The PMwheel — a Compass for the Product Manager Development Journey

This was initially published on my blog February 19th 2021

Back in 2016, I was working with the product organization of a larger tech company. They asked me to help every product manager on the team “understand the role of the product manager better,” and to help the product managers understand what “better” would actually look like.

This was not an easy task and, although I had a certain take on what product managers should be responsible for, I lacked a clear framework — an assessment that I could discuss with the individual product manager in our coaching sessions. I decided it was time to create that framework and this is how I came up with The PMwheel.

In this post, you will learn:

  • What the PMWheel is and how it can help you
  • How to measure product management activities with the PMwheel

What Is the PMwheel?

The PMwheel has become a reliable compass for people who want to navigate their product career or develop their direct reports. It’s an approach that I have personally used in my work with clients ever since I developed it.

The PMwheel:

  • Is a unified framework designed to help product managers understand their roles and responsibilities across a range of activities
  • Is a framework that can help them to identify their next personal and professional development steps
  • Knows no boundaries — it can be applied in any product organization, anywhere around the globe
  • Works without me being in the room. It can help heads of product foster career conversations with their product managers and make better recruiting decisions

Here’s how the PMwheel can help you in your own product manager development journey. The PMwheel is especially helpful if:

  • You are managing product people and are searching for a framework that can help you foster career conversations with your product managers and assess your product people in a structured way.
  • You are a product manager seeking orientation. For example, what should your next personal and professional development step be?

What Do Product Managers Do?

Before we dig into the PMwheel model and how to use it, let’s quickly consider what a good product manager should be capable of. I believe good product managers can:

  • Generate value: Listen to their users/customers/market to understand their problems and how they could possibly solve them
  • Minimize risk: Conduct experiments and prototypes to test assumptions/hypotheses and solutions before building the product
  • Find product-market fit: Deliver value and test if people are actually using/buying their product
  • Streamline the process: Maximize value but minimize the effort to build the actual solution and make sure the winning solution(s) can be built by the team in a reasonable amount of time
  • Utilize feedback: Deliver the product and optimize (or even innovate) it based on customer feedback

In the product world, you’ll find that these things are given all sorts of fancy names, including design thinking, product discovery, user research, and more. However, in the end, it all boils down to what product managers do.

Measuring Product Management Activities with the PMwheel

For the PMwheel, I decided to come up with my own structure to talk about the things a product manager does. The wheel measures eight key product management activities, all of which can be assessed and scored.

You can see and download the PMwheel model here.

Let’s take a look at the eight activities, as illustrated in the following PMwheel graphic:

Black background showing the PMwheel as a Spiderweb graphic using it´s eight dimensions + a red line showing how the PM rated herself
Black background showing the PMwheel as a Spiderweb graphic using it´s eight dimensions + a red line showing how the PM rated herself
The PMwheel and its eight dimensions

Here’s what each of these activities involve (1–5 relate to specific parts of the product-development process, while 6–8 are more general):

  1. Understand the problem: Is the product manager aware of the underlying user problems of the product they are working on? Do they understand the motives, issues, and beliefs of these people? And have they thought about the needs of the company/organization when it comes to creating this product?
  2. Find a solution: Did they find some good problems to solve? Great! Can they come up with some possible solutions and experiments for testing them?
  3. Do some planning: Whether you’re a fan of good old roadmaps, or you know the latest Agile planning tricks, a product manager must have a plan and a story to explain what’s next.
  4. Get it done! Every product manager needs to know how to work with their product development team to get the product out to the customer.
  5. Listen & learn: Once the product manager has released something new, they will want to observe if and how people are using it, and to iterate on the learnings to improve the current status.
  6. Team: How good is the product manager when it comes to teamwork? What do they know about lateral leadership and motivating teams?
  7. Grow! Is the product manager investing some time in their personal growth as a product person?
  8. Agile: Is the product manager just living in the Agile world or do they fully understand Agile values, principles, and ways of working?

Note: It’s important to keep in mind that creating a product is a team sport and so it is NOT the product manager’s job to do all of these activities on their own. Instead, they should keep an eye on all of these things, making sure decisions get made and doing whatever is necessary to drive progress.

HOW TO ASSESS AND SCORE EACH ACTIVITY

To establish how effectively a product manager is carrying out each of the eight activities above, and to check their understanding of them, there are a number of guiding questions you can ask (or they can ask themselves).

You’ll find all of these in the PMwheel download (LINK hightlightfarbe), but here are a few examples:

Find a Solution:

  • Can they come up with various solution hypotheses and an experiment/test/learning plan for those?
  • Can they describe various methods for testing hypotheses (from fake door testing to usability testing, to split testing, etc.) and what they are for?

Get it done!

  • Can they describe how they keep the stakeholders in the loop while developing things?
  • Can they describe their team’s take on software quality? How do they make sure everything works well?

Listen & Learn

  • Can they talk about the current performance of their product at any given time?
  • Can they describe experiments and quick testing methods to improve and refine their product in short cycles?

By asking these questions, you will be able to determine an overall score from 0–7. On this scale, 0 indicates poor knowledge, no skills, and low performance while 7 indicates excellence in knowledge, skills, and performance.

Give the PMwheel a Try!

The PMwheel is a remarkably useful tool for heads of product, product managers, and other product people.

Whether you’re a manager looking for a way to refresh the career conversations you have with your direct reports or a practicing product manager who’s keen to evaluate your own skills, the PMwheel will help you to better understand the product manager’s role and responsibilities and create clear pathways for personal and professional development.

Over the course of the last four years, I have been using the PMwheel in my coaching in a wide variety of companies including startups, scale-ups, and corporations. In many cases, it’s also been helpful when used for hiring, onboarding, and for people development purposes.

If you have used it and want to share your feedback, please don’t hesitate. Share your thoughts in the comments below or get in touch with me directly. I would love to hear about your experiences!

Read on

If you want to learn more about how to use the PMwheel in different contexts, check out the following posts:

Product Leadership Coach and author of STRONG Product People based in Europe. Co-Organizer of MTP Engage Hamburg. Loves the web, music, and kitesurfing.