Best Practices

PM Syllabus: Nine Books to Add to Your Required Reading List

It’s back-to-school season! If you’re one of those product managers who miss cramming a semester’s worth of knowledge into five hours, fear not. We’ve created a syllabus that will take you back to those days.

We all know that the best product managers are intensely curious. The cross-functional nature of product management allows PMs to draw inspiration from all facets of the business. The list below draws upon a range of practices and perspectives and will equip PMs with essential knowledge about creating world-class products. 

Let’s get reading!

“Obviously Awesome: A Product Positioning Exercise” by April Dunford

April Dunford is a consultant, advisor, investor, and author. Also, she could really be a comedian. She asks product teams, “You know your product is awesome but does anyone else?” 

In “Obviously Awesome,” April asks us to abandon the “mad libs” exercise often associated with positioning and think of it as part of product strategy. She consolidates two decades of launching 16 products into a practical ten-step framework that will help you figure out the “secret sauce” of your product, and make others crave it.

Not ready for a book-length commitment? April was a guest on our Product Love podcast and chatted with us about all things positioning. Take a listen

“Build Better Products” by Laura Klein

Product management encompasses more than just the technical aspects of building and shipping features. Really, it’s about how to incorporate empathy, design, and analytics into your product strategy in order to create the best possible product experience for your customers.

In “Build Better Products” Laura Klein discusses how to center your product around the user. It’s packed with examples, research techniques, and exercises that will make your product stand out from the rest. 

“Escaping the Build Trap” by Melissa Perri

To build or not to build is the question on every product manager’s mind. In an era of customer-centricity, product managers might feel compelled to keep building whatever their customers suggest. But is that effective?

InEscaping the Build Trap,” Melissa discusses how product managers can improve their company’s overall product strategy and create an organization that focuses on successful outcomes, rather than on outputs.

Want to hear about Melissa’s decade of product experience and how she helps companies go through product transformations? Listen to her Product Love episode.

“Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products” by Nir Eyal

What makes us so engaged with and attached to the products we use every day? Nir Eyal has spent many years researching and consulting with product teams and psychologists to figure out what exactly hooks customers. 

In this book, Nir consolidates years of experience into a four-step process and examines our attachment to social media apps, video games, and even our phones. “Hooked” is perfect for teams that want to understand behavioral design.

While Nir touches on this framework in this episode of Product Love, our conversation went deeper into the difference between persuasion and coercion. We also discussed how product managers have ethical responsibilities when it comes to the potential effects of their products. 

“The Lean Product Playbook” by Dan Olsen

Looking for a practical read that includes tested frameworks, product exercises, and case studies? If so, check out this book. Dan Olsen’s “The Lean Product Playbook” cuts through the fluff and is practically a manual for product managers who just want to start doing.

Alternating between his case studies and actionable frameworks, Dan’s playbook helps product teams engage with customers, identify their needs, and create a winning strategy.

Want to hear more about Dan’s thoughts on the minimum viable product? Check out this episode of Product Love. Fun fact: Dan was my first guest.

“Shape Up: How to Stop Running In Circles and Ship Work That Matters” by Ryan Singer

Anyone who is familiar with Basecamp’s culture knows that they like to do things their way. Jason Fried and Ryan Singer tell it like it is — Basecamp doesn’t subscribe to waterfall, agile, kanban boards, or whatever the latest trend is. Instead, they have their own method that they’ve practiced and perfected over the last 15 years.

Enter “Shape Up,” a book about Basecamp’s product development methods. In it, the authors describe how they abandoned the traditional foundations and tenets of PM. According to Fried and Singer, product development shouldn’t be confined to the “usual” methods — teams should push the envelope when it comes to building great products.

Want to learn how Basecamp handles customer requests? Ryan Singer provides some tips and tricks in this episode of Product Love. 

“Sprint” by Jake Knapp

Five days is a single week of work. It might not seem like enough time to research tough problems, experiment with new methods, and finally, to get answers. However, Jake Knapp believes five days is actually enough for all of that and more. 

In “Sprint,” Knapp asks us to imagine a world without hopeless meetings and constant Slack and e-mail messages. Instead, he pictures one with key stakeholders actually making important and timely decisions. He proposes a new strategy for product teams to validate their ideas quickly with less risk. Packed with case studies and decision-making exercises, “Sprint” gives product teams strategies for making the most of their time. 

“Inspired: How to Create Products Customers Love” by Marty Cagan

As the founder of the Silicon Valley Product Group and one of the most recognizable names in product, Marty Cagan has written a book that can pretty much be considered the primer of product management.

“Inspired” explores the function of product management and the basic principles of the role. There’s a difference between good products and great products, and Marty can show you exactly what it is. 

“Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design” by Kat Holmes

Product managers often set out with the goal of changing the world with their product. But lofty goals like that come with a huge set of responsibilities and potential consequences. When product managers make products, who are they really making them for?

In “Mismatch”, Kat examines how we approach product design and development and forces us to acknowledge our ingrained biases. Product people must understand that designing for inclusion isn’t an afterthought but a source of innovation and growth.

Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list of all the books that can help PMs build better products. We hope you use this as a starting point. And if you have other reading recommendations, tweet us at @Product_Craft.