I’m often asked what I think makes a successful Product Manager, and after giving it some thought, I’ve narrowed it down to one key factor: Clarity. When applied to our daily jobs, this can mean any number of things: clarity of communication, clarity of purpose, driving discussions to clarity, or even insisting on clarity from others. But to me, clarity is perhaps the number one indicator of whether or not something that you’re doing is going to be successful. After all, if it’s not clear why, how, or for whom you’re doing something, can you actually measure your success or failure? Some companies thrive on a culture that lacks clarity — perhaps because a lack of clarity often goes hand-in-hand with a lack of responsibility and accountability.
Let’s look at some ways that clarity drives us to be successful in everything that we do…
Clarity of Purpose
It’s hardly controversial to claim that companies who have a vision driving what they do tend to succeed more often than companies with no driving or directing vision. Similarly, companies with a strategic goal in mind and a tactical plan to get them from point A to point Z tend to do better than those who make things up as they go along. And no, that’s not “being Agile”. But it’s really not sufficient to just have a vision — it’s more important to have a clear vision. “Be the best at what we do” is technically a vision. “Be better than the other guys” is also, technically, a vision. But those are impossible to put measurements on, other than the most basic subjective assessment of whether we’re “the best” or “better than others” — and since too many companies drink their own Kool-Aid, it’s not likely to be a particularly useful measure. Something more clear, even if not measurable, is usually required for a vision to be effective at motivating others:
- Life is Good: “Spreading the Power of Optimism”
- Patagonia: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”
- American Express: “Be the world’s most respected service brand.”
- IKEA: “Make a better everyday life for people.”
- Creative Commons: “Realixing the full potential of the Internet…to drive a new era of development, growth, and productivity.”
- APCA: “[See t]hat the United States is a humane community in which all animals are treated with respect and kindness.”
What do all of these entirely disparate vision statements have in common? A clear vision of a possible future that you can bounce any new idea or concept off of to see whether it sticks. Does it further the vision in some meaningful way? Can we believe in this world that’s possible and determine strategy and tactics to get us there? Can we apply meaningful measurements to gauge our progress toward this vision?
Vague direction and purpose lead to an inability to rule out possible directions, which almost inevitably leads to companies and employees spreading themselves too thin trying to be everything to everyone. Clarity in purpose does the opposite — it provides a means and measure by which we can narrow our focus to achieve greatness where we have decided to apply our resources. Imagine a world where Comcast’s vision is replaced by AmEx’s — do you think you’d still need to call every year to get the best price for your cable and Internet service?
Clarity in Communication
The job of Product Management is largely one of communication, coordination, and facilitation. And in order to be effective at those three things, we must achieve an exceptionally high level of clarity in our communication — even when that means annoying others with requests for clarity or with corrections after-the-fact when they “mis-remember” things that have been discussed previously (sometimes accidentally, often intentionally). Every form of communication that comes from a great Product Manger is as clear, concise, and direct as possible — we don’t have the time, energy, or resources to waste on political correctness and making sure peoples’ feelings aren’t hurt. We don’t shy away from the truth — if a project is going sideways, we need to call it like we see it, even if the organizational culture rabidly opposes anything but “green light” reporting. We send out meeting invitations with clear agendas and only to those people whom we now that we will need in that meeting. We abhor wasting others’ time, either accidentally or on purpose. And we hold ourselves to a higher standard than anyone else in the organization, because we realize that our messaging must be on-point every time it is received — otherwise we risk losing that valuable trust and respect that we need to do our jobs right.
Vauge communication muddies the waters and causes people to distrust and question our motives, knowledge, and even our roles in the organization. Clarity in communication establishes what people can and should expect from us, and reinforces that we are always striving for the best outcome for our customers — even if that means ruffling a few internal feathers along the way.
Seeking Clarity in Others
Lastly, at least for purposes of this post, as Product Managers we often need to seek clarity from others — perhaps even drag it out of them, as they fight us tooth and nail, kicking and screaming, and refusing to put their money where their mouth is (how’s that for a few mixed metaphors!?). We need to pin down decision-makers, to drag status out of teams executing, and to pull sales contacts out by whatever means necessary…all just to do our jobs. When we ask a development team how things are going, and they say, “Pretty well,” we can’t just leave it at that — we need to know what’s keeping things from being “Great!” When we facilitate a meeting involving upper-level management, we can’t afford to waste the hour+ that we all just spent in the room without leaving with a clear decision on what’s going to happen next. When we work with Sales and Marketing to build leads and retain customers, we must insert ourselves into the process so that we come out with a clear understanding of who’s buying our product, who’s not, and where their business is actually going. It’s not good enough to just shrug it off when a Sales person tells us that someone didn’t buy “Because we charge too much.” Both we and they know that it’s never about price — and even when it is, it really isn’t.
It’s convenient for people to hide behind truisms and vague statements because they don’t get held accountable for them — but to be an effective Product Manager, we need to cut through the bullshit and the vagaries and the boilerplate, because we need to know the truth. Otherwise we’re just making rash assumptions that inevitably bite us in the ass.