The Alpha Product Manager
November 20, 2013

The Alpha Product Manager

by Brian de Haaff

The Alpha Product Manager rules great technology companies and every great technology company has one (or had one). Engineers trust her, the sales team loves her, and management depends on her vision — which only leads to greater influence and responsibility. There is a reason the Alpha Product Manager is known as the product czar. Tough to find, she is a genius in perception, a workhorse in productivity, and worth 20 or more average product folks.

The wildly successful software companies I have worked in have all had an Alpha Product Manager. You know one when you see one. And now at Aha! — the new way to create brilliant roadmaps — we serve them.

Considering that there are likely only a few hundred worldwide*, I have had the good fortune of working with three in my career.

I knew she was a force when she simultaneously set the product vision for the business unit and skillfully directed engineering to build what mattered. She did all of this as she kept sales focused on deals they could actually win and was recognized as a soothsayer. Her clear sense of the market and conviction drove product breakthroughs and true product roadmap thought leadership.

Now, we are consistently told that a well-balanced team will outperform an alpha performer. And go ahead and tell me…. “we is better than me” or “there is no I in team.” I am writing to tell you that this is B.S. — a lovely group of consensus-driven product managers will never outperform a true star. They simply lead to working in a pleasant office where no one knows where the business is headed or why. And this can go on for only so long before chaos sets in.

The Alpha Product Manager knows where the glory is and is going to take the team with her — the easy or the hard way. She is relentless because she knows she is right.

But the insight that genius will always trump “group think” is not well-appreciated and violates our basic beliefs about democracy and equality. Most companies work hard to waste tons of money bringing employees together to generate ideas and solve problems collectively.

The reality is that the Alpha Product Manager often needs to be left alone. We benefit from feedback, but initial sparks usually are generated from deep thought. And genius is only diluted early on with every new contributor. There is a reason that Alpha Product Managers are more productive than anyone else, artists work in small studios, and authors head to the woods.

Consider the following three reasons the Alpha Product Manager dominates:

Clarity of vision Idiosyncrasies are where brilliant ideas are born. An Alpha Product Manager can hold the complete product vision, strategic drivers, market dynamics, success metrics, and technical requirements in her head. This leads to a more opinionated product outlook with less compromise. One confident and focused product leader typically sets the tone for an entire project. There are no doubt that others provide critical feedback and fill in blind spots, but the genius of one typically leads the way.

Massive productivity Alpha Product Managers are amazingly productive. The problem is that for most teams, communication and coordination costs dominate the cost of product roadmap planning and software development. This is because as soon as there is more than one person involved, communication overhead starts to create inefficiency. Communicating the vision, reaching consensus on decisions, reviewing poorly written user stories are all unintended product management and engineering tasks. Alpha Product Managers are clear thinkers who get to the essence faster than anyone else and explain big ideas that others can then help refine and polish.

Go-to-market extraordinaire The Alpha Product Manager knows the market and customers better than anyone else. She is the unique selling proposition and Marketing and Sales would be well-advised to listen closely. She knows that one major benefit is better than five and analysts come to her for insight. She is trusted with the media and delivers keynote speeches.

The Alpha Product Manager is the product evangelist because she is both inside and outside the product at the same time.

I am writing here of the Alpha Product Manager as the obvious and undisputed leader. To be clear, the product manager alone does not make a successful organization. It is highly desirable to have product management, marketing, and/or design experts work with the engineer when complementary skills are required.

If you are an Alpha Product Manager (or aspire to be or work with one), you may want to sign up for a free 30-day trial of Aha! to set your product strategy, create a brilliant roadmap, and work with engineering to build lasting product greatness.

* I assume that product genius takes both massive intellectual capacity and a relentless work ethic. Thus, I estimated that there are only a few hundred Alpha Product Managers by completing the following basic calculation: Total product managers worldwide x percent intellectual genius x percent relentless work ethic. I used the following data to come to my conclusion. There are about 80,000 product managers worldwide, according to LinkedIn. About 1% of the product management population is true genius and, of those, I estimate 20% have the required work ethic.

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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