Never have I heard a better description of the challenge that faces Product Managers than a quote that I overheard at this year’s ProductCamp Seattle — “Humans are hard…” spoken by none other than my fellow General Assembly Product Management instructor Tricia Cervenan, as part of a panel discussion. Those simple words struck a chord with me, as it made me think about all of the different ways in which we as Product Managers attempt to understand, document, and predict human behavior. Every single day I can come up with some variation on the idea that “humans are hard” impacts us in some way. [Read more…]
I was working with a future mentee last week and we noticed a recurring theme to some of our discussions — that a large part of good Product Management results from limiting the number of choices that our teams and our executives have to choose from, so that they make decisions that reflect the actual priorities that should be driving our next moves. In most organizations, there is an almost unlimited number of ideas, concepts, directions, and motivations from which to choose — and trying to manage all of them at once is certain to drive any Product Manager insane in very short order. Rather, in order to ensure that we’re doing the right things at the right times, we need to be constantly limiting the possible permutations upon which we drive decisions so that we can be sure that we’re moving in the right direction while being open to new ideas and concepts!
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…
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…
We’ve all been there — whether you’re a Product Manager or not, you’ve sat in a meeting that’s going far longer than it should, horribly off-agenda, listening to people bicker about some minor point that’s preventing anyone from moving forward and actually making an actionable decision. Usually what happens is the loudest person in the room wears down everyone else until they feel that they’ve achieved some perverted form of “victory” before either the meeting runs out of time, or (even worse) they think that their decision is that of the group and there’s nothing more to discuss. This is especially a problem if, as is the case in many smaller companies, the loudest voice in the room also just happens to belong to the CEO or COO of the organization. These meetings are the bane of everyone’s existence, not only because they’re ultimately pointless and a waste of everyone’s time, but because they contribute to a culture of direction from the top and not innovation from the ground up. If the CEO is always right, then there’s no point in anyone who’s not the CEO making decisions.
But that’s not how these meetings should happen, and it’s not how they have to happen. With a little bit of planning and preparation, any good Product Manager can run an effective meeting where people feel like their voice has been heard, their positions understood, and everyone leaves the room with a mutually-agreed plan in place.
Know Your Players
I like to think of a meeting as an opportunity to exercise my directorial skills — and I mean that in the theatrical sense. Every great director knows not just which parts his performers will play, but how they will play them. You don’t cast someone meek and quiet to play Sky Masterson in Guys & Dolls, and you don’t cast a loud, obnoxious diva to play Christine Daaé in Phantom of the Opera. You know the roles, and you know the players available to you — and it’s your job as a director to place the right people in the right role at the right time to see them shine onstage. Similar considerations need to be given when planning your meetings. Who’s the person on the exec team for whom nothing is ever good enough? Who’s the manager always looking to promote one of their team players over themselves? Who’s the director always looking for the next innovation to try out? By knowing the players in the meetings that you’re scheduling, you can predict to a high level of certainty how that meeting will play out, assuming that you structure it correctly, anticipate objections and concerns, and facilitate the shit out of that thing!
The Meeting’s Not the Meeting
Regardless of how well you know the players, you have to realize that the meeting isn’t actually the meeting. The meeting is the opportunity for everyone to get together and air their grievances — kind of like Festivus. But the real meeting happens outside the “meeting”. Any time you just get a large group of people into a room, you’re going to have chaos — sometimes it’s controlled chaos, but it’s chaos nonetheless. This is why we meet with every stakeholder who’s going to influence the decision before the meeting. This is where we do the heavy lifting, where we figure out what it’s going to take to move the person to a “yes” and to eke out all of the objections that they might be holding onto, waiting for the right opportunity to cast their die on the table. If we fail to meet ahead of the “meeting” we’re doing nothing but throwing our direction to chance. We don’t do that — as Product Managers we play the role of the House, and the House only gambles when they know they’re going to come out ahead.
Drive to Decision
It’s so easy to just give in when a meeting starts to go sideways — when you have your CEO staring at his phone, and your Director of Marketing writing emails to their subordinates, and your VP of Sales reviewing their weekly numbers. So don’t let them. Demonstrate to them that you value their time, and require that they value theirs. Focus the meeting, focus the discussion, pull people out of their laptops (by force, if necessary), but drive to a decision. Make outrageous statements, make a declaration that a decision has already been made, don’t show more than two options — one if at all possible. Structure your entire meeting, from beginning to end, around making a decision that matters and take the time after that meeting to confirm it and to plan the next steps. We had a rule at one company I worked at that if you walked out of the meeting, you walked out of the decision — a rule that our CEO tested once, probably inadvertently. Needless to say, he never left our meetings early again. Make rules, stick to them. Make an agenda, stick to it. Take only as long as you need to come to a decision — if everyone agrees in the first 5 minutes, that’s 55 minutes they have to go do real work.
If you can demonstrate to others that you’re dedicated to respecting them, respecting their time, and making actionable decisions, they’ll naturally follow. If you let them run roughshod over you every chance they get, they’ll happily do that as well. The decision is yours to make, so do the right thing.
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.
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.