A lot of Product Managers wind up rolling into the position with little to no preparation, training, or even a real understanding of the role, and it’s common for early struggles to really hamper a newly-minted Product Manager’s success. To avoid this, it’s important to approach your job and your career just like you would any other product — by creating a vision of an intended future, and an action plan to get there. Your future vision should be focused on establish a set of relationships based on trust and respect, having a solid bank of social capital, and making important decisions that are trusted because you are trusted by others in the organization. Here’s a good framework for success that I’ve used (and advised others to use) to establish and build a successful role in nearly any organization. If it seems like a long time, don’t worry — 90 days goes by so fast in a new Product Management role that your head will spin; accelerate the plan at your own risk and to your own needs…
Due to the vagaries of how different companies and industries define the role of Product Manager, it’s often a struggle to determine what skills and abilities one must have in order to separate themselves from the crowd. But while the roles may differ, I’m a strong believer that there is a core set of capabilities and competencies that any Product Manager can leverage in order to break from the pack. I’ve captured three of these here for your reading pleasure – if you focus on these areas in your personal and professional development, they will certainly give you the tools that you need to advance as a Product Manager.
The number one thing that separates a “great” Product Manager from a “good” one is likely to surprise a lot of people, because it’s something that we only have indirect control over. But that’s the primary source of a Product Manager’s ability to influence the direction of our product and our strategic direction – we manage through influence, which means that in order to be a truly great Product Manager, we’re going to need to excel at creating and managing our relationships with others in the company.
Having a strong network of relationships both inside and outside the organization is critical to the success of every Product Manager – it is only through these relationships that we can drive things forward. There is almost no Product manager in the entire world who can cover the entire breadth of a product with any level of mastery – from finances to strategy to marketing to sales to development to support to operations to implementation to services…it’s simply too much for any one person to tackle in an organization of any real size and a product of any real complexity. Thus, we build relationships with those people who are actually charged with managing these things, so that we can gain their insights, leverage their strengths, and bolster the weaknesses that they and their teams may have.
The better we are at establishing, maintaining, and growing our relationships with others in our organizations, the better we will all be as Product Managers.
Second to relationships is a natural and honest curiosity, not only about our product and our customers, but about the world around us in general. The absolute best Product Managers that I’ve seen don’t limit themselves to what they see every day, and certainly not to their immediate daily surroundings. They’re open to learning anything and everything they can, about whatever they may encounter that interests them. This is absolutely not about being curious about technology, though technology is certainly one area that it helps to be curious about. The concepts, ideas, and new directions that we come up with can only ever be truly different if they’re informed from different contexts and experiences.
What we do at work is greatly influenced by what we do elsewhere; if we want to change the approaches that we take at work and in our products, we have to start elsewhere first. New concepts, new ideas, and even new problems to solve don’t just appear magically within the four walls of our office – they exist outside our daily context. They exist in new and different experiences. The more you try, the more you test, the more exposure you have, the more interesting and different the ideas you’ll come up with.
Innovation is the result of thinking outside the box – but you can only think outside the box if you take time to exist outside the box.
A lot of people think that Product Managers should have a singular focus – on the customer. While I agree that’s a very important part of being a Product Manager, I think that the reality is that Product Managers need to not only be focused but also to bring focus to whatever they do; and this focus that you bring may or may not be solely focused on the customer. For example, when things are going sideways, and people are responding in an emotionally-charged fashion, Product Managers bring focus to the table by obtaining objective data with which they can drive the organization to focus on the rational circumstances rather than the irrational reactions that can make us randomized and lose track of what’s really important.
When bringing focus, it’s also important to make sure that we’re bringing the right focus to the table – and this is where the customer must always come first. And that will make you a pretty good Product Manager, focusing on the customer. What makes a great Product Manager is knowing which customer to focus on and when it’s more appropriate to focus on an aggregate view of the customer and when it’s important to focus on the needs of an individual customer. This is where the ability to balance out your short-term needs and long-term goals allows you to separate yourself from the pack.
It’s not enough just to be focused as a Product Manager, we need to have the ability to bring focus to our organization and our teams when they need it most.
A common question posed to Product Managers in organizations interested in or transitioning into Agile is, “How do we know that we’re Agile?” Because agility is a cultural value, there’s no pre-determined checklist of things that one can step through and certify your company as 100% Organic Agile. There are, however, indicators that we look at to determine whether or not the company, a team, or even an individual, is thinking and acting in an Agile way. Here are a few key indicators that you can use to weigh your assessment of how agile you, your team, or your company are…
There are a lot of potential pitfalls that threaten our success as Product Manager — but by far the worst, in my opinion, is falling too much in love with your own ideas, whether those are problems, solutions, or even assumptions about the market and our customers. While I think they take it a bit to the extreme, Pragmatic Marketing does have a point when they say, “Your opinions, while interesting, are irrelevant.” It’s in our nature to make assumptions and inferences from what we see going on around us — to create plans in the face of uncertainty and to identify potential opportunities that others are missing. But we do so at the very real danger of drinking our own product’s Kool-Aid and thinking that we have the one true solution and the one truth in the market. But in reality, that’s never the truth, and we need to check ourselves every single day against this danger.
Of all of the teams that Product Managers must deal with on a regular basis, I really can’t think of any that have a worse reputation amongst our kin than Sales teams. Common tropes that I hear when talking about Sales teams with other Product Managers include things like “they don’t understand the product” or “they make commitments we can’t follow up on” or even “they just lie to make their commission.” And while each of these statements has a kernel of truth buried inside it, much of the responsibility for these failures on the part of the Sales team can be traced back or shared by the Product team itself. I personally believe that it’s absolutely essential for a successful Product Manager to have a strong and productive working relationship with their Sales team, and without that it’s nearly impossible to provide the kind of holistic guidance that separates a “good” Product Manager from a “great” one.
This is the first in what I hope to be a series of PM 101 posts, wherein I focus on some fundamentals of Product Management. For this first article, I’ve chosen a topic that’s near and dear to my heart, as well as one that’s been raised several times during my teaching sessions at General Assembly — how should Product Managers work with Designers. Now, to clarify I’m using “Designer” as a catch-all term to include everyone involved in the User Experience, User Interface, and Human Interactions side of the product equation — basically, the people who are trained to define how the user interacts with our product in order to achieve their goals. With that established, let’s explore some common issues and potential paths to success…
A very common topic of discussion amongst Product Managers in general, and Agile practitioners in particular, involves the comparison of different forms of process and project management. By far the most prominent and popular of these are Kanban and Scrum. And, much to my own personal dismay, often these discussions wind up devolving into some form of “religious war” between fanatical fundamentalists on either side — insisting simply and without substance that their way is the best way.
The simple fact is that one is not necessarily better than the other — when, how, and where you use either of these approaches depends greatly on what problems you’re trying to solve, what kind of culture you have or want to have, and how the people you have doing the actual work want to manage themselves. To say, in broad strokes, that either Kanban or Scrum is objectively “better” than the other misses the point entirely. Both are equally good and equally bad, depending on the circumstances.