Every successful product I've ever seen, worked on, or used, consists of two parts: vision and execution. Every product person I've ever had the pleasure to work on also consisted of two parts: vision, and execution.
Curiously enough, especially in the West, no one ever seems to question the 'vision' part: if the PM is the 'director' of a particular production, then of course his or her value is based on the vision he or she brings to the table. Despite my very technical background, I tend to agree with this view: I've seen plenty of projects that had a very strong technical pedigree, but were ultimately unsuccessful due to a lack of focus, market fit, or simply understanding of what the final customer actually wanted.
But here's the thing: as much as no one in the field ever questions the importance of vision, the importance of execution part is often hand-waved, belittled or understated. Which, believe me, is absolutely crazy.
If we look at a product or project as a journey, the role of the visionary part of what you, as a PM, shall be contributing, is basically the final destination. Everything else, from 'how we get there', to the speed, the milestones, the routing, the vehicles, and ultimately the comfort of the travelling team, belongs to the 'execution' corner of the PM toolbox.
It would be absolutely batshit insane to organize a trip by shouting 'ok team, we're going to Paris' and then going back to reading Product Hunt while the team figures it out. Surely, as much as there is no journey without destination, the destination itself won't be reached without a detailed execution. Yet, this is something I see happen quite a lot in the PM space.
This 'fire and forget' attitude to Product Management is what me and a few close colleagues commonly refer to as '1000-songs-in-my-pocket-PM'. It's the reckless, usually overly confident dude or dudette that walks into a meeting thinking he's Steve Jobs, brings up something 'visionary' like 'have you tried making it smaller and faster?' (as if the rest of the attendees wanted to make the product clunkier and slower...), then smiles widely while congratulating himself on motivating the team with yet another vague plan to an impossible deadline.
Here's the three main differences between you doing your shit meeting and Jobs pitching the iPod. You should really focus on those whenever your brain tries to switch gears into '1000-songs-in-my-pocket' territory:
- Jobs and his team had a deep understanding of the 'music player' product class at the time. They knew what Creative, Sony etc. had already put on the market inside out. The product class already existed: the iPod was a generational leap on an existing technology.
- The iPod was borne from the 'music in my pocket' class of products. But why 'a 1000 songs' and not '10,000'? Simple: the generational leap on which the iPod staked its claim to fame was a brand new set of smaller hard drives produced by Toshiba that Apple had already seen and purchased exclusive rights of. Those drives fit exactly 1000 songs, in exactly one pocket.
- The team that Jobs assembled consisted, amongst others, of Jon Rubinstein (built the iMac), Jony Ive (built the Apple Newton) and Tony Fadell (built the General Magic line of devices). He was not the product manager. They were.
We can roughly synthesize those three key points into three general insights that show how there's more to 'a 1000 songs in your pocket' than unadulterated product vision:
- To build a truly revolutionary product, you need to understand the product class you're trying to disrupt. That only comes with deep knowledge of what makes competitors great. While you might be tempted to believe PMs work exclusively by setting courses in uncharted waters, the reality is most products slot into existing classes. In these cases, it's easy to mix up vision and execution - a general rule of thumb is that execution brings you onto a level playing field, and vision propels you further than your competitors. You'll need both.
- With 6+ billion people on Earth, there's a damn high likelihood that someone had the same brilliant vision as you did. Understanding what truly differentiates your product is like seeing a hard drive tray in Japan and connecting it to the secret music player you're working on at home: it requires plasticity, pivoting speed, a whole lot of creativity, yes; but most of all it requires profound knowledge of where the boundaries are, and how to push that envelope. Vision without the Toshiba hard drives is worthless, just like the hard drives without the product vision are at best a novelty. Execution is connecting the dots.
- Finally, you're probably not Steve Jobs. If you're a seasoned executive, a VP of product, or a CPO - then you won't be reading this post. And if you're still reading, then you're not Steve: you're Rubinstein. Your added value is in enabling both your boss (Steve) and your team (Fadell, Ive, and the rest) in putting together a truly revolutionary product. And for that, you'll need both vision and execution.
Surprisingly, from my personal experience, I would say that vision is easier at the beginning of your career than execution: as a new hire you approach the problem space with fresh eyes, and the obvious product problems will be clear to you. On the other hand, you probably won't have the necessary tools to actually build feasible solutions to those problems.
Later in your career, you'll have matured a set of mental models and actual technical knowledge that allows you to execute on that vision. Graduating to this level requires attention to detail and a lot of grit: if you refuse to make this effort you'll forever be an expert beginner.
So be humble, never stop learning. If you want to be a truly great product person, you'll need to mature your execution skills: vision alone simply won't cut it.