process, and they don't care that you think your job ends when you've thrown your planning over the fence to the product development team. So, there's one piece missing in the pot of responsibilities of a Product Manager: Delivery!
Before we get into this, let's make one thing clear here: That you're responsible doesn't mean that you have to do it by yourself! It simply means that you have to make sure that those things happen and are in place.
Value in delivery processes
The product vision and strategy are set up. The product or feature idea is discovered (or came into the build process in a different way) and got selected. The product or feature was scoped, prioritized and planned for delivery. Now what? Obviously it needs to be built, tested and shipped.
Who's responsible for that? If you like it or not: You.
Yes, together with the development team. But it's not just the development. It's all of you together. It's your responsibility all together that the delivery process works, and that the right things are built, are working as expected, and don't destroy the product in production when it's shipped.
To build the thing right is what the engineers are responsible for. To build the right thing is your and the designer's responsibility in terms of prioritization and user experience. The process to get it delivered is the whole team's responsibility, you included.
You might not like it that I say that but if there's a problem in the delivery process, then it's your problem, too. Because value wasn't delivered. Even in Scrum the Product Owner has the right to ask the team why it delivered under expectations. In general, if there's a problem in the delivery process, it might have something to do with your work, too, or with the interaction between you and the rest of the development team. Therefore, fixing the delivery process means teamwork. You can't say "I'm not responsible for this" and leave it up to the development team to fix the process. You need to be a part of fixing it and do whatever you can to help fixing it. Because you are responsible to deliver value to the customer.
Only when the piece of software created is shipped to the customer, the customer can use your changes and get value out of it. Until then, your job is not done!
And that's the last words I want to leave you with in this post:
A Product Manager's responsibility is to deliver value to the product's customers in a way that it supports the company's business.
Go create value!