How to be a Kickass PM

Are you a Kickass PM?

Are you one if other PMs keep coming to you for advice? That could just signal experience and the tribal knowledge you have of the company.

How about if you get frequent promotions? A strong signal. But that could also be because your company is growing very fast.

What if you just go and ask around? Courtesy guarantees that you’ll get a distorted answer.

Kickass PMs are so good that they are legendary. Stories are told about how they developed a great product from the intuition they developed from months of talking to customers. On how they persuaded executives to start a new line of business based on a successful prototype.

You know that you’re a Kickass PM if people tell stories about you.

How do you become a Kickass PM?

Now that you know that you’re not a Kickass PM, how do you become one? The answer is the same whether you want to become a Kickass PM or a Kickass anything.

Become a Learning Machine

It’s called continuous improvement, kaizen and a host of other names. But in essence it means that to become better, you have to continuously keep on learning. The power of compounding is tremendous.

A few fresh recruits from college stayed with me for about a week. They reminded me of myself 8 years ago when I first joined the workforce. But I felt the huge difference in what I am now and what I was then. It’s because of the accumulation of learning over years.

I love this info graphic:

The power of compounding

It means if you improve yourself just 1% every day, you’ll be 37.8 times better than what you were a year ago. Imagine the impact that could have to your career, your well-being and your life.

Don’t be Good, be Kickass

Since data about users is so much easier to collect now, everybody’s exhorted to be data-driven. Which is fine — unless you’re driven by only data. Data doesn’t capture everything. And it’s easy to make the numbers tell the story you want it to.

Sajal is a PM of a team of people who’s job is to get the highest ROI possible from Google adword spends. If he’d looked at the data, he’d be trying to find categories where ROI is low and try to improve them. Instead, he spent his time sitting with the team and understanding how they did things and he noticed that they were dealing with so many accounts that they couldn’t spend the necessary amount of time on each one to get more clicks. So he reduced the number of accounts each handled by 50%. Consequently, the ROI increased by 100% !

He wouldn’t have had this deep understanding if he’d only looked at the data.

Good PMs own the product that they’re hired for and strive to make it better. Kickass PMs understand that the product exists to solve a problem the customer has and not for it’s own sake. They don’t try to force fit their product for similar problems that other customers have.

When Apple set out to create the iPhone, they didn’t just add features to the iPod. They created a different product because it was a different problem. Sure, they added all the features that the iPod had knowing fully well that the iPhone would cannibalise the iPod. But they didn’t force-fit the iPod round wheel interface on the iPhone.

Changing behaviour is hard. People are used to the way they do things. They’ll only change if what you’re building is so much more valuable, or so much easier to use, that it’s worth the effort to change inertia.

Henry Ford could have solved the customer’s problem by breeding faster horses. Instead, he changed the customer’s behaviour by creating the Model T.

Of course the end to end customer experience is important. But that’s not how you keep customers. A customer will find it harder to switch if the ecosystem you’ve built is so valuable that competitive products can’t match that value. A Kickass PM realises that one company can’t solve all problems. So he leverages the work of other companies that are great at the problems they solve.

Zoho’s whole business model is built on this. Slack’s competitors are copying their features but are finding it hard to copy their plugin ecosystem.

A Kickass PM focuses — ruthlessly. He’d rather build an amazing product that’s incomplete rather than complete product that doesn’t impress.

Remember Yahoo Messenger? How many of it’s many features do you remember? What about Google Talk? How many features did it have? Which one did you use when both were available?

Customers are experts on the problems that they’re facing. But they’re not an expert at the solution they need. That’s supposed to be you.

The govt. of Denmark delivers free food to their elderly. Despite that, their nutrition levels were low. The govt. hired a consultant and asked them to fix the menu. The consultants spoke to the elderly as well as the cooks. They realised that the elderly loose a lot of things at their age: jobs, children, bladder control. The loss of control over their food becomes too much for them. Also, they crave to meet people instead of eating alone. For cooks, the job wasn’t well paid or appreciated. They used to be part of a cooking assembly line making the same stuff every week.

The consultant changed the format from delivery to a restaurant. The elderly could now order what they wanted and talk to their peers. The cooks were called chefs and given more control over what they cooked. A direct line of communication was opened between the elderly and the chefs so that the chefs also gained satisfaction from the impact they made and the appreciation they received. Nutrition levels soared. So did everybody’s sense of well-being.

*I might have got some of the details of this story incorrect. I heard it from someone else.

If you want the product to be built exactly as you want, then you need detailed product requirements. That’s the waterfall way. The problem with that is that you can’t easily course correct mid-way. That’s why agile became so popular. A Kickass PM knows that the best products are created through constant iteration and feedback from customers.

Since companies are set up as a hierarchy, people tend to listen to higher-ups. But a Kickass PM realizes that higher-ups haven’t spent as much time with his product as he has. And he’ll fight to the end to do what is right for the product.


Ideas: Lalit Keshre

Review: Sajal Chakravarty

Design: Sidhant Dhirmasant & Meghna Manga