Books for Product Managers which aren't written by Product Managers...
I never set out to be a Product Manager. In fact I never even really knew what it was until someone told me I was one. I saw myself as a digital generalist, forged in an era where having a digital team was a luxury and you had no choice but to be a ‘Jack/Jill of All Trades’.
Once someone gave me a name for it I was able to study the profession of Product Management and fill in the gaps. That said, I have always been drawn to a broader, more holistic approach than being driven to perfect my use of Jira or arguing about the worth of ‘user stories’ versus ‘jobs to be done’.
This generalist approach has led to an eclectic list of books that have inspired and influenced my ways of working and thinking over the years.
This list however is based on the books I lend or buy new colleagues, clients and mentees whenever I am unable to articulate the finer points of moving to a product thinking approach.
11 books to inspire and inform your product thinking
- The Lean Start-up — OK so it has a lot to answer for and has probably spawned more online discussion and dodgy start-ups than any other business book written, but actually it is full of gems and I find in this post-COVID world it makes more sense than ever.
- Turn the Ship Around — the best book I’ve read about new approaches to leadership and team working. The fact it is about leading the crew of a nuclear submarine is almost by-the-by (but does make it pretty interesting!).
- The Phoenix Project — this was the first business book I read that took a narrative, story-telling approach. It was also the first book that really explained to me what the hell DevOps was and the real meaning of ‘lean’.
- Sprint — I was actually introduced to the Google Ventures approach to Design Sprints long before this book via a talk by Dan Ramsden from the BBC. I’m a big fan of the approach — it isn’t for everything or everyone but it is a valuable tool and generally just a good framework for user-centric working (even if you ignore the all-in-five-days element!)
- The Everything Store — there is a lot about the Amazon way that is pretty icky, particularly that they treat their staff dreadfully from the warehouse to the meeting room to the data centre... This book though is really insightful into how they became the colossus they are today and how a militant focus on the customer was a massive part of that.
- Creative Quest - one of the things I love about ‘product management’ is that in its own way it is endlessly creative and over the years I have become fascinated with the process beyond the passion of the most creative people I admire. Questlove of the mighty Roots crew is one of those people and this is his attempt to understand not only his own creative process but creativity itself. There is something reassuring about realising it is work even for the most gifted.
- Work Rules — on the one hand any book about hiring, organisational culture and staff development that is almost entirely about Google is not going to be that transferable. After all, this is a place people queue up to work, with significant salaries and the opportunities to be part of really huge projects. Most of us don’t have those advantages. That said, Google is far from perfect, does some odd things and alienates its fair share of candidates as well.
This book shows both sides of that and is a really great primer for why making hiring a major priority is so important if you ever want to be successful.
- Lab Rats - sometimes it is useful to get a different, contrary, perspective on things. Dan Lyons is a journalist and screenwriter (best known for contributing to the show Silicon Valley) but he was also the veteran of being the token ‘older’ person at a start-up - which he documented in the very funny Disrupted - and in this book he captures all the ills that agile and product approaches have inflicted on the modern workplace. It is at times painful to read and unfortunately all too recognisable in places. It is an excellent handbook for what not to do.
- Remote - I suspect I wasn’t the only person to revisit this book in 2020. Released back in 2013, it is one of the definitive books to cover how to successfully operate as a fully remote product team/organisation. As with all of these types of books not everything is relevant or transferable but there is no doubt that it provides more insight and actual real tips than anything else I’ve read on the topic.
The more people who read this and start to move their thinking away from trying to replicate the office environment via MS Teams/Zoom etc to something actually remote-first, the better we’ll all be.
- Good Services - there are times when the lines between Service Design and Product Management can get pretty blurry. Elements of what both professions do can lead to looking at the same problem from different perspectives and then using different languages and artefacts to explain what they see. Lou’s book is a great primer on what good service design looks like stripped away from jargon and ‘blueprints’ (which Product Management is equally bad at don’t get me wrong!), and it manages to articulate the slippery idea of ‘a service’ clearly. No mean feat.
A bonus... This one goes to
11. Future Ethics - I wish more product people would read this book. Software is not neutral and if we have learned anything in the last four or five years it is that the ethical considerations of digital products need to be considered before we simply launch the tools of chaos and then just stand back and take no responsibility. This stuff isn’t easy but the more people educate themselves in this space the more ethical considerations will leak into the product process.
So there you have it
So there you have it - 11 recommended reads for product people, which will enhance and inspire your work. Of course, this is just a quick snapshot, and there are plenty of other good reads out there to spark your imagination. If you'd like to share the books that have inspired you, join the conversation on LinkedIn or Twitter.
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