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What is a good product manager?

Before re-focusing my career from product management at a venture-backed startup to product management consulting, I lacked a real appreciation for the true breadth, that is (what I now consider) the heart, of product management. I assumed that product management roles are only relevant and impactful at product-driven companies, where revenue is generated via actual product sales. Product Managers are a big deal, they must harness the resources of the organization to create and manage products within timeframes and budgets. To the business generalists (like my former self), product management is about outward-facing “sexy” things like product-launches, storefronts, competitive intelligence, marketing strategy, and possibly super-bowl ads. Throw in some trips to CES in Vegas for good measure.

I was all wrong. Any product manager can talk competitive jargon, have some sort of baked (or half-baked) strategy, and can think they know what the market wants. To an extent, those skills can be learned/taught because they are accepted frameworks (Porter’s Strategies, etc.). This is the “business” of business schools. I believe, however, that the most important skills of great product manager cannot be taught. The best product managers are extremely emotionally intelligent and naturally equipped with skills that enable them to navigate complex adaptive systems.

A complex adaptive system is characterized by diverse agents that: 1) learn, 2) interact with each other in non-linear ways, 3) self-organize, 4) have emergent properties, and 5) co-evolve with the environment.

Putting aside the fancy academic jargon, doesn’t this description sound a lot like your company? As humans in the workplace we: learn, interact, organize, organically develop new group behaviors, and always change as everything changes around us. When described like that, it sounds like the organizations we work in are overwhelming! This is true for many people. It’s for this reason that some people are best suited to discrete roles where their interactions are isolated; yet, others excel in broad roles like product management. As product managers, we have to constantly respond to changing landscapes and actors while remaining aware of our impact on the complex adaptive system. We have to keep a lot of balls in the air (and have them land in the right order)!

Lucky for us here at Seilevel, beautiful Austin, TX is not only the location of our headquarters, but also the home of Dr. Reuben McDaniel, who is a preeminent leader in the field of Complexity Science and a chaired professor at the University of Texas. I recently had the opportunity to speak with him about product management as related complexity science. There’s a lot to be said about the issue; so I will likely expand upon it further in later blog posts. The short summary is that we cannot ever truly understand complex adaptive systems. This sounds like a pretty boring conclusion, but it’s actually a significant realization that many people are unable to arrive at. We can model systems and sub-systems and charts and charts and charts, but all we are doing is attempting to model something that has already changed.

The simple act of building a model can in some way affect the system, causing interactions to change. What the heck am I talking about? It’s pretty cerebral stuff (to me). The point is that great product managers know that all the models and processes in the world are not going to manage the product – they are. Good product managers are emotionally intelligent and thus self-aware. This means that although they probably have never heard of a complex adaptive system, they are inherently aware that their organization is one. Through their natural self-awareness, they know that their presence in the system always has impacts.

This awareness sets great product managers apart because they know that models and methodologies simply the best attempt at that moment in time to capture the system. I believe that this clarity enables great product managers to use the models and methodologies more effectively. For example in the reductionist requirements gathering approach that is Waterfall, they can sense potential changes and test those “hunches” during the validation stage. Of course, there is much to be said about complex adaptive systems and the Agile approach, which I will discuss in a follow-up post.

While I do believe that some of the most important traits of great project managers cannot be taught, that is not to say that there isn’t a lot to be learned by aspiring business analysts. We all have mentors – is your mentor someone who you think is adept at working within a complex adaptive system? It might be time to align with one. It’s surprising what you can discover about yourself when you surround yourself with people who you believe are worth modeling.

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