Removing All Confusion: Expectations of a Product Manager

Doug PowersAgile / Lean, Product

Product Development

We’ve written a lot about Product Management. Nikki wrote a blog post about how to find a good position when you’re searching. There is another post about how the title “Product Manager” can mean so many different things. Marty Cagan has written a whole book on the topic (that I really recommend)!

While the profession is making progress in better defining what a Product Manager actually should be doing, there is still a lot of ambiguity out there. Two product managers in two different companies can have wildly different responsibilities. Expectations can vary widely. It’s worth noting that a Product Manager is not equivalent to a Product Owner. A Product Owner is a role within Scrum, and should not be a job title. At Realtracs (and many leading technology product companies), there is no “Scrum.”  We don’t have “sprints.” We don’t do big releases every few weeks. Rather, we practice continuous delivery and release multiple times per day. While some Product Owner type responsibilities fall to our Product Managers, the job is much bigger.

To remove any ambiguity about what is expected out of a Product Manager at Realtracs, we developed a list of expectations. We are sharing this list with you because your company may find it helpful to know what can (and should) be expected out of the role. If you’re a product manager who isn’t fully empowered, perhaps this list will clarify for you what empowerment looks like. And, of course, when you are empowered, you have to be accountable. Perhaps this list will give you a feel for what a product manager should be held accountable for.

To be successful, a product manager must make wise decisions in five areas:

  1. Personal Discipline. While Product Managers do not typically have employees, they are still leaders. Before we can lead others, we must first be able to lead ourselves. Expectations around personal discipline acknowledge that the way we “show up” matters.
  2. Discovery & Research. In most organizations, this is often the most overlooked part of Product Management. We do not give our squads things to do or features to build. Rather, we ask for them to solve big problems and ask them to figure out the best way to do it.  In this area, we lay out how a Product Manager should approach discovery.
  3. Product Leadership. Good product managers don’t figure it out all on their own.  Instead, they help others understand what is valuable, include engineers and designers in discovery, and help the team feel connected to the product vision. A product manager must also stay true to the company’s product vision.
  4. Planning and Decomposition. Product Management isn’t just a “strategy” job. We actually have to know whether a product is feasible and the devil is often in the details. Expectations in this area are centered around participating in the hard work of figuring out how turn a vision into reality.
  5. Execution. Ideas are worthless unless you can execute on them. While Product Management is not a Project Management job, a good product manager feels enough ownership over the outcomes of their product, that he or she will work hard to make sure their team is executing and free from distractions. It is important to note that these expectations don’t fall exclusively on the product manager but are shared by all members of the team.

Below, we list the expectations by the areas above, but in reverse order. The goal is to demonstrate that execution requires a good plan. Planning and decomposition require good leadership. Good product leadership requires sufficient discovery. And all of it requires significant personal discipline.


  • I am helping my squad move items across the Kanban (or scrum) board to completion
    • I provide meaningful feedback throughout development
    • I help remove ambiguity in scope, purpose, etc.
  • I have the courage to say “no” to new things so we can stay focused on work in progress. I know we must stop starting and start finishing.
  • I help defer un-needed work and help simplify requirements so that we can keep batch sizes small and be iterative in how we approach product development.
  • I can tell when things aren’t going to plan and can help the team recognize that they may need to “re-plan.”
  • If anyone on the team gets hit by a bus, we would grieve. But otherwise, I know anyone else on the team could pull the work and keep things moving. If not, I am raising my hand of concern to the team, and to engineering and product leaders.
  • I can identify “churn” and “whack-a-mole” and can transparently raise awareness
    with my squad and our leaders.
  • I have the courage to pull the andon cord and stop the line when it’s clear the train is coming off the rails.

