Product management is one of the least-defined roles in the professional world. But you can identify many of the skills and habits you’ll need to be effective in this career by learning from other successful product managers (PM). We’ve compiled some of the best advice we’ve heard from PMs about the habits of highly effective product managers.
1. Highly Effective Product Managers Prioritize their Roadmaps According to Value (Not Features).
As a product manager, your job is to solve problems for your users. The products you bring to the market are just vehicles to solve those problems.
Yet many product managers focus on the product they intend to build instead of on the problem they plan to solve. They develop their roadmap as a list of features, rather than using the roadmap to communicate the value they expect the product to deliver.
This is a flawed approach, as ProductPlan’s co-founder Jim Semick explained in a webinar called The Feature-Less Roadmap, Jim cites several reasons effective product managers know to organize their roadmaps by themes and north-star metrics, particularly when developing a new product. For example:
- You will often be too optimistic about what your team can build in the time you have. Committing to complete a full feature before your release could delay your ability to deliver anything to the market. Delivering smaller items to the market, iteratively, and analyzing user feedback makes more sense.
- Committing to developing features early-on also makes it more difficult to change direction or focus when new realities demand it.
- You won’t know until after you’ve started delivering the first iterations of your product where you stand with users.
For all of these reasons, and others you’ll hear about in the webinar, the panel agrees that it makes more sense to organize your roadmap around major strategic themes for your product.
2. Highly Effective Product Managers Focus on Outcomes, not Outputs.
This habit flows naturally from the first. Because effective product managers know their role is to solve problems for their users—and not just to release products—they do a better job of measuring the right things. For example, they focus on outcomes rather than outputs.
Product management expert Melissa Perri explains in her book Escaping the Build Trap, many organizations get stuck in a flawed strategy of raising money, hiring developers, and then building their product. All before even validating their plan with the market.
Once the operation gets underway, and investors are asking for progress, the team is now focused more on producing a finished product (the output) than on whether or not that product will find a profitable market (the outcome). This is the build trap.
Effective product managers, Melissa argues, take a very different approach. They take the time needed to work with their user personas, explore their problems, listen to their concerns, and think of solutions. A customer-centric attitude is a habit every PM is well advised to develop.
3. Effective PMs hone their leadership skills.
One of the quirks of product management is that you’ll need to guide people’s work but without the authority to tell them what to do.
The only way to do this successfully is to develop your skills as a leader. April Underwood, Slack’s Former CPO, explains in a LinkedIn video that being a strong leader can help even someone with no product management experience become an effective PM.
“One of the core attributes of a great product manager, at his or her core, is being a strong leader, being able to set a vision, being able to persuade people, and being able to motivate a team toward a shared outcome.”
4. They Learn to Communicate with Everyone.
Success in product management requires communicating with many different people, departments, and stakeholders.
In addition to developers, sales reps, and executives each using their own jargon, you’ll also have to work with a wide range of personality types. Some coworkers will be aggressive, others shy, and hard to understand.
The variety of the role is why Joni Hoadley, Principal at Lean Product Management Consulting, believes PMs should learn about different personality types.
There are several personality-type models and frameworks for your study. Understanding these different types, and how they each communicate, can help you become a more effective product manager.
For example, when you can spot the signs that a person is what the “DISC” personality framework calls a “D” (decisive) type, you will know that this person’s communication style is direct, fast-paced, and impatient. When presenting a roadmap to this person, you will know to keep your discussion streamlined, fast-moving, and focused on high-level outcomes.
5. They’re Always Doing Product Discovery.
Teresa Torres points out that many PMs view product discovery (deciding what to build) as only a small part of the process, and they want to get it over within the earliest phases of planning a new initiative.
The product team shifts its focus exclusively to product delivery (building and shipping)—and they never look back at discovery.
Doing so leaves out many opportunities, for a product team to check in with its original vision and ask itself if it is still on track. This, she explains, can help the team learn earlier in the process whether or not it is meeting its goals and delivering value.
Avoid fixating only on whether the team is meeting its goals for building and releasing products. Instead, it can continually ask questions that lead back to product discovery.
Questions such as:
- Are we meeting stakeholder needs?
- Can customers use our product the way they want to?
- Do customers want what we’re developing?
Effective product managers know they’re never “done” with product discovery. It should inform every stage of a product’s development and lifecycle.
6. Highly Effective Product Managers Step Away from their Desks to Find the Big Idea (but Come Back for the Little Ones).
You won’t see this in your typical product manager job description. But according to Jason Fried, stepping out of the office and changing the scenery can be the best way to help a product manager summon a game-change idea.
Product professionals spend much of their time poring over the details: market research, usage data, development schedules, budgets, etc. It’s when they can step back, process all of this information, and clear their heads that inspiration can find them.
For a PM, these little ideas could include UI fixes, a process tweak that could speed development, or general improvements to the product.
“You have the big idea somewhere else,” he says, “and then you come to work and work on the little ideas.” – Jason Fried, CEO, Basecamp
7. Highly Effective Product Managers are Always Learning.
Ellen Chisa, co-founder and CEO of Dark, acknowledges that “learn something new” could mean something different to everyone. To help you decide what to learn next, she offers these possible areas of focus:
- Figure out where you’re struggling now.
- Determine where you or your company is going next.
- Focus on something you’re curious about or something you think would be fun to learn next.
- Find a weakness and work on turning it into a strength (or at least something you’re no longer afraid to try).
What’s great about this strategy is you can do it throughout your career. Tackle that learning project now. When you’re done, you can transition to studying something that will help you add to one of your strengths or just something that sounds like fun to learn.