ken norton art product management

Ken Norton & The "Art" of Product Management

If you’re in the product management world, there are many public figures you can’t ignore. Some of them changed the product industry, others made it reach new heights through their skills and experiences, but also their eagerness to share them  with the world.

Ken Norton is definitely one of them.

Ken Norton is one of the most renowned product coaches in the world. Starting his career as a software engineer, he created and joined various product companies. During his 14 years at Google, he led initiatives for their products such as Docs & Calendar. He is now a  full-time coach for promising product people and startups he believes in.

Ken Norton is known for having a unique way of coaching and helping product managers around the world, through engaging talks and a forward-thinking approach. 

In a broad definition, he describes the product manager as the one who “brings the donuts” to his team. You probably have heard of his popular newsletter that goes by the same name. 

Norton published a blog post on the matter, on April 4th, 2022, titled “The Art of Product Management”. According to him, there’s something artistic about shaping products. It’s an interesting article outlining the psychology and sociology behind shaping products.

On May 18th, Ken Norton & Mike Belsito hosted a webinar to go further about the article’s topic. They allowed attendees to ask various questions about Norton, his life as a product leader and coach, as well as how he sees the craft and analyses the question of the “Art”.

“Science is the what, art is the who”

Norton differentiates the Art from the Science in product management. For him, the “Art” plays a big role in the long run because it’s what sustains your ability to keep the right scope of things at the right moment(s). Although, he acknowledges that many product managers misinterpret it as “soft skills”.

On the other hand, Science is also really important, as it consists of what you can learn in books about product management, following great frameworks, knowing how to use effective tools, managing teams, backlog, etc. The “Science” should obviously not be overlooked, as it constitutes the fundamentals of being a conscious product leader. 

But at the end, Norton is sure that the “Art” he talks about becomes more and more important throughout any product manager’s journey, as it is what allows someone to evolve.

In short, you should refer to science as what you can read, and art as how you use what you’ve read.

Norton’s post outlines six major factors that make up the “Art” in product management, which he calls the “6 C’s”. Even if he says that this list is not exhaustive when talking about product management as an art, those he mentioned stay as the most valuable ones you shouldn’t miss. Product managers usually fail because of a lack of art in their craft, or they’re not applying them correctly.

The 6 C’s that forms the Art of Product Management

[Illustration labeled The Art of Product Management. Five overlapping circles labeled Communication, Collaboration, Creativity, Critical Thinking and Curiosity. A sixth circle lies in the center labeled Consciousness.]
  • Communication in all its forms becomes more and more important when it comes to practice product management in the most artistic way possible. What better way to shape great products than to know how to listen to and share ideas with people? However Norton assures that this part is overlooked by most, but it’s the PM’s job to correlate all teams to a common goal, and communication helps them find their place as a piece of the puzzle.

  • Knowing how to Collaborate as a product manager is decisive, as you are the one & only driver for your team to accept and share with humility. Human relations is a core part when it comes to shaping products. Building an atmosphere of trust that encourages sharing with humility drives your team to the win. Actually listening to your customers and/or colleagues, knowing how to talk to them, persuading them with influence, authority, and staying as human as possible at the same time is one of those skills the books won’t tell you to do.

  • Creativity is the part where “Art” takes the most space. Knowing how to innovate, thinking ahead of the game and being able to predict what will and won’t work helps you determine the best strategy for the best products. Knowing to be and stay ahead of the curve is the key to being successful in the long run. Make sure to check one of the talks we had at our #RocketDay from Consuela Nicula about Product Innovation.

  • Critical thinking is a core-skill of product management. By knowing your market, understanding probabilities and biases, you’re able to draw the line between innovative ideas and useless ones, which makes you learn and understand various patterns to follow or avoid in the long run. Being able to take risky actions is part of staying critical, which means to accept that an idea was wrong, and take it into account to perform better next time.

  • Curiosity is about wanting to know the “Why” better. Digging deeper into what your customers truly want, staying open to new ideas and accepting mistakes is part of the learning process. You will reach a better understanding of the “Art” when you’re motivated to learn more about successes and failures!

  • Therefore, combining every skill mentioned before encourages Consciousness, which helps you define who you need to be for your team and yourself as a product manager. Conscious leadership not only fuels your wellness and helps you define the values you care for, but it also makes you an inspiring figure for the people you work with, which is a core part of being the best product leader you can be.

Focusing on improving your 6 C’s is what shifts the craft for Ken Norton, and he outlined it perfectly on the webinar. In fact, learning the science of product management helps you define and apply great leadership, whereas the art defines who you are and how you can deploy the science in a way that drives teams to their fullest potential. The webinar was a great way to dive deeper and deeper into grasping the importance of the “Art” for Norton.

