In a prior post, I talked about five things that clever PMs should never do — traps that we often fall into as a result of our focus on getting things done and delivering value, while perhaps not being as mindful as we should about leading through influence. Today, I’m going to flip that post on its head and talk about five things that every clever Product Manager should do.
One big problem with Product Managers is that we tend to be somewhat alpha when it comes to our products, and we can be very passionate — not only about our products, but also about our own ideas and beliefs about our users, our market, and ourselves.
Here are five things that every good PM should do, to maintain their focus on the market, the user, and delivering value to them:
- Listen – There’s a classic adage that states, “You have two ears and one mouth, so you should listen twice as much as you speak.” There’s literally no role in any company for which this is more true than as a Product Manager. You need to listen to what your developers are telling you, what your stakeholders are telling you, what your management is telling you, and what your users are telling you. Practice active listening techniques when you’re engaging with those around you — provide your full attention, listen carefully to what they’re saying, mirror back your understanding of their statements, and most importantly, take time to reflect on what you’re hearing and what you’re not hearing. What people aren’t telling you is often just as important as what they are telling you.
- Be Curious – Ask questions about everything around you, even if you think you understand the subject. It’s amazing how much goodwill you can build with a team or a customer simply by asking them to tell you what they do, how they do it, and what problems they’re experiencing. Be the blank slate, and ask questions that allow others to demonstrate their expertise and experience, rather than relying on your own to inform the direction of the conversation. Being truly curious will open doors to discoveries that you could never make if you assume that what you know defines limits to a problem space or an area of discussion. And you can take this further than conversations – explore new technologies, try your hand at building an app or a website, show some genuine interest in what your colleagues and customers do outside of work, and use all of that information to make yourself a better person and a more effective Product Manager.
- Ask Tough Questions – As Product Managers, we’re constantly confronted with circumstances in which things are presented in a compelling way, specifically tailored to achieve some goal that is either clearly obvious or cleverly hidden. It is our job to pry open the Pandora’s Box that we are presented with, and to challenge people who want to change direction, or kowtow to some large client’s needs, or who need desperately to close that next big sale. We’re the gatekeepers, and it’s our duty to ask tough questions during these discussions and presentations. It’s our responsibility to ask people to justify and prove their case for something that’s new and interesting, but ostensibly tangential to the current strategy. It’s our purpose to make sure that change is done in an informed manner with a clear direction and goal in mind. It’s perfectly fine to pivot, but only when everyone in the room understands what the trade-offs are and what the potential payoff is at the end — and it’s your job to make sure that all comes out.
- Be a Mentor – Part and parcel of the role of Product Management is having your hands in all sorts of different cookie jars. And you owe it to the owners of those cookie jars to not just take the cookies, but to provide feedback, training, and assistance to make those cookies better. Perhaps that metaphor was a little belabored, but it gets to the point – you should always be striving to leave things better than when you found them. This goes for products, features, and processes — but also equally for teams and personnel with whom you interact on a regular basis. It could be as simple as providing context for the user goals that your backlog represents; or it could be as complicated as bringing in a person with limited technical experience to see just what a team does during sprint planning, review, and retrospective. We’re often jacks (or jills) of all trades, and we have an amazing amount of insight, perspective, and assistance that we can provide to those with whom we interact on a daily basis. Giving of yourself to help someone else is the surest way to build social capital in your workplace.
- Keep Yourself Sane – I’ve seen a lot of PMs burn out fast and hard; and it’s been primarily because they live, breathe, and die by their products. That’s an admirable attribute – until you’re not around anymore. The absolute best PMs that I know have outlets for their nervous energy and methods and practices they use to maintain a Zen product state even in the most unpredictable, unknowable, and turbulent of times. It could be something as simple as having a long commute to give yourself time to reflect and separate your home life from your work life. It could be spending weekends in the summer hiking, biking, or climbing mountains. It could even be spending a few hours every week blowing other folks away in Call of Duty or Destiny. Or perhaps it’s some hot yoga, a stop at a happy hour with friends on the way home, or even just stopping to watch the sunset every so often. Your job is not your life, and your life is not your job. Our lives and existence on this planet is far too short to spend in a constant miasma of stress and pressure. Take some time for yourself every so often, and make sure to de-stress and release some of that pressure. I can guarantee you’ll be a better PM, and a better overall human being, for it.
You’ll notice I didn’t mention the fundamental role of a PM as the voice of the customer; that’s obviously #0 on the list, but at the same time it’s something that I’ll cover in future articles, and something that you should be doing anyway, and something that we hear all of the time. Hopefully this Top 5 list reflects things that we aren’t always hearing and that we can use to improve ourselves as well as our product.