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220317 Leah Series

Organizations & Product Managers

by Leah Tharin

You can also read this article in German, Spanish and Italian.

A good Product Manager makes an impact and loves the challenge of their work. But is all of this really possible?

In this series, titled Products & Their PMs, Leah Tharin, Product Lead at Smallpdf, delves into the dance between product and product manager, and the delicate balance that needs to be struck to create both impact and sustainable success.

In the first two articles of this four-part series, we touched on different product perspectives and how these have the power to influence if and how innovation takes place. This article zooms in on a more modern perspective of the product manager and how, with the right conditions, the role can be both impactful and enjoyable.

Haven’t read the first two articles in this series yet? Feel free to check out Defining Products as a Basis for Improving Them and Product Perspectives & Innovation.

What’s in a Name?


Job titles can be fun, but they can also be misleading. Even though they might offer a rough idea of what the job entails and align with what the worker thinks their role is, if the role isn’t clearly defined, there can be plenty of room for misunderstanding.

While there may not be a universal truth or definition of what a product manager is and does, I have a more modern interpretation of what the job should be if our goal is, in fact, to make an impact on the lives of customers and seize business opportunities, all the while loving the challenge in and of itself.

Conditions for Optimal Product Management


I argue that two conditions should be met in order for all the above to be realized at the same time. These are shared consciousness and empowerment. Let’s take a look at these in more detail…

Shared Consciousness


Also known as collective consciousness, this is the set of shared beliefs held by a specific group, like a team or an entire organization. The collective or shared consciousness is a concept that every PM must understand intimately in order to yield the greatest possible impact.

Increasing and enhancing this shared consciousness means sharing information, even with peers that may not be the best fit for that information. It’s really the opposite of the “need to know principle,” where information is only ever shared among those who need it in order to perform their immediate responsibilities.

What does this mean in a practical sense?

It means that PMs should share as much as they can about a process, strategy, or direction as they can. Going back to the first two articles in this series, this is not about showcasing what features they want to produce, but what specific problems are being solved and bringing that all-important context to light for everyone.



Empowerment is the agency and authority given to someone to do something. Delegating, trusting, and letting people decide what needs to be done without acting as a gatekeeper or controller is key to empowerment.

As a PM, do you trust your designer to create a good design for a complex interaction together with the team and the methods they employ? If so, then they shouldn’t have to ask permission at every turn, but ‌rather ask for feedback and decide on the best solution. Asking permission changes the entire dynamic of the interaction into one of over-reliance and even disempowerment. The better, more empowered scenario to nurture here is the feedback culture, which lends itself to the team acting on their own decision making and informing the team instead on what they did after the fact.

Being in a management position, where one tells others how they have to do their job, despite you having less context than them, will lead to a culture of micromanagement, which almost always leads to your team having none of the agency they need to act, despite having all the context required to make informed decisions:

‘I don’t matter. I can’t address the problems I know about. My boss thinks they know better than me how to do things.’

~ A micromanaged employee

The big question is, does the added value of giving people authority over what they do outweigh the drawbacks of the occasional mistakes that happen because of it? My firm conviction by far? Yes, absolutely.

So What Is a Good (Product) Manager?


The Smartest Person in the Room


A dominant, but outdated philosophy of being a manager is being the smartest person in the room. This comes from the combination of having more access to contextual information than anyone else on the team and holding the unrealistic belief or expectation that the manager can connect the dots better than anyone else around them ever could.

The Whole Is More Than the Sum of Its Parts


Another approach to management comes with the assumption that the team as a whole is better than any of the individuals that comprise it—including the manager—and that by involving everyone in every aspect, unexpected solutions to problems nobody foresaw will readily reveal themselves. This approach only works if the foundation is laid with context for the shared consciousness. If everyone knows the why around company or team initiatives in sufficient detail, this gives much-needed context and enough of a foundation for this approach to work.

Context & Empowerment


But context is fatal without empowerment. Likewise, empowerment is fatal without context. If teams grasp context and what needs to be done, they will soon become frustrated and begin to feel unimportant if they cannot change things. Conversely, being empowered without understanding context leads to making hasty and poor decisions.

If you really need to list these in order of importance, I would say give context first, then delegate to your empowered team.

While this balancing act of context and empowerment doesn’t necessarily show up in every organization, thanks to its simplicity and replicability, it can be used anywhere, in any business, and on any size team. With the right balance, investment by the PM in cultivating a knowledgeable, tuned in, and empowered team, projects, products, and initiatives have the best chance at making the most impact—where and when it matters most.

Enjoying this series so far? Stay tuned for the next installment about PMs and how they can set goals and scale their teams.

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Leah Tharin
Product Lead @Smallpdf