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The Product Manager as Knowledge Centralizer

The Product Manager as Knowledge Centralizer

I will borrow quote from the The Analects by Confucius to draw a picture,

“The (wo)man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.”

This is how I see the role of a Product Manager, it is the purpose we serve, a hybrid role that has only very recently (5 years) been acknowledged as a stand-alone function and a role that is fluid and not well defined, certainly not limited to that specific title or to tech companies.

When I think of what a great product manager’s qualities should be, I find myself considering where the presence of this role is felt the most. When successful, the outside world perceives commercial success but internally, over the course of building the product, a team would gain a sense of confidence, rooted in a better understanding of the problem being addressed, a higher level of focus and an overall higher level of aptitude. If I were to summarize what I feel a great product manager’s qualities are, it would be the constant dedication to centralizing knowledge for a team in all aspects of the role—the UX, the technology and the strategy.

Vision

In this way, the success or failure of a product is drawn from a common pool of shared learning that has been contributed to by the whole team. The value of this becomes the ability to call on the rationales and experience of the company up to that point in time. The ability for a group of people to think and move with purpose and in a deliberate manner rather than through serendipity becomes rooted in qualities developed over time such as a discipline for maintenance, cultivation and care.

Product management has been popularized as a role that unified the business, technology and UX/Design demands of a software team. Many of the more established product managers have often noted that they “stumbled” into the role without knowing what their sandbox was and more often than not, they did not even hold the title itself. Now product management bootcamps and job listings are commonplace and in larger tech companies, there is a product manager for every micro product line.

Marty Cagan is one of the most published product managers out there. He’s eloquent and talks about products as a culmination of learning—on an individual level as well as the team building it. In a well loved article, published last year, he wrote about certain qualities of a product manager that are diffused into great products. He noted that a balanced ego, humility, competence, emotional intelligence and stamina are all qualities of an effective product manager as facilitator—and he framed his case studies over a decent timeline and not solely as a spotlight on successful product managers at their prime.

The daily rituals as a place of learning

The very fabric of what keeps a team together and continually growing; learning and innovating, is rooted in the daily rituals of the product team.

Startup culture has really fueled the notion of fast growth and predictable product lifecycles. Take Nir Eyal’s immensely popular book, Hooked which encourages tech teams to orient themselves religiously towards solving a user-related pain and addressing the user’s why. To take it a step further, a product manager’s concern is to balance the user’s why with the the team’s why or larger R&D objectives. In E-180’s case, that’s exploring how to make an impact in the domain of collaborative and peer-to-peer learning. These objectives are what aligns the team towards embracing organizational learning. The very fabric of what keeps a team together and continually growing; learning and innovating, is rooted in the daily rituals of the product team, something a product manager can have significant influence over.

There is a lot of thinking done around what the ideal product manager should have the power to do  and it often hinges around locking down a vision and seeing it through to it’s execution and data collection. However, this portrayal of a product manager as an island of synergy, knowledge and the perfect intersection of business, tech and design is not where the meaty value of the role lies. Ben Horrowitz’s oft quoted, “Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager” revolves instead around discipline and consistency for the “small things.” No, this sense of discipline might not be the inspirational, spark igniting way of talking about tech products as we’ve become accustomed to.

Marina Abramović

What comes to mind instead is performance artist Marina Abramović’s visual representations of how discipline enables a larger impact. For her, endurance and suffering are vehicles for accessing a sense of understanding and empathy in a very visceral way. The role of the product manager is much the same—although perhaps in a less emotionally charged way.

A sense of discipline in the daily tasks such as sprint planning and retrospectives, collecting feedback from users, stand up meetings and such can be seen as something that is not just done for the purpose of order and structure, but as a way of reinforcing and democratizing the institutional knowledge between members of a team. The ability for a team to pivot, the ability to reach consensus, is a byproduct of common, centralized knowledge that is built up from daily actions and maintained and kept alive by the product manager. In the rush of a delivery and of creative chaos , this sense of structure and order has to be lovingly maintained by someone in order for a team to really internally benefit from the fruits of their labour over time.

The ability for a team to pivot, the ability to reach consensu , is a byproduct of common, centralized knowledge that is built up from daily actions and maintained and kept alive by the product manager.

In this case, knowledge is serving a goal beyond itself . The pursuit of it forces a product team to acknowledge what they know for a fact, what assumptions are being made (that can be disproved) and what knowledge they are seeking. Unless a product manager provides a clear framework for collecting, processing and implementing this knowledge, it simply becomes consolidated in documents and forgotten in a Google Drive folder.

