There’s a well-known theory in psychology known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, named after its creator Abraham Maslow. The concept behind this theory is that as human beings there are certain needs and interests that we seek to fulfill in a predictable priority — from physiological needs for food, water, and sleep up to social needs of belonging to a group, all the way to becoming independent, self-actualized creatures — the “best that we can be.” It’s a very interesting concept, and one that immediately came to mind in a recent Twitter discussion that I had with a fellow Product Manager named Gasca. Gasca proposed that the “intersection of business, development, and design” wasn’t really sufficient to describe what makes a Product Manager excel, and added a circular diagram to the discussion which immediately prompted me to think of the whole idea more in terms of Maslow’s Hierarchy — just what is it that makes a good Product Manager better, and how can we structure our approach to building skills and refining talent to “level up” our co-workers and peers to make the me most self-actualized Product Managers we can? I don’t pretend to have the full answer, but here are some thoughts, using Maslow’s Hierarchy as a model…
Recap of Maslow’s Hierarchy
For those unfamiliar with Maslow’s Hierarchy, here’s a quick-and-dirty overview. Essentially, Maslow theorized that we all set priorities in life based on what needs we have and which are being met at any given time, and if we are not sufficiently meeting the lower needs of survival and sustenance, we’re literally incapable of focusing on “higher-level” needs that are more ephemeral and less immediately necessary just to survive. To this end, he built up a hierarchy, usually summarized as a pyramid, with the most basic needs building a foundation for higher needs. That hierarchy looks something like this:
- Physiological: The most basic needs every human possesses — food, water, sleep, air, clothing, shelter.
- Safety: Above mere shelter, this level encapsulates personal safety, financial security, health and well-being, and other needs just above the fundamentals.
- Belonging: Assuming that our most basic needs are met, and we feel safe and secure, only then can we start focusing on our relationships with others.
- Esteem: This level concentrates on the needs for both respect from others and respect for ourselves, the theory being that only by belonging with others do we start to understand ourselves.
- Self-Actualization: The final level of Maslow’s hierarchy is the idea of being the “best me I can be”, maximizing strengths and minimizing weaknesses.
It’s not that you have to have each tier fully satisfied before you can focus on a higher tier, but disruptions at lower tiers generally have a larger effect on a person’s ability to function and focus.
So…what might a Product Management Hierarchy look like? Maybe something like this…
1. Product/Market/Tech Knowledge
The most basic capability that any Product Manager should have to do their job is knowledge of their product, of the market, and of technology in general. A Product Manager without these three capabilities can hardly be said to be a true Product Manager at all. This is the center of the Business/Design/Technology Venn diagram that we all know and that we see everywhere. Just as with Maslow’s Hierarchy, we don’t need to completely fill all three of these components — but we have to have some amount of knowledge across all three of these aspects of the job. If we don’t have this fundamental level of capability, we’ll never reach the next levels of being an exceptional Product Manager.
2. Making Data-Driven Decisions
The second-level capability that starts to section off exceptional Product Managers from the rest is the focus on making data-driven decisions whenever possible. Far too many Product Managers make gut-level decisions; they make decisions based on emotion; they enter battles of opinions with those with more power and authority than they possess. You’ll never beat a HiPPO in a battle of opinions; you need to stop and analyze the data to create a compelling case that can’t be brushed off simply because someone “disagrees” with it. This is why I view the capacity to make data-driven decisions, and a strong focus on doing so whenever and wherever possible, as the next phase of evolution of a Product Manager.
3. Relationship Building
Following the pattern of Maslow’s Hierarchy, it seems obvious that the next phase of Product Management capabilities would center on establishing, maintaining, and leveraging relationships both inside and outside the organization. We can focus on knowing our product, market, and technology all day long, and we can make all the data-driven decisions that we want — but in the end, we need to build a web of relationships that allow us to leverage all of those things on a daily basis. And without the first two capabilities, these relationships will be elusive — if you’re not seen as an expert, and you’re viewed as acting solely on opinion and instinct, people are less likely to trust you. But, once you establish a beachhead of those fundamentals, reaching out to customers, prospects, and internal stakeholders becomes almost effortless. A Product Manager who actively manages their social capital has achieved a significantly higher mode of functioning as a Product Manager than someone who has not.
4. True Agility
At this point in the Product Management Hierarchy, we’re at the point where we’re separating the top 10% of PMs from the rest, and in my mind what truly separates the top Product Managers from others is their ability to internalize the concepts and culture of agility. Note, this does not mean that the Product Manager knows what Scrum is, or can run a Kanban board, or even that they know Lean product or manufacturing principles. The fourth level of the hierarchy is populated by those Product Managers who approach everything that they do with an actual understanding of what it means to be “little-a agile” — that we proceed without knowing everything, that we discover truths and falsehoods as we move forward, that we need to test our assumptions, and that failing fast and learning from it should be the standard mode of work, and not a buzzword or an afterthought. They do the things that Scrum tells us not just because it’s in some book or training course, or certification program — but because they understand the actual value of standups, grooming, retros, etc. True Agility isn’t just knowing what the Agile Manifesto tells us, but understanding it at a deep and personal level, and using it in everything that we do.
5. Creating a Shared Vision
So what is it that really, truly separates out the top of the top? For me, it’s the ability to create a shared vision amongst everyone involved in the product — from customers all the way up through to the C-level executives. This is the most advanced capability that a Product Manager can have, and one that I think very few actually achieve to any great success. It leverages everything from the bottom on up, and is an essential component to a high-functioning Product Manager. Someone who demonstrates this ability doesn’t have to worry about people not doing what’s right — the shared vision guides them in the right direction. They don’t worry about customers thinking that there’s no plan or roadmap, because they share the vision of where things are going as well. And, most importantly, having a shared vision empowers the organization to actually be agile — because we’re no longer tied to a 6-month roadmap, but a long-term vision of where we want to be and what we want to be. This simplifies almost everything within the organization, from prioritization to positioning to planning to execution — and that is why this is the highest capability that I believe a Product Manager can have.