Author and Product Leader Matt LeMay on Customer-Centricity, Curiosity and the Art of Product Management
As a product leader at startups Bitly and Songza, Matt LeMay is on the front lines of innovative brands rooted in digital transformation and new technologies. Matt’s book Product Management in Practice: A Real-World Guide to the Key Connective Role of the 21st Century, inspired us to take a deep dive into product management and to find out how we could apply these skills to other areas of our life (hint: it involves being relentless about listening—and asking “why?”). Matt is also co-founder of Sudden Compass, a consultancy venture that helps brands like Spotify, Clorox and P&G transform their customer insights into actionable strategy. He believes that if you approach any business or daily task through the lens of a Product Manager—aka the unsung hero of the modern business—efficiency and success become closer than you think.
“The most important quality of a great product manager, by far, is curiosity.”
So, what’s the difference between a product manager and a project manager?
MATT LEMAY: It varies a lot from organization to organization. But as a rule, project managers are responsible for outputs, whereas product managers are responsible for outcomes. For example, a project manager is usually responsible for making sure that something is on time and on budget, but won't be held accountable if that thing fails to find success with customers. For a product manager, staying on time and on budget only matters insofar as it is driving the success of the product. Product managers still often do the day-to-day work of project management, but they also have the luxury and the burden of asking "why."
The product manager is such an integral part of of any startup, department, or organization. In your opinion, what are the qualities of a great one?
ML: The most important quality of a great product manager, by far, is curiosity. Product management is a fast-changing role full of ambiguity and unexpected challenges. If you can approach those challenges with openness and a genuine interest in the work that your colleagues are doing, there’s really no limit to what you can accomplish.
It's a shame, too, because many people I speak to who want to break into product management are stuck on the limits of what they already know. I hear a lot of, "I'm not technical enough to be a product manager," or "I don't have the design chops to be a product manager." The truth is, the specific technical and design knowledge you will need varies enormously from team to team—and no matter how much you know going in, there will always be more for you to learn from the people around you.
To tie this together by way of example, the most important step I took during my first year at Bitly was simply sending an email to a data scientist I worked with saying, "Hey, I'm really curious to learn more about the work that you do." Prior to that, I had treated the limitations of my technical knowledge as something I had to hide, work around, or otherwise compensate for. Once I started treating those limitations as an opportunity to learn from the people around me, everything changed for the better. For product managers, who are in many ways expected to be the expert on all things related to their product, "I don't know" can be the hardest thing to say, but it is often the most important.
Tell us a clear example of a product management success and a product management failure. Something our readers can learn from.
ML: The classic example of a product management success would be discovering a market need through user research, working with a team of designers and developers to create a product that meets that need, and launching that product on time and on budget. But for most working product managers, things are never that neat, nor that linear. The day-to-day successes of product management are much smaller and generally receive much less recognition. They usually involve getting out ahead of misalignments or miscommunications that would prove disastrous farther down the line, such as a disconnect between the needs of a product's users and the goals of the business. In fact, many of the stories I hear from working product managers involve convincing their team or their organization not to build a particular product or feature, if it is not going to be a good fit for their users.
When I was researching the book, I asked a bunch of working product managers, "What's one story from your work that you wish you could have heard when you were starting out?" Almost all of these stories came down to miscommunications with organizational leaders—choosing not to ask a question because it seemed too politically dangerous, or trying to "protect" a product team from executive interference, only for that executive to override months and months of work. For example, my very worst day as a product manager happened when I tried to take a “more creative" approach to a major item on our product roadmap, not realizing that I was alienating every single person who had bought into the original approach around which we had aligned. At the end of the day, it didn't even matter which approach was better—by casting myself as the "product visionary," I had completely lost sight of how valuable (and tenuous!) executive buy-in can be. I think a lot of product managers are disappointed to find that their role is less about being a visionary with great product ideas, and more about being a good facilitator who can create and protect as sense of shared purpose around the products being built.
When higher-ups in an organization can’t agree on how to move forward with a campaign idea, product name, or launch date, what are some foolproof ways to get them to align on next steps?
