How “filling white space” fits into the overall picture of product management

I was excited to discover that leading product thinker, Marty Cagan, referenced my article A Map of White Space for Product Managers in his post The Role of Product at Apple. Cagan’s book, Inspired, is the first thing I read that seemed to get to the essence of product management. Here’s what Cagan wrote about my article:

… a friend just recently forwarded me an article that advocated this “filling the white space” concept as the heart of the product role.  While this mindset of doing whatever it takes is admirable and something I believe is important, especially in startups, it really misses the primary point of the product role – which is to ensure that the team is actually building and delivering a product that has the necessary value.

In my post A Map of Whitespace for Product Managers, I did not intend to say that “filling white space” is the heart of the product role, so Cagan’s comments made me realize I have some clarifying to do.

I agree with Cagan that the ultimate goal of product management is to deliver value. In peeling back the layers of “value,” I describe it as creating fit between a technology, user base, and business. While creating value may be the universal objective of empowered product managers, the actual day-to-day activities of practitioners is diverse. Some product managers are neck deep in code, while others are focused on devising business models and pricing schemes. In my last job as head of product for GoodGuide, I found myself doing sales demos, customer support, and account management, on top of other core product manager responsibilities.

The specific duties of product management are so scattered that it can seem misleading to use the single term “product manager” to describe what we all do. This is why I find “filling white space” to be a useful umbrella term for describing the reality on the ground. While some product managers may be doubling as data scientists, UX designers, sales, or technical support, they’re all performing the meta-function of identifying critical gaps around the products and then rolling up their sleeves to fill the gaps. While filling white space is not the ultimate end of product management, it’s one of critical branches of activities necessary for delivering value.

As I explore in my article, A System for Designing Startup teams, companies approach the Herculean task of building a thriving business from a variety of angles. Consumer startups commonly start by focusing on creating technology-user fit in hopes of accumulating millions of eye balls, before they attempt to monetize. Enterprise startups, in contrast, often try to prove that people will pay for their service before they invest heavily in building the actual product. Each of these approaches to product building leads teams through different regions of white space.

While product managers, as Cagan articulated, strive to “discover” valuable products, they also, in the case of startups, need to discover the dedicated roles for supporting the product. This is why startups should strive to hire versatile product managers who can “prototype” job functions before the company hires a full time position. A product manager for a consumer startup may identify and fill gaps in web analytics or usability research. A product manager for an enterprise startup may double as the account manager or technical support to uncover product requirements. As the product direction becomes increasingly validated and requirements for specific roles stabilize, the company should hire full time employees dedicated to the key gaps. But having the product manager prototype missing roles in the short term prevents the cumbersome mistake of hiring a full time position before the need is sufficiently understood. I explore this concept further in my post MVPS are built by MVT (Minimum Viable Teams).

As I mentioned above, filling white space is just one branch of a product manager’s activities. The earlier stage the startup, the more this branch dominates the work load. A critical element of a startup’s transition from validation to growth is scaling job functions that the product manager and other team members were doing through hand-to-hand combat. At this stage a company becomes a bit less like a brain, and a bit more like a machine. The product manager, during this stage, stops doing UX design and data science and starts creating frameworks that allow the UX designer and the the data scientist to work effectively towards the product north star. As more dedicated roles enter the product ecosystem, tensions emerge where the product is tugged in competing directions; revenue versus user experience, user experience versus cost, short term versus long term gains, etc.. For a mature company, a product manager is less in the trenches filling white space and more in the meta-layers building rough consensus, filtering inputs, and constructing a narrative for the product direction.

While, for mature companies, a product manager’s need to fill white space recedes to the background, product managers should never be complacent that their company has designed the right organization to support their product. A product’s value may be capped by a missing role or an overly siloed supporting cast. When a gap or overly rigid structure is identified, product managers should always be in the mindset of taking matters into their own hands instead of waiting for the broader system to heal itself.

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