7 Things All Great Product Managers Know

I read TechCrunch, The Verge and Wired every day. I read them because I love technology, I love transformation and I love when the collective band together to create something that’s simply, better.

But as a product manager, when I see companies like Lyft, Square or Airbnb achieve something fantastic, it’s not just the creation of something new I get excited about — it’s the deep dive into the work involved, with a particular interest in the blood, sweat and tears of the product managers. What did they do to roll this out? How did they approach it? What would they have found most difficult? What other solutions did they try? How long did it take them? Product management is challenging and it takes a certain amount of grit, determination as well as a ‘knowing’ to orchestrate and drive product release.

From time to time I get asked why I love working in the field that I stumbled into and the overarching reason is simple—because to work on a business’ product, is to work at the very core and changes made at the core are instrumental in enhancing, building and growing that business.

Sure, you can reduce expenditure, focus on marketing and find economies of scale but when you dabble in the wonderful world of product, you transform a business and the lives of those who consume that product.

Last week, a friend of mine — who is currently transitioning between UX and Product Lead roles at a San Francisco based startup — asked me if I was good at what I do. I thought about it briefly, then responded (with a smile) that I was, at which point she asked me what I knew and what it took to be good.

While there is much discussion out there around what a good product manager should do, I personally think the doing is very company-specific. To me, what’s more interesting, is what good product managers know. The following are 7 high-level concepts that I believe all good product managers know by heart.

1. They know how to focus on team; to amplify it, support it and foster it

There is so much evidence to support the fact that great teams create great products.

A product manager is a hub — the spokes of which extend outwardly to Dev, UX, Design, Operations and even Customer Service to create a wheel. Making the wheel turn requires a great deal of collaboration, making the wheel turn fast, requires synergy.

I like to pull the concept of synergy and adapt it to the team — where just a few unique resources can work together to produce an output far more amazing than the sum of its parts. This is the power of the team and as a product manager, you know you’re responsible for driving this. Accordingly, you understand the mechanics of a good team, where all members feel respected, engaged, excited and ready to lend a hand and deliver.

The best thing about a great team, is that members start caring less about whether they’re right or wrong and more about delivering the best output. A core part of being a product manager is always being open to better solutions, regardless of where they come from and the best solutions will consistently come from a truly cohesive team.

A product manager knows that to appear wrong is part of the role. Dev will inevitably pick up edge cases you haven’t considered, find your mistakes and suggest weird and (sometimes) wonderful improvements. Design will criticize your wireframes. Customers and internal stakeholders will tell you what you’ve missed and what needs to be improved. All this however is fantastic, as it’s this ongoing feedback loop that drives the product to be better.

To achieve this, the product manager needs to be well liked, to build rapport and trust as there is no easier way to hamstring communication in a team than for a poor relationship to exist. I can’t — and don’t want to — imagine a working environment where product managers, developers and designers don’t all end up being friends.

2. They know where the company is headed; a road map is a strategic imperative but also a brilliant stabilizer

A good product manager understands direction and velocity. They know where the company/product wants to be in the next year and the key milestones that will get it there. To not have a vision or an understanding of what the company is working towards, is to not have structure or goal posts. Without an aim or direction, it’s very difficult to make progress.

A road map not only saves time, it creates a barrier to wasting energy/resources because you can always stop and ask yourself, ‘Is this contributing to where we see ourselves in the short/medium term future?’. Of course, a vision is never the end game and it will never (and should never) go as planned — it’s adaptable and it will change — and that’s perfectly fine. New features will be prioritized, the market space might shift, issues might arise around resourcing or a myriad of other things might take place.

The purpose of a vision is not only to act as something to inspire the team and company, its purpose is also to orientate the company on a week to week basis. A vision and a product road map is like a sea anchor, it will ensure the ship’s bow is kept facing into the wind and as such, is as stable as possible.

One of the most valuable sanity checks I know of when working with product is to pose the question on a given Monday morning, ‘What are we all doing this week that contributes to where we see ourselves in 6 months or one year?’ It’s incredible to see how this question has a way of cutting through the crap and making the whole team refocus and reprioritize accordingly.

3. They know design is king and queen

I always find it funny when someone tells me that something looks ‘good enough’. It’s funny because I immediately realise they don’t get it.

Let’s start with first principles; working with customer facing web and mobile applications means your users are human.

There’s a reason hundreds of thousands of years ago, humans were painting themselves, adorning their ears and bodies with decorative objects or scarring the skin with beautiful and intricate designs. It’s because humans preference what looks good — it’s in our DNA. A good looking spear head would most likely be sharp and would yield greater success in bringing down an animal. A good looking piece of fruit might be at peak ripeness and therefore more nutritious. A focus on the aesthetics when designing for humans is monumentally important. Apple proved this.

When you design something beautiful, it’s amazing how you often find you’ve taken a large step towards a strong UX standard as well. While the correlation is not perfect, my experience indicates it certainly exists. William Lear, founder of the company that produced the Lear Jet, once said, “If it looks good, it will fly good.” I think there is an element of truth here, when you’re creating a customer facing application.

