The art of integration & synthesis: the key trait of a product manager

A way of addressing the full context in complex systems

The art of integration & synthesis: the key trait of a product manager

Naysayers have often considered the product manager to be a luxury role. If you’re not designing, programming or marketing, what the heck are you doing?!

Here’s the crux of the problem: who has the time, knowledge and context to integrate both customer, business and team needs to decide on the most impactful thing to built right now?

Product managers, I believe, are there to synthesise and integrate disparate fragments of knowledge to first identify the most important problem, then work on its solution.

What does that mean exactly?

  • Integrate: coalescing various bits of data and information to form a coherent whole
  • Synthesise: using these disparate parts to create something new

Integrate & synthesise

In an increasingly atomised world, where people are increasingly encouraged to specialise, the PM remains the ultimate generalist. If you’re to make good decisions in complexity, you need an awareness of the full context — an ability to make sense of what’s around you, balance various possibilities and chart a path forward that unifies your team.

This alludes to the premise of one of my favourite books, The Master & His Emissary. It posits the way we see the world (due to left-brain dominance) has become increasingly disjointed, fragmented and narrow. If we only look at the parts, we fail to look at the whole. And the whole tells the far richer story.

This of course, is the danger with relying on single data points to explain everything.

“We’re losing customers! Let’s bring them back by running a few promotions! Do it now!”

But have you considered the full context of the customers’ stories? Do you deeply understand why you seem to have this problem?

This is why the product manager exists — to understand the context of the situation, lay the path ahead, and communicate it clearly to everyone involved.

The paradox of clarifying the ambiguous

Business is a complex adaptive system — there are a tonne of interacting components that adapt and respond to their environment. Clients, finance, marketing, sales, engineering, operations, plus all the external economic factors, subtly interplay with each other.

But as the saying goes: all models are wrong, some are useful. Their utility is found in presenting a workable picture to help people understand the key considerations. Crucially, this limits the endless rabbit holes to consider when making decisions — the death of a product manager begins with over-complication and muddled thinking.

So whilst it’s ridiculous to have a completely accurate picture of everything that’s happening, you still need to a way to work through the ambiguity and take meaningful actions.

And that synthesis, plus clarity of thought is what sets the tone for a team’s success.

Searching for truth beyond the metrics

A narrow, specialised focus can have damning consequences in business and life — energy production at the expense of environmental pollution, a pursuit of career success that sacrifices family ties, or a planning system that preserves wealth for current owners at the expense of future generations.

A metric is a distillation of a certain set of events, yet in a world that’s increasingly quantitatively driven, it doesn’t necessarily explain the complexity of the whole story.

This is is also known as the McNamara fallacy — characterised by a reliance on quantitative data while disregarding qualitative factors that can’t be easily quantified. In business, you might find this in the pursuit of short-term goals; aggressive discounts can help revenue numbers, but at the cost of changing customer habits and long-term profits. Oops.

I’m not saying to ditch the quantitative entirely, it clearly has an important role in decision making. But it’s one part of the wider synthesis to find the truth. This is the real goal: integrate disparate knowledge, find what is true, focus on what’s most important.

And once you have clarity of the context, can distill it into a map of the key variables in the system, you can start to make a real impact.

Clarity (and conviction) of thought and action

Clarity of thought leads to a clarity of action. Because once the picture is clear to you, it’ll be much easier to convey those ideas to the people that matter — your team and your stakeholders. And if there’s one task vital to the success of your job as a PM, it’s convincing others of those ideas too.

If we start with a simple question:

“So, what should we build?”

There are a near-infinite set of answers, because of the complex nature of business. Without synthesising the evidence, business strategy and customer needs, decisions tend to default to the HPP (highest paid person).

But synthesis means decisions are far better informed, and (you’d expect) more likely to succeed. It also put you in a far stronger position to chart the path ahead, and people begin to trust you.

One further point of the benefits of synthesis: clarity enables confidence. Just like in sales, if you don’t have confidence in yourself, it’s almost certain your team (or customers) won’t either.

Conducting a room full of people and making them believe you’ve got the situation under control is an under-appreciated superpower.

This doesn’t mean defaulting to dogmatism and hubris. After all, you don’t have much authority as a PM. Yet balancing others’ ideas with your own conviction is just one further aspect of integrating various aspects of the system. And appreciating others’ inputs whilst subtly pushing back can also further boost trust.

This is not to say you should reject others’ ideas by default — that would be incredibly silly —  as one idea from a different perspective may in fact be the key to unlocking a better solution.

Intelligence alone is not enough — enter wisdom

Balancing all of these variables to deliver an effective solution is clearly tricky — the problem definition, stakeholder expectations, design constraints, engineering capacity, business strategy and even external regulations.

The temptation is to battle it head on with intellectual horsepower, but this often leads to needless complexity and a lack of clarity. Then you’re right back where you started.

The aim is to find the simplest effective solution for the needs of your team and the business. The simplest option is often the right one — it’s easier for everyone to digest, can be built faster and solves customer problems more effectively.

This is where wisdom plays its role, discerning the vast swaths of information while taking the full context into account, balancing the needs of people and the business to find a way forward.

How do you attain this wisdom? That’s probably for another time. But experience combined with curiosity and self-awareness is a good place to start. With each project, you can build mental models of how the system works, so each time something else comes around, you recognise its details and it becomes ‘another one of those’.

So, where do we go from here?

To quickly recap:

  1. Product managers should look to integrate, then synthesise the available information to identify the most important problems. Above all — find the truth of the situation.
  2. Use quantitative data, but be curious about the full context to understand what is actually true
  3. Bringing clarity to the ambiguity makes it easier for others to digest
  4. Once it’s clear to you, you’ll have more confidence conveying those ideas to others
  5. Using raw intelligence to tackle problems isn’t enough — you’ll need to apply wisdom to reach the most effective solution (the simplest option is often the most effective)

As a starting point, it’s vital to be the most knowledgeable person about the business function you work in. This is literally a prerequisite for becoming a competent PM. You’ll need to use this knowledge to connect the dots between the various parts of the system.

Only from there can you start to identify and solve the most important problems for the business, accounting for customer needs and business goals.

So are product managers a nice-to-have? Only if you’re looking at it from a narrow perspective.

Further reading

An exploration of the resources below have been particularly useful in compiling this article.

📚 The Master & His Emissary
📚 Systems Thinking
🌐 Complexity Theory
📽️ What is Wisdom?