A PM needs to have “product building knowledge“.
It consists of two fundamental ingredients: Communication skills combined with a growth mindset.
It sounds as simple as it is hard to find them in people combined.
In today’s post, we are going to dig deeper into it to understand what the core components of PM communication and growth mindset actually are.
Communication skills consist of three different aspects:
Documentation: It may not seem obvious that this is a fundamental part of communication.
A lot of a PMs daily work (besides participating in meetings) is documentation. Working on PRDs (product requirement documents), documenting and evolving product roadmaps, customer journeys, funnel design and analysis, KPIs.
Those documents are used to communicate with stakeholders: to provide an overview, shared understanding and alignment in order to make sure everyone is executing against the product vision.
Obviously, PM-documentation entails that a PM be highly structured and has strong analytical abilities.
Stakeholder management: Understanding who to involve, when and how is key to succeed at building a product.
Some people need to be involved for approvals, others due to their expertise and some, potentially, due to overall alignment (or political) reasons.
But stakeholder management is way more than just talking to people about your product idea.
A PM must have enough stakeholder empathy to understand each stakeholders position and priorities in order to convince them why from their perspective it makes sense to help you.
Recall that a PM generally does not have hierarchical power over her stakeholders.
A lawyer, a compliance officer, a marketer, and an engineering manager all have completely different priorities and interests and cannot be approached the same way.
It is the PMs job to orchestrate the stakeholder management.
If in the end your product release gets delayed in the EU because you lack a GDPR-compliant user-consent declaration, then it is not the data-compliance officers “fault“.
It was the PMs incapacity to ship the whole product on time.
Story telling: As a PM you constantly live in the future because you are building the future.
You imagine a future where your not-yet existing product or feature is influencing your users’ everyday personal or professional life.
In order to align and rally an entire product-team to work with a PM, she needs to be able to strongly articulate the product vision, mission and why it is worth building something new rather than just iterating on existing stuff.
On top of that and despite all challenges, slow-downs and obstacles your team needs to endure during the product-building journey, a PM needs to keep the team motivated, on track and convinced that it is still worth to execute against the mission instead of just jumping ship.
Growth mindset: the other fundamental key-component besides communication skills that a PM needs to bring to the team. Let’s uncover the magic to develop a growth mindset:
User empathy: a PM needs to understand the user’s problem that needs to be solved.
This is easier said than done as users often can’t articulate their problem themselves.
Consider the following example:
If a user tells you their problem is they need to learn a language fast you might build a language app like Duolingo.
But that might actually not be their underlying problem.
If they think they need to learn a language because they are about to visit a foreign country during their next holidays and hence, just need to communicate bits and pieces to people then maybe a real-time language translation tool might be the solution such as Google Translate.
Obviously, the building process, user journeys, feature priorization and growth strategy for Duolingo and Google Translate are entirely different.
Moreover, we all know that pain-killers sell better than vitamins:
To quote Tony Fadell: “If you forget taking your painkiller you will inevitably notice but if you forget taking your vitamins you might never notice at all.“
It is easier to build vitamins than painkillers. But the best vitamins to sell turn out the ones that are actually painkillers.
Think about the smartphone in the early days. It was a vitamin. Nobody needed it (in the days of PALM, Blackberry, etc) because the app eco-system was basically non-existent.
Today, if you forget your smartphone at home in the morning you will definitely feel the pain multiple times during the day.
Thus, user-empathy is also about finding the hidden pains that the user does not know yet about.
Finding the nuggets, finding the non-obvious pain points that in hindsight turn out to be obvious.
Problem solving attitude and skills:
When things don’t work as expected the simplest reaction to deal with it is to blame somebody.
But product management is different.
A PM needs to move the ball forward every single day.
Thus every problem needs to be seen as an opportunity for improvement.
Solutions have to be found to problems a PM has never encountered before.
Then people should be aligned and rallied and execution should be fast.
Passion: A strong passion to build things is key.
Without an inner motivation to build something that adds value to your users a PM will be set up for failure.
The main reason is that passion allows to deal in a productive way with all the unpredictable surprises that come along the way during the product journey.
If a PM has no passion then those surprises will cause stress and motivation will decline which immediately affects product quality.
It is probably impossible to delight customers with a product if the product-team was not enthusiastic when building that same product.
Tenacity: The consequence in practice of being passionate.
Without passion a PM might give up at some point if the challenges become too big or too painful.
If there is passion, a PM will always know why she is working on a given product.
Thus, passion is the condition for tenacity and resilience.
Fast learning: A key component to a growth mindset.
Learning implies you are doing something new, which in turn implies you have inner curiosity.
Curiosity is the key to unlock growth (think about every baby learning how to walk or speak).
On the other hand value creation (e.g. for a user) is the manifestation of growth.
Bias towards action: A strong bias towards action is crucial for a PM.
Knowing what to do and not following through with an action is actually worse than executing on an option without being totally sure it is the right one.
A PM by definition is a builder and as a builder one must be a doer.
A PM is not a philosopher nor a theoretical physicist but a creator of products.
If the PM does not move, nobody else on the team will.
The PM sets the pace of progress and she better ensures there is constant progress.
Energize surrounding people: A PM must have positive energy but also be able to energize others.
Otherwise, it is impossible to make others work on your product without being able to exercise hierarchical power over them.
The challenges along a PM’s way are just too cumbersome so that without positive energy it is not worth spending time on them; not for the PM and not for the rest of the team.
Mission-driven: A PM needs to have a reason to work on the product other than just financial compensation.
Believing in the success of the product and understanding why it should be built is key to being able to rally a team to work on it.
Ability to ask for help: This is one of the most underestimated yet powerful skills a PM needs in order to succeed.
It is deeply related to a PMs ability to build alliances within an organization without getting political.
A PM needs help from a range of stakeholders and if they are not willing to help the product can either not be built or not be launched.
There are different ways to ask for help.
Generally a PM needs to find a way to ask through creating a sense of purpose, team building, inclusion, shared ownership, shared success, career progress or the like.
This part of a PMs “work“ may not be very visible to the core team, the company or the management.
But your product may never be launched if the PM does not have a wider invisible positive influence accross the company.
It is way easier to kill a product or a feature through one “no“ somewhere in the chain of decision-making in an org than getting all the “yesses“ necessary to move forward.
Thus, asking for help is deeply linked to a PM’s ability of great story telling, stakeholder management and energizing people.
In the next post, we will uncover the single most important - and very simple to describe yet super hard to achieve - reason for why great products succeed.
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"A PM must have enough stakeholder empathy to understand each stakeholders position and priorities in order to convince them why from their perspective it makes sense to help you." 1000% agree.