The T-Shaped Product Manager

Photo by gazarow, courtesy of Pixabay

Product management is a multi-faceted discipline. This makes our work interesting and varied. But it can also make it hard to see which skills we need to develop so we can do an even better job or take on more responsibility. In this post, I discuss balancing product-specific skills with generic product management capabilities. I suggest developing a t-shaped skills profile that ensures that you have the necessary deep skills to progress your product, as well as the broad skills required to systematically deal with common, recurring product management challenges.

Balancing Specific and Generic Skills

To do a great job as a product manager or product owner, you require two skills sets: product-specific and generic ones. As the name suggests, product-specific capabilities are limited to a single product or product portfolio. They include a deep understanding of the users with their needs, the competition, and the market trends. They also require an intimate knowledge of the product itself, including its value proposition, key features, user journeys, business goals, and KPIs. Finally, they demand an insight into how the company works and how things get done — what the company goals are, which processes are used, and who the decision makers and influencers are. As product-specific skills are crucial, I find that many product managers and product owners strive to develop these capabilities. But as important as they are, they are not enough.

In addition to deep product skills, you require generic, transferable product management capabilities, such as, effectively capturing the product’s value proposition, segmenting the market, validating product strategy assumptions, selecting the right KPIs, prioritising the product backlog, and analysing user feedback and data. These skills are not specific to an individual product, but transferable. They equip you with the expertise to methodically solve common product management challenges and they enable you to move between jobs and verticals if you wish to do so.

Balancing the specific and generic skills leads to a t-shaped skills profile and makes you a t-shaped product manager or product owner, as the following picture shows. [1]

The horizontal bar is the ability to effectively apply product management concepts, techniques, and tools to different products in different markets and companies. The vertical bar on the T above represents the depth of related skills and expertise for a single product or product portfolio.

Growing Your Horizontal Skills

Having strong horizontal skills enables you to work in a methodical way and to manage different products in different companies. As these skills form a large set, I like to divide them into three sub groups: strategic, tactical, and leadership capabilities, as the picture below shows.

Strategic skills include the ability to develop an effective product strategy, actionable roadmap, and working business model. Tactical skills help you capture requirements, manage the product backlog, and validate ideas for new features and feature enhancements. Leadership skills enable you to effectively guide the development team and lead the stakeholders, create an inspiring vision, and reach sustainable agreements, to name just a few.

To become a competent product professional, you should strive to develop all three skills areas — leadership, strategy, and tactics. Even if you currently fill a tactical product role, increasing your leadership and strategy skills will help with your current job: You will be able to collaborate more effectively with the individual who sets the vision and decides the product strategy and earn their respect and trust.

Additionally, it will enhance your employability, enable you to progress your career and take on a role that includes strategic responsibilities in the future. And competent and well-skilled product people increase the chances of innovating successfully and maximising the benefits digital products provide.

To get started, explore how strong your skills in each of the three groups are. Ask yourself, for example, how much you know about creating and validating a product strategy, about product roadmapping, and business model development. Then focus on those skills where improvements will help you most with your current job. Taking my product management test helps you with this. Here are some of the questions it asks you:

  • Do you know how to formulate an inspiring vision for a product?
  • Do you know how to make effective decisions and generate strong buy-in?
  • Can you describe different segmentation techniques?
  • Do you know what a product strategy is and what its key elements are?
  • Can you describe the business model of your product?
  • Do you know when and how to review, adjust, and change your product roadmap?
  • Do you know how to prioritise product backlog items? Can you state different prioritisation techniques and explain when which is most appropriate?
  • Do you understand how to validate your product including the user experience and the features? Do you know when to choose which technique?

Developing Your Vertical Skills

Deep product-specific skills are important to make the right product decision and move your product in the right direction. Here are some activities that I find helpful to strengthen this skillset:

  • Visit users and customers at least once per quarter. Nothing beats meeting real users, even if you have tons of analytics data at your disposal.
  • Regularly collect and analyse user feedback and data using qualitative and quantitative techniques to better understand how people interact with your product and discover opportunities to improve the product.
  • Use your own product (a.k.a. eat your own dog food). This helps you discover shortcomings and opportunities for improvement, as well as empathise with the users.
  • Attend conferences and trade shows to stay on top of market trends and see what other companies are working on.
  • Regularly read trade journals, product reviews, and user forum messages to see what’s happing in your industry and how people respond to your product.
  • Test competing offerings. This helps you understand if your product is properly differentiated.
  • Build strong relationships with the development team, ScrumMaster, the product sponsor, and the other key stakeholders. Why not invite the sponsor to a coffee, for example, make time to listen to a concerned stakeholder, and bring treats to the sprint planning meeting?
  • Network with your product colleagues. Build a community of practice, for instance, by hosting brown bag lunches to learn more about each other’s products and practices.
  • Finally, pay attention to corporate emails, newsletters, and magazines to see if developments in your company affect your product, such as changes in senior and executive management, changes in the business strategy including acquisitions and spin-offs, and changes in the development group.

Learn More

My training courses, books, and articles can help you develop your transferrable product management skills and become an even better product manager.

[1] As far as I can tell, my colleague Ellen Gottesdiener was the first person to suggest that product managers should be t-shaped in her article “5 Ways to Recognize a Great Product Manager”.

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