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Systems Thinking is the Secret Weapon of an Inspiring Product Manager

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. Systems Thinking is the key.

Stephen Myers

October, 23 rd 2019 | 5 minute read

Of all of the roles in product companies, the job of product manager is often the most ambiguous. The glamorous view envisions the product manager as “CEO of the product” with full control of the product vision. But more often they fill a specific tactical role as the corporate mortar that holds together the various marketing, engineering, and financial bricks with all the pesky little details that help the company function. And 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. Product management can sometimes be a thankless job 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! Product managers 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 is in the rare position 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.

What approach will make you an inspiring product leader? While every person is unique, there is one common quality that stands out above all the rest to make them successful. The best product managers are keen strategic thinkers with the ability to scan the playing field and piece together hundreds of seemingly unrelated data points into cohesive strategies for product, business, and personal success. In short, they think in terms of systems.

What Is Systems Thinking?

While the idea of systems thinking may sound a bit esoteric, there’s a good chance you’ve probably already experienced it in your own work. An effective supply chain that manages your product inventory in the most cost-efficient manner possible and the data-driven brand strategy that dictates price segmentation in your product assortment are both great examples of effective product systems.

Stop for a moment and think about how you might extend that same type of systems thinking toward the unique needs of every stakeholder who influences the product success. Consider the end users, corporate buyers, warehouse workers, sales team, marketing director, and even the CFO. By expanding your inputs, the 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 that don’t always come easily, but the reward will be worth the effort. Old impassable challenges will suddenly reveal themselves as new design opportunities.

Getting to that point will take practice, so don’t feel bad if that type of broad thinking doesn’t come naturally. The reason that not every product manager is a systems thinker is that it often fundamentally goes against their training. For example, it’s easy for product managers to get fixated on, well … products. After all, defining and managing the physical or digital embodiment of ideas in terms of features and requirements is the very core of what you’re taught to do. But a product is only as successful as the systems built around it. Product managers sensitive to those systems have a competitive advantage over those who simply throw a new SKU in the market river and wonder why the current is so strong. Details matter.

Effective Systems are Applied Simplicity

When thinking about those many details that affect the bottom line however, keep in mind that designing systems does not mean that every product you offer needs to be unnecessarily complex. In fact, the best solutions are usually deceptively simple implementations of a sophisticated understanding of stakeholder needs.

So rather than get too broad with hundreds of competing requirements that inevitably get watered down, focus on targeting features to a network of specific goals and being ruthlessly efficient in their 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 distracting non-essential features, a small number of well-executed choices will make things run much more smoothly than dozens of half-hearted attempts at solving too many problems at once.

Getting the system right is probably the single most important contribution that the product manager can make to a company. Don’t set yourself up to fight numerous fires after the fact. Focus your energy on the big-picture decisions that will make production and sales hum by design. By doing so, you’ll be exactly the type of leader to take your company to the next level.

Big Ideas Start With Effective Communication

Of course, thoughtfully designing the right product system for your company, customers, and end users is one thing, but convincing management to fund your idea can feel like pulling teeth. So 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 successfully leading the way. 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.

So if you’re looking for one actionable first step toward your end goal of moving from product manager to product leader, try stepping out of your usual bubble and learning not only the lay of the land within the company walls but also the language of its inhabitants. Invite different department heads to lunch and do nothing but listen. And 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 hearing about technical details while the engineering manager will tune you out when lecturing on target customers. Always know your audience and cater your ideas in terms they appreciate. You’ll not only communicate more effectively but also gain their respect.

With respect comes communication. With communication comes teamwork. And with teamwork you’ll be uniquely positioned to not only build an effective product system but also sell it internally. Start thinking and talking in terms of the big picture – 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.

About the Author

Stephen Myers – Engineering

“People pay more attention when they think you’re up to something.”
– Bill Watterson