Product sense = The ability to build for value

A note for new subscribers: This post is part of a bi-weekly Sunday series on my notes on technology product management (this is what I do for a living). You might notice that these posts often link to older posts in the series on LinkedIn even though they are all available on this blog. That is intended for folks who only want to follow future product management related posts. Finally, for all those of you who don’t build tech products for a living, I believe many of these notes have broader applicability. And, I hope you find that to be the case as well…

Product managers who consistently build good products over time are said to have good “product sense.” It is one of those sounds-insightful-but-it-really-is-vague terms that is thrown around a lot when product managers are assessed and evaluated. I think the use of the word “sense” makes it natural to equate product sense to “spidey sense” – something a tad more extraordinary. :-)

Product sense is simply the ability to consistently build for value. This note is going to be about why it matters so much and how it manifests itself in the process of building products.

For starters, let’s go back to what an IC (individual contributor) product manager doesa product manager brings a team of cross functional stakeholders together to build a product that is valuable, usable, feasible.

Of the three outcomes a PM is responsible for, the most important is value. Building a useless product that is beautifully designed and well engineered is a waste of everyone’s time. On the flip side, if you get to build a product that is incredibly valuable, you can survive many iterations of poor design and/or technical architecture. And, if you need any convincing, look at the launch version of products you now love – they most likely started out looking ugly or suffered from “this site is down” errors far too often.

So, let’s begin to explore the notion of value.

Value = benefit to others. The value of anything we do is measured by the benefit others get from it.

How, then, do we “add value” in our jobs? There is only end recipient of value in our jobs – the customer (used interchangeably with “user” for consumer product companies). But, when we build or work on products, there are 3 broad ways we create value –

1. We build for basic user needs/what is considered “table stakes”: This constitutes everything a company does to serve its customers’ basic needs and match competitor offerings. While “table stakes” sounds simple, this is often really hard to get right and tends be the foundation on which companies build their differentiation. One example for internet products would be SEO or search engine optimization. While it is definitely table stakes as customers expect to find you easily when they search for you, it is still hard to get right.

2. We are enablers for our co-workers/partners: This includes all products targeted at improving the productivity of our co-workers as well as all the tools we build to enable partners to sell our products to customers.

3. We work on stuff that differentiates our company from the competition: Every successful company succeeds on the basis of some differentiation. While working on the “moat” sounds all hip and snazzy, this is often a result of a relentless focus on the customer’s problem or “job-to-be-done.” This is also rarely one thing – instead, it tends to be a combination of things a company does to elevate its status from what is considered “table stakes.” Think: all the small things that Ikea does to successfully serve anyone who wants to quickly furnish a home.

This all sounds pretty basic – why is it so hard to do when we are building products? Building for value is hard to do in the same way exercising, reading good books, and eating healthy are hard to do. This should be how everyone builds products. But, other stuff – typically corporate politics, bad organizational or product culture, and organizational inertia – gets in the way. This “other stuff” results in bad product management.

Bad product management involves product teams building products that put the needs of the company or executive team ahead of the needs of the customer.

All this brings us back to the 4 core skills of an IC Product Manager – problem finding, problem solving, building effective teams, and selling. 

Since product sense is about building for value, I believe that “problem finding” or the ability to define customer/user problems well is the skill that differentiates good product managers from great product managers. As my hope with this series is to drive clarity, I’ve intentionally stayed away from using “product sense” instead of problem finding or problem definition – even if product sense is common usage. And, in our next post, we’ll dig into developing our problem finding muscle – via problem statements, hypotheses, and riskiest assumption tests.

A career and life sidebar. For the life learning/career learning geeks out there, the notion of “value” goes well beyond building products. It has profound implications to success in our careers and our lives. Take the idea “success” as an example – we succeed (externally) when we create or offer something that the world wants or values. It is this value that generally translates into wealth.

For example, we communicate well when the others in the room understand what we say. Our clients and managers don’t appreciate us for the work we do. Instead, they appreciate us for the problems we solve for them. Like him or hate him, this was the magic behind Steve Jobs’ work. He had a deep understanding for the problems we wanted solved and for the stories we wanted to hear. He remains a great example of someone with great “product sense.”

The implication for us – we often orient our narratives around what we did – “I worked so hard” or “I did so much” or “I said so many times.” Unfortunately, such effort counts for little. Outcomes >>> Outputs. Our external success, instead, is a function of how well we understand the exact nature of the problem others around us would like solved. As we get better at solving these problems for our world, we earn the right to do the same for “the world.”

As we’ll explore over the course of future posts, most of the principles that enable us to build products (or build anything for that matter) are just as applicable to our lives. Thanks, as always, for your attention – I look forward to your notes and feedback.