So what is ‘beautiful design’? I’ve had to ask myself this question so many times over the past few years that I’ve come up with an answer — a loose test that indicates to me whether the team has achieved the standard on a web, iOS or Android application. It’s a work in progress but the baseline is:

- Beautiful is visually appealing
- Beautiful is functional
- Beautiful is simple
- Beautiful is frictionless

…but the best part?

- Beautiful is sticky

Once you have a user using a beautiful product, you’ve taken a large step in bonding them to your business.

In 2015 ‘UX Designer’ is one of the most in-vogue and misused terms out there. Believe me, only a fraction of designers touting the title are actually qualified. A good product manager knows they need to find someone within that small fraction and throw out the rest, even if that means someone has to go. A product manager understands the need for top tier design and UX and realizes that to build great product, finding designers with uncompromised capability and skill is a must.

4. They know to be manic around the detail

You’re either someone who is detail oriented or you’re not. If you’re not, there is no way of fostering it. I’ve come to realize it’s a binary thing.

We’ve all heard that age old adage, ‘the devil is in the detail’ but the best product people out there know, so too is the brilliance. That interaction you nail by increasing the lag by 0.05 seconds, that requirement you add to a spec after lying in bed thinking on it for 2 hours, that question you add to the question set for a user testing group that turns out to be the difference between highlighting or missing an issue, that Dev whose worked really hard on something but you realize hasn’t been acknowledged at all for their efforts — that stuff is what makes a good product manager, great.

I’ve found it so helpful to break things down on a granular level in the product world — it’s a time consuming thing to do (and you may be asked why you’re staring into space) but it can really bring positive results.

It’s a funny thing, there’s that popular expression, ‘Can’t see the forest for the trees’ which indicates that a person is so focused on the detail, that they’ve lost site of the bigger picture. I feel as a good product manager one needs to be capable of constantly being able to invert that logic — seeing both the bigger picture and the detail.

5. They know the pitfalls of technical debt

Working in tech means you’re part of building things — from websites, to mobile applications to internal proprietary systems like a CMS or CRM and the way you approach the construction is critical.

I had the good fortune of beginning my career with a CTO who was technically brilliant and taught me the importance of architecting things in a way that gives you flexibility and scalability as your application, database, and overall offerings expand. It’s so important when you’re building something, to acknowledge that where you’re at now and where you’ll be in 12 months time are two very different places and when you factor that in, you make better choices.

All good product managers have had that ‘oh f***’ moment where they think about something and don’t know whether it’s too late to include. Amongst other things, good architecture, good implementation and good coding standards offer flexibility. And when your product is an application, you always need flexibility.

All businesses change what they want as needs adapt and evolve and accordingly, so too do requirements. Technical debt creates an impediment to being dynamic, to being ‘agile’ — it can be the difference between a business quickly repositioning itself or sinking. Technical debt has only two antidotes and neither are appealing — money and resources.

So how does a good product manager tackle this? Firstly, they know to keep the concept of technical debt back of mind when discussing architecture with the lead Dev or relevant stakeholder. Secondly, they know to consider these points at the get go:

- Is this scalable?
- What are the problems we might face going forward?
- How might implementing X in this way limit what we’re capable of rolling out in the future?

…and my favourite that always yields good things;

- What are we not thinking of?

6. They know a good communicator swings both ways

This one I felt was almost too obvious to include but I feel that it’s so vital that while there isn’t too much to say on it, it needs to be flagged.

As a product manager almost everything you do involves communication. If you’re not an effective communicator, this gig probably isn’t for you.

Conveying your message in an articulate manner will greatly save time, reduce frustration, and assist you in managing stakeholders but the most powerful thing it will do, is help you to discover the real issues which, in turn, will help you define great product.

To be a great product manager you need to listen, interpret and understand what’s being said to you but more importantly, to hear what’s really being said to you. So many times I’ve heard stakeholders cry out that a stated issue is the impediment but then after a few tactful questions, it becomes clear what the stakeholder is saying is a mere symptom, not the actual issue. To have gone out and acted on what they’ve initially stated without validation, would be a mistake.

When speaking to internal or external stakeholders about an ‘issue’ or feature that they’d like to see changed, it’s not sufficient just to ask what the problem is; rather you need to understand why they’re reporting it as an issue.

Listening to but more importantly understanding the trigger behind the feedback will help you not only to define but to optimise the way in which the product moves forward.

A good communicator can just as easily convey an articulate message as well as receive an accurate message.

7. They know it all comes down to gettin’ it done

It’s quite simply the unmentioned attribute of a great product manager — they get it done. What’s ‘it’? Everything. The high-level meetings, the user group research, the spec, the stakeholder management, the fun in the workplace, the adherence to deadlines — everything. They get it done.

All businesses need people who are phenomenal operators and all product managers need to be the kind of people who close things out because when you’re part of product delivery, closing things out is everything. There’s no step by step guide — it’s just a set of micro decisions and a broad acknowledgement of the importance of the end result. It’s the hustle.

Everything you do as a product manager is futile if it hasn’t led you in advancing the direction of the product — you can dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’ but if you can’t deliver, you might as well have been playing ping pong.