Product Management Is Art

As much as we’d like product management to be a science, it’s really a form of art. And if we truly embrace the fact that it’s art, we can take it to new heights.

In most companies, people look to product managers for solutions to every problem in the world. Tell me if you’ve heard one of these before.

  • If you add a button here that does X, it will solve all our issues.
  • Why does it take us so long to ship new features? You need to increase the team’s productivity.
  • Our metrics look good except our NPS is low. What can you do to make people like our product more?
  • So-and-so company just launched feature Y. Why don’t we copy what they did?

They talk to us like we have a toolkit of solutions that can fix any problem — like we have a magic brush that can paint away any blemish. They treat us like tools.

I wish we could fix problems that easily.

In my experience, the solution that worked for growth at one company would not work for another. The solution for user happiness for one product would never work anywhere else. And the productivity boost that I got in one organization was only for that organization.

Each solution was unique, just like pieces of art.

So let me convince you that product managers are artists, not scientists. Once we recognize that we’re really craftspeople, we can apply artistic principles and elevate our work to new heights.

What is art anyway?

Without devolving into a philosophical discussion, let me offer a simple definition of art versus science.

When I say PM is science, I’m referring to the way that it’s dissected and turned into a process. You can repeat an experiment from here and get the same results there. Product management as science is formulaic. You do A, it causes result B for everyone, every time.

When I say PM is art, I mean that it’s about improvisation, adaptation, and creativity in solving problems. Every work of product management is unique. And if you follow that work over time, you can watch it blossom and evolve.

To me, product management resembles art much more than science. Why?

There’s no one-size-fits-all method that can solve any problem in product management. It’s the same reason why I insist you should avoid “frameworks” when answering interview questions. Every situation is different. Part of becoming a great product manager is recognizing how problems differ and how to adapt to them.

How do you adapt? Can product art be taught? Can you learn how to do it? Yes! Just look at the way we train other kinds of artists. Typically, their education looks like this:

  • Learn the fundamentals of your art
  • Get feedback from teachers and experts
  • Improvise until you find something that works

Take a look at Picasso as an example. His earliest works show his mastery of the fundamentals of painting. He started working on original ideas like his “African” works which demonstrated his growth but failed critically. Eventually he paired up with Georges Braque and developed cubism — an idea that transformed modern art. It was the feedback and collaboration that led to his greatest achievement.

We can do the same with product management. We can create product artists with the same formula. If we treat our work like art and adopt artistic practices, we can create product art.

Making Product Artists

How do you turn product managers into a product artists? Here are the principles that would underlie my personal product art school:

Master the fundamentals
The most important step in becoming a product artist is to learn the basic tools of product. Work like prioritization, communication & presenting, managing stakeholders, identifying problems, developing solutions, analytics, and so on — they all matter. You need a lot of tools in your toolkit, and you need to be adept with each of them.

Improvise
Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can start playing with them. How can you combine, tweak, or reimagine those building blocks to create new kinds of methods, processes, and products? What changes do I need to make that will work better here? Don’t just stick to the “tried and true” methods or copying others’ work. And once you find one success, don’t stop — keep improvising!

Get help
It can be a manager, mentor, teacher, coach, peer — anyone who can provide critical, honest feedback to help you improve one or more of your PM skills. Everyone needs help. Professional actors have acting coaches to help them develop. Even therapists go to therapy. If you’re looking for a product coach like that, contact me — I can help you.

Transformative visions
Moonshots. 10x thinking. Disruption. Develop a vision of your product that eliminates a burden, creates superpowers, offers new perspectives. or generates new understandings. Don’t settle for incremental change. Strive for that vision in all your work. Use that vision as a filter for deciding what to do and what not to do.

Learn to accept failure
Thinking bigger and more artfully also means that you’re more likely to fail. Set the expectation that your projects will fail — both for yourself and the people around you. Give up on ideas faster when you see that it’s not panning out. Try more ideas, and fail more often. Don’t beat yourself up when you fail. Accept it, learn your lessons, and fail better next time.

Offer experiences, not features
Just like those cards next to a painting, sometimes it’s necessary to explain your product art so that people get it. When you do, frame your product as something that helps people accomplish something valuable. Give your product a context and story, and explain why it matters. Your product and everything around it are essential parts of the experience. It all matters.

Make it for someone, not anyone
We’re too often under pressure to make “products for everyone” which is a formula for failure. It’s ok if your art is just for some people, not all people. The right people will get it. And if they don’t, just accept that failure and move on.

Evoke emotion
We often frame product “success” as achieving key metrics, but it’s even more important to succeed by making someone feel something – good or bad. Build delight into your products. Define emotional goals for your product — not NPS but love.

Improve with use
The worst art and products are ones that you see and never want to see again. The best art and products get better the more that you use them. How can your product improve with repeated use? I don’t mean applying machine learning or adding new features. Your product should get better as you use more of it, master its features, and express creativity through it.

Play to your strengths
Great artists know what they’re best at. Too often we focus on “improve the skills you’re weakest at” to the detriment of our strengths. Create situations where you can take advantage of those strengths. If you’re great at presentations, make sure everything you share is a presentation. Work with your strengths, not your weaknesses.

Listen to others less
Yes, the input of users and stakeholders is important. But if you want to find those artistic ideas, you’ll need to turn down their input and turn up your bolder, inner voice. Find your inspiration, and express it in the world through your product. The others will follow.

The Product Management Artist Is In

I said, “product management isn’t science; it’s art.”

He said, “if it is, we’re in a lot of trouble.”

But are we?

From my perspective, the trouble is that product managers have set the expectation that we have formulas or systems that can be applied any circumstance — A/B test this, design sprint that, rank those. Even worse, our coworkers believe that’s the job of product management — grab the formula for this problem and execute it step-by-step.

We’ve lost the art of our work.

Product management is a creative process. All the work we do is unique, bespoke, hand-crafted just for this moment. It doesn’t always work, and it’s not always beautiful, but it’s all done thoughtfully.

We should approach all our product work as creating works of art, not developing science experiments.

And that means we need to think, act, and talk differently about our work — about our art.

Embrace the essence of your work, my fellow product artists.

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