Steve Jobs is often referred to as an example of the “ultimate product person,” but thinking of Jobs as a product manager is misleading. Most product managers don’t have the kind of authority Jobs enjoyed at Apple, said Colin Pal, a product manager in Malaysia who produces Product Un(censored), a show and accompanying blog about product management in Southeast Asia.
“There was a point in time where it was quite common to hear people say that product managers are mini-CEOs,” Pal said. “It sounds good, but I honestly think it’s quite far off the mark because we really don’t have that kind of influence, we don’t have that kind of authority.”
Like CEOs, product managers are responsible for guiding the direction of projects and making sure they are completed. They have to coordinate between different stakeholders, including external customers, internal stakeholders, designers and engineers — but unlike CEOs, product managers don’t have the ability to dictate how any of these groups should function. Instead, they must use their skills to negotiate between the parties’ conflicting needs.
B. Pagels-Minor, who has worked as a product manager at a variety of companies, said the skills associated with being a great product manager are more about disposition than formal education.
“The best product managers are great leaders,” they said. “It’s people who are smart ... but they also have this nuanced approach of, ‘What does it take to win people over to my cause?’”
SKILLS OF AN EFFECTIVE PRODUCT MANAGER
- Listen to the customer's pain points, but lead the way when crafting a solution.
- Work toward getting the best resolution possible.
- Use storytelling to cater to a variety of stakeholders.
- Understand what everyone wants from the project.
- Run efficient meetings without wasting people’s time.
“If you interview almost any product manager, they will tell you that one of the main skills you have to learn is how to influence without authority,” Pal said.
In order to successfully see a project through to the finish line, product managers must have a good understanding of the real problem that needs to be solved, use storytelling skills to get buy-in to their vision, and facilitate efficient collaboration between different internal teams.
Listen to What the Customer Is Saying, Not What They’re Asking for
Creating elegant solutions is at the heart of product management, but figuring out what those solutions should look like usually takes more work than simply asking the customer.
Pagels-Minor said customers often have an idea of the kind of solution that would solve their problem — but the solutions customers envision are not necessarily the best solutions, or even good ones. The trick is to first understand the problem that the product is trying to solve, which starts with asking the right questions.
“You have to have the forethought to say, what is the actual problem that needs to be solved?” Pagels-Minor said.
Think Like a Hostage Negotiator
The work that goes into understanding the problem continues throughout the life of a project, as ongoing interactions with customers reveal more insights. But the bulk of a product manager’s work involves carefully balancing the demands of different stakeholders while slowly steering the product in the right direction.
“Our roles are very similar to hostage negotiators,” Pal said. “You’re not trying to compromise.... You’re trying to get the best deal. A hostage negotiator is trying to make sure that there are no casualties.”
The analogy ties back to the challenge of exerting influence without authority. Negotiators are not in a position to compel any party to do anything — they must instead rely on their communication skills and their thorough understanding of the actual problem that needs to be solved to guide the situation to a successful conclusion.
One way to do this is through storytelling.
Tell Stories That Appeal to All Stakeholders
“Storytelling is one of the big underrated skills of a product manager,” Pal said. “A lot of people put emphasis on the hard skills of writing a user story with the proper acceptance criteria, putting storytelling in the background. But the written form is usually missing the interaction.”
“Hard skills,” such as writing good acceptance criteria, form the foundation of a project and are important for helping product managers understand the problem, but how that understanding is communicated to others requires product managers to speak to the perspectives of different stakeholders.
“Storytelling is one of the big underrated skills of a product manager.”
“It’s very important for product managers to be curious,” Pagels-Minor said. “You need to be curious about the other roles, because you need to be aware enough about what those roles entail to figure out what type of language you should be using for those people, to help encourage them to do work that’s going to be successful for you.”
Product managers use their understanding of the problem being solved and the perspectives of other stakeholders to tell business stories catering to the needs of each group, which includes customers, developers and the business.
Having good storytelling skills is “being able to tell that story — the same story, but three different ways of explaining it,” Pal said.
Understand the Why
Product managers are always walking a fine line between maintaining customer interest and tempering expectations. A slip in either direction can cost the company. While customers who don’t see the product fulfilling their requirements will lose interest and walk away, companies that cater to every whim of their customers will waste time and resources instead of building a product that makes sense.
Product managers are only able to successfully walk this line if they have an accurate understanding of the problem being solved, and what that problem looks like from each stakeholder’s perspective. Product managers can use this knowledge to keep all parties in the conversation, and to figure out which features are necessary and which features are “nice to haves.”
“Product managers need to obsess about the why.”
Pal calls the different motivations of each stakeholder for being at the table the “why.”
“Product managers need to obsess about the why,” he said. “That’s a huge part of the storytelling, is the why, because everybody has a different reason to do it or not to do it.”
Pal described how product managers typically navigate this complicated terrain.
“[Stakeholders ask,] ‘How come we’re not building this huge platform that can do everything?’” he said. “So then you’ve got to explain that this is the biggest problem that we’re trying to solve for the customer, but this is what we’re trying to learn in that process, so that we can validate whether C, D and E are important.”
Avoid ‘Lossy’ Communication
Effective product managers know how to encourage a collaborative environment among stakeholders and use meetings efficiently.
Pagels-Minor said the first thing they do at every organization is become friendly with everyone, and reassure other departments that they aren’t trying to do anyone else’s job.
“The healthiest organizations I’ve been a part of — everyone gets to put in their two cents of what they think should be a focus,” Pagels-Minor said. “Let me know how I can support you, or how you like to work, so that we can figure out a way to work successfully together.”
“Good product managers will lean on the team,” Pal agreed.
He said product managers will usually work closely with the technical lead and design lead early on in the project’s lifecycle to avoid wasting time planning projects that are not technically sound or that lack good design.
“Good product managers will lean on the team.”
“The most optimal way, with the least amount of ‘lossy’ communication, is when you collaborate,” Pal said. “There’s always the representation there, so that you’re dealing with all the potential roadblocks upfront.”
Pal said that another common challenge faced by product managers is not having enough autonomy.
“You’ve got to learn how to manage upward as well, which is learning to influence your stakeholders by telling them that we need to not do this and do that instead, and this is the data that is supporting it,” Pal said.
Product managers work at the intersection of the business, the technology and the customers, so in many ways they are well equipped to make important decisions around the product.
“Sometimes, we are too shackled by what the business needs, by what the roadmap says, or by what we’ve said before,” Pal said. “You just feel like, ‘You guys may not see the full picture, but I’m in the trenches every day, I really know what the business needs at this point in time.’”