Jackie Bavaro has over 15 years of product management experience, most recently as head of product management at Asana, a team project management platform. During her tenure, she grew the PM team to over 20 people, helped Asana go from zero to more than US$100 million in annual recurring revenue, and launched Asana’s associate product manager programme. She has also worked as a product manager for Google and Microsoft in a diverse set of product roles including consumer, B2B, platform, mobile, and growth. She has written two books: Cracking the PM Interview and Cracking the PM Career, which can be found on Twitter at @jackiebo.
You talk about the product manager mindset. How do you define that?
Product management is a relatively new role, and it requires a special mindset. We need product managers who focus on problems, goals, and real people’s needs.
Product mindset is the habitual approach of connecting all work to those goals and needs. It’s remembering to always ask: “What problem are we trying to solve?” and “What problem should we solve?” People with a product mindset notice problems everywhere, and they connect those problems to bigger goals to explain why those problems matter. They consistently think about what their goals should be and prioritise based on those goals.
To really understand product mindset, it can help to consider the alternatives: project manager mindset and enthusiast mindset. People with a project manager mindset are execution focused. They don’t question the goals — they optimise delivering on those goals. People with an enthusiast mindset are solution focused. They get very excited about a solution or technology and want to get it out to the world, but they haven’t thought about what problem it solves or if that problem is really important.
Product mindset is important for product managers because PMs make many decisions each day. If they’re missing the habit of thinking about goals, it’s easy for them and their team’s work to drift off track.
In the INMA Product Initiative, we’ve talked a lot about the importance of goals and understanding how product work fits into these. How can a product manager navigate this if it’s not clear?
I like to think of a company’s goals and strategies as a pyramid. At the top of the pyramid is the company mission and high-level company strategy. Below that, each department might have a strategy that connects to the higher level strategy. And below that, each team might have a strategy that connects to the departmental strategy.
When the goals are clear and well-connected, someone working on an e-mail alerts setting page could see how their work supports the team goal of increasing the number of articles read, which supports the departmental goal of retaining subscribers, which supports the company goal of increasing readership. In an organisation like this, each person can feel confident that their work is valuable and valued.
If the goals aren’t clear, the best place to start is looking at broad communication from senior leadership. The leaders might share the company’s top priorities at quarterly all-hands, annual kick-offs, or earnings calls. They might share strategy docs or have recordings of presentations that you can watch. Depending on the size of your organisation, you might repeat this at the company and departmental level.
Once you’ve caught up on the available strategic materials, have a conversation with your manager about how your team’s work fits into the larger strategy. Your manager is often privy to more details about the strategy, including any recent changes or nuance. Depending on your company culture, you might also discuss goals and strategy with more senior leaders, such as your skip-level manager, with questions such as: “How are you feeling about the company goals?” or “Which part of the strategy do you think is most important to focus on now?”
How do you build out the product vision and strategy?
There are three parts to a strategy:
You can get started with whichever one calls to you.
To get started with a vision, sketch out a storyboard of your future customers using your future product and highlight how much better their lives are compared to the status quo. I like to model my product vision after an infomercial, spending a while to explain just how painful things are today. Make sure to include a few strategic insights or bets so that the vision feels believable.
To get started with a strategic framework, write down your target market, their pain points, and the strategic bets or differentiators that you believe will win that market. Write down some alternative approaches and lay out your frameworks for why you believe your approach is better.
To get started with the roadmap, write down a rough plan for the next few year’s worth of work, ideally grouped into strategic themes. Once you have the roadmap, imagine someone asking “why?” about each part of it. Your answers to that question will form the beginning of your strategic framework.
Your plan will change as you learn new information, but starting with a strategy helps you make better moves now. Block off three to six hours on your calendar for drafting a strategy now!
Looking back at your career as a successful product manager, what’s one thing you would do differently if you could do it all again?
I’m incredibly happy with my career, but I think it took me longer than necessary to understand my responsibility for product strategy and learn what it meant to be strategic.
I now encourage even junior PMs to understand the strategy behind their work and see their work as a step towards a larger vision. Teams can have a lot more impact by setting an ambitious vision and planning the steps to get there rather than by looking for incremental improvements from where the product currently is.
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