A mental model started to emerge as I was trying to represent the product manager role in a similar way to the Maslow hierarchy of needs for human beings.
Like any mental model, it is sometimes useful and wrong most of the time.
This representation and the corresponding layered approach can provide useful guidance to fellow product managers and leaders regarding the scope and role of the product management organization. Its main merit is to represent the product management role as something easy to explain visually. The model is not the result of a broad statistical analysis but based on contemporary product manager literacy and my experiences.
Descriptions of each level:
- The real-world/Ecosystem. Whatever your product is, you have customers, partners, competitors, countries and the overall human society where your product operates. They all interact with your product. The impact you have in the world is all about change: how does your product change people’s lives? Interactions go in the other direction, too: how does your customer expectations change your product strategy and direction?
Human need analogy: This is the Physiological layer. This layer represents the most basic need for a product. A human being needs food, water, sleep, shelter. A product needs market share, customers, partners and competitors. It can be the most stressful aspect of working in a start-up or funding one: you need to figure out this as fast as possible and with a minimal budget and super-short timeframe.
- The product artifacts: Once you have customers, you interact with them via some real-life product artifacts, processes and tools. For instance the user stories, the code, the servers running the code. It also includes the documentation, the video tutorials, the go-to-market efforts and strategy, all the blog posts. Anything that the ecosystem (Blue layer) interacts with to use the product is part of this layer.
Human need analogy: Unless you are in a pre-MVP start-up, your product materializes itself in the real world. Your product is a collection of real-world artifacts. Very much like most of us need a home, some money every month and good health, so do a product manager. He needs some real-world artifacts in good-enough conditions to interact with the world. These artifacts define the user experience.
- The product team: This is the close-knit team that builds the artifacts used to evolve the product (green layer). Ideally, this is a cross-disciplinary team working closely together in an iterative/agile kind of way. Ideally, they work in the same physical space to increase collaboration. Culture and rituals are essential here: A safe culture is required for such teams to exist and operate efficiently. The group tends to operate in weekly / bi-weekly cadence.
Human need analogy: This one is almost identical. We all need to have some form of social belonging. As a social mammal, your team is who you are! As a product manager without authority, this can be challenging. To be a great product manager, you need to be a great team player. Tell the truth (don’t try to sugarcoat it!), lead by example, stop wishing for control and remove your ego from the equation. If you look at data, you will spend far more time with your team than with your closest family: make it count and enjoy the ride!
- The Stakeholders: Every product manager has one or more stakeholders. They are the ones that guide and can stop the product evolution by reallocating resources to another product area. Their main concern is the resources. Most of the organizations with product managers are smart enough to let the product team operate with lots of autonomy. Constraints are part of life. Stakeholders’ leading role is to connect the high-level expected outcomes (see layer 5, strategy) with the product team. They tend to think in months and quarters and value more the relationship and long-term success over shorter outputs and objectives. Their goal is to align the overall company mission and vision with the resources they have: what can we do to impact most of our key results? Which team should have more resources this quarter and in which order should we deliver value.
Human need analogy: Your stakeholders help you define what is good or bad. As such, they help you strive as a human being or be miserable. That is why a product manager needs to choose a company and a product line which goals and values reflect your own. As a product manager, you can decide who you work with and why. Success definition change with each conversation and is a never-ending story.
- The leadership (C-Level & Senior leadership): Their primary focus is strategy and future positioning of the organization. They need to anticipate the changes in the ecosystem layer (the real world). They research new trends that could affect the organization, bet on future ideas, products and tools for which the market is far from certain. They also prioritize products that are not market-ready, with lots of ambiguity and knowledge gaps. In a way, they shape-up the future of the organization by making short, medium and long term bets.
They are betting on investments and projects that could be highly rewarding but could be very risky. By clarifying the vision, mission, they highlight the culture and product changes required to reach this vision. From time to time, out of personal interest (past career) or when stakes are high, it is quite common for them to provide direct feedback to the product team. This is done directly, without an intermediary. Direct feedback is way more efficient and less ambiguous than indirect feedback, especially because it necessarily involves ego, feeling and politics.
Human need analogy: This is the 25 000 feet view of the world. Let’s assume that you master and manage to work efficiently with all the other layers. At a personal level, the company vision, mission and day to day decisions could clash with your personal values. They can also mitigate you by confirming that you are contributing to the best possible cause for you. Another way to look at it is that you can only realize your dreams if the organization you work for share the same dreams.
Why such a mental model, what can I use it for?
This pyramid of needs can have multiple uses. Here are some key examples:
- Whatever the size of your organization is, as a PM, you have to make sure every layer is covered and that the various actors understand their role. For a start-up, this will help separate the founder's role from day to day activities. For a larger organization, it could be helping managers to better understand their role and help align the product teams with the company vision. Any unmet need in the pyramid will create irreversible damage to your product and endeavour.
- From a professional development point of view, we may have blind spots and activities we do not enjoy or are less proficient at (also called weakness!). As a product manager, you own your own development. Please make sure you understand, care and know-how to interact with each layer of the pyramid. If not, your product is in trouble. There is no shortcut to impact: as a product manager, you are responsible for all of it!
- Efficient influence: you have to understand how to influence each of the layers of the pyramids. Each layer is unique and does not share the same view of the world like you. To communicate and influence efficiently, you need to adapt your message and adapt all your communications to the targeted audience.
- At the cross-functional team level (the crafters/doers), your primary role is to mediate and, more often than not, translate for the team your knowledge of all the layers. You are in charge of maintaining a learning environment where all the pieces of information (from all layers) are shared and updated regularly (daily and weekly or bi-weekly agile rituals). If you are the only one to know, your team is in big trouble.
- At the Objective and key result (OKR) level, you can correlate the various levels to OKRs. Company level, Product Line level and team level.
Update: Please see the Pyramid of Product Manager Need: OKR blog post.
In this model, the product manager is a mediator between the different constituents of the product manager pyramid of needs.
It explains why product managers have to be lifelong learners. Curiosity and an avid quest for knowledge are key to gather the information required for products to succeed and become valuable, usable and feasible.
In follow-up posts, we will continue to explore this model both in a practical way (how to use the product manager pyramid of need to become a better product manager every day) as well as in a more holistic approach (the various product management careers, the product management org, small organizations vs large ones, personal happiness and affinity with the organization mission, etc.).
Feedback is a gift 🙏🏼
You can reach me at Benoit des Ligneris.