Product managers Ikigai - putting purpose at the heart


The word Ikigai originates from Japan and is a concept which seeks to help you arrive at your “AHAA” moment which most of us have been looking for - in other words Ikigai simply translates to “reason for being”.


While this 'purpose of life' and 'reason for being model' is focused at a personal level to drive you to keep doing what you love, there is a case to adapt this into an aspirational model for product managers (PM) to bench mark themselves against and to be the best version of themselves. The Ikigai should serve as a point of reflection and mindfulness, to focus on the things which matter - driving simplicity in design, customer centricity and ethical outcomes.

“Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.”– Benjamin Franklin

The product managers sweet spot sits at the intersection of four pillars which are silos. The interconnectivity the PM brings about is crucial for a product to thrive. To be a great product leader the PM must be courageous to weave through the silos and lead cross-functional teams across the organisation to deliver the product at pace with customer demand. This mashup of skills and people creates a strong fabric which forms the foundation of the product. The better the interplay and interactions between the four areas, the more customer centric and focused the product will be. The product manager plays that pivotal role in connecting the dots and brings about a sense of ownership within the team.


Organisations are complex and constantly evolving, so are the needs of customers and the changing dynamics of the market place. Product managers are wise to know that change doesn't come over night and creating a movement takes time. Having a sense of this is critical to drive the velocity of any change. As PMs pursue the cross functional engagement it will be apparent that not everyone is on the same frequency as folks want to know "whats in it for me", and its the PMs job to use their influence, savviness and energy to drive the outcomes which are required for the product to succeed. Getting excited about someone else' initiative does not happen instantly, the PM needs to orchestrate the narration of the Bigger Picture to demonstrate whats in it for everyone. But the question is how does the Product Manager move mountains to make it all happen?


Getting to the sweet spot

Our reference to the PM Ikagai model will give you a perspective of how a PM can be purposeful and thrive in being an effective product leader. We break this aspirational PM Ikigai model down into a combination of traits, behaviors, skills and demands placed on the PM to bring it all together.

  • Empathetic - it all starts with the customer. Get in front of your customers and understand the pain points which need solving and what their challenges are which are preventing them from getting their jobs to be done to be completed on time. PMs need to *walk in the shoes of the customer / end user.*There can be a tendency to belittle the users problem and suggest other ways to accomplish their goals which may require them to make a change or create an unintended inconvenience to someone else in their ecosystem.

“Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.”- Bill Gates

As PMs since we can be swayed by our own bias we should learn to be empathetic and take a consultative approach to explore and problem solve, it will translate into better product design. Being empathetic leads to :

  • Customers and users realising that you are listening to them and have acknowledged the problem and have put yourself out there to solve it.

  • Delivering user delight through simplification and giving users an intuitive user experience, where the focus is on the activity and not the technology.

  • Asking open ended questions without boxing the respondent into what the PM thinks the answer should be.

  • Lean into the responses and observe their situation, the environment and circumstances surrounding the activities which are causing the pain point to occur.


  • Visionary - the product vision is the compass to guide everyone on where you want to take the product. After setting the initial product vision, the PM should be thinking a few steps ahead and be charting out and anticipating what the future could look like and be prepared for the unexpected and be ready to pivot should it be necessary. Some cues to consider are to look at customers, competitors, regulations, technology, socio-economics and evolving business models and translate the good into goals and the bad into your learnings to avoid making those same mistakes. Being a visionary involves building the right thing for customers and your company and building it right at the get go without wasting time and scare resources. Product visions should evolve to remain relevant, a

  • Co creating solutions and products with customers to solve the right problems and delivering these in an iterative approach, through constant validation and user feedback. The PM also take a future forward approach with the customer and transition them onto a new path.

  • Optimises the use of technology bringing in the best in class software and engineering capability. Close collaboration with technology to select the best platforms and tools to deliver compelling user experience.


  • Evangelist - moving mountains and fire fighting is the name of the game for the PM. The PM has the task of selling the product proposition on a daily basis with everyone. They need to be upbeat on the achievements and the pathway ahead of them. Painting a picture of positivity and energy by show casing the product with stakeholders with the goal of being top of mind to get management and funding support. A PM can strive to be the evangelist by writing / talking about industry trends, use cases, how the product solves problems.

  • The PM has to first be a believer in the product themselves before they bring it to the technology and business teams. In the early stages many would want to poke holes at the vision and proposition.

  • By focusing on the innovation agenda the PM can bring about the interest and support from the business by illustration how the product will bring in revenue, grow the customer base and increase adoption through the transformative and innovative platforms.


  • Accountable - The PM is accountable to the business for the revenue and forecasted business growth as submitted in the business case and indirectly to its customers as well with the promise of providing a product which is supposed to solve a problem and give the the customer the value which intended. The journey is likely to have its challenges, and the PM must communicate the good and the bad to these stakeholders.

  • Customers and users are concerned with the feature releases, product backlog and the user experience. Its the PMs job to manage these proactively. Keeping a close tab on what is working well.

  • PM is accountable for the product narrative and should be deeply engaged with product marketing to build out the customer angles. Being the voice of the customer is a burden the PM needs to execute well by building the right features for the product to be desirable.


Skills

  • Efficiency - the product manager breaks down barriers and drives timely decision making to keep the product delivery at pace. A few key areas where the efficiency of the product manager is highlighted are the product roadmap, they drive efficient designs - thereby lowering costs, build commercially viable features which are in demand. They build products in a smart and incremental way so that re-work and wastage is minimised. The clarity in their product vision and user stories provides clarity on what is required. The difference in having a great product manger is that they are realistic in their demands of scope, time and costs. This is often overlooked and is often the cause of much anxiety and pain.

  • Innovative - fostering a growth mindset will allow you to solve problems. The solution does not have to be driven by what you know, it can be based on what the PM doesnt't know, because by opening up to new ideas and testing out hypothesis the PM can bring out the best in creativity. The PM need not always be the person to find the the best way to solve the problem. Some problems cannot be solved entirely at the get go for many reasons. The old ways of problem solving was centered around finding the most optimal solution with delayed outcomes and dissatisfaction.

Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection” – Mark Twain
  • Communicator - the product managers super power is communication. Great product managers are masters in communication across mediums. PMs need to synthesize information across sources and then crystalise and package that information into reports, briefs, guides and various other materials. They need to articulate product propositions, their demands and decisions - what to focus on, why something should be done or dropped. They need to be able to engage folks across the entire corporate spectrum to get the right products at the right time.

  • Simplicity -keeping things simple and manageable will drive inspiration within the product team. A clear sense of breaking down complexity into bite size chunks enables progress. Its very easy to make something complicated and its even more difficult to peel away the layers of complexity to arrive at the heart of the problem which needs solving. Being a master at simplicity is so Zen like that when simplify they dont discard the complexity, they just park it away to be brought it again at the right time. Great PMs remove the noise and confusion which are part of any large project and shield the development team from noise. Simplicity brings about razor sharp focus.

Making it work

Exhibiting the behavioral traits and building the precise skills takes time and intention. The goal of the product manager in adopting the Ikigai model is to drive a behavioral change, nudging themselves to improve and finely balance all the facets product management - customer, business, user experience and technology and staying true to the product managers manifesto. Looking again at the sweet spot in the venn diagram there will be harmony and alignment between what you are good at, what you enjoy, what customers need and what the business expects from you as a product manager.


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