Photo by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash

How to Improve this Vital Product Management Skill

Of all the skills Product Managers require, communication is the most important one. Improve your communication skills and decision-making by asking more questions.

Me and my colleagues: Jessie, a designer, and Laura, a developer, at Myplanet

Of all the skills Product Managers must have, communication is the most vital. It is the cornerstone of every responsibility under the product management umbrella. We must share and receive important information to do our job. Below are a few examples of the ways we communicate daily:

  • Conducting interviews to gather product requirements
  • Articulating the rationale behind interaction designs
  • Compromising on a the nuances of visual designs
  • Negotiating the product backlog
  • Detailing acceptance criteria during backlog refinement
  • Rallying people behind the product vision
  • Expressing feelings during a retrospective
  • Demonstrating product features during a sprint review

Communication skills can thus determine whether we fail or succeed as Product Managers (and whether our products do too).

All the Product Managers I’ve ever met are actually adept communicators. But there is one communication pitfall I witness among our profession. We do not ask enough questions. In our effort to push the team and product forward, we gather enough information to make a decision and move onto our next task. With this partial view we make suboptimal decisions.

Product Managers make hundreds of decisions weekly. Questions help us elicit important information for decision-making. As Edward Hodnett says in The Art of Problem Solving, “Asking questions is the ABC of diagnosis. Only the inquiring mind solves problems.” So here I’ll suggest a few quick ways that we can start asking more questions and improve our work.

A quick note on questions:
This article offers tips focused on the how, and less so the what, of asking questions. There are many great articles on the questions we can ask to elicit particular information, such as this article on clarifying, adjoining, funneling, and elevating questions. Research this area if you want to ask really great questions. But for now, here are some tips to get you started….

Get curious

When we know that we don’t have all the answers, we become more curious — and curiosity leads to questions. The world’s most innovative and inquisitive minds constantly ask questions. Unfortunately, our curiosity often gets stifled when we feel that we are supposed to have the answers. After all, we’re the “CEO of the product”, right?

So remove this pressure. Be confident in knowing you do not have all the answers. When I am genuinely curious and ask questions, people feel heard and ultimately, more confident in the decisions I make. So to begin to ask more questions, be confidently curious.

Me and my team during a Myplanet conference day strategy meeting

Avoid assumptions

We make the mistake of assuming others think like we do. Not on purpose, but subconsciously. Try to remember that we all have our own experiences, personalities, and opinions, so our thought processes vary wildly.

Have you ever had a conversation where you and another person thought you were talking about the same thing, only to find out during the discussion you were in fact talking about different things? Asking a question in place of making an assumption helps us avoid taking a wrong turn based on incorrect information. Some questions that help avoid assumptions and uncover what someone truly means are:

  • Can you elaborate on what you mean by x?
  • Can you help me understand the problem you’re facing a little better?
  • Can you give me an example?
  • Can you explain it again in different words?

This tip is often the most powerful one in action. When you avoid assumptions you see the benefits immediately.

Ask open-ended questions

This is a tip that you have likely heard ad nauseam (and for good reason). When we ask closed-ended questions we impede the opportunity to understand a problem. Open-ended questions invite the listener to communicate valuable information. Closed-ended questions have their time and place, but more often than not an open-ended question will help us more.

To start, create a short list of open-ended questions you can use with your team throughout the week (you don’t have to wait until retro time!). Some possible candidates:

  • How do you feel about it?
  • What challenges are you facing? Where are you stuck?
  • What blocks can I remove?
  • What is your assessment of the situation?
  • What is your desired outcome?
  • What is the opportunity here? What is the challenge?
  • What process can we fix or improve?

This topic is heavily documented. So get on Google and find some great questions for your toolkit.

Be patient

Product Managers have a lot to do and little time in which to do it. This can cause us to jump to conclusions (see point one again). But we need to try to avoid landing on an answer or solution too quickly. Instead, dig into the heart of a problem. Sit in the problem space with an inquiring mind and be open to all the possibilities before you.

One important way to do this is simply to ask follow-up questions. Really listen to how people respond and then continue to ask questions. The “5 Whys”, an approach favoured by the lean management framework Six Sigma, is another great way to spend more time digging into a problem. The approach suggests asking why to a problem five times to determine the root cause of a problem. It will surprise you how many times you can usually get to 5 whys before finding the root cause. It may take a little bit more time, but the payoff far outweighs the cost.

My colleague Katie, also a Product Strategist, brainstorming with her team at Myplanet

Practice

Like anything, practice makes progress. The more questions you ask, the more likely you are to refine not only the questions themselves as you figure out which ones produce meaningful answers, but also the way you ask them to encourage greater transparency and trust. And guaranteed, in very short order you’ll see the benefits.

Communication is the core tenet of good product management. As product people, we are always communicating, from managing expectations to facilitating discussions to inspiring our teams. But we often skip over the opportunities to learn more and drive to the heart of ideas and problems. By flexing our inquisitive mind muscles, we open not only ourselves, but also our teams and our work, to greater insights and stronger outcomes. Try some of the tips suggested here and let me know if asking questions has improved your Product Management skill set. I’d love to ask you some questions about your experience!


Be sure to add in your thoughts in the comments below and if you found the article useful, give it a 👏 and share it with others!

Interested in being part of a team that works towards better, more effective communication every day? Join us— we’ve got open positions right now.