A Brief History of Product Management: Starts With a Spark
Product management was originally seated in marketing but has evolved. It's still misunderstood but it's now getting the recognition it deserves with product people...
In product management, there’s no universal measure of your worth and accomplishments that speaks for itself. If you want credibility with your coworkers and stakeholders, then you’ve gotta earn it.
So how can you build up your image when you’re walking in the door and starting from scratch? It’s all about wowing your new team while remaining humble.
While you might be tempted to jump in to get the first word and set the tone, there are plenty of good reasons to be patient and let others talk first.
Obviously, it conveys your acknowledgment that others might have interesting things to say, data and facts to share, and opinions worth hearing. Showing people that you value their insight is an ego boost to them and a credibility enhancer to you; all while acting like you’re the only one in the room with anything valid to offer tends to rub folks the wrong way.
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply,” says Dr. Stephen Covey.
There are strategic reasons to hold yourself back and let others speak first. Listening to what people have to say gives you a glimpse into their preconceptions and starting position, so you can react tactfully versus just blurting out your thoughts with no idea how they’ll respond. With the knowledge you gain from listening, you can position your argument knowing their concerns ahead of time.
If you’re not talking, it should mean you’re listening, and listening is a big part of a product manager’s job. To understand the market, you must hear what people are saying. Not everything interesting comes from spreadsheets and Google Analytics.
Sometimes you must employ some good, old conversational skills to really connect with people and discover their true needs, concerns, hopes and desires. By sitting back and listening, you avoid “leading the witness,” which can easily inject your assumptions into the conversation and transform it into bias confirmation instead of organic information gathering.
While listening first should be employed as often as possible, it’s particularly useful when communicating with external-facing teams and customers; you really don’t know what matters to them yet, so why not find out first before putting your foot in your mouth?
Our products don’t live in a bubble, they exist in an ecosystem comprised of competitors, industries, customers and prospects. The characteristics of that landscape and the characters who populate it are just as important as whatever features, pricing schemes, and marketing strategies your company can control.
Making decisions or proposals without fully understanding what else is already out there is a quick way to put your career on the slow track, and be downgraded from strategic thinker to mindless minion.
So while you may be in a rush to make your mark and show off your creativity and wisdom, don’t cut corners by not doing your homework. In fact, as a product manager YOU should be the one educating the rest of the company about what’s happening in the marketplace, not just sharing the headlines but also interpreting their impact on your product, product strategy, and your customers.
If you’re not sure where to begin, try on those listening skills we just talked about and ask your sales team what they’re hearing when they’re out there pitching prospects and what nuggets are being shared with the customer success organization. You have a network of information gatherers just waiting to be tapped into and leveraged for your benefit.
The one thing you create that nearly everyone in the company will see and use is your product roadmap. It sums up everything you’ve learned, mapped out against the strategic priorities of the company, and conveys your product vision and the plan to get there.
Wouldn’t it be nice if your audience could fully appreciate all your hard work, understood what your plans were, and could tie it back to their own activities? Good thing there are some solutions to make it way easier for you to pull that off (hint, hint).
Blatant applicable self-promotion aside, an accessible roadmap is really important to establishing and building on your credibility. Your roadmap is your time to shine, the culmination of months of effort, and often the only work product many staff members will ever see from you.
When done well it’s both informational and inspirational, providing marching orders along with an achievable objective the entire organization can get behind. So don’t settle for some lame spreadsheet or PowerPoint slide—select the right format for your product, its current lifecycle stage, your intended audience, and your objectives.
Your opinion is only worth so much, and it’s not worth much at all before you establish some credibility within your organization. So instead of asking people to believe in your theories, rely on outside sources to make your case.
Leveraging data and referring to real-world examples carries far more weight than any rationale that includes the words “I think” in it. So rely on two things no one can argue with: metrics and customers.
Our world is dominated by data and product managers spend much of their time sifting through KPIs, A/B test results, analytics, and the like to do their job. Use this to your advantage by basing any argument, request or strategic recommendation on cold, hard evidence.
Metrics are difficult to dispute and provide a context and background for discussions that should suck the emotional baggage right out of the room. Numbers are (usually) indisputable, plus they make it easier to add some visual elements to your presentations, which better suits more visual learners than a pile of bullet points.
“The key here is to summarize the most salient points to succinctly make your argument, as simply surfacing lots of data becomes dilutive to your cause,” says Sachin Rekhi of Notejoy. “So think hard about what data is going to be the most convincing for the key stakeholders.”
If you can accompany your data-driven evidence with anecdotal findings from customers you’re in even better shape. Customer quotes shift the dynamic from a battle of opinions to customer-centric problem solving… plus it shows you’ve gotten out of the building and actually talked to customers, which further adds to your credibility.
Past achievements are the quickest way to establish product management credibility, so there’s no better way to improve your reputation than working on successful, fast-growing products. This obviously requires some actual experience and a bit of luck, but it goes a long way in bolstering your reputation with new coworkers and stakeholders.
While much of this may be out of your control, it should be a strong consideration when plotting your career path and making key job decisions. While it might be fun to work for the underdog and tilt against windmills, there’s something to be said for knocking one out of the park and milking that cachet for a while.
Even if you don’t get the chance to helm a hockey-stick-growth unicorn, filling your resume with prominent wins and successful initiatives shows you’re not just an ambitious wannabe; but rather an experienced veteran with good instincts and execution. It may not be fair, but there’s a reason companies poach talent from big-name firms while scrappy product managers from failed ventures struggle to stand out.
Once you’re hired, it’s also helpful to identify an area where you can earn a quick win internally.
“Look around and try to pinpoint the areas where you can jump in and make things better than they are now,” says Elena Sviridenko of Sigma Software. “Look for the relatively quick improvements that matter in the context of your company, product, and team: small-but long-awaited/small-but-cool feature shipped, better acceptance criteria format adopted, product backlog prioritized, blockers resolved, lasting conflict ceased, etc.”
Building product management credibility is your job and yours alone; while your boss might set you up for success, give you some pointers and put you in position to excel, you’re the only one who can make it happen, being a highly effective product manager will help. So don’t expect it to spontaneously occur—put in the effort from Day One to build up your rep in the office.
While it might seem selfish or silly at times, if your coworkers don’t take you seriously and believe in you, it will seriously hamper your ability to build consensus and execute the product strategy, which is why they hired you in the first place.