It’s far too common in the world of Product Management for us to wind up being narrowly focused on the actual product development cycle – define, build, measure, repeat. But there’s far more to building, launching, and maintaining a successful product than just what goes on between Product Management and Development. The best and most successful Product Managers try to look at the “whole product” and not just one small (though essential) part like the development process. To get the whole picture, we need our eyes, ears, and fingers on the pulse of all the activities that go on around the product — development, sure, but also marketing, sales, support, implementation, services, and anything else that might be considered “product-adjacent”.
I’m often asked by in both formal and informal discussions whether I think that Product Managers are stuck in whatever industry they start in, and if not how to break into a new one. And through all the years of having these discussions I’ve determined that the vast majority of the skills that make someone a great Product Manager are entirely portable between companies, products, and industries. You can learn a new product pretty easily, assuming that you have an organization with a good onboarding process. You can learn the market pretty quickly, assuming that the company has some internal experts already there to learn from. And you can learn the politics of the organization by just paying a small iota of attention in your first 30-60 days in the organization. None of those things are directly determinative of success as a Product Manager — what is determinative is the soft skills that you bring along with you, your approaches to problem solving and consensus-building. To that end, here are three key skills that any Product Manager should leverage no matter where they are and no matter where they want to go.
In many organizations, conflict is part and parcel of the culture — some conflict can be constructive, some destructive, but most of it can just be downright annoying. And, because we often sit right in the middle of all of the random agendas, battles of ego, and emotional storms that can rage throughout the company, Product Managers often wind up dealing with the outcome of these conflicts if we’re not pulled deeply into them by one or more of our stakeholders. And while it can often be tempting to take on all comers, to defend your territory and your teams to the bitter end, the sad truth is that all too often, these conflicts simply aren’t set up in a way for us to “win” — and seeking that extra mark in our “W” column can often be counterproductive rather than helpful in the long run. All of the best Product Managers know that sometimes when there’s a fight that you’re not going to win, it’s far more important to lose gracefully than it is to die on a hill for something that ultimately didn’t really matter much.
As an active member of the Seattle community of Product Managers, I’ve been fortunate enough to find many opportunities to engage with fellow Product Managers as well as those looking to make a break into the role. Between my work with General Assembly as a part-time instructor, my volunteer efforts as a board member of our local Pacific Northwest Product Management Community, or my presentations at ProductCamp every year, I enjoy sharing my knowledge and experience with those who seek different perspectives on old problems or just want to hear a good old war story. The fact is, we all have something to impart on those around us, and we should take any opportunity we can to share with those around us.
One of the things that I love about the Product Management community here in Seattle is how close-knit we are, so when I reached out to Tricia Cervenan, a fellow Product Manager and General Assembly instructor, for her thoughts on the industry, the role, and what it means to her, I was not disappointed. I met Tricia a few years back at a panel discussion for General Assembly’s and have worked closely with her during our classes to help mold and modify the curriculum to best fit the needs of our students. I’m happy to have her as a returning judge for each of my courses, and more happy to mark her among my very close colleagues in the business!
In her own words:
Tricia Cervenan is a product manager at L4 Digital and part-time instructor at General Assembly. She has shipped over 15 digital products and is most proud of the teams she’s help to build while doing so. Tricia is a co-organizer for App Camp for Girls Seattle where she teaches 8th and 9th grade girls confidence and coding while taking them through the process of building iOS apps in a week. When she’s not building software or working with those new to the industry, Tricia finds joy in long distance cycling, world travel and a good cup of coffee.
There are a great many company cultures in the world that go out of their way to avoid conflict of any kind. And, while the intent is good — nobody wants to work in a combative workplace — the common practice of lumping all conflict together into a single bucket and trying to toss it out the window winds up being counterproductive in many ways. You see, conflict isn’t always a bad thing; certain types of conflict actually make us better at what we do. When we engage in constructive conflict, we hone our ideas, challenge our own assumptions and biases, and push others to do the same. In an environment completely absent all conflict, we might as well all just be “yes men” and simply rubber-stamp every idea that comes around. Successful businesses are not built that way. Here are some things to think about when it comes to engaging in constructive conflict.
While Product Managers have a great many tools in their belt to use when working internally with stakeholders or externally with customers, there’s one tool that seems to elude so many of us. That tool is silence. When you’re talking with someone and trying to get them to say what’s really on their mind, what’s underlying the things that they’re telling you overtly, silence can be one of your best tools for figuring out what they’re really thinking, what problems they really have, and what’s really motivating them. Silence can be an amazing tool when used properly and in the right circumstance — it essentially forces the other person to fill in the gaps of conversation, and when they do it’s usually with something that comes from the subliminal thought processes rather than the conscious ones. In my constant effort to empower Product Managers everywhere, here are some thoughts on using silence effectively…