Tom Ralston

Impactful Product Managers are bass players (not mini-CEOs).

January 22, 2019

By helping Product Managers understand the impact that they have and to help them develop their skills, I’ve convinced myself that a great PM is the bass player in a rather unconventional band. With a few short examples, hopefully I’ll convince you that there’s something in it too.

Dougie Payne (L), bass player in Travis would be a great PM — I’d happily swap jobs too.Dougie Payne (L), bass player in Travis would be a great PM — I’d happily swap jobs too.

Originally posted on the Songkick blog.

What do bands and product teams have in common?

At Songkick we pair Product Managers up with Design Leads and Tech Leads to lead Cagan-ist teams, empowering a group of people with diverse skills to solve big challenges for our users and our company. Our teams build technology products that make experiencing live music easier for tens of millions of fans every month — and how these teams work is a big part of what enables us, a company of 30, to help our users collectively attend tens of millions of concerts every year.

With few exceptions, making music requires collaboration. From solo artists up, many people bring a number of different skills and sounds together to make something of note, and get it in the hands of their fans — and technology products are no different. Both making music and building products also begin without a premeditated route that guarantees a great result.

The first lines

A song might start with an idea, a line of lyrics, a melody, and gains riffs, a beat, hooks or a solo, verses and choruses, and occasionally a bit of autotune here or there. Creating products follows a similar path, beginning with an insight, a user pain point, or an opportunity to improve a metric. Then the team builds on existing tools, utilising standard UX patterns, brand guidelines, a variety of different technologies, marketing campaigns, and lots of other ingredients to form the finished product (stay with me!).

These contributions come from a diverse set of collaborators throughout the product’s development. Too much of one thing, or too little of another, doesn’t result in the best end product. Ensuring collaboration and enabling the team with just enough process are therefore important responsibilities of a PM at Songkick.

But probably the most important job of the PM is to set up the environment for an impactful team, and music offers many analogies that can help describe the behaviours of a well-functioning one.

Band vibes

Soon after a team is formed, there are plenty of jam sessions. Ideas come from everywhere, are explored, pulled apart, put back together again, and the team builds an understanding of what they’re trying to do. In the band, guitars are re-strung and tuned, chord progressions explored, old songs and covers practised, and skills honed. Different musicians may drop in — perhaps soloists bringing their sound and expertise to a studio session (or an exec bringing their viewpoint) - and through rehearsal, an end product starts to form. To those outside the room it might not resemble something that’s ready for the radio, but the team’s well on their way to working out what they’re going to produce for their audience.

When a product team understands their customers and the problems that they have, and are all using their skills and resources to their full potential to make something great, their work takes on a real rhythm. Multiple streams of work spin up on a drumbeat of sprints, members of the team begin to sing in chorus, and those listening along start to hear something that resembles a tune.

Sometimes that music is to a faster beat (perhaps racing through quick iterations to improve known pain points), occasionally it’s more like improvised jazz (maybe when a team’s newly formed, in early discovery), and now and again it’s with the full oomph of an orchestra (when a whole company comes together to launch a new product to market).

The end product

Great music connects with people — some has an impact on the mainstream, other music finds smaller, more engaged audiences — and this is true of each and every technology product too. Like bands, products that don’t have an audience that loves them don’t matter.

At Songkick, we focus on finding this audience by caring about the outcome that the team has rather than the output that they produce. PMs are hugely influential in driving real change for all of our users — they’re not just looking to the fans in the pit singing every word, they’re looking for heads bobbing throughout the crowd, their stream counts rising, and their band playing in bigger and bigger venues.

However tenuous the path to this point, we’re now in a world where great technology products could be the result of some slightly strange bands using some pretty weird instruments to make a type of music you’d never thought you’d listen to.

Why are PMs the bass players in these bands?

A “mini-CEO” Product Manager is automatically ruled out from being in any band — for obvious reasons. To be really impactful, a PM has to be in the band.

With so many fantastic bass players having furnished bands for decades, there’s a reason concert venues aren’t jam-packed with solo bass players night after night. On its own, the sound of a bass guitar isn’t something people choose to listen to for hours on end — however well it’s played. The same is true for PMs: going solo simply isn’t an option.

Given this, teams need to be able to understand and utilise a PM’s contribution to have the most impact with their own work. A PM playing fiddly guitar solos, the maracas, or a harpsichord, will find it hard to get the right message across to team members who are playing their own delicate and complicated instruments. But, if the PM is playing the bass guitar, the bigger, more structured series of sounds offer enough context to enable them to play along in a complementary way.

This is to say that the contribution of a great PM isn’t typically the stuff that jumps out — PMs are not best suited to be playing screaming guitar solos or showing off the extremities of their vocal range. Instead, those standout bits of product innovation that really resonate with the audience should come from delightful UX experiences, amazing technical problem solving, clever marketing – all bits the PM can evangelise, collaborate on and support, but doesn’t ultimately stand up and sing.

Instead, I think a PM’s contribution should feel more like the sound of the bass hitting your chest at a gig. It’s the foundation that allows a band’s sound to cut through a noisy crowd, and that brings all the sounds from all the other band members together. It’s the kind of sound that if it wasn’t there, you’d miss it, but it isn’t the only thing you hear.

How does your team sound? We’re hiring!

Can’t get enough of the band analogies? I’m definitely not the first to highlight similarities — John Vars and Michael Walton offer much better ones.