ML: This is a great question, and the answer varies largely depending on who exactly those higher-ups are and what their goals are. To that end, the most important step a product manager can take is to proactively work towards understanding the specific goals that organizational leaders are advancing, and why. Be absolutely relentless about getting clarity around the organization's vision and strategy, and then use that information to prioritize the work you're advocating for. In the absence of that clarity, there is literally no way for you to succeed—because nobody has agreed upon what success even means. It's been amazing to me, in my own work and in many of the stories I've heard from working product managers, how often what seems to be politicking or sabotage amongst higher-ups is just a matter of different people operating under different assumptions about the organization's goals. Any steps you can take to bring those assumptions out into the open will always be incredibly valuable.
The bottom line is that, for better or worse, higher-ups are usually going to get their way. If you get bogged down in debating tactical details, you will usually lose. But if you empower them to make the decisions that best align with your organization's goals, it's a win-win.
How can raw creativity thrive within a product management structure? Can efficiency in a creative environment be learned?
ML: At its heart, creativity is about creating connections between people, emotions, objects, and experiences. As a product manager, your job is to create those connections for everybody on your team. How do we want our users to feel? What impact do we want to make? And how can we get there together? You may not be the person actually creating a visual design or writing code, but you are the person tying those threads together and reminding your team why their work matters. I've heard from product managers who kept their teams inspired and aligned by reserving just fifteen minutes a week to review customer feedback during a grueling heads-down sprint. At its best, product management adds an extra spark to the individual and collective creativity of the whole team, which is an amazing thing to experience.
When I was working at Songza, for example, I was very excited to write out comprehensive product specifications that would leverage my combined knowledge of product and music and show off my creativity. But it became apparent to me very quickly that the best outlet for my creativity was not going to be crafting lengthy documents on my own, but rather facilitating conversations among my colleagues. We had an engineering team that was incredibly good at creating simple prototypes to find out just how valuable a feature would actually be for our users, and an editorial team that understood the language of music and music fandom inside and out. Creating space for those groups to collaborate, and being privy to those collaborations, was an incredible experience. And I don't think I would have been open to that experience if I had still been hung up on being a singular, creative "product visionary."
“When you start with the big picture and work backwards, it creates a lot more room for interesting, unexpected, and creative solutions.”
Creating streamlined processes is essential for a business to keep momentum, hit deadlines, and keep the focus of a job on track. Do you ever use similar processes in your non-professional life?
ML: When I'm not doing product consulting and training, I run a small recording and mixing studio from my home in Santa Fe called A Question of Frequency. There are definitely tools from my product management life that I use for managing music projects. But beyond that, product management has taught me the importance of keeping the big picture in mind when litigating small tactical decisions. "How do you want the drums to make you feel?" is a much more interesting question than "Should we boost the low-end on the snare drum?" Similarly, "How does this product fit into our user's day-to-day life?" is a much more interesting question than "Should the home button be green or blue?" When you start with the big picture and work backwards, it creates a lot more room for interesting, unexpected, and creative solutions.
Just a few more burning questions, please….
Most exciting new startup: One thing that's been really exciting in the last couple years is to see the conversation around startups shift a little bit from the next would-be Facebook or Twitter to more specialized and sustainable digital small businesses. In the music world, there's a new wave of small businesses building incredible software and hardware products for audiences that would be too small for most venture-funded startups to even take seriously. Strymon Engineering's reverb and delay pedals immediately come to mind as game-changing hybrid digital-analog products that have been introduced by small and specialized companies.
Favorite product management platform & why: Pretty much every product management platform is just a front-end for a basic relational database—it all comes down to how you use it. These days, I'm mostly using Trello, primarily because it's so easy for people to sign up and the information taxonomies are as simple or as complex as you want them to be.
Best meal you’ve eaten recently? I've been cooking my way through the book Pasta Fresca, and was completely blown away by a delicious (and simple!) recipe for dried pasta with cauliflower, olives, anchovies, and onions. Also, the green chili cheeseburger at Horseman's Haven in Santa Fe is a national treasure.
What’s the one book (other than yours!) every product manager should read? The first book I recommend to nearly everybody who works at any kind of organization is The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni. It's a very, very generous read about organizational health and core values, and has helped me enormously in my work.
Most listened-to album on your Spotify account: That would be Best of the Doobies Volume II, which my wife and I put on every night when we cook dinner.