A Product Manager Communication Survival Guide ft. @johncutlefish

Or, how to tame information overload

Image created by Yasmine Sedky (@yazdesky).

It’s all you, baby.

Or, more accurately, it’s all on you.

The burden of communicating among teams, in between departments, and being the go-to get-it-done-guy/gal for CEOs and managers — it all tends to fall heavily on the Product Manager’s shoulders.

Product Managers are the linchpins of their organizations. The fillers of “the white space” — the processes and tasks that need to happen, but for which no one is specifically responsible.

Among their many, and varying responsibilities, Product Managers often orchestrate the exchange of ideas, conduct collaborative brainstorming sessions, and ensure that vital data reaches its destination, broken down into what we call Little Data, the understandable, actionable molecules. And they do it over and over and over again, rephrasing the same information fifty different ways, for fifty different people, all using it in different ways.

As PM, you’re the one building a shared understanding of what’s going on.

Roman Pichler’s diagram scratches the surface of the many responsibilities often assigned to PMs, but as John Cutler, prolific product management writer and consultant says:

“In a lot of organizations, you’re swimming in this diagram. You’re all over the place. Especially in a smaller organization, this diagram might be your brain.
The scary thing is that, depending on the company, you could add facilitating team problem solving, team decision-making, meeting with lead engineers and everyone else — you’re on the phone constantly, even with customers. Product is the connective glue. They literally fill the cracks of everything.

Filling the cracks of everything: Product Management communication x1000

Engineering needs the details of a customer interview collated and summarized. You handed the Sales department a spec sheet last week, but this week they need a “less complicated” version. Marketing needs to know when to reshoot the screenshots for their collateral. Customer Success needs a reply to a loyal customer’s feature request spreadsheet. Can you jump on a call as well? UX needs the test login credentials so they can run a usability test. During a retrospective, the team asked for a more concise vision for the initiative. And, the CEO just popped in to say, “I need to have the product section of the board deck fleshed out for the meeting tomorrow — can you send me your numbers?”

Sound familiar?

Everybody needs something. Now. And what you gave them last week may be “too complicated,” “too simple,” “too high level,” “too low level,” or they need “more actionable information,” or “just the features this time.”

Part of it’s the job — you have access to information needed by just about everyone. But you might also be inadvertently making things harder on yourself than they need to be.

Product Managers: Get Regular

John Cutler suggests cutting down the ‘ad -hoc’ requests by holding regular meetings to share the Little Data that matters to each respective stakeholder.

“As a PM, you need to understand how people tend to act on this information. If you just radiate information, hoping they’ll pick up on the details they need, they’ll always ask you for another version of it.
Meet the stakeholders and build a shared understanding by bringing a cadence to meetings. And share metrics regularly, versus constantly putting out fires — that can save your sanity as a PM.
No more panicked ‘I need metrics for the board deck!’ — if those metrics are so important, why haven’t you been looking at them every day?”

Tear down data silos — if you can

In many organizations, the keeper of the data has the power — a dynamic that results, more often than not, in data silos nobody but a select few people can access. Or, because of outdated, inefficient processes, data is just plain hard to come by, much less share.

“Before Notion, collecting, sharing, and understanding our company data was manual and laborious. It sucked.” — Travis Cannon, Director of Product Management, RADAR

Transparency with data is a huge trend in business right now, and for two good reasons: It keeps everyone on the same page, and fosters a feeling of trust and confidence.

Sharing metrics automatically with a public KPI tracking dashboard makes for instantly more efficient communications, so you can spend more time strategizing the next big thing, and less time explaining what you’ve already done.

For organizing, displaying, and iterating on internal product, team and performance data, Notion is an extremely sophisticated system. Companies like RADAR use Notion to create public dashboards anyone in the company can check at any time.

For customer data, Segment is a great tool for collecting and storing customer data, as well as sending it to applications like HubSpot, Gainsight, MailChimp, Qualaroo, Salesforce, Slack, Wootric, Zendesk and more.

If you can tear down the data silos, you might just eliminate the need for holding meetings “just to get everyone up to speed” altogether. And, when live data is available to everyone, fewer people will require you to provide updates — they’re all right there.

Communicate Product Vision More Clearly — to Everyone

Product vision is the overarching goal, the reason for creating the product in the first place. And, while specs may change (and will), this purpose doesn’t. It’s your True North. One point around which everyone can align. And communicating it effectively is very important.

You’ll need to communicate the guiding vision behind your product to everyone from the developers making it all work, to the marketers and salespeople selling the big picture benefits. And even though you’re sharing the same essential vision to all groups, each group will need different details to do their work.

“I’m forever annoying product managers by pointing to their roadmap items and asking: ‘What’s the goal — the outcome for this thing? And how will you know you’ve succeeded? What evidence do you need to see?’
It sometimes challenges them to think about exactly why they’re working on something with their team, and drags them away from focusing too much on building shiny things for the sake of it.” — Jock Busuttil, author of The Practitioner’s Guide to Product Management (read more of Jock’s tips here)

You don’t want your product team to forget to see the forest for the trees; and you can’t afford to have marketing and sales get hung up on the details, when what they really need to know are the benefits and differentiators of your product or update.

To deliver the kinds of information everyone needs, the first step is to develop a living document that defines the vision in broad strokes, and includes enough continually updated details to act as an effective, actionable guide for your dev team, sales and marketing. Put it up on the walls. Let it trigger conversations. And don’t expect it to be a one-time, definitive document you never have to change or refine.

Roman Pichler, author of Strategize: Product Strategy and Product Roadmap Practices for the Digital Age, offers a free downloadable Product Vision Board that outlines the basics of what you need to begin. State your vision, define your target audience, list the needs they have that you’re solving, and the business goals you’re achieving in the process.

Day-to-Day Project Management Communication

Day-to-day communication with your team (and other teams) is the beating heart of your business. We’ve worked with a number of project management tools and development tools, including Slack, Trello and JIRA, and ultimately, whichever one works best for you is the one you should go with.

For us, we use Pivotal Tracker to help define our workflow, collaborate on daily tasks, give and receive updates from the dev team and collaborate with marketing. Zapier is another exceptionally useful tool PMs can use to automate tasks between apps like Basecamp, Slack, Google Docs, Trello, and Gmail.

Having everyone able to communicate with each other, nearly instantly, on the same platform reduces information bottlenecks, so everyone can move forward faster and maintain their momentum.

And, of course, keeping tabs on how everyone is doing in real-time, so you can coach, troubleshoot, and problem-solve efficiently is made much easier when you can see all of your team metrics live, in one dashboard.

Product Management is a Tough Job, but Somebody’s Gotta Do it

“Product is about about saying the same thing over and over again to make sure people understand it.” — John Cutler, Product Management Consultant

In a sense, Product Managers build a shared understanding of the What, When, Who, Why and How behind each product and update. They’re the jugglers of the corporate world. The glue that connects every department. The fillers of the white space. And while new technologies are being created to streamline some of those processes, the quality a PM needs most is beyond technology’s ability to achieve: Patience.


This article first appeared on Notion — Get your product team on the same page.


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