Systems Thinking: Required for Product Managers

Systems Thinking

Of all of the jobs in product companies, the role of product manager is often the most ambiguous.

The glamorous view envisions the product manager as “CEO of the product,” with full control of product vision, features, and strategy.

But more often, product managers fill a specific tactical role as the corporate mortar that holds together various marketing, engineering, and financial bricks with pesky details like production projections, relationship management, and end-of-life planning.

But while no company wall will stand without that critical binding agent, it’s easy to feel squeezed under the weight of all of the other inputs.

At times, product management can be a thankless job—one with lots of accountability but much less direct control than the title might imply.

But that doesn’t mean product managers are without power to do something truly great. To the contrary.

They sit right at the nexus where customers, end users, marketing, design, engineering, sales, and finance all intersect. And in many ways, that exposure to so many inputs is not only their greatest challenge, but also their greatest professional asset.

The right product manager—with the right mindset—has a unique opportunity to be a shining, unifying light in a company of dedicated specialists. And making the most of that opportunity is what separates the true product visionaries from the paper pushers.

The Mindset of Great Product Leaders

What mindset will make you an inspiring product leader? While every person is unique, in my experience, 1 unifying quality stands out above all the rest:

The best product managers are keen strategic thinkers with the ability to scan the playing field and piece hundreds of seemingly unrelated data points together into cohesive strategies for product, business, and personal success.

In short, they think in terms of systems.

So why doesn’t every product manager think that way? The reason is that often, it fundamentally goes against their nature and training.

For example, it’s easy for product managers to get fixated on, well, products. After all, the very core of what a product manager is taught to do centers on defining and managing the physical or digital embodiments of ideas in terms of features and requirements.

But a product is only as successful as the systems built around it. And product managers who are sensitive to those systems are at a competitive advantage to those who simply throw a new SKU in the market river and wonder why the current is so strong.

A Game Plan for Systems Thinking

While the idea of systems thinking may sound a bit esoteric, there’s a good chance you’ve already experienced it in your own work. For example, effective product systems include:

  • Supply chain that manages your product inventory in the most cost-efficient manner possible
  • Data-driven brand strategy
  • Price segmentation in your retail assortment

Now stop for a moment. Think about how you, the product manager, might extend that same type of systems thinking toward the unique needs of every stakeholder who has influence on product success—end users, corporate buyers, warehouse workers, the marketing director, the CFO.

As you do so, your opportunity space for groundbreaking product management solutions will increase exponentially.

Gaining the right inputs from each of those stakeholders will take initiative and practiced listening skills. This doesn’t always come easily, but the reward will be worth the effort.

To be clear, designing systems does not mean that every product you offer needs to be unnecessarily complex. It’s really more about

  • Targeting features to a network of specific goals
  • Being ruthlessly efficient in implementation

Whether it’s designing the product to neatly fill a shipping container in the most efficient way possible or choosing an interface that understands the target customer and strips away features that distract them from their core needs, getting the system right is probably the single most important contribution that a product manager can make to the company.

 Systems Thinking and Communication

Of course, thoughtfully designing the right product system for your company, customers, and end users is one thing. But convincing management to fund it? Sometimes that’s like pulling teeth.

Many good product plans die on the drawing board not because they were poorly thought out, but because they were poorly communicated by the messenger. And as the product manager, that messenger is you. So honing your presentation skills is a critical part of success.

Luckily, once you’ve embraced systems thinking as a problem-solving approach, then the support of each internal stakeholder is just another connection to be made in your constellation of opportunities.

If you’re looking for 1 actionable first step toward your end goal of moving from product manager to product leader, try stepping out of your own bubble. Learn not only the lay of the land within the company walls, but also the language of its inhabitants.

Invite the different department heads to lunch and do nothing but listen. Pay particular attention to their strongest motivators and unique pain points.

In every meeting and presentation, speak in terms they understand and relate to. The CFO will glaze over when you get into technical details. The engineering manager will tune out when you lecture on target customers.

Know your audience. Communicate your ideas in terms they appreciate. You’ll not only communicate more effectively, but you’ll also gain their respect.

With respect comes improved communication. With communication comes teamwork. And with teamwork, you’ll be uniquely positioned to not only build an effective product system, but to also sell it internally.

Start thinking and talking in terms of the big picture, and I wager your peers will listen. People gravitate to open-minded, strategic thinkers. And as a systems-oriented product manager, you are uniquely positioned to lead the way.

Don’t waste that opportunity. Think Big.

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About M3 Design
Founded in 1996, M3 Design is a product development company located in Austin, Texas. We craft and execute product development strategies for leading technology-based companies.

2 Comments on This Topic

  1. Aaron Morrow on said:

    Stephen,

    First off, great post. There are a lot of great “pearls” of wisdom packed in this quick write-up. This is a great read for anyone who is new to Product Management/Portfolio Management, as well as the “well seasoned” PM as well.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Stephen Myers on said:

    Thanks Aaron.

    The cool thing about systems thinking is that it naturally adapts to lots of different roles. Just because it may not say “Product Manager” on your business card doesn’t mean you can’t step up to the plate and act like one. System-level solutions transcend boundaries, so IMO it’s less about title and more about mindset.

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