Planning and Decomposition

  • I ensure items in “Ready” categories are actually ready and don’t need to be decomposed (broken down).
  • I weed items of low value / aren’t ever going to get done / are no longer valuable
  • I assess the depth of the backlog to determine where I should focus (execution vs discovery)
  • Before anything is pulled, I know the engineers must have a plan. While I am not responsible for all of that technical planning, I recognize I am a vital part of it. I help remind the team that they have to plan and I am listening for what they need from me to be successful.
  • As a team, we have a release plan. We know how we will release value iteratively and have a plan for how we recover if things go wrong. We know whether we are using feature flags or some other strategy for releasing partial work.
  • I have a communication and marketing plan, where applicable, designed to drive usage and improve metrics. My communication plan includes making sure our major internal stakeholders (customer success, support, marketing, etc) are not only aware of changes but understand and agree to the changes.

Product Leadership

  • I deliberately prioritize using Cost of Delay / WSJF (weighted shortest job first)
    • How will the problems I’m trying to solve be valuable to the company?
    • How will I measure value?
    • I am prepared to defend my prioritization with insights (numbers, research, etc).
  • I have a good idea of what the next 3-6 months looks like. Quarterly planning is not a last minute exercise as I’m just formalizing the ongoing work.
  • My squad has a purpose that we all buy into and are excited about. I have
    artifacts that help others “see the vision” (prototypes, etc)
    or I am actively working towards one. Our team’s vision aligns with the company’s product vision and helps achieve it.
  • I am communicating everything I’ve learned and am bringing the squad (and my peers) along with me as my learning progresses.
  • I am aware of the emotional state of the team and help acknowledge struggles and celebrate successes. I help “keep things real.”

Discovery & Research

  • I am looking at items that require requiring grooming and am preparing for planning sessions with the team
    • For internal features, I’m gathering all business logic, details, and desires from stakeholders.
    • For customer facing features, I am engaging in discovery interviews with end users.
    • I ensure sufficient mockups / designs exist that I can use to run tests with customers and discuss feasibility with engineers.
    • Our documentation is up to date. At any time, the team has artifacts around which we can collaborate.
    • I am getting pro-active feedback from my peers on mockups and prioritization.
    • I am figuring out how to release value in iterative chunks that leads us to our ultimate goal.
  • I am searching for and discovering opportunities for investment that will help us improve our teams KPI’s (key performance indicators).
  • I am finding problems worth solving, and I know the metrics that matter for success. I considering/exploring how our existing technology can be leveraged to improve metrics
  • I am trying to find areas of friction that prevent our users from reaching their goals.
  • I know who our competitors are and am continuously reviewing their products.
  • I understand that market segmentation plays a role in prioritization. Therefore, I have segmented the mark in a meaningful way for my product.

Personal Discipline

  • I recognize my position is a high-value, highly-visible, leadership role.
  • I have assessed the state of my squad, our work, and my life. I have oriented myself to the current state things are in. I have a plan and outlook based on the current state that does not ask my peers or team to sacrifice. If I need flexibility beyond that, I recognize that impacts my team, and I strive to ask their permission rather than for their forgiveness.
  • I know where I am focusing my time this week and have personal outcomes I’d like to achieve by the end of the week. I am assessing my progress daily and making mindful/conscious adjustments.
  • I have a work environment and schedule that allows me to focus without distraction.
  • I recognize that I need at least 15 hours of “study time” every week and am managing my time and commitments accordingly.
  • I have a list of things others have asked of me and I have committed to. I am ensuring those items are completed and I am following up/communicating status on at least a weekly basis.
  • I am aware of my own emotional state. I can lead myself to “show up” in a way that is productive, encouraging, and inspiring for those around me.
  • I am prepared to discuss any and all things on this checklist with my peers (I am transparent) and with my leaders (I am coachable) and recognize we will all discuss these topics regularly (I have a growth mindset).

This list may be frightening for you. If so, that’s okay. There are plenty of companies that hire for just doing the “Product Owner” work or just want a project manager.  But if this type of job excites you, there are openings out there. Read about how to find one, or check out our openings.