July 19, 2021

Visual guide to the best books on product management

Visual guide to the best books on product management
Nils Janse
Nils Janse
Founder & CEO
8 min read

This is a reading guide for you as a product manager. It is a curated list of the best book on product management. But it not just a numbered list of books to read (There are a lot of listicles out there on "The 7/13/25 Best Books on Product Management"). Instead, this guide is guided by your preferences, with visual guide to go with. Let's get into it.

Click to enlarge the map

Take this first step, and then choose your path

First off, and this is the only book I'd call "non-optional".

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Inspired - Marty Cagan

This book covers all relevant aspects at least to some extent, and does so really well. However, apart from discovery, it does not dig very deep. If you have not read it, do so first. It provides an invaluable perspective. Then, depending on what you are interested in next, different books will help you dig deeper into the specific areas.

Want to get started as a product manager (or hire PMs)?

Something would be amiss if this guide would not be adapted to you who is just starting out in your PM career, so here are two book for you (and if you find yourself on the other end of the table, skimming these books can be helpful to get in the shoes of your interviewee and to learn how others do recruiting).

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Cracking the PM Interview - Gayle Laakmann McDowell

This book is the more holistic of the two. It book contains ways to think about product management in general, insights into the steps of the application process as well as example questions and answers. Make sure to read it before you even apply.

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Decode and Conquer - Lewis C. Lin

This book is focused on the interview itself, with even more example questions and answers. If you want to be fully prepared, make sure to study it before going into your first interview.

Want to develop in the PM role?

This section constitutes the bulk of this article and will be dedicated to concrete tips and skills in the PM role. But, if you are a PM, don't miss the next section for product leaders either - as the adage goes, "always think of yourself as one step above your current pay grade".

Concrete examples and tips and tricks

Oftentimes, the main thing PMs feel missing is not knowledge of a particular skill, but rather just meat on the bones and a general wealth of examples. The most powerful way to get this is of course own experience, but reading can give a bit of a turbo charge.

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Product Management in Practice - Matt LeMay

The title is no misnomer. Matt is all about concrete tips and tricks. As he helped me write my book, this was one of his constant reminders. And he walks the talk, as his book is full of them. If Marty's book gives you the map, Matt's will fill the map with practical guidance and pointers.

Setting goals

Without a goal to work towards, prioritization risks being arbitrary. On top of this, PMs always struggle balancing between the goals of the business and those of the customers and users. Therefore one of the most important skills of PMs is setting goals that balance these perspectives. The below two books dig deep into one perspective each.

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Measure What Matters - John Doerr

If you want to implement a good system for setting and following up on business goals, one of the best ways of doing that is the OKR method (Objectives and Key Results). Invented by Andy Grove of Intel, it matches qualitative goals (Objectives) with quantitative goals (Key Results), linked to a set of initiatives. The method makes it possible to first tell an aspirational story of where you want to go, and then concretely defining how to measure whether you have gotten there. And if you want to learn about and get started with OKRs, there is no better book than this. Doerr knows what he is talking about as he first worked directly with Grove and then implemented OKRs across Google and many more companies as an investor at Kleiner Perkins.

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Outcomes Over Output - Josh Seiden

The OKR method in itself says nothing about the focus on customer outcomes that is the hallmark of a good PM. OKRs most often relate to some business impact, and the initiatives that follow typically translate into activities meant to produce a certain output (for PMs, often a feature output). The premise of this book is that it is imperative to introduce and focus on customers outcomes as middle step between feature output and business impact - the focus should be on the changes in human behaviour that will ultimately drive business impact. If you want to learn to work like this in practice, including how to work with experiments and what it means for measuring, planning, and how to organize, then this is the book for you.

Doing discovery

With clear goals set, the next thing to do is to figure out what to build and to make sure that will achieve the goals. This is done with product discovery. There are two great books that stand out in this area:

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Sprint - Jake Knapp

An instant success, this book sets up a one-week process to do a full-cycle of discovery from early problem definition to prototype testing. If you want an attempt at quick wins, go for this one. However...

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Continuous Discovery Habits - Teresa Torres

...if you want to turn discovery not just into a one-off, but into an ongoing work, then this book charts a clear path. Teresa defines continuous discovery as: "At a minimum, weekly touchpoints with customers by the team building the product, where they conduct small research activities in pursuit of a desired outcome".

Collaborating with team and stakeholders, through working with...

Once you have discovered roughly what to build, it is time to move into delivery. And delivery is all about collaborating and communicating with team and stakeholders. To do this, three different artefacts are especially useful, and each have a book dedicated to them.

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...user stories? - User Story Mapping - Jeff Patton

Used right, user stories have an almost magical ability to get everyone on the same page. Be it developers, designers, or business stakeholders. They may come with different perspectives, but they can all relate to stories about how different functionality applies to actual users. No-one describes that better than Jeff.

