Product managers, editors, and taste
Behind every great book is a great editor.
When you’re reading a bestseller, it’s easy to think that every word was put there by the person on the front cover. I alluded to it in “Creativity at scale”, but every creative endeavour is a collaborative endeavour. (That’s not to say that the author didn’t do most of the work).
After I’d been involved in the process of writing a few books, the role of the editor became much clearer to me. They help to organise the thoughts of the author, craft each sentence to be perfectly readable, and set deadlines that push the author to take their masterpiece out of their mind and let it be read by real people. (To be perfectly clear: none of my books are masterpieces.)
I see product managers playing a very similar role as the editor for a product. There is no singular author of a product, but the product manager must always keep the end goal in mind, act as a foil to the desires of designers and engineers, and help to refine ideas and coax the best out of their teammates.
Historically, product managers came out of marketing and engineering specialities because those areas are where a lot of product development focused its efforts. Today, a lot more is asked of product managers: they need to be well-rounded and holistic in their thinking about strategy, data, design, engineering, growth, and marketing. They also need to be able to rally together a product team who has a very diverse set of skills.
This doesn’t mean that a product manager needs to be an expert in each of their teammates’ areas. But they need to be well-versed enough in each speciality in order to tell good from bad, ask the right questions, and help shape the outcome in a positive way.
I’m reminded of Ira Glass’ thoughts on storytelling and taste. In it, he says that when you’re starting out in a creative pursuit there is always a massive gap between your taste and your work.
“Your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.”
Product managers – editors – have to have taste. Ira doesn’t really go into what taste is, but I’d define it as an intuitive understanding of quality based on passion for – and immersion in – a particular subject. Everyone on your team has a head start on taste because they have literally spent their entire lives immersed in their particular subject. You are a naïf, someone who has a lot of catching up to do in order to gain the taste that enables you to know good work from bad work and be able to have conversations with your teammates that help them do their best work.
This ability to “edit” the work of others throughout the product development is what sets great product managers apart. It’s what helps a great product be built and shipped, and it’s the art in the science of product management.
People often ask me how they can get into “product”. Until a few weeks ago I didn’t really have an answer (and would mostly just roll my eyes at their need to do what’s-hot-right-now 🙄). But I recently realised that people need to tune their product sense by understanding all the parts that go into making a product. Do work alongside designers, and engineers, and growth people. Appreciate their craft. Learn their mistakes. Help them with different perspectives. Build up your taste. Become a great editor.
It’ll take a while, and you’ll probably make some crap products along the way. But really, it’s the only way you’ll learn what product management is all about.