The Simplest Lessons Are The Toughest: A Product Manager’s Perspective
Product Management is a new (not more than 10 –15 years old in India) and sought-after role in the industry and most people define it in different ways. The requirements for the role are a combination of soft skills and technical proficiency. While the latter is largely spoken about, there is a set of interpersonal skills that mature you in the role.
These at times, come organically, with experience (read ‘burning your fingers’). Sometimes you can learn them from others before it’s too late and evolve faster than the generation before yourself.
Some of these skills/lessons from my personal experience are listed below:
This is one lesson where Product Managers (PMs) take the longest time. We start acting as the responsible parties for everything and over-burden ourselves with everything. From process definition to solution design to UX design, right to development and quality assurance to release management, metrics assessment, and much more; we tend to take charge of everything in the name of ‘dignity of labor’.
While the concern may be reasonable, exploiting yourself is not. A PM’s role in a product can be compared to that of a film director. A director is at the heart of the project but cannot do all the activities (script writing, production management, casting, acting, music, choreography, logistics, set design, the actual direction, camera handling, editing, marketing, release, etc.) oneself. The director observes things, envisions a film and considers a thousand things before they can go ahead and begin shooting it. Once the project commences, the right people are selected, guided and delegated in trust. The director oversees, sometimes intervenes but never does everything by themselves. After the release, the ownership of the outcome is shared by everyone associated with the project.
Similarly, a Product Manager needs to arrive at a vision, get a team to align with that vision, make them accountable (or question it until you develop an optimal approach) and oversee the activities while maintaining one’s sanity to the end. And this, in no way can be considered as passing the buck if you set the expectations ahead and fair. The outcome is a shared fruit of your dream garden that is ploughed, planted and watered by different people.
2. Say ‘no’ in good time
We all are a product of our decisions. These decisions sometimes go wrong due to multiple reasons. What’s interesting is that the worst decisions are not the ones where we fail to do certain things but the ones where we end up doing things we should not have.
As Product Managers, we tend to have a ‘bias for action’ or ‘risk appetite’ with outcome accountability which I completely advocate and appreciate. But sometimes, due to lack of attention to detail, fear or too much of risk acceptance or an unclear value system, we tend to take steps or agree to things that trouble us in the long run. To avoid situations like these, it is always best to define processes, value system and a unit that takes care of any exceptions. The processes and values should not be a hindrance but enable you and your teams to be able to work in a stress-free environment. Any non-negotiables like bypassing the legal/compliance approval process for an induced urgency or submitting to the task of a non-scalable, unreasonable cop-out for pleasing a stakeholder or going beyond your limits (beyond the defined threshold) to please someone and landing the team in extra pressure or forcibly releasing the product on an agreed date despite the involved risks, are not worth the load and should be handled with patience and maturity.
One example of the mistake is the ‘Facebook–Cambridge Analytica’ incident (based on what the news channels indicate). The involved parties had multiple chances to avoid their actions but chose not to; this blew the situation out of proportion to the extent of influencing (read ‘polarizing’)the election outcome and Facebook paying $5 billion in fine.
There’s another example where this was actually avoided is the recent Chandrayaan 2 launch in India. The expedition was delayed by a week, after a glitch was found, despite the pressure. It was a brave call to say no and proceed safe when most needed. It is one of the PM’s core values to be brave enough to be able to put their foot down for the best and the right despite all odds.
3. Calm and Composed (Wait)
Having patience is hard in today’s world of instant gratifications. While these low hanging fruits are good quick wins at times, it’s important to separate the tactical from the strategic. And, strategies take long (very long, sometimes forever) to realize. It’s very important to maintain the balance between enabling the business and driving it towards the common dream. To do this, the key is to have patience, observe and sometimes leave things on auto pilot before you check back again. As PMs, we have this benefit of being able to take our mind off one project or deliverable, as we have a hundred other things to take care of.
Note: This does not at all mean that you need to turn lethargic but just that you need to realize that it’s a journey, a lifestyle that you have chosen and loved. The ‘energy’ and ‘bias for action’ still remain the preferred default personality traits for you but, with a pinch of patience.
