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14 Jan 2020

What roles do product managers play while managing a digital product?

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The role of product manager is a very exciting one and sometimes demanding too. You are taking care of the customers, your business stakeholders, senior management team, product team, and development team. You must have read about the roles and responsibilities of a product manager at various places. I am going to take a very layman approach to discuss the various responsibilities of a product manager, if he/she were to compare their work with other industry roles prevalent in the society. Those of you who are interested to join this domain and are contemplating what is it like to be a product manager, this post will give you some idea. As a product manager, handling a digital product, you will be doing these role-plays:

Product manager role plays
The various roles played by a product manager

Role-play#1 Salesperson: You have the know-how to sell your solution & ideas. In the discovery phase, when you are preparing and presenting a business case to your stakeholders, you are basically selling the idea & features of the product to get approval. In the design phase, when you are doing user research or talking to your existing customers, you are again wearing the hat of sales person while doing your job as a product manager. Like any adept sales person, you have to be forthcoming and do your research. You start with building a rapport and always think about what is in it for them, showing them the benefits and persuade them for their buy-in. You hold a pleasing personality, you have the best interest of the customer in your mind, you are passionate about your product and you are the best spokesperson to talk about the product you are managing.

Role-play#2 Traffic warden: Yes, a traffic warden! You manage incoming items of product backlog. Imagine the scene during the design & define phase where you are managing your product backlog and you have to do prioritisation. In this comparison, replace vehicles on the road with product backlog items viz. bugs, tasks, features, and change requests. In this role, you are directing which item would go where, in what priority and in what order – so that instead of the ‘traffic’ ending up in a chaos, it becomes streamlined. In this situation, if an ambulance or a fire engine vehicle comes through, then you have to manage these vehicles on top priority. This is similar to receiving an important request from a very important stakeholder, or there is an urgent customer issue or a serious show-stopper bug. In all these cases you have to manage the priority & flow. In order to succeed in this role, you have to know the layout of product roadmap, the items listed in product backlog, relative importance and enough detail on each of them. You have to be calm, unbiased, and centred while thinking only about the customers and your product. It is no doubt a very stressful and responsible role. The product’s success depends on how well you are managing and prioritising your items.

Role-play#3 Surgeon: You have the have precision on problem solving and execution. This is true with any hands-on product managers in the field. You have to take the onus of specific tasks that need precision, skill, experience, subject matter knowledge, and a cool mind. It could be a very delicate situation with a stakeholder, an investor, or a product team member, where the tactical surgery is needed. It could be a technically challenging situation with your product where you have to be surgical in your approach without effecting the other areas of the product and business, while you solve the issue. You have to exhibit the qualities of a surgeon who has keen eyes, steady hands, and a calm mind, while you manage the delicate situation at hand.

Role-play#4 Detective: You know how to find the root cause on product issues. All product managers coming from an analytical background will agree with this point. When you are in the design & define phase working out the process flows, various use cases, user journeys and discussing all the ‘What-if’ scenarios, you are working like a very keen detective. You bring all the clues in one place, keep asking relevant questions, till you reach the other end of the thread. You make sure that the problem is solved, solution is designed and the best version of the product is being developed. In this role, you do not assume things, you look for evidence, you rely on data, you stay unbiased and only when things make a logical sense, you take that into consideration. This is a must-have skill to have when you are building a successful online product.

Role-play#5 Diplomat: You have to amicably manage multiple stakeholders. Someone once said to me – You are a good politician! This was when I was trying to be diplomatic in my response to a question. Since you are the spokesperson of your product, you are also answerable to all internal and external stakeholders. They rely on your response, but there are certain situations where there is no clear answer. Sometimes, you are in the grey zone. Things might not be clear; you might not have a clear idea of the next steps or the metrics that are expected from you. This could be because of the very nature of the problem you are solving. For example, when you are improving keyword search on your product, it is different than implementing another feature, say download button, or like/share button. In such situations, you have to don the hat of a diplomat. No matter how much is your patience tested, no matter how foolish a question be, or no matter how many times you have to repeat the same message, your role demands you to be a diplomat. You must always be looking at the bigger picture and the true interest of your product and your customers. It’s a very handy skill and leans more towards the ‘art’ side of your skillset.

