Product-Management Mastery: It takes (at least) 3

I’ve had the immense privilege of working with highly talented product managers over the years. I’ve also shared paths with others who still had a long and tumultuous path ahead of them as they struggle to master their craft. If I’ve discovered anything, it’s that product management is part art, part craft and part science.

While I’ve argued previously that product managers do nothing and there are as many definitions of the product manager’s role as there are products and companies, we all strive—or, at least, should be striving—to master our craft. The journey itself toward what I’ll call Mastery in Product Management is hugely rewarding, each product manager should have his or her own understanding of what mastery is in their field and how to recognize when they have achieved that level. This is my take on it.

What is Mastery in Product Management?

Before I can answer this question, I need to break down the different terms. Product Management is defined on Wikipedia as:

“. . . an organizational lifecycle function within a company dealing with the planning, forecasting, and production, or marketing of a product or products at all stages of the product lifecycle.”

There are almost as many different product-management roles as there are product managers—some are quite technical in nature while others have more of a business focus. We’ve all heard about the concept of the PM being a product CEO (a flawed analogy, really, as there is no direct reporting structure and therefore no “hiring and firing” power over the teams involved).

At the same time, some people really are project or program managers hiding behind a different title. These are the ones who spend most of their time writing little-read documents, providing frequent status updates and presentations to management, and chasing deliverables trying to keep things on time (and on budget).

At their core, product managers combine project management skills with an ability to build strong relationships. This, while motivating people to help bring value to the marketplace. Product Managers are, in essence, evangelists who see the world through Gantt-chart glasses. They have a true passion for developing a satisfying product and for the benefits the product can deliver. In other words

Product management is the art, craft and science of setting, sharing and driving teams towards a vision that delivers significant value to users.

On the other side, mastery is when you get to a point of experience and knowledge that you no longer think about the basics as they have become second nature. Mastery is when you know the rules of the trade and understand them so well you can bend them and start seeing things in ways nobody else does. Mastery is when the science is so embedded in everything you do that the art is revealed. Now, you just have to build it like a skilled and knowledgeable craftsperson.

But mastery goes beyond acquiring a certain level of knowledge and experience. It’s about a drive to be the best we can be by helping everyone around us operate at the same high level. It’s as much about the state of mind of continuous improvement and learning as it is about deep knowledge of the rules and methodologies.

Mastery is the genuine pursuit for perfection and continuous improvement in your field. It’s a state of mind, not a fact.

So what is Mastery in Product Management? One answer could be to combine the descriptions above. It could be seen as having internalized the science of setting, sharing and driving the team towards a vision so well that is has become second nature.

But it’s much more than that. Mastery in Product Management is when you enable everyone involved with bringing the product to market to do so with a “crafted with care” mentality, are passionate about making a difference for the users and have themselves mastered the vision and value proposition you’ve set that will delight customers. All this without the product manager being the bottleneck, without noticing the PM’s every involvement. More simply, it’s when you are THE voice of the product and users, not A product manager.

How do you know that you have reached Mastery in Product Management?

When Antonio Stradivari was making what would become the most prized stringed instruments on the planet in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, he wasn’t likely thinking specifically about mastery in his field. But he probably was thinking about perfection, about not accepting mistakes and about continuously improving.

I’m not even sure you can achieve Mastery in Product Management (or mastery in any other role) as a final state. But I can say that when I feel energized, at ease and confident in my role, I am probably getting close. When the structure and the science part are in the background, when the rules become second nature, when I am “in the zone,” mastery is getting closer. When I can bend the methodologies to fit one particular challenge on the road to customer delight, when I can be original, creative, imaginative, artistic, innovative, resourceful and deliver value, I am on the right path.

This feeling of being there does not come quickly or, necessarily, easily. My team has heard me say multiple times that it takes at least three major product releases to get good at managing your specific product(s), to start being on the path to Mastery in Product Management.

The first release is like standing in front of a fire hose—it’s just too much too suddenly to take it all in. By the second major release, you start to see where things can be improved and you can start to see how implementing strategies based on previously learned lessons is starting to work out.

The third major product release is the one where things settle in and start to look smoother, where you have the work-back plan and the relationships with all the stakeholders in a place that leaves you feeling confident and literally made for the product management role (for that specific product, at least). That is the point, I believe where the amazing journey towards Mastery in Product Management Mastery starts. And it’s a journey that never really ends.

How would you know that you are approaching or have reached Mastery in Product Management? Let me know in the comments.

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