I was recently pinged to provide input on the field of product management. Specifically, a request for reading materials on the subject.
I was pretty jazzed about the question and have a few opinions on the topic.
Finding the Right Product Management Books
Hot take: most every book I’ve picked up on “being a fill-in-the-blank manager” provide no tangible value.
Now, I’ve certainly not read every book available and am providing this statement anecdotally. With that said, I do adore reading and chew through several books a month as a means of relaxation.
The problem with books on management is that while characteristics of management, such as frameworks or styles, can be described, much of what I’ve found valuable is smart ways of managing myself and leaning in to understand others. Everyone I interact with is unique and different, every company is unique and different, and every company has a totally different culture makeup. Thus, providing a “this is the way to manage a thing” type of guide rarely bears fruit.
Defining Product Management
I’ve never held the official title of product manager. I do have an appreciation for what it takes to do the job, though, as I’ve put in the hours. It’s not an easy gig and you’re literally having to deal with every facet of the company to do three things:
- Sell Things – increase the total addressable market (TAM), compress the sales cycle, improve margins, and generally put more things “on the truck” to offer up for sale while being under pressure to keep growth percentages rising in perpetuity.
- Design Things – use data, feedback, and a certain degree of gut feeling to determine where the market is underserved, usually by taking things with less value and putting them together to increase value; expect pressure from everyone in your partner network and supply chain to use their widgets.
- Build Things – conceptualize ideas into logical chunks that can be communicated, understood, and constructed by specialists (such as software engineers), while knowing that sometimes you’re going to ask for a tree swing and receive back a rocking chair.
I think it’s that simple. The rest is normal office politics required to acquire “influencer juice,” trade favors, and get shit done. If you don’t particularly enjoy office politics, this will be a stressful job at most medium or larger companies.
Good books – the ones for which I still refer back to for additional readings – provide insight and beneficial patterns to make selling, designing, and building things easier and simpler. The key is thinking about any large system as a myriad of smaller parts. Automate what you can, try to buy the things you don’t care about, and focus the remaining time on the hard stuff.
OK, enough rambling! 🙂
Below are 5 great books that will provide immediate and tangible improvement to anyone looking to embark upon the journey of product management.
Read These 5 Books
Start with The Machine That Changed the World: The Story of Lean Production. It’s the history of how Toyota changed everything about automobile manufacturing and how that rippled everywhere else. I like this book because it’s the history of doing something right. There’s a lot of patterns to pick up – such as the importance of the supply chain and how individual employees matter – that provide insight into complex systems design. Prepare to learn about things you never knew existed and have a better understanding of the origin of current practices. Also, the story is enjoyable to read and it’s easier to Sell Things if they are cheaper and more efficient to make.
Spice things up a bit with Making Work Visible: Exposing Time Theft to Optimize Work & Flow. If you’re going to make it as a product manager, you have to understand the demands on people’s time. When’s the last time you heard a co-worker say “I have so much free time on my hands!” – never, right? The Five Thieves of Time are something that I keep front and center every single day. Read this book and realize how much more free time you can capture and defend for yourself and others.
The next book assumes that you’re working in an environment with software engineers but should still provide value to anyone looking to better understand systems thinking: An Elegant Puzzle: Systems of Engineering Management. As I mentioned earlier, Building Things is part of the job, so it’s best to understand the builders. Pay special attention to the teams, organization, and culture bits to help speak their language and grok the insanely hard challenge of building quality software. These people are part of your team and are not “resources” that vomit code.
The 4th book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, is one of my absolute favorites. Yes, seriously. Checklists are the unsung hero of pretty much any job. They are what allow pilots, astronauts, architects, doctors, nurses, and numerous other professionals do their job safely and professionally. When done right, vast swaths of your mental model can be offloaded to a checklist. This frees up massive headspace to be creative and pursue System 2 thinking. The knowledge here will form a strong foundation capable of stitching together all of the small components of a big, complex system into actionable segments. This is great for Designing Things.
Finally, I suggest Crossing the Chasm to tie it all together. This tends to be a popular book and is often lauded as the only one you should read. I tend to agree with how the book’s adoption model is depicted and apply these concepts to design. Design for the end state, which is typically 3-5 years out, so that near-term efforts are feeding into larger long-term products that will benefit from the “seed” work later. And, depending on your product and market, the need for additional evolutionary arcs may be something to factor into the design. There’s nothing wrong with having far-seeing strategy documents that are fuzzy on the details of how to do something right now that won’t be required for some time.
In this post, I provided 5 books that will provide value to anyone seeking to take on the role of product manager. Perhaps you thought I’d include a book on product management? 😁✌
This was a fun post to write. I hope it provides some value to those that asked the question and everyone else who is curious.