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Best Books for Product Managers
Part 2 - Knowledge Tree for PMs
👋 Hey, I am Deepak and welcome to another edition of my newsletter. I deep dive into topics around building products and driving growth.
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Let’s dive in the topic now!
In the last post, we covered the knowledge tree for PMs. Here is an illustration of the same for recap,
At the end of the post, I mentioned that various books can be mapped to these skills. A right mapping would prove useful for PMs trying to get better on a particular skill.
While there are plethora of books on each topic, I am going to recommend those that I have read myself. These books have helped me immensely throughout my career as a PM.
Further, a laundry list can be quite overwhelming so we will limit the recommendation per topic to top 1-3 books. At the end of the post, there is a master diagram provided which contains all the recommended books.
Recommended Books to Learn Skills
Let’s cover the skills one by one
Written Communication — A book I like most around written communication is On Writing by Stephen King. Stephen king is a terrific writer. Half of the book is writing guide, the other half is memoir.
Another foundational book around writing is The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. It doesn’t matter which one of these two you pick first, but you need to finish both to have a sense of the art and science of writing.
Verbal communication — The key problem in verbal communication is lack of structure. And a book that helped me solve this problem is The Pyramind Principle by Barabara Minto.
Another book around having difficult conversations is The Crucial Conversations. Crucial conversations helps you with the right mindset to be in during stressful situations. While it’s difficult to implement everything the author talks about in the book, it definitely helps you shift your mindset to the extent that you would avoid blunders in stressful situations.
Negotiation — The only book I am going to recommend around negotiation is Never Split the Difference. The book is written by a former FBI negotiator and is a wonderful read.
Org Psychology — I haven’t come across anything excellent in this area, and so don’t have a strong recommendation. The book that helped me decipher various org cultures and why each culture can succeed despite the differences is No Rules Rules by Reed Hastings, the founder and CEO of Netflix.
Another good book around this is How Google Works by Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google.
But while these books provide you an insight into conscious choices made by founders/executives to create a strong culture, it doesn’t talks about the mechanics of org psychology. There is much you have derive yourself.
There are many books which talks about why some organisations fail while others succeed. One popular one in this category is Good to Great by Jim Collins. But while books such as Good to Great are an entertaining read, their research methodology relies on narrative of leaders and is unreliable because of narrative fallacy. So read them because there is always something to learn, but don’t take them as truth. Reading a book about a single company gives a better view since you can see whether the whole story makes sense, and also vet what’s written to some extent by talking to people there.
Behavioural Psychology — The definitive book you need to read on behavioural psychology is Thinking Fast and Slow by Danial Kanhemann. It’s a dense read and took me longest to finish among all I have read so far. However, the effort is worth it since it gets you started on behavioural psychology. Another one of my favourites is Influence by Robert Cialdini, which talks about the psychology of persuasion. The third book on this list would be Hooked by Nir Eyal, which talks about habit formation in products.
User research — User research is a key area for PMs and design teams. The recommended books on this topic are Don’t Make Me Think, The Mom Test, and Continuous Discovery Habits. The three books are quite different from each other.
‘Continuous Discovery Habits’ talks about setting up a system to conduct research, whereas ‘The Mom Test’ is focussed on how to conduct user interviews. ‘Don’t Make Me Think’ is an entertaining read which talks about the importance of usability tests and how to conduct them well. What I like about these 3 as compared to other books is that they focus a lot of ‘why X is important’/ They don’t prescribe something, but rather take a first principled approach — crucial in a truth-seeking endeavour such as user research.
Data analysis — Data analysis is where I have read a whole lot of books, primarily because I have built and led product analytics and data science teams in startups. And unfortunately, I haven’t found many excellent books in this domain. How to Lie with Statistics is a short and entertaining read which also helps you spot common problems with data analysis. A decent book around metrics of different companies is Lean Analytics, but it falls short on how to think holistically about data. These recommendations aren’t enough to master product analytics imo, so you should seek out more resources on the internet after you finish these. Here is a list of such resources that I covered in an earlier post.