The impact of this central knowledge should become the core of a product and impact driven company and the culture that goes with it. From my own context, I realized that as a product team, we had to be able to rally around common artifacts that help clear confusion. This repository of agreed-upon terms acts as as an arbitrator of product debates. This unifying language was built and conceptualized from scratch, and the fact that it even exists and came to be used by everyone, developers,the designers and copywriters showed that there was a sense of equal-footed growth throughout the team. It allowed for more decisive UX decisions, a more structured way to process feedback and a sense of cohesiveness.

In terms of internal learning, this is a worthy benchmark in a new product team. Here, the grandiose sentiment of centralizing knowledge becomes embodied in the humble task of maintaining a Master document, Sprint plan or product specifications, the effort of which  becomes a learning process of its own and less of a goal in and of itself.

Kate Arnold was credited for playing a core part in helping Netflix’s shift from being a DVD-rental company to the streaming content distribution behemoth at the right time using the right technology. From the outside looking in, a high degree of complexity and quick growth had to be possible for this to happen with such perfect timing. Her role in the early Netflix team as a centralizer of knowledge, served the purpose of the team scaling in the way it did. Knowledge of the market, of the user’s perceptions of value, of the technology stack, created a reliable foundation from which Netflix, the product, could grow. I’m sure this had profound effects on the team within Netflix, which went from barely keeping up with Blockbuster, to outliving it.

“Netflix doesn’t happen without a Kate.”

Progress is benchmarked by what learning objectives are validated while the pace and cadence of the product is guided by these learning milestones. These themes have to be aligned with the company’s strategy and vision but the effect they have is a knowledge-driven product. It gives context to all the research being done and puts learning at the heart of the product and not as a mechanism that only validates.

This balance between effortlessness, thoroughness and intuitiveness, via the medium of technology especially, is an incredibly complex thing to achieve.

The fact that I’m even aware of Kate’s impact, is because of other product managers like Marty Cagan who shone a light on it but Kate’s work then speaks for itself. These stories of faceless product managers being like connectors, dams and bridges within a company, rarely make it to the outside world in a direct way. What does gain people’s attention is the convenience, usability and effectiveness of a team in delivering a great product (in fact Netflix’s attitude to constant testing has become a benchmark for many web-based products). This balance between effortlessness, thoroughness and intuitiveness, via the medium of technology especially, is an incredibly complex thing to achieve. It’s the product of market research, rigorous testing, empathetic design, distribution channels and so much more. For a team to be able to deliver that degree of complexity through a product, a framework for managing how knowledge is collected and implemented is essential. A great representation of managing complexity is Janna Bastow’s and kieron k’s approaches to theme-based learning. In this model, the sprint plans are aligned around discovery and research in the product team in addition to delivering on time and to specifications.

There are frameworks like research/design sprints which Google Ventures’ Jake Knapp has advocated and written a handbook for. It’s rooted in the Build-Measure-Learn cycle. While this is a great thought exercise ,  the amount of preparation required to execute such a sprint is often perceived to outweigh the benefits. While this perception is skewed by pressure to deliver on time, difficult stakeholders to manage and the like , the frequency of this sprint or of the thought exercise occurring at all becomes minimal at best. It also makes Build-Measure-Learn a once-in-a-while “hat” that the team puts on and mostly always provides value exclusively for the product being built / project being executed.

The “Learning” part can influence all aspects of the company as it did in the case of Netflix,  provided there is a unifying factor present like Kate Arnold. She had a role in the strategy, roadmap and implementation of what Netflix is today (albeit she wasn’t always the decision maker in these cases), her presence and function influenced and aligned these different components of the company. This type of role can achieve a sense of nuance and complexity for a team in an incremental and consistent way. Put simply, I believe that every product team needs “a Kate” to be able to increase their capacity and ability to turn research into something tangible.

In retrospect, I am a young product manager and I already know that I am not up to par in my role as per all the intentions of this article but I have started to put in place and grasp what the foundation of this process can look like. But in a self-serving way, the act of writing this reminds me and reinforces in me how to benchmark my growth and the team’s growth. It is that incremental, cyclic growth that allows a team to improve a little bit every time , sometimes with massive results and sometimes just on an internal level. Internal learning and knowledge about the user and market via the product is of equal value to me as they bear fruit at different times. Both require patience and attention ,  two qualities every product manager aspires to have.


Also published on Medium.


Hiba Ganta

Hiba is the Product Manager at E-180 and is currently part of the re-launch of Braindates which facilitate the sharing of knowledge in new and meaningful ways. As an educational tool, it has helped communities rediscover the value of peer-to-peer learning. Her experience is rooted in constant experimentation with systems and processes that enable teams to successfully execute great ideas. She has unique experiences to share about her journey in becoming a Product Manager and how to successfully scale social impact projects.