Becoming the Product Manager for an Existing Product

Sometimes you just wanna pull on a loose thread and see what happens! (Image CC 2.0 license by Cea+)
Sometimes you just wanna pull on a loose thread and see what happens! (Image CC 2.0 license by Cea+)

Taking on an existing product

In this episode, we talk through an underrepresented topic in the world of Product Management: how specifically to approach the management of an already existing product.

Much of the conversation in the podcast and blogosphere about Product Management focuses on the act of bringing a new product to market. But for a lot of us, we’re not creating new products, we’re joining a team to manage a product further down its lifecycle.

First and foremost, we point out the need to understand why you’re being added to the team as a PM. Sometimes it’s as simple as a product that is growing and needs more direction and focus (see Nils’ post on product manager-to-developer ratios). Sometimes it’s to replace an existing perspective and take the product a new direction. This can give you a hint about whether the company is looking for a rebel or for more efficiency in the current path.

Don’t pull on those loose threads

After that, we dig into some of the pitfalls. First, be very careful about diving in to “fix” some “obvious” problems with the product as your first move. We use a great analogy of pulling a thread that seems to be hanging out of nowhere and it works through the whole thought process.

That then lead us to talk about some of the basics (referencing back to the 100 Days Plan podcast episode) that we encourage you to do when joining a new company or team. In this case, it’s a lot of architecture and history to pull from the existing team. Understanding what engineering decisions have been made and what the evolution of the product has been will inform many decisions to pull on a loose thread or avoid it because it would risk the entire product falling apart.

Staying ahead of the curve

We then move on to pointing out ways to stay ahead of the status quo without making newbie mistakes. You need to understand the metrics that have been driving the company so far, and to identify current sources of useable/trackable data. Using this can give a strong argument for pulling on a truly useless thread.

Before we end with the three takeaways, we dive into the three legs a PM stands on: Domain Knowledge, Specific Product Knowledge, and Core PM Skills. No matter where you’re starting from, your employer will expect you to get good at all three, fast!

What you can do today

Finally, the three takeaways from this episode are:

  1. Understand that you’re being brought in to fill a need. Ask/understand what it is, then move and change status quo without tearing down the product.
  2. Learn the architecture/assumptions/history of the product. All will help you avoid pitfalls and grant you ammunition for the battles you need to fight.
  3. When in doubt, at the beginning at least, ask someone before you start cutting features or making drastic changes.

Let me know your thoughts!

  • The easiest and best way to support the podcast is to give me some feedback on this episode! Leave me a comment or question, or drop one into my Twitter mentions (I’m @nilsdavis), or just send me an email at
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  • And you can just share the podcast directly with your product manager friends – they’ll probably really appreciate it.

  • […] Here’s a little more on joining a company as a product manager (or the product manager) for a product that’s already in the market: Becoming the Product Manager for an Existing Product. […]

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