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What is a product manager, anyway?

While the exact responsibilities vary from company to company, there are three core components of a product manager’s job: understanding needs, prioritizing work, and motivating stakeholders.

What is a product manager, anyway?
[whyframeshot/Adobe Stock]

Chances are you’ve heard the term “product manager” or one of its variations floating around. But what does being a “product manager” actually mean? In fact, product management is one of those positions that can mean very different things at different companies, or even different parts of the same company.

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ONE JOB, MANY HATS

At his or her core, a product manager is responsible for the market success of a product. That’s a big job, which is why a product manager is sometimes called the CEO of their product.

Driving market success typically means wearing many hats—understanding what the customer needs, setting the vision for what the product should become, prioritizing the features that will meet customer needs, and building alignment among different teams within the company. Neglecting even one of these duties can mean the difference between the product succeeding and failing, so the stakes are high.

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While the exact responsibilities vary from company to company, there are three core components of a product manager’s job: understanding needs, prioritizing work, and motivating stakeholders.

1. UNDERSTANDING NEEDS

A product manager must understand the context in which a product exists, which usually means understanding the needs and desires of three primary stakeholder groups: the users served by the product, the company offering the product, and the team building the product.

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To start, a product manager must understand the user: Who are they, what “job” are they seeking to accomplish, and in what context? Without knowing the user, a product—and by extension, a product manager—cannot succeed. At the same time, a product manager must know the company offering the product: What is its business strategy and what are its objectives? What does the company consider success for the product in question, and how does that fit into the overall company picture? Finally, a product manager must understand the team building the product: What is their capacity? Where are they strong and weak? What motivates them? What constrains them?

Understanding context is critical because there is natural tension among the various stakeholder groups. Users, for example, might want way more functionality than a development team can absorb, while a company founder may want an experience that doesn’t line up with the job users need to do, and so on. A product manager must understand all of these desires to prioritize them—and that’s the next key part of the job.

2. PRIORITIZING WORK

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A product manager is responsible for setting both the macro and micro priorities for a product. At the macro level, this means casting the high-level vision: Where is the product headed, and what will success look like? At the micro level, this means deciding what specific work to do next: Are there new features to be built? Improvements to the user experience to be made? Bugs to be fixed? Weaknesses to be shored up? What gets done first? A product manager makes the call—and is responsible for making the right call in the right order.

To do this, a product manager must synthesize feedback from many sources (e.g., user research, customer support tickets, analytics data, sales calls, and executive feedback). All of this data must be analyzed and distilled into actionable insights that can be turned into priorities that can be sequenced. This is no small feat. It requires both technical skills to understand the data and soft skills to build alignment around the resulting decisions.

3. MOTIVATING STAKEHOLDERS

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It’s not enough to understand what needs to be done and prioritize the work. A product manager must also build support for that prioritization from the product’s various stakeholders.

First, because a product manager cannot do their job in isolation, they must be able to motivate the product build team. This, in turn, generally means being able to cast a compelling vision, articulate why that vision is the right one, and show how the team’s contributions directly contribute to achieving the vision.

Second, a product manager must partner with other teams (e.g., marketing, sales, customer success) to ensure they understand and support the product’s vision and priorities, and—more importantly—are motivated to help the product succeed. Because of this, a product manager must be a strong communicator able to clearly articulate the why behind every decision, build consensus among stakeholders, and keep everyone moving forward toward the same goal.

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A product manager’s job is not an easy one. They must understand the user, the company, and the team building the product in order to cast a vision for the product, prioritize what’s done next, and motivate stakeholders. Each of these alone is a difficult task—to do them all successfully requires someone who can wear many hats, balance competing priorities, and make decisions in ambiguous environments. At the same time, it’s the challenge—and the chance to see a product thrive in the marketplace—that makes product management particularly rewarding for those who pursue it.


Chief Innovation Officer and Partner at Credera, a global boutique consulting firm focused on innovation, strategy, technology, and data

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