Friday, April 26, 2013

Product Manager - The Silent Conductor

Product Manager as conductor is not a unique metaphor. Two good examples of the metaphor from Kellogg and BBC. I want to take this concept one step further. A good product manager is not only a conductor between different business functions. The great product manager should be a silent conductor as explained by Benjamin Zander, conductor of Boston Philharmonic. Recently, I read his wonderful book called The Art of Possibility. This is an inspiring book about becoming a better and more engaged person. Back to the idea of the silent conductor, I quote from Zander's book.
I have been a conductor for nearly twenty years when it suddenly dawned on me that the conductor of an orchestra does not make a sound. ... his true power derives from his ability to make other people powerful. I began to ask myself questions like "What makes a group lively and engaged?" instead of "How good am I?"
This approach precisely describes the role of the Product Manager. PMs usually doesn't have direct control over any of the business functions but are still expected to bring about a product to life and make it successful. Seems like a paradox to some people, but I don't think so. The lack of control means functional independence. This independence enables a PM to become a credible advocate for the customer, product, or whoever isn't currently in the room (link to Ken Norton's (Google Group PM) article on Product Management). The PM brings the vision of the ideal customer experience as delivered by a product. PM creates the "team ego" by making sure everyone feels powerful and successful. We are not suppose to talk about "feeling" in the workplace. We are all suppose to be professionals and keep our feelings in check. We are all human and we all have emotions. No matter what the work, in the end, work are done by people. So feelings matters and everyone works better when their feel respected.

It's harder than it sounds, engineers wants to do engineering things and they want to talk engineering talk. It's never easy to bridge that expectation and language gap. The best PMs are able to draw out the engineers using their language, to get the best ideas, and get them really engaged on how to create a better customer experience. PM makes engineers lives easier so they can keep doing the engineering things, only with better focus and more precise deliverable. Now, imagine doing the same work for all the different business functions: accounting, support, operation, sales, marketing, and legal. Each group have their own personalities, languages, and expectations. PM inspires everyone so everyone brings their 'A' game together to deliver on the same product vision.

There is another reason that I like the silent conductor metaphor. Notice that the conductor is the only person that the audience can't see the face during the performance. The conductor is front and center, but the face is hidden. The conductor is given this great responsibility and power to inspire and lead this group of talented musicians. As a part of the responsibility, the conductor submits his ego to the team and remains hidden during the performance. I understand that in practice, conductor's face can't be seen while his doing the job. To me, this is one ideal of humility. I have said to my team, I'm not the ceiling that limits you, I'm the floor that you stand on so you can reach high. My job is to be calm, on an even keel, so everyone can do their best.

image from:
In short, your mission, as a product manager, should you choose to accept it. Deliver an experience that customers LOVE through a product where you inspired everyone on the team to feel a silent conductor.

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