Product management is an important organisational role which focuses on either building products or technology for customers. These customers could be people like you and me, other businesses or the organisation itself if the product is being used for internal purposes. It could be summarised as the intersection between UX, business and technology.
Modern product management began in 1931 from a brand manager’s justification to hire “Brand Men”. Since then it’s rapidly evolved:
- 2001: Agile ‘Software Development’ Manifesto was created. It influenced a new standard around how to develop successful software.
- 2008: Balsamiq, a wire-framing/prototype tool, was released. This and like tools enabled us to imagine and test ideas before they were built.
- 2010: Mind the Product, the world’s largest product community, was founded and increasingly gained popularity in 2016.
- 2011: Lean Startup and Lean Enterprise were developed. This began the era of quick iterations to “build, measure and learn” when developing software products.
- 2012: Smartphones became popular, acting as a catalyst for mobile-first and responsive mobile app design.
- 2014: User experience (UX) became a key focus in product design which emphasised a key focus on the customer of your product.
- 2015: Wire-framing and prototyping tools (eg. Axure, Sketch, InVision) became essential in the product management practice.
- 2015: We saw an attitude shift from building features “because I said so” to data-driven decision making.
- 2018: Design Sprints gained widespread visibility and traction, although being created at Google in 2010
- 2019: Rising awareness on the importance for an Artificial Intelligence (AI) Product Manager with online courses and degrees(eg. Stanford and Udacity).
In general, human behaviours have also drastically changed. A quick reflection on the past decade.
- 41 million messages are sent out every minute — Communication via text/chat app rather than talking on the phone
- 87% more people choose to use video conferencing today than the past 2 years — Video calls via Zoom, Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp, etc. is the norm
- 81% of American adults owned a smartphone in 2019, compared to 35% in 2015 — Majority of us are now walking around with a little computer in our pocket
- 88% of companies have encouraged or required their employees to work from home in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic — Working from home has become a standard practice
The world around us has advanced immensely, including our ways of interacting and communicating. As a product management experts, our toolset and frameworks have rapidly evolved as part of this. This has also made doing our job easier from a distance (eg. remotely). Whilst doing product management remotely is possible, it requires this one key thing to do it effectively. That key thing is trust.
1: Communicate with purpose
Whether you’re scheduling a meeting, making an announcement, presenting a prototype or conducting a workshop, always define an agenda with the end in mind. To communicate with purpose means to hypothesise the ideal and expected outcomes (eg. actions) which you expect to follow as a result of that communication.
As a product manager, our main responsibility is to live, breathe and practice purpose. For example, what pain does our product resolve for the customer? Understanding a company’s mission and business goals is a requirement so that it can be repetitively communicated to all the teams working on the product. Some say that product people sound like a broken record when it comes to sharing the purpose. But it helps to keep teams aligned on their work and how it ties back to the company’s mission and goals to ensure their work is delivering value.
When new product ideas come up, product managers need to think about how this helps to move the needle in the company’s vision, mission and goals. When it comes to ideating “what” features to build, we simultaneously need to think about “why” we’re building them. Then in order for the cross-functional teams to do their jobs well, the rationale behind the product decisions need to be conveyed well so we don’t lose sight of what we’re working towards. This includes communicating and reiterating why we’re building it, what is the value that we intend to deliver, what improvement we expect to see, when should it be built and delivered and what trade-offs were made and why.
2: Collaborate effectively
I often hear that that teams need to collaborate more when a delivery deadline is missed or we fail to deliver a successful product. However, lots of collaboration doesn’t necessarily result in better outcomes and more value delivered.
A large part of a product manager’s job requires them to work with every department/team within an organisation, from engineering and design to sales, marketing and customer support. In order for a product manager to juggle all that collaboration, they need to hold effective meetings or collaborative sessions with the right people. This also includes being open about how to approach the problem and/or if something isn’t going well. Giving members on the team a voice and establishing transparency makes people feel like they’re part of a team. Teamwork is then required for a successful delivery of a product that is both useful and delights its customers. The prerequisite of this is a shared understanding. Then immediately following, setting clear expectations is also key. This is the life of a product manager.