Empathy is no new virtue for PMs. We all like to call ourselves empathetic and customer obsessed. However, we all fail to deliver on this expectation at times; owing to our ideological and emotional biases. User empathy isn’t always about what the customer is going through while using your product and how you can reduce their effort. It is also about hearing them out without jumping into solutions. One of the most difficult activities for a PM is to sit in a room where he/she knows the answers to the problems discussed and still stay quiet and hum. In my experience, it helps a lot to hear someone out as opposed to putting out our ‘know it all’ self. It helps establish relationships, understand people’s perspectives, explore new ideas, remain grounded and most importantly — to see things from an angle we never saw before. The key to Product Management is Design Thinking that constitutes 4 steps; the first one being ‘Understand’ (followed by Explore, Prototype and Evaluate). This also interestingly ties back to the previous point WAIT (but this time WAIT stands for Why Am I Talking).
At times, we tend to move away from the very core of humanity i.e. kindness and compassion. We start to disregard or undervalue suggestions/concerns of people who have been unable to prove their worth before. We subconsciously start to strengthen the belief of their incompetence leading us nowhere but in a miserable state of never-ending hatred. It’s always good to pack and bury the hatchet through dignified closure and walk past it with positivity and charm. Carrying unwanted burden for too long will only hurt you.
5. Don’t try to build a Taj Mahal in a day
The Taj Mahal was not built in a day. Neither are any great products.
We need to understand the concept of MVP (Minimal Viable Product) and prioritize right. If we tend to implement every possible feature, there’s a bleak chance we’ll be able to see the outcome in the required time.
The power of MVP is that it helps you ‘fail fast’ and ‘fail safe’ which we all know is the key to success. It’s preferable to get to action and generate workable outcomes that you can constantly evaluate and iterate on.
This is a good practice for two reasons:
- Reduced risk of failure
- Quicker turnaround (owing to the MVP and agile concepts used)
6. Let go, whether the product is your baby…or not
As PMs or key stakeholders of products or businesses, people have the tendency to have a firm hold on everything. These people are often the key brains or drivers behind the results and call it their ‘brainchild’, but treat it as their own (pampered) child (which I may be guilty of doing myself).
I disagree with the argument that you need to treat your Product as your baby (for you can’t and shouldn’t do to your child, what you can do to your product). Regardless of the validity of my disagreement, even a child needs to be left and let go for their own good. While training to cycle, you support a child from the sides and provide them with training wheels. In the end, however, you must let go so that he can do it himself.
Similarly, defending your product irrationally is as wrong as defending your child’s wrongdoing. In both cases, you need to hear things out, treat them with maturity and do what is right and not what massages the child’s ego.
7. Be proud not blind
When there’s too much glory and brightness, it blinds your eyes. You don’t see anything but bask a bit too long in your own glory. We forget to call spade a spade and tend to remain defensive about our product/business. This is a scary position to be in.
As a PM, it is very important to keep your eyes open; wide and constantly. While we love to be the problem solvers, the world is no longer all about just solving the identified problems anymore. In fact, it is discovering new challenges and working towards fixing them. Most necessities today, were a luxury not very long ago. From mobile phones to the internet to online food delivery to on demand video streaming, all the products were either absent or a luxury some time back.
Hence, it is important to keep seeking excellence and beyond for, as mentioned earlier, it is a long journey.
While I agree that there are multiple stages in the lifecycle of a product(Initiation > Growth > Maturity > Decline); the intent should be to change and evolve the business and build new products, take it notches ahead and keep growing with the world.
Facebook would never have survived if it did not implement the ad-monetization models or if it didn’t acquire and learn from the growing competitors/opportunities like Whatsapp, Instagram, Oculus.
Orkut, on the other hand failed to grow due to the lack of innovation or the eye for change.
Google, similarly, wouldn’t have grown into the giant that it is if it didn’t innovate constantly. Ideas as simple as ‘Building your own browser and making your site the default page’ had brilliant business strategies behind them that continue to benefit Google constantly.
Zomato wouldn’t have grown if it didn’t pick up on the home delivery model like Swiggy that seemed far-fetched when they started.
All the successful ventures we see today are in their position because of their alertness to the changing world and agility towards implementing the right measures/changes ahead of time.
8. Be okay with uncertainties
This sounds like a typical excuse for incompetence or lack of perseverance. But,it’s also surprisingly true that if you have been a Product Manager long enough, you have faced situations where there is no right answer and you need to trust your gut or make a choice for the ‘bias for action’. There’s a possibility that such choices are a subject of debate for all the right reasons. But, unless you’re not doing something unethical, illegal or immensely loss prone, it’s okay to make decisions and move forward.
It is a Product Manager’s job to seek the truth and find the best/ideal solution to the problem at hand. But, there are situations where you have to hit and try till you or someone else untangles the uncertainty.
