A couple years ago, shortly after I launched the blog, I posted my first New Year’s Resolutions for Product Managers, which was a big hit. Somehow it slipped my mind to update it for 2016, but here I am with an update as we roll into the new year…one as full of uncertainties as it is full of opportunities! Without further ado, here are five new resolutions for Product Managers moving into 2017…
1. Get OUT of the Office!!
Alright, maybe I’m cheating here, since this was also #1 back in 2014…but it remains true that the number one source of customer input and valuable problems for you to solve continues to be neglected in many Product organizations. And that’s just inexcusable — there is literally no way that you’ll discover your best opportunities to innovate and solve valuable customer problems by staying within the four square walls of your organization. No amount of sales feedback, no volume of support tickets, no lists of survey responses from marketing can substitute for actually getting into the thick of it and visiting a customer in their own environment, asking them to show you how they’re doing their job, and watching their nonverbal cues while they describe their problems to you. You can’t ask the “five whys” of a support ticket, a win/loss report, or a survey response. You can’t pick up on the 55% of communication that is comprised of nonverbal cues if you’re talking on the phone. You simply must get in front of your customers, your users, and even your critics, if you want to discover the unspoken needs, the hidden problems, the opportunities to innovate, that you need in order to be an effective Product Manager. Find the right time, place, and people to make it happen — trade shows, quarterly reviews, sales roadshows…whatever it takes, insert yourself and make it happen.
2. Pick Up a Side Project
One of the quickest and easiest ways to expand your Product Management skillset is to pick up a side project and bring it from ideation to completion — whether that’s creating a new website, writing some small and innocuous app, finding speaking or training opportunities, or even volunteering with a local non-profit or other organization. It’s all too common for us to focus on the one product that we’re being paid to work on, and ignoring the vast world of other opportunities that are out; opportunities that will demand that you stretch your boundaries, that you step outside of your comfort zone, that broaden your horizons in a way that doing your “day job” quite simply never will. Doing something that you’re not being paid for, something that is driven only by your own interests and your own desires, and fueled by your own commitment — that’s how you grow as both a Product Manager and as a person. Don’t get stuck in the rut — try something new and different.
3. Keep the Focus on the User
In many organizations it can be difficult to maintain the constant focus on the user that we need to be successful as Product Managers. Hidden agendas, opinions about what’s “needed” by the market, strong personalities, and pressure from stakeholders on all sides can sometimes blur the line between what someone thinks the customer “needs” and what the customer actually needs. We need to own our decisions, and to ensure that the customer is taken into account every single step of the way — from strategy to roadmap to definition to execution, all the way through to delivery. We need to be constantly asking ourselves how the feature is going to benefit the user, how the design is going to enable the user, how we’re giving enough feedback for the user to know what’s going on, how we can position the product to be most attractive to the user. We can’t substitute ourselves for the user, nor can we substitute the salesperson’s needs, the marketer’s needs, the CEO’s needs, the developer’s needs, for those of the actual user who is going to benefit from our solution. The more we’re able to frame discussions in this way, the more we reinforce this focus in the organization as a whole as well as the individuals who make up the organization. The day that you have a developer ask you, “But who’s the user that this is designed for?” you will know that you’ve won a huge, ongoing battle. This is our Holy Grail as Product Managers — where everyone else asks what the user wants, not just us.
4. Be More Agile
If you’ve spent any time at all on my blog, you know that I’m a huge advocate of agile practices and cultures, and there’s likely room for any Product Manager out there to improve on their agility as we kick off 2017. I’m not necessarily talking about being better at Scrum or Kanban; I’m not necessarily talking about writing better user stories or acceptance criteria; I’m not necessarily talkin g about ensuring that definitions of ready and done are being followed. I’m talking about going in to your job every single day with a mindset of accepting the unknown, driving it out as quickly as possible, and of being mindful about the choices that we’re making — especially those that can be delayed or even questioned based on new information that’s been uncovered. Being agile is something that we need to embody as Product Managers, especially if we’re trying to instill it in our organization and the others around us. It’s insufficient to just “check the boxes” for whatever methodology we’ve embraced — we need to push for the kind of constant improvement and constant prioritization that embodies the best and most effective agile organizations.
5. Balance Work & Play
It’s really easy as a Product Manager to get caught up in the day-to-day work of our products, and even worse to take it home with us at the end of the day. Product Management often feels like a job that you don’t ever really leave — but it needs to be. There’s more to life than merely doing our jobs — no matter how much you love your product, and no matter how much you want to invest your time, effort, and energy into it. As human beings, we’re far more than merely the jobs that we do — we’re the sum total of many aspects of our lives, and work is just one of those. I’ve known many Product Managers who rarely, if ever used their vacation time — usually because they weren’t confident about how things would go in their absence, or because they were worried about how it might look to others in the organization. Trust me — taking time away shakes up our perspectives, breaks up the cobwebs that build up from the day-to-day doldrums, refreshes us from the stress of the everyday. It’s an important part of our existence — making sure that there’s a separation between the time spent at work and the time spent away from it.