To effectively collaborate means to be highly engaged for a short period than to be half-engaged for a long period. As a product manager, it’s important to collaborate only long enough for everyone else so that they can continue running forward with clear direction.
3: Connect early and often
In product management, time is of the essence. The practice of connecting early and often is an important aspect of collaboration. If there is a fire, don’t wait to put it out. Better yet, do the thinking upfront to prevent the fire in the first place. Thinking upfront also allows you to give people clarity so they can do their best work. This could be sharing with the engineers why some changes need to be made so that they understand the purpose and motivation for their work.
On a daily basis, product managers work in an environment that is changing at a fast pace. We’re constantly learning new information, from engineers discover unknowns that they didn’t plan for to stakeholders having conversations which inspire new ideas and customer feedback identifies opportunities to improve your product. In these moments, we need to think quick whilst making informed decisions and then frequently iterate towards the goal. Ultimately, when building products we need to continuously find ways to fail fast and learn faster.
4: Influence by example
Being a product manager requires being a leader in many different ways. Leadership and thus being an influencer is involved in every aspect of their role. From getting buy-in from stakeholders to build certain features to getting agreement on the product direction and influencing the team on what order to build features in, these are only a few of the many ways a product manager is required to be an excellent influencer. And to succeed at influencing, a product manager needs to establish a relationship with the people they work with whilst simultaneously building trust. Cultivating conversations skills helps to build this trust and then influence.
George Washington said:
“Example, whether it be good or bad, has a powerful influence”
A successful product manager has powerful influence when they are able to persuade, inspire and motivate a team to run towards a shared goal. They lead by example. For example, a great product manager will constantly check their work against a business’ mission and goals, they use tools that enable other people to also be self-organising and autonomous and they take action where none is taken so that value can be delivered.
5: Make knowledge transparent
Research has proven that a lack of transparency fuels frustration and demotivation. In product development, we need all the motivation we can get since our daily activities could be summarised as constantly navigating waves of uncertainty and ambiguity whilst making decisions at the same time.
Humans are driven by purpose
Humans are driven by purpose and suffer serious psychological difficulties when we don’t have it. When building a product, our purpose is often to solve some problem. So when there is knowledge about the problem, sharing this knowledge with people can enable them to be proactive about finding ways to solve the problem and share new ideas which can foster innovation.
In a company I worked with, when we shared insights and learnings from customer/user research across the organisation from C-Level to the product teams and customer support, this empowered the respective teams to take action on how to make improvements. The sharing of information and knowledge motivated people to make more informed decisions, whether it was how quick to develop a feature to what should or shouldn’t go on the product roadmap.
Strengthen your product game
“Knowing is half the battle”. Sadly, this is a mistaken idea. Cognitive scientist Laurie Santos, Associate Professor of Psychology at Yale, calls this the G.I. Joe Fallacy.
“Merely knowing something is not enough to put into practice. Merely knowing something is not enough to actually change your behavior.” — G.I. Joe Fallacy
When it comes to being an effective product manager remotely, knowing the principles above is not enough. Being able to experience putting these principles into action with real-life scenarios is essential. When you’ve learnt about some research insights that will change the current priorities, communicate with purpose. When you need to work out how a change might impact the current product development, collaborate effectively with the relevant team members. When you’re under pressure for a deadline, connect early and often with stakeholders so that concerns and questions are addressed immediately. When you’re trying to get your team to work more productively, lead and influence by example. And lastly, as a product manager, your job is to constantly bring clarity and remove blockers through making knowledge transparent.
Continually practising these 5 principles builds and maintains trust between yourself and the diverse range of people that you as a product manager work with. From cross-functional teams, C-Level and external stakeholders and customers, these principles will help you to strengthen your product game.
Thanks for reading.