In the Software Product world, there are lots of uncertainties and debates floating around. But, they don’t stop the industry from functioning and growing to the best of their ability. There’s no denying the fact that there’s unfortunate collateral damage on the way that needs to be taken care of.
Data Privacy, for example, is a debated topic. But, the debate hasn’t stagnated the industry. Instead, it has made us more cautious of the risks and aware of the checks and balances we may require on the way.
There are many other sorts of uncertainties in terms of ownership, legality, values etc. that at times help us take our steps back and at other times they open avenues for a much needed dialogue. In any case, it’s important not to take these to heart for the burden will only pull you back.
Working ahead without tracking the metrics/benefits is like hitting the bull’s eye with a blindfold. Following your creative instinct and gut may be great for designing your house or your ball gown but not so great when there’s a business and users involved.
While the argument around experience, feel good factor and instinct is often true; it’s truer that measurable goals are always better. A product manager needs to gauge the benefits before prioritization or pitching. The benefits could be in terms of saving cost, saving effort, scalability, technical debt clearance, revenue generation etc. It’s difficult to measure the benefits ahead of development which is where experience and collaboration comes into the picture. It’s an important practice to question and debate a feature incorporation (benefits, effort v/s impact, risks, scalability) or change incorporation before jumping right into solution and implementation.
Even after the implementation, you need to keep measuring the benefits, performance, sentiment etc. constantly and keep working on ways to strengthen your product from outside as well as inside.
There’s nothing scarier than investing years without knowing or constantly assessing metrics for reassurance or the much needed validation or worse, for risks and the projected downfall.
As PMs, we often bend towards the words — ‘Too early to celebrate’ and end up forgetting that there are many people involved in the exercise who move on to take up other projects/responsibilities after the launches or completion of their parts of the jobs.
It is always good to keep celebrating the small wins and appreciating people for their work. This keeps the spirits high and the memories fresh for most people.
However, your responsibility doesn’t end here, this is a dual celebration of the end of your first milestone and the beginning of another amazing one that’ll give you the pleasure of watching your dreams come to life.
The bigger celebration, without doubt, will be after reaping the bounties of the seeds you’ve sown.
A product launch is like a ‘wedding function’ where you raise a toast to the new beginning i.e. ‘marriage’ that you need to work on and invest in, constantly.
11. Lead by example
You, as a product manager are at the center of many functions with the three key ones being UX, technology and business. On top of these, you intersect with quality, growth, legal/compliance, marketing, sales and a lot of other functions in some form or another.
While I don’t completely agree with the ‘Product manager is the mini CEO’ argument, I do somehow believe that if someone comes close (for a tech products-driven firm), it’s them.
As mentioned before, like film directors, you are the drivers of the show that must go on successfully. You cannot afford to turn a blind eye towards problems if there are any. You need to make decisions, and make them with absolute maturity at the right hour. It is not about whose work it is, it is more about going for the success that everyone wants. And, you, as the center of the system have the greatest power and capability to solve these problems, owing to your equation with every function and the stakes that you hold. This also ties back to the theory of T-Shaped Product Management that talks about striking a constant balance between Depth (Subject matter expertise), Breadth (Knowledge of parallel functions) and Height (Striving to scale the business and subsequently, your role upwards).
With a track record of proven success, you will go on to lead by example. And for this track record, you may not need to hold things too tight (like the sand that slips away on doing so) but not hang them out to dry, either. A good balance between being observant and trusting people is extremely important
12. Be Happy
The most important part of the job is the toughest and, to be honest, involuntary.
But, as harsh as it may sound, nobody wants to be with the unhappy and the unlucky for too long.
As a product manager you spend your day with lots of people, stakeholders, users etc. There’s a high chance that you encounter conflicting personalities/opinions or even start off on the wrong foot. We tend to hold our biases and send out unhappy or unpleasant vibes without even realizing it.
It is very important to regain your sanity after reflecting on the issues or even seeking closure when needed. But regardless of what happens, you need to learn the hard skill of regaining your happiness and starting back on a good note with the same people. It doesn’t only make you a bigger and better person but also benefits you personally for you’re not having to carry the emotional load that tampers with your ability to work and deliver in your best form or worse, even work with the people you may not share the best equation with.
Sometimes the grief is more with yourself, born out of thoughts like — ‘I should have done this better or differently’. It’s more important to be kind and forgiving towards yourself before towards the others. If you can talk things out with someone in the right boundaries (of confidential or nasty details), you should certainly do it and let go of the baggage to keep moving forward at the desired pace.