Industry analysis — Industry analysis is best covered in two books: Competitive Strategy by Michael Porter, and 7 Powers by Hamilton Helmer. While the first one talks about how to study the structure of the industry and its 5 forces, the second one focusses more on how companies build moats/defensibility in their models. ‘Competitive Strategy’ by Porter is a heavy read, so if you are short on time, you can pick Understanding Michael Porter by Joan Magretta which is easy to understand.
Project management — Of the numerous books published over Scrum and Agile, I find the one by Jeff Sutherland apt for PMs. He is the co-creator of Scrum. The book is titled Scrum: The art of doing twice the work in half the time.
Another excellent book around project management is The Phoenix Project, which talks about development and software shipping challenges. The whole book is a elaborate story of an IT company, so it’s an enjoyable read.
Possibly, my favourite book on project management is The Art of Project Management. The book was written in 2005, and some of the portions may be outdated. However, it does a fabulous job of bringing all elements of project management together — teams, people, design, development, testing, leadership, politics, etc.
Design — Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman is a clear winner when it comes to UX design. I am yet to find a good book on UI design, so if you have a recommendation, please share.
Tech Understanding — PMs don’t need to code, but they definitely need to understand tech terminologies and high-level system design. Tech Simplified (I wrote this) would be my recommendation as there aren’t many books on Tech for PMs. Swipe to Unlock is another good read, however it talks more about tech business and strategy (and a little bit of how tech ties into that).
Creativity — I would leave this section blank as while I have read books on this topic, but they haven’t moved me from place A to B in terms of creative skills. I am currently researching this one skill for my next project, so will keep you updated.
A good, informative read around what makes organisations creative is Creativity Inc which writes about the creative methods and culture at Pixar.
Business 101 — There are far too many books around business, so it’s hard to pick top 3 recommendations here. Each business book brings a new perspective, yet limited in some way. The limitations also arise because business landscape is continuously evolving.
For those who haven’t done MBA, a good place to start is Business Model Generation.
Playing to Win should be definitely read by anyone building strategy to launch/optimise product lines. The Innovators Dilemma is another great read for people working in tech. It is thought-provoking, and quite original in thesis.
Here is a good visual diagram to help you save and remember
What books are missing in the above?
If you look at the diagram, you may realise some of the most popular books in PM missing there:
Cracking the PM Interview by Jackie Bavaro — Even if I have read the book and love it, it is useful for cracking the interviews and not for real-life product management. So it doesn’t make the list.
Inspired by Marty Cagan — If you are an aspiring or beginner PM, you should give it a read since it makes you familiar with product terminologies and common norms of product management.
I would be in the minority of PMs who started the book but didn’t finish it. I put this book in the same category as Good to Great, which can be an entertaining and useful read but can be a sweeping generalisation. Since the excellent product teams have diverse culture, these generalisations don’t apply at all places.
Few of my favourite books like Crossing the Chasm didn’t make the list because I had to pick books that cover enough breadth and depth for PMs to get comfortable in those areas. Once that is done, you can go ahead and read more as you like.
What areas are missing in the above?
One key area that’s missing in the above is product marketing which focusses on GTM and pricing. That is because I found it hard to map it to a particular competency. It would be closest to business/strategy, but I would like to keep it as a separate competency. If you are interested, here are top 3 recommendations:
Hacking Growth — covers basics of growth
Obviously Awesome — covers the key foundation of GTM, aka positioning.
Innovating Monetisation — covers pricing
How should you read these?
Reading books is difficult for many people. Reading so many is even more difficult. Start small and read what interests you.
Lately, I only pick books that tie to a problem I am solving in my life. That way the motivation is quite high to read. So if you are already a PM, map books to a problem you are solving or your areas of improvement, and you should have enough motivation to read.
Another alternative to reading the books is listening to audiobooks, or watch any lecture delivered on the topics by the author. Both are good to get a grasp on key concepts quickly.
Going forward, we are going to cover basics of all the skills listed above. So subscribe and keep reading the Growth Catalyst :)
Do mention the books you have loved in the comments, skills they map to and why so! It will help me create a richer list by going through them.