The first time you get your hands on a video game, you candidly try out the tutorial in order to get the basics down. After that, you’ll go through every level, applying the learned principles and fundamentals. Then you start improving, grasping every concept one after another. And in the end, you’ll finish the game.

That’s it. You have the knowledge to beat the game.

If you want to go further, and improve after being at the top, the “Art” comes into play. “At one point, you’ll have to learn & understand how to design the game”. Norton uses this analogy throughout the webinar. An accurate imagery of what “Art” can be about when it comes to product leadership.

How The ART of PM has changed over the years

Needless to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has played a big role when it comes to refining the Art in product management. With that, Norton states that the rules have changed, and great leaders had to lean into the “Art” in order to navigate through those hard times with their teams.

He says that relations are part of product leading, and being able to communicate effectively with teams in a fully remote working atmosphere is a skill you can class in the “Art”. Focusing on keeping a collaborative, challenging, thus conscious framework is the key to effective remote work, and the pandemic showed leaders why these skills mattered so much, Norton says. 

How important keeping up with the Science is

Do product managers have to keep up with the “Science” part ? For Norton, it’s not his job to know the technology behind the product to lead teams effectively.

To show his point of view, he took the case of a senior product manager working with teams using Artificial Intelligence as an example. This leader hadn’t really grasped what the incentives of those two were, but was perfectly able to coordinate them with curiosity, communication & support (already two of the six C’s, though).

You obviously have to get the fundamentals down in order to communicate effectively with your team, but your primary focus should be on how to lead every one of them in a way that inspires everyone.

How can one level up his skills within the “Art” of product management

First of all, Norton assures that all resources you could look for about improving yourself within the Art of product management won’t be found in books about the craft itself, as it is more about the Science than anything else. The Art falls more into psychological concepts, and concepts you could find in human science and relation books.

To illustrate his view, Norton does this interesting parallel (yes, another one) with being a chef in a restaurant. Say you want to create the best pancake recipe for your customers. You’ll first learn about the best ingredients, mixing techniques and presentation. But the art is more about asking yourself how to effectively use the tools you have, what experience you want to provide to your customers, and what you want them to feel like or think when they’ll walk out after their meal.

In fact, you have to learn as if you were trying to improve at the infamous video game. Asking better players to teach you the best practices there is, to coach you on a specific task, remains the #1 effective strategy when it comes to learning about creative leadership for Norton.

In short, trying to improve the “Art” skills in product management would be more about asking yourself the right questions 

  • Who am I?
  • Who am I to my team?
  • How do I lead?
  • How do I inspire?

By trying to answer these questions, you will be able to pin-point which of the 6 C’s you should improve. Asking yourself and your team the right questions, keeping a critical thinking, understanding things, staying open to criticism, being open to people & keeping a consistent communication flow, making decisions… You name it. All it is to be an “Art” practitioner in product management is about being the best self you can be, for you and your teams.

Conclusion

“In my opinion, nothing is more important than the Art”, Norton says while elaborating on how other expert product leaders see this specific concept. Norton wants product people to stop overlooking the “Art” part of product management. Science is a lot, but far away from everything. This may be the reason why he chose to write a deep article, and invite his readers to a 30min discussion about the subject.

“The hardest part about product is people”

This quote resonated through the whole webinar, because it’s one of the most important definitions in product management.

It’s not really about the teams, the leader, the product itself, but rather the people that interact with it: you or the customer!


In fact, there’s no point in separating Science and The Art in product management, because they’re both here for the same end: delivering outstanding products and solving important problems for great people, by great people. Learning the science permits you to be able to ship products properly, but the art is a way of framing the building process in the most human way possible.

This was another great content from the Bring The Donuts newsletter.

What to take

  • There’s nothing more essential in the Art of product management than knowing its existence. Being aware of it shifts the whole aim of your craft, as who you are and how you want to lead will always be a main driving factor for your teams.

  • Asking yourself the right questions: “Who am I?”, “How do I lead?”, ”How do I inspire?”.
  • Collaborating effectively with your teams, providing them trust & insightful feedback regarding how the product is built is at the core of shaping it better.

  • The “Art” teaches more about understanding yourself as a human being, because the hardest part about product is people.

  • You shouldn’t dismiss the “Art” & the six C’s as simply “soft-skills”, as it often is the reason why product managers fail.

  • To be a product management “Artist”, your work has to resonate with your customers, because they’re just like you, and you’re shaping products for them.