Role-play#6 Coach: You lead and inspire the product team. There are different skill sets needed to create, build, launch and manage a digital product. You will have a team of skilled individuals who are responsible for their part. As a product manager you need to see the big picture and visualise end-to-end lifecycle of the product. You will have to step up as a coach and help your team members give their best. There will be times of confusion, chaos, failures, bugs – which is part and parcel of a digital product journey. At those times of crisis, the team would need your leadership to guide them, coach them and stay on track to deliver what was started. You might have to coach yourself first to be in peak state, manage your emotions, choose your vocabulary carefully and lead by example. Once you are able to do that, others will follow.

Role-play#7 Lawyer: You present your business case to senior stakeholders for buy-in. In discovery phase, you wear a lawyer’s hat to present your case, and get buy-in. You present the pros and cons of business case and project return on investment. In the design and define phase, you coordinate with multiple teams, discuss various aspects of product, and field a lot of questions. To be successful in this role, you should be ready to do your homework to present the case of your product backlog, share reasons behind the prioritisation and logic behind the planned product releases. You need to work on evidence that could be presented before and after the product release as proof of the benefits obtained with that piece of work.

Role-play#8 Researcher: You conduct research on complex or technical topics. Digital product management domain is always changing, especially with the emergence of new technical concepts and advancements. You need to have the mind of a researcher who is keen on finding out the facts, developments in technology world, Market and industry trends, new versions of tools. You might take help of your team members to conduct this research, but it would be your responsibility to be aware of those topics, advancements and envisage how your product could benefit from these.

Role-play#9 Movie Director: You perform product demos & tell user stories. You conduct product demos at the end of the sprint to showcase the next release items to your team and stakeholders There are two types of product demos – The first one being a boring, unimaginative demo explaining a list of things done. You should take product demo as an opportunity to highlight the outstanding work done by your product team and educate the audience with not only what has been done, but also why it has been done. Here comes the role of a movie director, where you prepare your presentation, think about the script, stich it with a nice story-telling wrapper and present it with enthusiasm and energy that reciprocates with your audience. I am sure the audience would remember this type of product demo better and longer than the first one. You never know that it might become a hit and that they would be waiting for your next demo.

Role-play#10 Student: You are always in a learning mode. This is hinged on the type of ethos and attitude you need to have while working in this domain, and for that matter, in life. If you have the ethos of a student, you would always be in a learning mode; you will never be embarrassed of not knowing something; you would be humble in your approach even if you have loads of experience; you would be excited by new learning opportunities; you would be ready for any challenge and not be afraid to test your skills. As a student you appreciate the fact that learning is constant because change is inevitable, especially in this economy, market and digital domain. You need to have the flexibility to adapt, unlearn old things, and learn new items. You would never be tired of learning new things as your hunger to know more, learn more and be more wouldn’t be satiated easily.

Role-play#11 Planner: You are adept at detail project planning. Unlike general belief around Agile, planning is the most important activity you do as a product manager. You have to plan every week and every sprint. There is a famous saying – Proper Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance. As a product manager, the buck stops at your desk. You are in-charge of the product backlog, its prioritisation, sprint planning, release planning, and finally communicating that with team members and stakeholders. You need to plan well in advance to showcase the product roadmap for forthcoming quarters; you need to plan what items to prioritise few sprints in advance of actual development work; you need to plan at least a sprint in advance what items need to be groomed in the backlog grooming session. The list goes on, from small items to major release items – you are the planner. Its your role to think through all eventualities, possibilities, items that impact the product. The team depends upon your forward planning and vision.

This is the beauty and challenge in this role where you get to play different roles, hone your personal & professional skills, and participate in the running of the product or service that eventually runs the organisation. After reading this post, I hope you will never underestimate your value as a product professional, and always strive to give your best in all the roles you get to play.

If you have any questions related to this post or digital product management in general, do write to us and we will get back to you shortly. Ask your questions here:


Onkar Singh Lohtham

Founder & CPO | Lead Trainer | Digital Skills Mastery

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