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...feature documents? - Epic Alignment - Nils Janse

If team and stakeholders don't all sit in the same room, if done right, the best way to keep them on the same page is to write feature documents. With a foreword by Jeff Patton, the book I wrote describes how best to do this. Like Matt LeMay put it: "Epic Alignment dives deep on one of the most important and underappreciated aspects of product management."

[Full disclaimer - I wrote this book]

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...roadmaps? - Product Roadmaps Relaunched - C. Todd Lombardo

Just like feature documents, roadmaps, if done right, can be a really powerful and flexible artefact to put team and stakeholders in the right frame of mind to have the right discussions. But there are also pitfalls of adding to much detail and the roadmap getting a life of its own, with specific features to be delivered on exact dates way into the future, loosing the ability to be a flexible canvas for discussion. Read this book to dig deep into this.

Changing user behavior

Working towards customer outcome goals means working to change behaviours of users. Two books represent different approaches to this, one is about helping the users improve, and the other is about making them addicted.

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Badass: Making Users Awesome - Kathy Sierra

Sierra wants you to help your users improve and become "badass". This can be done by understanding their current workflows, both within your product and between uses, and trying to make them more effective, e.g. by unlocking roadblocks in their flow. The idea is that by helping your users they will like your product and come back.

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Hooked - Nir Eyal

Eyal wants you to make your users addicted to your product and become "hooked". The book suggests to do this by understanding the reward mechanisms in their brains, and presents a simple 4-step model: trigger, action, reward, and investment. It then goes on to explain how to work with this model, including examples from e.g. Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.

Want to develop into a product leader?

At the product leadership level, one question stands out above all else: How ensure that PMs work on things that actualy move business forward and help customers (as opposed to just building features)? Two books look at this from slightly different angles.

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Escaping the build trap - Melissa Perri

As the title suggests, Melissa's book takes this main question head on and looks at how both individual PMs and managers of PMs can "escape the build trap", i.e. focusing on business impact and customer outcomes rather than just building feature outputs. It is full of both higher-level mindsets to adopt and down-to-earth practical advice and examples.

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Empowered  - Marty Cagan

Marty's first book, Inspired, also touched upon the importance of "product teams" over "feature teams". As the title suggests, in this book he argues that the answer to making this happen is creating "empowered product teams", whose responsibility goes beyond just delivering features. The book is focused on how product leadership can make this a reality.

Interested in a particular phase of the product lifecycle?

Another way to categorize PM books is by what part of the product lifecycle (PLC) they are most relevant. Below are some PLC-specific PM books.

That being said, the early phase books are relevant for all PM, as it is always important to keep a "startup mindset", to question basic assumptions and to do rapid iterations. And the same on scaling, as it is always relevant to think big, to "think one step ahead".

For the early phases

If you are in the early phases of product development (or if you find yourself doing a pivot or a soft-pivot, going back to the drawing board), then there are a number of books that are particularly helpful.

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The Lean Startup - Eric Ries

This is the book that popularized the category. It's fresh take on what a truly minimum viable product (MVP) is remains a good challenge for any PM veering towards wanting to build stuff before testing. Reading this book will inoculate you against over-building stuff before testing it with the real world, and will make you a much more effective PM. This is always relevant, but especially so in search of a new or tweaked value proposition.

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Value Proposition Design - Alexander Osterwalder et al

This book riffs off of The Lean Startup, but brings a very hands on step-by-step approach to product marketing. If you have an idea of what you want to do, and want a rigorous approach to expand on and test that hypothesis to turn it into a value proposition that has been validated in marketing, then this book is great.

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The Lean Product Playbook - Dan Olsen

This is another book that builds on The Lean Startup, but that also digs deeper into design and user experience (UX), and emphasizes rapid iterations to improve the usability of a product. The author formulates “Olsen’s Law of Usability” as: “The more user effort required to take an action, the lower the percentage of users who will take that action. The less user effort required, the higher the percentage of users who will take that action.”

Once you want to scale

If you have that critical initial traction, but want to really grow then there is one book in particular you should read.

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Crossing the chasm - Geoffrey Moore

This is an enduring classic on high tech product marketing that was written in 1991 but that still applies. It addresses the challenge of moving from the first two types of users in the PLC, the innovators and the early adopters (the visionaries), over the "chasm" and onto the early majority (the pragmatists).

The main problem is that the pragmatists have a different set expectations than the first two adapter groups. Moore suggests a few approaches to overcome this, including focusing on a narrow niche segment of the market and establishing a whole product solution.

To sum up

This was my humble attempt at compiling some of my favourite books on Product Management, and to structure them so that you can pick your next book to read based on where you want to deep-dive and learn more.

On the same topic

Epic alignment book cover

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