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.
A couple years ago I ran across a blog post by Paul Jackson where he mentioned in passing the idea of a tension between “default ship” cultures in relation to corporations versus startups. For some reason, those two ends of a spectrum have stuck with me ever since, and after struggling with some culture change in my day-to-day job recently, I thought that it was an interesting subject that deserved a little more attention and dissection. Because, even though Paul positioned it as a startup v. corporate culture issue, my feeling is that it goes much deeper than that and is a topic that every Product Manager should be aware of and have their eyes out for — you never know when the “default delay” police will come knocking on your product’s door…
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…
A recurring challenge that many Product Managers face is coping with stakeholders who attempt to block our efforts, either covertly or overtly. Sometimes these situations arise due to simple miscommunication, but other times they’re power plays, the results of internal politics, or even caused by grudges held from previous slights — real or imagined. To excel in Product Management, one must not only deal with these blockades as they arise, but you need to predict when, where, and how they’re likely to come up so that you can head them off before they even become an issue. To do that, though, we have to try to figure out what the most common reasons are for stakeholders to actively or passively interfere — and that’s what the Clever PM is here to share with you. In this first installment I’m going to focus on overcoming passive resistance, and we’ll address more active resistance in a future piece.
If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you’ve probably noticed that accepting uncertainty is a a recurring theme when it comes to Agile and agility. While it’s never stated outright as a “value” in either the Agile Manifesto or the Twelve Principles of Agile, the concept itself underlies many of the points made in those documents. In my opinion, it’s the primary cultural distinction between organizations that still cling to the old, outdated “waterfall” approaches. Waterfall creates a false sense of security by defining everything possible up-front. Agile accepts that we don’t always know everything, and that new information will not only be discovered, but might alter the path. Here are a few specific reasons why accepting uncertainty is essential for teams to be successful.
One of the primary things that Product Managers are constantly working on is change — changing the way people view our customers, changing the way our customers view our product, changing the culture of our company to be more agile, changing peoples’ minds about what’s important and what’s not…the list goes on and on. And, not surprisingly, nearly every Product Manager eventually comes to the realization that change is hard. I mean really, really hard. And sometimes it seems like even the smallest changes are the hardest to get people to commit to and deliver on a regular basis. So why is change so hard? Here are a few of the common reasons…
One of the most fundamental requirements to be a great Product Manager is getting outside the four walls of your office and engaging with your market, your prospects, and your customers directly. Unfortunately, in all too many companies, this is more difficult than it should be, if not utterly impossible. This is usually blamed on too many in-person meetings, too little budget, or just all-around too little time to step outside and engage directly with the people using your product. But it’s a simple fact that the only way that you’re going to uncover the best ideas, the hidden problems that will separate you from your competition, and establish the rapport that you need to validate the solutions that your teams come up with as quickly and cheaply as possible. Here are some ideas for you to consider when you’re trying to figure out how to get outside and engage with your market!
Asking for Forgiveness is Better than Permission
Remember, it’s your job to keep your finger on the pulse of your market. It’s your job to dig deep and uncover unspoken needs that you can use as fuel for innovation. It’s your job to seek out people who can give you valuable feedback, who can tell you all of their problems and issues, and who will honestly review and validate your proposed solutions.
Do you apologize for doing your job? I hope not!
So you shouldn’t apologize for figuring out when and where to insert yourself into the work that other teams are doing. Or for poking around to figure out when, where, and how those teams engage with the market and your customers. The key is to figure out what it is that you offer the other teams — what value you add to their conversations. Maybe your sales team needs someone more technical on-hand to answer specific questions or to run demos for their prospects? Maybe your marketing team needs an extra eye on the copy that’s about to go out. Maybe your support or services teams need some hands-on assistance with customer issues or integration/launch work.
All of these are things to keep an eye on, and doors that you can use to open your engagement with the market…
Once you’ve figured out how other teams engage with your customers, it’s up to you to create the opportunities and take advantage of them. If you’re trying to work with your sales team, find out when their account reviews happen, and make sure that they know you’re interested in attending — offer to be a silent attendee, maybe even the scribe for the meeting, taking notes. After you’ve got a couple of those reviews down, speak up and ask clarifying questions — but make sure that whatever you say is in support of your team and your product. Nothing will kill your attendance at sales-related meetings faster than sinking a deal or souring a renewal.
As for Marketing, the surest way to get your pass to attend industry events is to offer to help out with the transportation, setup, and/or teardown. All of these things are time-consuming and exhausting, and Marketing teams rarely have enough resources to ensure that it all gets taken care of on their own. If you can attach yourself to these efforts, you’ll wind up seeing marketing fight for the budget to send you and for the time away from the office — not a bad place to be at all!
And keep in mind that you don’t have to rely on other teams and other people to create these opportunities — you can usually find at least one event that happens locally that you can attend to establish some relationships with those in the market. While these may not be quite as fancy as some of the bigger events, they provide a low-key, off-hours chance to meet and engage with your market, your customers, and your prospects.
Build Your Own Relationships
So…you’ve figure out how others engage with the market, created some opportunities, and capitalized on them to establish some relationships — now what?
It’s not enough to just know people, nor is it enough to just meet people. Rather, you have to cultivate these relationships so that they’re actually useful to you. Knowing someone and being able to call them and get feedback on your proposed solutions, mockups, wireframes, or even just ideas…are entirely different things. Treat these relationships like a sales team would treat their leads — cultivate them and make sure that you’re maintaining a regular schedule of contact with them. Ensure that you’re bringing value to those contacts as well as extracting value from them — you can’t just call them every month and ask for their input; you’ve got to show a little bit in order to get them to tell. Figure out what interests them most, and what you can share, and manage their expectations as well as those of the other teams that you’re working with. It’s your job to remain in contact with your market and your customers, but you have to do so in a way that doesn’t foul a pending sales deal, that doesn’t contradict the marketing message that’s out there, and that doesn’t endanger your own job by sharing confidential information with the wrong people.
Communicate often, communicate with value, and build a strong relationship built on mutual value, mutual trust, and mutual respect.