How to be a tactical product manager

The internet is full of advice for enterprising and aspiring product owners. There are graphs, charts, and visualizations to help readers comprehend the diverse responsibilities of the modern product manager. Scores of blogs posts written by some of the world’s best product managers hold the product manager in high esteem.

“Product manager,” they say, “you are the CEO, the defender of users, and have the last word on product quality.”

But for all the romance the product manager attracts, most product managers really aren’t the CEO of anything, regularly get exhausted by the constant cat-herding, and do have day-to-day tactical responsibilities to fulfill.

And so, rather than drone on about why you need to talk to your users more often, this post is going to discuss the rest of the value great product managers bring to the table.

You can be the most empathetic, visionary product dreamer on the planet, but if you can’t execute, you’ll never build a thing.

1. Ask Good Questions, Listen, and Take Phenomenal Notes

That’s an order.

Most of the people you will work with in your career are going to be terrible at describing what they actually want from the product you’re responsible for defining. However, if you miss an important requirement or some subtle piece of feedback doesn’t find its way into the MVP, the stakeholders will hold you responsible.

As a product manager, you have to ask a lot of well crafted questions in order to elicit responses from project sponsors. It’s not enough to ask open-ended questions about the product’s reason for existing. Questions like that are difficult to answer in a way that will allow you to generate actionable requirements. Instead, ask more pointed questions, like:

  1. How exactly do you expect this product to contribute to the company’s top-line revenue?
  2. What products or services will this compete with to gain loyal users?
  3. What will happen to the company if this product is a failure?

When you ask questions like these, be prepared to listen for shared themes from your stakeholder groups. Words or themes that are repeated by several people deserve a special place in your notes, and you should return to that list of themes multiple times through your development and design process to ensure what you’re doing measures up.

2. Write Clear, Actionable Acceptance Criteria

Visions don’t come to life just because you have them. Every product needs at least two things: 1️⃣ a compelling vision and 2️⃣ actionable requirements. Whether you like it or not, 75 percent of your time as a product manager will be spent refining and prioritizing the stories in the backlog and writing and editing the acceptance criteria for those stories.

Many talented product managers have written at length about what makes an airtight user story. Personally, I recommend the Pivotal way of doing things. Scrum does not mandate a particular story writing method, so you’ll need to choose a format that you can spend hours writing in and can be read by your teams. You’ll also need to be flexible and request feedback early and often. If you attempt to generate perfect stories without feedback, you’ll spend entire weeks on just a few stories.

3. Draw, Draw, Draw, and Draw Some More

Probably the simplest tactic for breaking away from story writing hell is to stand up and start drawing user experience flows on the whiteboard. Sketching exercises have been shown to boost creative potential and help us start thinking outside the tactical silos that may be blocking us from seeing the forest through the trees. Tactically, sketching is also the easiest way to uncover potential edge cases that you’ll want to account for when creating user stories for designers and developers.

Finally, sketching is one of the most powerful ways to translate complex ideas into tangible features. This is why the Google Ventures Design Sprint process is so effective, since it’s entire purpose is to help thinkers and doers become visualizers of complicated problems. This will also come into play more in step 5 below.

4. Herd Cats and Delegate

Herding cats may sound like a slight on your team members. It’s not. Think about the characteristics often used to describe cats. Cats are independent, observational, detail-oriented, and nimble. In the professional world, a cat wouldn’t be a bad teammate.

But when you have not only one herd (your development team), but two (your client or business stakeholders) to wrangle, it can feel like shipping a product increment will never happen. As the product manager, it’s your responsibility to keep your ear to the ground, communicate often with your team members, and find every opportunity to delegate operational tasks so that you can focus on solving the problems and aligning the people necessary to get to your launch date.

Delegation is a difficult skill for many product managers to practice. As product managers, we consider ourselves makers, unicorns, able to master skills quickly and put them to work for us. Many situations exist where this outlook on life will benefit you, but there are others where it will distract you from completing your most pressing priorities.

5. Build Consensus and Sell

If there’s one takeaway that sticks with you after reading this post I hope it’s this:

Every product manager is a salesperson.

You may not be responsible for hitting any quarterly sales targets, but you are the only person capable of ensuring that every person involved in building your product or feature believes in the roadmap and allocates their full attention to delivering quality.

You are also the first point of contact when the business has a new idea that could jeopardize a product launch or cut its quality in some way. In those moments, it’s up to you to ensure stakeholders are reminded of the grand vision as well as the roadmap that has been created to help get them there.

As a product manager, it’s your job to help other realize when their ideas may bad while simultaneously empowering them to be good idea factories.

That calling isn’t easy, but it’s what the best product managers must do every day.

Header photo by ALP STUDIO on Unsplash