The Art of Product Management


John Corey

The phrase “There is an art to this job” usually means there is something opaque about it that can’t be easily defined. I think this attitude fundamentally misunderstands how artists work and learn. Art, like Product Management, is a group of skills made up of sub-skills. I studied art in college. I also worked my way through art school by doing computer tech support. I chose the path more profitable when a friend started a computer consulting company and invited me to join him. But I would not trade my experience in art school for anything.  I learned so many things that help me to this day. For instance, in one of the earliest lessons, and one of my favorites, my professor showed this drawing:

A picture containing outdoor, linedrawingDescription automatically generated

And asked, “Who is the artist?”

What a strange question. It’s not a very good drawing, and I wasn’t sure how this artist could help me become a Great Artist. So I was shocked by the answer: “This is an early drawing by Vincent VanGogh.” The teacher had made a point that I will never forget, perfectly summed up by David Bayles and Ted Orland in their brilliant book Art & Fear:

“You make good work by (among other things) making a lots of work that isn’t very good, and gradually weeding out the parts that aren’t good, and the parts that aren’t yours. It is called feedback, and it is the most direct route to learning about your vision.”

That same teacher followed up by pointing out “you only see the art that ends up in museums. You only see the best stuff.”

While all of this is obviously true, it creates a conundrum. As a consultant my clients are not​ looking for my drafts and sketches, they are looking for my Starry Night. So how do I do a lot of work that isn’t very good and still meet my client’s expectations?

This question has spawned an entire industry of books and training designed to help us get better at our work, faster. I personally am a big believer in setting up habits and processes to make yourself more successful. A book like Atomic Habits, for example, really resonates with me in its approach of trusting your process to improve your results. A lot of this content centers around what you can do to improve your skills by yourself. There is a difference between ‘improving yourself’, and doing it ‘by yourself’. Early in Art & Fear, Bayles and Orland propose a great process. They call it an ‘Operating Manual for not Quitting’, but I would call it a ‘Tool for Continuous Learning’. It contains two steps:

  • A) Make friends with others who make art (do what you do), and share your in-progess work with each other frequently.
  • B) Learn to think of [A], rather than the Museum of Modern Art, as the [audience] of your work. If this goes well, MOMA will eventually come to you.

What the authors are suggesting is create (or join) a group where you can get safe, productive feedback on your work. Just substitute Your Client for MOMA, and this works well for Product work. This is harder than it used to be. When I was in the office I could ask my co-workers to look over my shoulder and give me feedback on a user story or acceptance criteria. Now, those interactions have to take place on-line. It takes a lot of commitment to keep those communities vibrant.We have found that regular meetings with managers and career coaches can maintain the feedback loop. e. Also, we have a regular Product Practice Guild meetings where team members can bring topics and discuss them. Remember when you studied art and would sit in a circle drawing a still life as the teacher walked around giving guidance. It’s the virtual equivalent - a chance to discuss and to develop the art of product management.  

Take courage then aspiring Product Managers, the MOMA and your client await.

The Latest from Nexient

We're hiring

Design cutting-edge software and digital experiences for America’s most admired brands with Nexient.

Join Our Team