Product managers are navigators of uncertainty

Posted on April 17, 2023.

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By now you’ve likely heard the phrase “feature factory.” Popularized by John Cutler it refers to the common practice of managing product development teams to produce more features rather than ensuring they’re solving real problems for real customers. In a feature factory the goal is to make “widgets” — quickly and efficiently with a repeatable process without regard for market demands, customer feedback or competitive threats. In this model, the product manager is positioned as the foreman of the feature factory. This is exactly the wrong model for product managers.

Product managers help their teams navigate uncertainty

Feature factories assume everything the team or accountable executive has decided should be built is exactly right. In reality teams (and executives, believe it or not) are going to be wrong because our reality is constantly changing. By the time we decide what to make, get it approved, design it, code it, debug it and ship it the world has shifted. The original rationale for the work may no longer be true. Said simply, product development, and hence product management, is filled with uncertainty. 

It’s uncomfortable. It’s risky. Executives don’t like it (and don’t like to admit it). This is where product managers come in. Their job is to help their team navigate this uncertainty as smoothly as possible. To do this they focus on four things:

  • Customer centricity 
  • Agility
  • Evidence-based decision making
  • Continuous learning and improvement 

Customer centricity is the key

Modern product managers know that building features isn’t their priority. Their priority is meeting customer needs. They get to know their customers, what they’re trying to achieve and what’s getting their way. They understand how they’re doing that task now and where there are opportunities for improvement. As technology and customer behavior shifts, the product manager is there to capture these changes and synthesize them into actionable changes to the team’s plans and prioritization. 

Agility enables customer centricity 

Agility (not Agile) is the ability (yep, I rhymed) to change course based on new evidence. It’s not just the ability though. It’s also the willingness to do so. Teams must adopt a mindset of course correction. They know that their work will never be 100% done nor will it be 100% right. The entire team must understand that the measure of success is not deploying the latest feature but rather meeting the ever-evolving needs of the customer. The product manager is there to remind teams that course correction is not only required, it’s inevitable. 

Evidence-based decision making is a PM’s key responsibility

Understanding the customer means meeting that customer. Whether it’s in person, through customer service calls, sales efforts, experiments, user research or other learning activities a product manager’s role is to drive the process of evidence collection. How right were our initial assumptions? Where were we wrong? How do we know? What do we think we should do next? Why do we think that? 

Every learning effort championed by the PM brings in data. The product manager then uses that data to make decisions. These objective decisions may (and often do) contradict the popular (or executive) opinion of what the team should be doing. It may poke holes in the plan. It may reset the sprint. This is ok. In fact, this is what we want. Just because we started working on something doesn’t mean we should continue to work on it if we’ve learned it won’t deliver the value we expected initially. It’s the product manager’s job to deliver this news and drive the new prioritization. 

Continuous learning and improvement is how we navigate uncertainty

While delivery certainly should be a priority for a product manager, it is not their primary one. Product managers bring ideas to fruition by navigation a sea of uncertainty and change. The only way to do that successfully is to embrace a mindset of continuous learning and improvement. Your idea will be wrong, at some point. The sooner you can learn when that is, the faster you can improve. At the same time you spend less time on ideas that won’t succeed. This is the job of a product manager — to bring together customer insight, market evidence, experience,expertise and most importantly the willingness and humility to change course when needed. No more feature factories.