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Average, good, great product manager

 

Some time ago I was asked to describe an average, good or great product manager. What is the difference between them? The answer might be slightly more tricky than it appears. 

When I was put on the spot to answer this question, my intuition jumped to apply the Agile estimation approach - find the middle and go relative from there. So I've started with a good product manager. Thanks to Marty Cagan we know what a good product manager is: the one that solves customers' problems in a way that works for their business. 

Knowing what a good product manager is could we derive an average PM? Let's try. Firstly, it could not be just the opposite of a good PM - someone who doesn't solve their customers' problem in a way that doesn't work for their business is not an average PM - he's a shitty PM. 

So we need something else. Perhaps we need to think about how most of us started our PM careers. No one is good right away, when we start at something new we often suck at it for a while until we learn and become better. How did we start our product careers - with delivery. Most PMs I know, me included, began their adventures in product by delivering things. Yes, that often meant being a project manager with the wrong title, but you have to start somewhere. 

These days many folks will start as product owners. This is quite similar as POs are mostly concerned with delivering stuff together with their Agile teams. It's a full-time job and complicated at that, yet it's not quite what good product managers do. 

There is nothing wrong with delivering, quite on the opposite - that's a highly desirable skill for any PMs. However, if you only deliver the success of your product will depend on your inputs. In other words, if things you're told to deliver are good - your product has chances to succeed, if they're not - tough luck. 

So an average PM delivers and a good PM solves problems. 

What then a great PM does? 

When I was answering this question I was thinking of a few possible distinguishing characteristics. Maybe a great PM would go deeper into discovery, maybe they'll be able to handle many initiatives at once or perhaps they'll have some unique industry expertise. All these are somehow credible assumptions but they didn't feel right. What really separates good and great PMs is their vision. Good PMs are solving current customers' problems, while great PMs are capable to anticipate how those problems might evolve in the future. Good PMs help their business be successful this year and possibly the next one, while great PMs set their companies to be successful for decades. 

How do they do it? 

Obviously, it's a secret. However, we can make an informed guess. While good PMs are mostly concerned with "what" and "why", great PMs constantly work on "how" as well. They actively improve the product culture at the company making the entire organisation more agile, creative and resilient to face future challenges. 

Most senior PM leaders I know focus their attention on building (empowering) their teams and their processes (culture). That makes them great PMs. 

So here you go, an average PM delivers, a good PM solves and a great PM prepares for the future. 

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