Recently I've worked with several companies who have been interested in a primer for new product managers or executives on the art and science of building good products. While I believe that individual coaching is a key piece of building a great product management skillset, having a decent foundation in the principles of product makes for much more productive conversations. Below I’ve put together my first pass at a curriculum for anyone who is interested in doing product, managing product managers or working in a product-driven company. The first section is required reading for all, and the subsequent topics are meant to provide deeper dives into specific areas of product and design.

The Basics

Start with a reading (or re-reading) of Inspired, by Marty Cagan. I believe this is the best single work on how to do product well regardless of your business stage, industry or product type.

If you would like a refresher on the high points, or you want an intro to the concepts covered in Inspired, check out the following SVPG articles, and subscribe to the email list:

Lean Startup, by Eric Reis, is a good next-step towards understanding how to create MVP tests that will validate your product hypothesis. Many of the techniques covered in this book are applicable to mature products as well as startups.

Watch this video on the Sales Safari for an introduction to the concept of watering holes and how to observe and discover your user’s problems and behaviors.

Read the definitive Quora post on what makes a good product manager.

After spending time with the above material, you may be ready to dive more deeply into some content on specific topics within product management, agile methodologies and user experience design.

Advanced Product Discovery

User Story Mapping, by Jeff Patton, provides a great overview of one way to understand how a complex product can be broken into small user stories that describe real problems and also, when finished, can be demonstrated in working software. If you don’t have time for Jeff’s entire book, The Product Owner Manual contains a brief overview of the topics covered.

Roman Pilcher writes well on the topic of user stories and addresses lots of new concepts in this article. If you read that and want some more, this is the whole enchilada.

Lean Analytics is a great read if you are looking for starting points on how to measure the right thing quickly in order to discover great products.

This article on banishing NPS from your lexicon is a bit hyperbolic but touches on some valid points for the product manager who may have fallen into a rut in how they approach analytics.

Lest you forget the importance of content and word choice, Justin Jackson offers a simple reminder (his newsletter is on my must-read list as well).

If you’ve gotten this far, give this article on premortems for software development a read. I’ve found this tactic more and more helpful lately in my own efforts and I hope it will save you some churn.

The Nuts and Bolts of Agile

Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, by Jeff Sutherland, is the best single description of Scrum from the father of Scrum.

The Product Owner Role focuses on how the Product Owner functions within the Scrum team and is a good compliment to the above book or a quick read to cover the most ‘need-to-know’ info on how a PO can succeed in the Scrum framework.

Scrum Alliance has done a great job of wrapping up lots of Scrum reading for product managers into a single place here. Reading through all of the content on this page should be everything that an executive would need to feel highly comfortable with the concepts of scrum.

If you’re more of an audio-visual learner, this presentation from Martin Hinshelwood is an excellent summary of Scrum fundamentals.

User Experience Design for Non-designers

Lastly, I believe that design is important and dangerous. If a product manager is spending their day in Sketch creating visual mockups, I question whether they are doing product work at all. Conversely, by choosing to learn nothing about the principles of user experience design, product managers handicap themselves dramatically (which is also true of product managers who don’t have a sufficient technical knowledge base to work well with engineers).

The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman is a good book for anyone, full stop. It also happens to contain some great foundational principles for those of us who didn’t go to design school to begin thinking about the differences between effective design and artwork.

Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug is probably the definitive work on software usability, and though it is 15 years old now, it still rings very true.

While there are endless great UX newsletters, Mailchimp’s seems to be one of the most product-relevant (and interesting) periodicals.

If you're still hungry for design reading, this article will give you a reading list that should last a couple of years.

As you work your way through the above material, start implementing small pieces into your sprints and see what works for you. As with learning anything that is complex, it's important to structure your learning. So, don't focus on "learning product management" - focus instead on a specific skill that you would like to add to your repetoire. For example, this month you may decide to focus deeply on story mapping in order to create a healthier and more connected backlog earlier in the discovery process. Hopefully this reading list provides an overview of the basic skills that you could choose to focus on, though as you dive in you'll likely find that there are hundreds of subsets within each of these skills. I'd love to hear from you if you feel like anything is missing from the list or if you've found particular items helpful that should be added.

Tagged in : Agile, Product Management

Mark Parrett

Mark Parrett is a product manager for a VC backed SaaS company in Salt Lake City. Contact him with any questions about this or go here to see what he has done lately.