Introducing the Product Decagon, a way for PMs to navigate to their dream job

When I was a kid learning to play the piano, I dreamt that someday I would perform in the world’s most famous concert halls. I could already see myself wearing a fabulous dress, sitting in front of a majestic grand piano, and bowing to the cheers and standing ovations of the wowed audience. Eventually, I achieved that vision and performed at Carnegie Hall. But the key word is “eventually.” I certainly didn’t land onstage at Carnegie Hall as my first gig. It took years of hard work and deep, focused practice. It took years of building experience in increasingly larger competitions and venues.

Substitute “competitions and venues” with “scope and responsibilities” and I could be talking about work experience, right? In fact, becoming a concert pianist and achieving your career goals are the same at the atomic level. Both require you to have a vision for where you want to go and a plan for how to get there. Your plans might change over time or you might get lucky and things happen to you without planning for them, but having a vision and a plan gives you the greatest probability that it may happen.

As I got into my career as a Product Manager, I wanted to envision the future Me and figure out what I should be doing today to get me there. I wanted to have a solid career development plan, but I soon realized that while there might be promotion criteria or leveling guidelines, those were focused on how you progressed within your existing company. They didn’t help you navigate your career spanning different companies or functions, so as a result, many people didn’t think about and plan for their career holistically.

This lack of framework is why I created the Product Decagon. I wanted to give my team a tool to talk about what they want to be and plan their career development. Many of us came into product management from other functions like engineering, design, or business. Now that we’re in product, where do we go from here? Do we move up the ladder and become head of product? Do we focus in on one area and become the world’s expert on growth? Do the types of work that we love doing as a PM still represent the types of work that we do as we become more senior? There wasn’t a common framework to express the paths that we can take with our career, so the Product Decagon became our tool.

The first step is to form a vision of your future self. When you decided to embark on a product manager career who did you think you would become? Take some time and think about who you want to be 5 or 10 years from now. What do you look like? Where do you work? What is your title? What do you do each day and how do you feel doing it? Who are the others who work with you, or for you? Be as clear and detailed as possible, visualizing it will help make it more true in your mind. If you are not sure yet narrow your window to 2 years and think about your next milestone in figuring out where you want to be.

The next step is to delve into the Product Decagon.

The Product Decagon

The Product Decagon is a set of ten disciplines that deconstruct the skill set of a product manager.

More to come on the specific skills that comprise each of these disciplines in future posts.

As honestly as you can, you should assess where you feel you are in each of the disciplines. The expectation isn’t that you should be great at all ten disciplines. You should spike in a few disciplines, and your teammate may spike in completely different disciplines. That’s expected and it’s fine. For example, if you want to be a growth hacker PM, your future decagon might look something like this:

Decagon for a Growth Hacker PM

Whereas if you want to be a general manager, your future decagon might look something like this:

Decagon for a General Manager PM

Where you spike depends on what you want to be when you grow up. The key insight comes from understanding the deltas between where you are today and where you want to be when we grow up. Once you can see those gaps, then you can start to create plans to develop those skills. You may need to enroll in a course, take on a stretch assignment, or find a mentor. There are many tactics that can help you develop a skill, and it’s important to realize that this isn’t a one-and-done conversation. After working on a skill for six months, you should re-assess yourself and decide if you want to keep working on this skill or start developing a different skill. The Product Decagon should be the start of many conversations between you and your manager on how you can develop your career.

When I rolled the Product Decagon out to the product team at Care.com, I was ecstatic that Liz Cox and her manager, Juan Tenaillon, jumped on it right away. Liz envisions herself as a Product Management leader, and someone who would eventually like to mentor and educate other aspiring product managers. Liz did her self-assessment first, and then they upped the game by asking her cross functional partners to do a 360 assessment. By including the 360, they found that Liz had underestimated her own skills in things like product execution, and they got a truer picture of her skills. They decided to focus on closing the gap in people management since that’s what Liz aspired to do, and developed a plan to work on it. Six months later, the team brought on a more junior Associate Product Manager, and Liz was given the opportunity to develop that people management skill with the new hire. After some time, they redid the 360 assessment and found that Liz’s expertise had increased by 2 levels. Had they not been equipped with the Product Decagon as a tool to start the development conversations, Liz might not have progressed as much as she did. Now, she is working on and continues to move closer to her vision of being a Product Management leader.

So, if you’re in product and need a career planning framework, give the Product Decagon a try. I even put together a workbook that walks you through each step of clarifying your vision of what you want to be when you grow up, assessing yourself using the Product Decagon, and creating a development plan. If you subscribe to my newsletter by August 15th, I’ll send you a free copy of my Product Decagon workbook.

I also write about once a week about topics like product management, design thinking, becoming a better leader, and personal branding. By subscribing to my newsletter, you’ll get these insights emailed right to your inbox every time I post.

I hope you’ll try the Product Decagon, and would love to hear what you think in the comments.

5 simple steps to use the Product Decagon

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Lauren Chan Lee

Lauren Chan Lee is a product leader who enjoys writing about the connections between product principles and everyday life. Learn more at: laurenchanlee.com