Product Management is a Team Sport

There are many analogies twixt product management and a sports team, but also some important distinctions. Don't overreach on successes, absorb the pain of losses, and you will be a star

Product Management is a Team Sport
Photo by Chris Chow on Unsplash

While I didn’t play many organized sports growing up (long story, many *boring* reasons), I did learn that while stand out performances are important to the top tier, at the end of the day, the team that was better at the mechanics (getting on base, moving to other bases, and crossing the home plate) won more consistently.

In a way, this is why I look askance at job reqs that are seeking the star performers. Just having a great slugger, and a mediocre team is not a path to the championship.

In this way, as the tweet below highlights, product management is a team sport.

But there are some important distinctions. First, unlike the team captain on a football team, the product manager isn’t a “performing” team member. That is, they aren’t writing code, or otherwise in the trenches with the engineers and developers. This is an important distinction, and one that some tech companies try to blur by growing product managers from engineers. If you are expected to know the codebase, and to be doing code reviews, or - vastly worse - checking in code, you are not a product manager. Yet I know that there are some people with the title “Product Manager” who do these tasks. Insane.

Second, unlike in a football team, where the team votes, or selects their captain, the product manager is not hired by the team. Certainly, a member or two of the team should be part of the interview process, but they rarely have the decision authority (but healthy environments give them a veto over candidates - to a point). The decision of who is hired or promoted to product manager falls on a business leader.

And this is important because the product manager is a business position, they “own” the product, its health, its direction, and ultimately success or failure. Rarely are engineers, or developers ready for this responsibility without a ton of support (and frankly, very few of them even want this on their career arc.)

Yet, outside of these caveats, the product team is a team sport, with the product manager as the captain. They provide emotional support, logistical support, shield the team from meddling by senior management (as much as is feasible) and work to build a strong bond within the team. How do they accomplish this?

It’s all about trust

While the headline is one of those trite statements, it is nonetheless true. A good product manager builds empathy with the team. Sure, you can’t directly hire and fire, but part of your power is that because you don’t have that explicit responsibility, you are able to build ties to the individual team members, and work to deepen those ties.

As a product manager, being seen to throw in your lot with the dev team is important. You are one of them in spirit, your success rides on the team’s performance.

Get a few wins (a new feature that becomes *must have*) and the team begins to see your value. The insight you bring, how you prioritize, and how that pays dividends are visible evidence of your value.

Then you start celebrating these small victories as a team, and soon, you become just a regular joe, part of the team, and even the curmudgeon of the team (and ALL teams have one) will begin respecting you.

This is called trust. You earn it, the team gives it, and whatever you do, don’t fuck it up by letting it go to your head.

Small ball

In baseball, the term “Small Ball” are all the things that the team does. Make contact, get on base, advance the runners, make a sacrifice fly to get a runner in scoring position, and most importantly score.

Sure, as a spectator, a walk off, bases loaded grand slam to win the game in the bottom of the ninth is great to watch, but there are 162 games a season, and you need to win as many of them as possible to make it to the playoffs.

Product management is a lot like this. You have the team of developers you get, there is a gamut of capabilities, and you need to learn their strengths and weaknesses, and learn to keep the backlog filled with the right items that play to these attributes.

You win in incremental releases, you work with other groups (sales and marketing) to feed that backlog, using the savvy you bring to the table to prioritize up the forward momentum contributors, and then cheerlead for the team inside the organization to raise visibility.

And that is the crux of being a product management team player.

Don’t go too far

A word of warning. Product management is not an ego role. When your product racks up a success, it is of utmost importance to not make it about you. Sure, you groomed the backlog, prioritized the list of features, helped write the user stories. So you could dunk on it, but that will leave a sour taste in the team’s mouth. They did the work. They analyzed the problem, devised a solution, built the solution, tested it, and pushed it to production.

If you take the credit for the success, you will damage all that trust you have worked to build up.

That is a long way to get this point: when there is a success - small or large - use that as an opportunity to promote the team, their contribution, and their perseverance to deliver the best product possible. Take the back seat, and let the team bask in the glow of success.

Just like when a Football team wins a game, you don’t hear the team captain claiming how his stewardship of the captaincy was the deciding factor.

It is a team effort, and the best product managers minimize their role, amplify their team’s profile, and derive satisfaction from the mood in the room.

That’s the best feeling you can ever experience in product management.