The Core Questions of Product Management

Product management is a complex discipline that doesn't have to be complicated. There are certainly a lot of moving parts and no shortage of things to think about, as evidenced by some of the most popular instruction manuals: Inspired is 349 pages long, and The Product Manager's Desk Reference a whopping 757!

This can easily lead to feeling overwhelmed and spinning your wheels spending time on the wrong tasks – chasing instrumental goals rather than the real thing. This is cargo cult product management (TODO: write an essay on this!) rather than, as Scott Young wisely recommends, doing the real thing.

Luckily, breaking out of this is actually fairly easy. There is a set of core questions at the heart of product management, and if you simply return to those regularly you can't go wrong, and you'll be able to cut through the noise. The questions are:

  1. Are we targeting the right goal?
  2. Do we have the correct priorities to achieve that goal?
  3. Are we executing effectively on our priorities?

These are in descending order of importance. No point in nailing your execution if you are working on the wrong thing entirely (this is a far-too-common failure state I've seen from product teams at various companies).

Are we targeting the right goal?

This is about your team's north star metric: what does success look like? Is it growth, cost savings, NPS, speed, or something else?

And what are the constraints you're operating within? There are always constraints, but often they aren't explicitly stated – fixing this makes your life a lot easier. Some examples: remain compliant with regulations, don't increase infrastructure spend by more than X%, don't let fraud exceed X% of users, etc.

Once you know the goal, put it up in big letters everywhere and keep talking about it. Explicitly ask your manager and executive chain at least a few times a year whether you have it correct, both the goal and the constraints.

Do we have the correct priorities to achieve that goal?

Here's where you get to making and prioritizing a roadmap. Given that you are targeting {metric X} within {constraints A, B and C}, what should you do now, next, and later?

To make your list of possible projects and initiatives, go as wide as possible. Talk to users regularly, talk to people from partner teams and functions, talk to your team, talk to your executives. Then ruthlessly prioritize using your favorite method, and work through the list. Repeat, regularly and systematically.

Are we executing effectively on our priorities?

Just to be crystal clear: do not start here. There is a huge temptation to do so – it's easy to set up another status update meeting, or run a retro on how the last sprint went, or spend time on alignment with other teams. And these are all good and useful activities... but if you spend all your time on them, you're running a huge risk of very effectively building bridges to nowhere. There are no prizes for building the fastest 10m tower of blue cheese (sadly we live in a flawed world), but there is plenty of value from slowly but surely reaching El Dorado. Putting this another way: flawed execution of the right priorities >> impeccable execution of the wrong priorities.

I don't need to say much more on this question, because (a) there are abundant resources out there to help, and (b) you've probably been doing this already in your career so you know where to start.


So: next time you feel overwhelmed or confused about what to do next, just come back to the core three product management questions and you will soon be on the right track!